The Spectrum Center: Jim Toy–his story, his legacy

  • Jim with violin. Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library

  • The Spectrum Center, established in September of 1971, in the Michigan Union.

  • Courtesy of the Jim Toy Community Center
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Jim Toy, MSW
Biographical Milestones

  • Born: April 29, 1930
  • First gay person to come out publicly in Michigan (1970)
  • Co-Founder (1971) and Co-Coordinator (1971-1994), University of Michigan Spectrum Center
  • Board Member, Jim Toy Community Center, Ann Arbor
  • U-M employee 1971-2008
  • Honored by mayoral proclamation in 2013 declaring April 29 “Jim Toy Day” in Ann Arbor

Jim Toy is modest and daring all at once. He may be best known as the first man in Michigan to publicly announce he was gay, at a 1970 anti-war rally in Detroit. He has also worked tirelessly for more than 40 years advocating for the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and others who have experienced discrimination. He believes everyone is important, and that is how he has lived his life, on and off the U-M campus.

As he puts it, “My first name is Jim, my last name is Toy, as in “Tinker,”…I was taught never to talk about sex, politics or religion at the dinner table…I’m a democrat, an Episcopalian, a conscientious objector…a male, and as it turned out, I happened to be gay.”

Jim was born in New York City on April 29, 1930 the only son of a Chinese father and a Scotch-Irish mother.  He graduated with a B.A. in French and Music (he played organ and violin) from Denison University in Ohio, and went on to teach English in France for two years. He returned to the States in 1953, to New York, became a conscientious objector (there was a mandatory draft then) and went to work in a blood bank in a hospital to fulfill his service requirement.

While working at the blood bank, Jim received a letter from the Rector of the Episcopalian Church to which Jim and his family belonged during Jim’s growing up years. “It said, ‘I have accepted a job at a church in Detroit. Would you like to come and do the music program?’ So that’s how I ended up in Detroit, and became organist-choirmaster at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church.”

Jim moved to Detroit, became the organist-choirmaster at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church, and enrolled in U-M’s Musicology program at the School of Music. He also met a woman in the choir, and in 1958, married her. “I can remember saying to myself, ‘You are bisexual at worst. I attempted to prove that by getting married.” That, he says, is what many homosexual men did, “and still do, and will tomorrow.”

By 1970 Jim had graduated from the music school, he and his then-wife Janet divorced, amicably, and Jim was living full-time in Ann Arbor. He commuted to Detroit to the church and took on the breakfast shift at a local Ann Arbor restaurant, where he would get most of his meals. “I put it in this light,” he says. “My feelings, my thinking and my behavior were incongruent.”

On the St. Joe’s church calendar, scheduled for January 15, 1970, Jim saw “So-Called Gay Meeting.” He asked the priest about it.

“I said to him, ‘Daddyo,’ which was the radical vocabulary of the day, ‘What is this gay meeting thing?’

“’Well, whatever it is,’ he said, ‘if we can’t have a gay meeting here, we might as well shut this God-Box down.’”

Jim and his friend, John, agonized over it for about a month, usually at the only safe place for gays in Ann Arbor, a bar called The Flame. “If we go, that means we’re gay,” they thought. They went.

Jim came out of the closet for the first time right there in the church where he had met his now ex-wife. He described the moment as “scary and exciting.”

The group continued meeting and called themselves the Detroit Gay Liberation Movement. A few months later, Jim and others founded the Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Front.

In April of 1970, at a well-publicized anti-Vietnam rally in Detroit, Jim made a very public pronouncement as a gay man in front of hundreds, including the media. “It was karma,” Jim says. The person slated to speak at the rally suddenly lost his nerve and the job fell to Jim. “I scribbled down some remarks, and then spoke. There were hundreds there. My metaphor for that is fire and ice. That’s how it felt.”

In 1971, Jim co-founded the Lesbian-Gay Male Programs Office (later called LGBPO, now known as the Spectrum Center) at U-M, where he was employed as co-coordinator. “We’re so fortunate that the university took the enormous risk of setting up that office,” he says. It was the first of its kind in the country.

