Spectrum Center co-founder and U-M alumnus Jim Toy died Jan. 1 at age 91, leaving a legacy for his work advancing LGBTQ+ rights in Ann Arbor, the state of Michigan and the nation.
Toy was a fierce champion for human rights, and in 1971 helped establish the university’s Human Sexuality Office — later becoming the Spectrum Center — the country’s first campus office dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ students has provided outreach, education and advocacy on campus and within the local community.
“My ‘identity’ is a tapestry of many threads — race and ethnicity, color, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability/disability, appearance, age, religious belief, political belief, etc. If one of the threads is plucked, the whole fabric is bound to move,” Toy said in a 2015 interview with NBC News.
Toy held his position with the Human Sexuality Office until 1994, when he moved into a staff position that was later folded into the former Office for Institutional Equity, from which he retired from U-M in 2008.
Toy was born April 29, 1930, to a Chinese American father and Scottish Irish American mother, and spent his adolescence in Granville, Ohio, where he would later receive his undergraduate education. In high school, Toy experienced racial harassment in the wake of the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
Toy graduated from Denison University in 1951 with degrees in French and music, and then spent time in France teaching high school English. Upon returning to the United States, he worked in a blood bank in New York City to fulfill his service requirement as a conscientious objector.
It was at a Vietnam War protest in Detroit that Toy first came out publicly. He was known as an outspoken queer, Asian American activist who garnered statewide attention for coming out publicly in 1970 at the rally.
“Jim Toy was a model for us all both in how he lived and what he left,” Bentley Historical Library Director Terrence McDonald told Pride Source. “In life he was the gentlest but most unshakeable campaigner for what was right in so many areas; in death his legacy has been preserved in his magnificent collection at the Bentley Historical Library, which is not only frequently used but has served as a magnet for other collections involving LGBTQ individuals.”
Toy graduated from the School of Social Work in 1981 with a Master of Social Work degree, and the university awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at its 2021 Spring Commencement.
“Receiving the honor of such a degree brings with it an obligation and responsibility to work for social justice and equity,” Toy told Pride Source in 2021. “I invite all of us to join in discharging this obligation and responsibility.”
Toy continued his involvement at the university in many ways, including speaking at the 2017 Lavender Graduation Ceremony and participating in the 2019 undergraduate student history project “Deconstructing the Model Minority at the University of Michigan.”
“It is rare to be a part of an organization so connected to its roots, purpose and mission, and that wouldn’t be the case without Jim,” said Spectrum Center Director Will Sherry. “Over the years, I have been the audience to so many stories filled with moments of joy, fear and loss where Jim has been a constant light helping move us forward.”
“I’m saddened to hear of the death of Jim Toy, national social justice advocate, lifelong champion of LGBTQ+ rights, pioneer of the Spectrum Center and 2021 U-M honorary degree recipient. May we all honor his legacy by offering our support to all who experience discrimination,” said President Mark Schlissel.
This article includes contributions from PrideSource.com.