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Washtenaw United: Pride Month - The legacy of Jim Toy and how his work continues to this day

Jim Toy
Doug Coombe
Concentrate Media
Jim Toy

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'


Leigh Greden
Eastern Michigan University
Leigh Greden

Leigh Greden is currently Chief of Staff at EMU. He is also member of the Board of Directors of the Jim Toy Community Center, a former Ann Arbor City Council member, and a former Chief of Staff to Congressman John Dingell


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to another Pride Month edition of Washtenaw United. I'm David Fair, and on New Year's Day of this year, we lost a true trailblazer in the equity movement for the LGBTQ community. His imprints are all over Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and well beyond. Back in 1970, Jim Toy became the first person publicly to come out as gay anywhere in the state of Michigan. He did so at an anti-war rally in Detroit. He was co-founder of both the Detroit and Ann Arbor Gay Liberation Fronts and, in 1972, coauthored the first Gay Pride Week proclamation ever to be issued by a governmental body. That elected board was Ann Arbor City Council. The Jim Toy Community Center has long served as a resource for the LGBTQ community and its allies. And today, we're going to take some time to remember and honor the work of Mister Toy. And our guest is Leigh Greden. Leigh is the chief of staff at Eastern Michigan University and a member of the board of directors for the Jim Toy Community Center. Leigh, thank you for making the time for us today.

Leigh Greden: David, always happy to be here and thrilled to be here as part of your Pride Month celebrations and also to remember Jim.

David Fair: Well, the memorial service for Jim Toy was held back on May 19th, and I know you desperately wanted to participate, but the evil virus took forth and took hold, and, therefore, you were unable to attend. But I would imagine that you heard of the community turnout, you heard of the celebration of life. And what was the kind of response you got from those who were able to attend?

Leigh Greden: As you mentioned, David, I was sad to miss it, but I was one of the individuals who got hit with COVID and was out for two weeks in mid-May, so I was unable to attend. I know several people who attended, and they have expressed in advance that they wouldn't miss it for the world, and they very much enjoyed the opportunity to gather and remember Jim's legacy. And we owe a great deal of thanks to the University of Michigan Spectrum Center for organizing several memorial events for Jim recently. And it's very fitting that the Spectrum Center at U of M played such an integral role in remembering Jim. Jim was known--and is still known--for many firsts. You mentioned one of them in your introduction, being the first known publicly out gay man in Michigan. But he also created helped create the Spectrum Center at University of Michigan. It was called the Human Sexuality Center back then. This was, oh, gosh, decades ago. And today, this isn't a big deal. Most colleges and universities have an LGBTQ resource center. Back then, to create a center dedicated to human sexuality, sexual orientation, gender studies of this nature, was a big deal. And it was so fitting for the Spectrum Center to play a vital role of that, again, because this is one of Jim's many firsts.

David Fair: And much of the progress that we can attribute in our community today can be traced back to the work of Jim Toy. Now, you're a former member of Ann Arbor City Council. You served as chief of staff to the late Congressman John Dingell. And, even in the work you do today at EMU, you are involved in policy and politics. Is it fair to say that all of the trailblazing work that Jim Toy put in and the relationships that he built over the years helped transform the manner in which these issues of equity inequality are approached?

Leigh Greden: Absolutely. And I think one of the reasons is what you touched on in your introduction. Ann Arbor has been a leader in this area, and a lot of that is due to Jim Toy, again, being an individual who came to the University of Michigan to attend graduate school, stayed, became very active in this community, pushing for justice. That was the term he often used: justice for everyone, but, in this context for the LGBTQ community. And, as a result, Ann Arbor has been a trailblazer in so many ways. You mentioned that early proclamation 50 years ago celebrating pride. Ann Arbor was actually ahead of San Francisco in being the first local government to elect an openly LGBT elected official: Kathy Kozachenko. Elected to City Council in Ann Arbor in 1974. That was even before Harvey Milk was elected in San Francisco. So much of what's been done in Ann Arbor and has resulted in Ann Arbor being such a welcoming community to everyone, but in this context of the LGBT community, can be traced back to Jim and his leadership and him putting himself out there. That is a big deal to think back to what he was doing, putting himself out there, outing himself publicly in a speech in front of thousands of people more than 50 years ago. That's just not something people did, let alone talked about. And it took a great deal of courage. And that is why he's one of the many reasons why he was such a wonderful man.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United, and we're remembering social activist Jim Toy with a board member of the Jim Toy Community Center, Leigh Greden. So, we've talked about an evolution that has taken place since Mr. Toy first came out in 1970. There's been a different kind of evolution at the Jim Toy Community Center, and I'm curious as to how it's been impacting its ability to serve. During the pandemic because of financial constraints, the brick-and-mortar center on Braun Court had to be shuttered, and the center is now effectively an online resource. Is that working?

