Honoring Two Michigan Pioneers of LGBTQ Equality

By Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow

John Lawrence Kavanaugh (L); Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow (Center); and James Willis Toy (R)

In the span of weeks, the LGBTQ+ communities in Michigan lost two giants of “Gay Liberation.”  John Lawrence Kavanaugh died on December 17, 2021, at age 82, and James Willis Toy died on January 1, 2022, at age 91.

I first met John in the early 2000’s as I was just peeking out of the closet. I attended a National Association of Black and White Men Together conference in Ohio, and he was clearly one of the elder statesmen among the group. We struck up a conversation and he shared with me his passion for racial justice and gender equality. In 2004 he had authored a book called Welcome to the Gay Age, and he wanted to share that with me. I recall that he especially wanted me to read the book’s introduction that focused on “the first apartheid law of South Africa [that forbade] interracial marriage and the first law instituted by the Christian Roman emperors against homosexuality [which forbade] homosexual marriages. Those laws against homosexual and interracial marriages are symbols of fear behind those prejudices and discriminations.”

John was a native Detroiter and one of the early organizers of the Detroit Gay Liberation Front (GLF) that began in January 1970, just six months after the Stonewall Riots in New York City. As the GLF began to become more racially integrated, many of the gay white men in the organization took issue when members spoke up to merge their Gay Liberation efforts with the Civil Rights protests happening in the city.

In John’s oral history recorded in 1994, he recalled how painful it was to see the huge exodus of people of color after the majority voted that GLF would focus only on gay concerns. “Their contention was single issue: let’s deal only with gay questions. Well, that’s a code word. What it means is let’s deal only with white male gay issues… Blacks, women realized what was being said and [they] walked out. These were friends that were walking out. It hurt very much.”

When I moved to Detroit in 2013, I looked up John to let him know that I was to be the new Senior Pastor at MCC Detroit. I was stunned when he told me he was one of the founders of the church. Along with another dear friend, Jim Toy, they founded, in John’s apartment, a Christian Caucus of the Detroit GLF that evolved into MCC Detroit.  This was in December of 1970.

John encouraged me to reach out to Jim Toy, who then lived in Ann Arbor. As I would mention Jim’s name to other queer activists throughout the area, they all paid him reverence as the “godfather of gay liberation” in Michigan. When I finally did get to meet Jim at a statewide gathering of affirming and welcoming congregations called Inclusive Justice, he was clearly the elder statesmen among that large crowd.

Jim was one of the founders of Inclusive Justice (which I later joined as a board member and now serve as the elected Board President).  My predecessor in the role of Board President, the Rev. Joseph Summers, wrote this about Jim’s legacy of organizing in the LGBTQ community: “Toy participated in the founding convention in 1977 of the Michigan Organization for Human Rights (MOHR), established in response to fears that Anita Bryant would bring her anti-gay ‘Save Our Children’ crusade to Michigan.” MOHR was precursor to Equality Michigan.

Jim also served on the ACLU Committee on Lesbian Women and Gay Men, which, in 1979, successfully prodded the administration of Republican Governor William Milliken to rescind Michigan’s liquor regulations that prohibited bars from offering a place of “rendezvous for homosexuals.”

When the AIDS pandemic emerged as a mortal threat to gay and bisexual men, Toy, in 1986, helped to launch the Huron Valley Chapter of Wellness Networks, later the HIV/AIDS Resource Center.  He was also a key co-founder in 1995 of the Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project (WRAP), which changed its name to the Jim Toy Community Center in his honor in 2010.  And these are just a portion of the many projects for liberation with which he was involved.

I admired Jim (who wouldn’t?) and was in awe of his courage and community organizing at a time when he could have lost his life for being so public with his activism and so unashamedly “out” about his sexuality.

In 1998, as MCC Detroit was getting ready to celebrate our 45th church anniversary, I wanted to honor these two giants in the community and our forefathers in this ministry. As they both spoke during the banquet, they inspired us to become a radically inclusive community.

As we prepare for our 50th church anniversary at MCC Detroit this year, we have adopted the tag line “Radically Inclusive since 1972.”  We will honor both men for their love and support of our church as well as leading the way for so many others to be their radically inclusive selves and to speak up – and speak out – against injustice in all forms. They are both sorely missed, and we will make it our mission to continue the trailblazing path that they have begun.

The Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow, Coordinator of the CLGS African American Roundtable