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. He had written a book called “Welcome to the Gay Age” in 2004 that he wanted to share it with me. I recall he wanted me to read the introduction that focused on was one of “the first apartheid law of South Africa was forbidding interracial marriage and the first law instituted by the Christian Roman emperors against homosexuality was forbidding 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 the GLF would only focus 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 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 formed a Christian Caucus of the Detroit GLF in December 1970 in John’s apartment that evolved into MCC Detroit. John encouraged me to also 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 gave 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 became a board member and elected to be the Board President currently). My predecessor in the role of Board President, The Rev. Joseph Summers, wrote 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, 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. He 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 regulation that prohibited bars that were ‘rendezvous for homosexuals’. When the AIDS pandemic emerged as a mortal threat to gay and bisexual men, Toy in 1986 helped 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 changed its name to the Jim Toy Community Center in his honor in 2010.” And these are just a portion of the vast projects for liberation that he was involved with.
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 of 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 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 to be their radically inclusive selves and to speak up and speak out against injustice in all forms. They both are sorely missed, and we will make it our mission to continue the trailblazing path they have begun.
Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow with John Kavanaugh (left) and Jim Toy (right)