Leigh Greden: Yes and no. We're proud to continue the work, despite the fact that we no longer have our in-person, brick-and-mortar physical location. And we do some great partnerships with groups, like the University of Michigan law students have a group: The Outlaws. And we work with them to provide legal services to LGBTQ individuals. We do work with the Spectrum Center at U of M, the Veterans Administration Hospital, but there are some activities that have fallen by the wayside. We regularly hosted gatherings of organizations, for example, an Alcoholics Anonymous group for LGBTQ individuals. Those were physical presences that we used at the center. And I think another part of the evolution that the center is reviewing right now is what do we need in the future in order to serve this community. And it may be that physical space isn't as vital, but staffing is important. We have long been--not always--but long been an all-volunteer organization run by the board and run by volunteers, all of whom are unpaid. We don't have full-time staff. It's hard to deliver ongoing, effective programing to the community without paid staff. We're very grateful to many of our supporters in the community, all of them. But we've had business support from Toyota, Comcast, Bill's Beer Garden, Necto, all sorts of small businesses. I can't mention them all. We don't have enough time. But ultimately, we need staffing. And that's what we're looking at is a financial model that is sustainable to have even one staff member on board who can do the work necessary for this full-time engagement in programming with the community.

David Fair: And as you look at more financial resources to support that part of the strategic plan, might there be an effort to build towards another brick-and-mortar center?

Leigh Greden: Yes, that's absolutely something we're reviewing. What type of space is needed? You know, the physical layout location. We take great pride in serving the greater Ann Arbor area, which really is the entirety of Washtenaw County. Our legal name, actually, is the Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project. So, we are designed to serve much or all of the county. So, you know, that includes other areas outside of Ann Arbor. So, that's absolutely part of the analysis that we're undertaking. Do we need space? If so, what kind and where?

David Fair: Once again, our Pride Month Washtenaw United conversation with Jim Toy Community Center board member Leigh Greden continues on 89 one WEMU. We've talked about how Mr. Toy's work has informed your professional life and how it has extended to so many aspects of our community life. How would you characterize your personal relationship with him prior to his passing?

Leigh Greden: I worked with Jim primarily through the center. You know, I didn't have a lot of opportunity to socialize with him, in part because Jim had been getting on in years, and he liked to get out as much as he could. But, you know, his mobility was a bit limited. He relied on the kindness of friends to escort him around. But I often sat next to him at our board meetings. And for a man who was so vocal and so fierce fighting for justice, he also was such a kind and gentle man. He always was smiling, and people loved being around him when the center would hold activities. And it was wonderful thinking about the life that he had lived. And, again, dating back to the 1970s when he, you know, gave a speech and came out as a gay man in front of thousands of people and what a big deal that is to have come out back then. Full circle around to 2015 when same-sex marriage is legalized, finally. And, you know, he was filled with such joy to see so much progress, but also committed to there's more work to be done. And, of course, we see that today as LGBTQ rights are actually under attack. We seem to...there are folks who want to go backwards, not forwards. And I think Jim always knew that that was always a threat, which is why you can't let your guard down and say, "Oh, we won! It's over! Justice is achieved! Equity is achieved!" That's not the way it works, sadly. And he knew that.

David Fair: With so much equity and equality work that lay ahead, what wisdom did Jim share with you and the rest of the board at the Jim Toy Community Center that will help strengthen the foundation for progress?

Leigh Greden: Keep fighting for justice. You know, he said it in different forms and different versions. But I think that's the message that he's communicated for many years, and that's the message that we need to take away as an organization and that we will take as an organization. And I think that's the message that he would want everyone to take away. And the other thing I think Jim would say is keep, you know, working together, keep smiling. He was just such a kind man. You can be a fighter for justice, and, also, you can be kind to people.

David Fair: Leigh, thank you for taking time for us today, and thank you for sharing.

Leigh Greden: You're welcome. And thank you, David and to WEMU for this entire segment that you're doing for Pride Month.

David Fair: That is Leigh Greden. He is the chief of staff at Eastern Michigan University and member of the Board of Directors for the Jim Toy Community Center. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM and HD one Ypsilanti.


Jim Toy Community Center

University of Michigan Spectrum Center


United Way of Washtenaw County stands with the LGBTQIA+ community and during the 21-Day Equity challenge we dedicate time to the exploring the inequity that exists in this community and the actions people can take to stand together.

People in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and other sexual and gender minority (LGBTQIA+) community face barriers to equity in almost every aspect of their lives including housing, employment, healthcare, and education. This is especially true for LGBTQIA+  people who are also people of color. The average life expectancy of a black trans woman is only 35 years due to the frequency with which they are targets for violence.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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