When the home of Nikki Joly burned down in 2017, killing five pets, the FBI investigated it as a hate crime.
After all, the transgender man and gay rights activist had received threats after having a banner year in this conservative town.
In the prior six months, he helped open the city’s first gay community center, organized the first gay festival and, after 18 years of failed attempts, helped lead a bruising battle for an ordinance that prohibits discrimination against gays.
For his efforts, a local paper named him the Citizen of the Year.
Authorities later determined the fire was intentionally set, but the person they arrested came as a shock to both supporters and opponents of the gay rights movement. It was the citizen of the year — Nikki Joly.
“It’s embarrassing,” said Travis Trombley, a gay resident who fought for the ordinance. “How do you do it to the community you have put so much effort into helping?”
Why Joly, 54, would allegedly burn down his home remains a mystery. He didn’t own the house, which was insured by its owner, police said.
His attorney said the lack of a motive cast doubt on the case.
Meanwhile, a police investigative report suggests a possible reason for the fire.
Two people who worked with Joly at St. Johns United Church of Christ, where the Jackson Pride Center was located, said he had been frustrated the controversy over gay rights had died down with the passage of the nondiscrimination law, according to the report.
The church officials, Barbara Shelton and Bobby James, when asked by police about a possible motive for the fire, said Joly was disappointed the Jackson Pride Parade and Festival, held five days before the blaze, hadn’t received more attention or protests.
Contacted by a reporter, James declined to comment. But Shelton quibbled with the way police characterized her remarks, saying she had no idea if Joly was frustrated by the lack of controversy.
“Not sure I said that,” she wrote in an email. “I have no idea about anything, never heard Nikki comment in any fashion about anything like that.”
Joly’s attorney, Daniel Barnett of Grand Rapids, said his client already had lots of attention for his gay rights activism, and wasn’t looking for more.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “He was citizen of the year. There was plenty of media coverage already before the fire.”
A hearing to file motions in the case is scheduled for March 8 in Jackson County Circuit Court.
Charges create concerns
As gay rights supporters try to reconcile Joly the crusader with Joly the alleged arsonist, they worry the arrest could be used to reverse all the good he has done.
Stella Shananaquet, whose son is gay, said leaders of social movements need to be beyond reproach because any perceived missteps could be used against their cause.
“All that good work is tainted. We know one bad mark outshines a hundred good ones,” Shananaquet said. “I’m infuriated someone could tear down the community that way.”
Besides his work in Jackson, Joly traveled around Michigan, telling gay rights groups about his activism. He also would recount his personal story. It’s not a happy one.
His mother wasn’t able to take care of him so she gave him up, Joly said in speeches, according to audience members. He flittered from one foster home to another. He was adopted by a Jehovah’s Witnesses couple who, because of his gender identity, kicked him out of the house at 15, he said.
His adoptive parents declined to comment.
Joly, who has a grown daughter, recently married his longtime girlfriend, Chris Moore, a consultant for a medical firm. He had worked as a nursing aide but retired because of a form of glaucoma that impairs his vision.
He spends most of his time volunteering, with the pride center, the Red Cross, a church food pantry and neighborhood cleanups.
“If there’s a cause he’s always there,” said Terri McKinnon, a former treasurer of the pride center. “He goes out of his way to help anybody and everybody. We’re lucky to have him.”
Joly’s most passionate work involves gay rights, said acquaintances.
Shortly after the opening of the pride center, Joly tried to recruit Shane Stephens as an intern. The center was open limited hours and located in a single room in the church basement.
Despite the modest surroundings, Joly had grandiose plans, said Stephens.
“You could tell he was proud,” said Stephens. “He couldn’t stop talking about it. He talked a mile a minute about all the things they had done and wanted to do.”
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Source: Detroit News