The road was still rocky. The two co-coordinators (one gay male and one lesbian) of the office held only quarter-time salary appointments, at first (they eventually became full-time appointments) and it was fifteen years before the U-M allowed the office to use an “out of the closet” title. (It was originally called the Human Sexuality Office.)

“We thought, ‘We ought to provide counseling, education, advocacy for our rights and support for individual students and student groups.’ The university said, ‘You can’t do counseling. You have no credentials. You can do peer advising.’ So we did.”

Toy’s supervisor told Jim that if he wanted credibility, he had better go get an advanced degree. So for the greater good, he went and got his MSW.  “I was the first out of the closet student [in the School of Social Work],” he says.

It was not an easy time. Anna Schnitzer, UMHS Disabilities Librarian, recalls the public response. “It was awful. He was mocked and scorned. I thought he was very brave.”

In the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, one of the most outspoken opponents of the LGMBPO office (the name had become unwieldy, and changed to the Spectrum Center) was then-Regent Dean Baker. But there was no way of putting homosexuality back in the closet, even though some very bright and powerful people wished they could. In 1985, University of Michigan law professor James Martin became the first Washtenaw County AIDS death. In 1986, President Robben Fleming created a U-M AIDS Task Force. In 1990, Michigan State University revised their non-discrimination bylaw expressly protecting sexual orientation. In 1993, after 21 years of lobbying to amend the U-M non-discrimination bylaw so it would include gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation as groups (gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, etc.) of people protected from discrimination, Jim got a call from a friend.

“Get over to the Regents Room! The Regents are going to publicly vote this up!” Jim ran over.  He watched as President Duderstadt put the matter on the floor, and the regents came to a vote. Dean Baker raised his hand, once again objecting to the bylaw change.

The room went silent. Every regent voted “yes” except Baker.

It was a great day, says Jim.

In 1994, Jim retired as co-coordinator of the now-Spectrum Center, located in the Michigan Union, and moved to the Affirmative Action office.  “U-M generously kept me as an employee,” he says, but sadly, he was no longer meeting with students, many of whom he helped by listening to them share their feelings of isolation and closeted thoughts, and helping them work through their deep, sometimes paralyzing anxieties stirred by peer pressures and parental disappointment and disapproval. Several thank Jim for saving their lives. Jim retired or as he puts it “advanced” from the U-M in 2008.

Jim says the moments when everything seemed to come together were three:  the founding of the Detroit and Ann Arbor groups, the university’s “really generous” creation of the office (the Spectrum Center), and the regents’ approval of the U-M bylaw change.

Fast forward to 2013. While sitting in the audience at the April 15, 2013 Ann Arbor City Council meeting, two weeks before Toy’s 83rd birthday, the mayor proclaimed April 29, 2013 Jim Toy Day. Toy received a standing ovation.

Visibly moved, Toy responded:

“I am more grateful and humbled than I can say… We thank everyone in our inter-sex, transgender, bi-sexual, lesbian, gay male, queer community, and we thank our allies for your support and advocacy through these two score years of working for justice and freedom.”

Almost exactly two months after Jim’s 83rd birthday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 1996 law blocking federal recognition of gay marriage, and effectively made California the thirteenth state to allow same-sex marriage. Jim was over the moon. The Jim Toy Community Center organized the rally that evening in downtown Ann Arbor.

“This is not just a great day for LGBT people, but for everyone,” said Circuit Court Judge Carol Kuhnke, the first openly lesbian judge in Michigan. “When we give equal rights to people, the whole society benefits.”

“We are climbing the mountain together, and I look forward to seeing you all at the day of complete equality,” said Jim.

— Jan Schlain


Related content:

For information about the Spectrum Center, visit:

For information about the Jim Toy Community Center, visit:

University of Michigan Nondiscrimination Policy Statement: