As staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s Nancy Katz & Margo Dichtelmiller LGBT Rights Project, Jay Kaplan has done everything from challenging police undercover sting operations targeting gay men to advocating for the right of a transgender high school student to run for prom court over the past 20 years. At the forefront of constant legal efforts to ensure the civil rights of LGBTQ+ people throughout Michigan are protected, and expanded, Jay is also a frequent speaker on college campuses and panelist at civil rights forums. Among many other things, Jay was honored with the 2006 Unsung Hero Award from the Michigan State Bar and the 2010 Virginia Uribe Civil Rights Award from the National Education Association. As part of Gay Pride Month, he talked with us about the progress the LGBTQ+ community has made during his life and the challenges that remain, the reason he’s part of a cabaret act, and why Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy is a great movie.
How do you identify?
As a gay, white, cisgender male. And work in progress
Where were you raised?
I grew up in Southfield during the 1960s and 70s. For me, it was an idyllic time. My dad was a technical writer for GM, and my mom was a public-school teacher. I was kind of a shy kid. The one thing that pulled me out of my shell was performing. At first, it was singing with the other kids in elementary school, things like that.
What was adolescence like?
I was bullied a lot in junior high. Nothing physical, but a lot of verbal abuse, the other boys calling me “fag” and “queer.” Things like that. I was made to feel like there was something was wrong with me, that I just didn’t fit the mold of what boys were expected to be like. I just sort of put my head down and went about my life, just wanting people to like me. And I pushed a lot of stuff down regarding my sexuality by keeping myself incredibly busy with school and volunteering for community work. There were no positive role models anywhere in the media, and no openly gay people anywhere in my life that I could talk to. I was just very naïve, and in a great state of denial. There was no dating, or anything like that. I was pretty lonely.
When did that change?
I was kind of a late bloomer. I began acknowledging my feelings and admitting to myself that I was gay when I was in college and began meeting other gay people. But I didn’t come out to my family until I was in my 20s. I just got tired of lying to them about where I was going and what I was doing. I was afraid of how they might react. But when I did finally come out, they were great. Very, very supportive.
You grew up at a time when there were not positive portrayals of gay men in films or on TV. They were all psycho killers or driven to suicide out of shame…
Or extremely effeminate.
Right. But now, there are plenty of realistic depictions of the LGBTQ+ community in all sorts of media. Even in commercials, gay and lesbian couples are frequently shown in the same light as straight couples. How important has that change been?
Life changing. To see people you can identify with, and who can be role models, not just in media, but throughout society, is so meaningful, and so important. There was a time when coming out would mean losing your job. Openly gay people didn’t run for public office because they’d have no hope of being elected. Now we have people like Pete Buttigieg, who ran for president and is now the Secretary of Commerce. Joe Biden’s new press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre is the first Black person and the first openly LGBTQ person to hold that position. So, things have definitely changed for the better.
What do you attribute that progress to?
First, it is the bravery of LGBTQ people themselves, and the Gay Pride movement that started in the 1960s – the unwillingness to accept discrimination against us, the unwillingness to continue hiding our true identities. That was revolutionary. Just coming out in large numbers showed each other that we weren’t alone, and everyone else that we’re not the freaks or monsters media portrayed us to be – that we’re your family members and neighbors and co-workers, your teachers and doctors and pastors. We began tearing down stereotypes and building our political power.
Alongside those efforts have been the ACLU and other organizations that turned to the courts in order to secure our rights. As a result, our community has been able to make incredible strides. Because of rulings from the Supreme Court, gay marriage is legal everywhere in America. Another ruling in a case involving Aimee Stephens, who was a trans woman I worked closely with and came to know well, determined that it is illegal for employers to discriminate against LGBTQ people anywhere in this country.
Despite these gains, political attacks on the LGBTQ+ community in some ways seem as intense as ever. Why do you think that is?
It is a ploy by politicians who exploit bigotry and prejudice, irrational fear, and narrow-mindedness to solidify their pollical base and fund raise. What makes me so angry is how cynical it is, and how harmful it is. An incredible amount of anti-LGBTQ legislation is being introduced across the country – and that includes right here in Michigan. The Human Rights Campaign described 2021 as the worst year in recent history when it comes to anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, with more than 250 bills aimed at our community introduced in state legislatures.
Do you see similarities between that and the attack on reproductive freedom?
Absolutely. It is all part of this backlash that wants to take away the rights of all sorts of groups who have fought so hard to gain them. A lot of it comes from people who want to impose narrow, conservative religious beliefs on others.
What do you think the response to that should be?
We have to fight back harder than ever, and call out this discrimination for what it is. In regard to abortion rights – an issue that’s as important to the LGBTQ+ community as it is to others – the ACLU of Michigan, along with a diverse and growing coalition, is right now in the process of gathering petition signatures for Reproductive Freedom for All, which will amend the state constitution to ensure abortion and other reproductive rights remain in place regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court decides.
There is so much up for grabs this coming election. We can’t be complacent at all. We have to get out and vote.
Another response is for the ACLU of Michigan and its allies to continue taking legal action to protect people’s rights.
You mentioned the Aimee Stephens case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. What was it like being part of that?
To have been a part of that journey with Aimee, who died before the Court issued its decision, was truly incredible. Even though she was terribly sick, she attended oral arguments at the Supreme Court in a wheelchair. I’ll never forget being with her when she was wheeled out, and stopping at the top of the steps, looking at this crowd of hundreds of people who were cheering and cheering for her. It was a very special moment.
Are there any other cases that stand out?
Not a case as much as an area of work. Early in my career, while at Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, I provided legal assistance to people, mostly gay men, who had contracted HIV/AIDS. Seeing everything they had to go through, and how they handled it, with such dignity, was very emotional. And helping them was very gratifying.
You mentioned that, as a kid, singing helped you overcome your shyness. Do you still like to perform?
Oh yes, very much. In fact, I’m part of a cabaret act. I still act in plays and musicals when I can. I also really enjoy being a director. It satisfies my need to be in control. (laughs)
Do you think it is important to have a creative outlet like that?
For me it is. As a lawyer, you do a lot of reading and writing – solitary stuff. Also, a lot of times, we’re dealing with some sad stuff. So, it is very important to have a work-life balance.
You also talked about being bullied as a kid. Do you ever reflect on the fact that you’ve grown to become a man who’s dedicated to helping protect everyone in the LGBTQ+ community from the bullies in society at large who want to take away their rights?
I think that my life experiences have always fueled my desire to look out for all the underdogs in our society, whoever they are. But, in regard to LGBTQ+ people specifically, I’m certainly driven to do everything I can to ensure everyone in that community – including myself -- lives in a world where we feel safe, supported, and fairly treated.
Is there any one book you’d recommend to straight people who want a better understanding of what it's like to be gay?
The Lost Language of Cranes, by David Leavitt, is a book that really resonated with me in a lot of ways. Set in the 1980s, it tells the story of a man in his 20s who realizes that he needs to come out to his parents after falling in love with another man for the first time.
What about movies?
There are a lot. But one that stands out is Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy. Based on a collection of three plays Fierstein wrote, the movie does a really good job of showing that LGBTQ+ people want the same things out of life that most other people want: to love and be loved, to be in stable relationships, to be a parent.
Any final thoughts?
I just want to talk about the importance of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, and how it allows people in our community to celebrate being our authentic selves. But along with celebration, it is also a time to reflect on challenges that still face us, and to renew our commitment to protecting LGBTQ+ rights, because there is still much work that remains to be done.