LGBTQ philanthropist who funded Attic youth program dies

James “Jim” Hastings Bryson, a pioneering LGBTQ advocate and philanthropist, died Monday from Alzheimer’s disease.

Bryson, 85, was widely recognized in Philadelphia’s gay community for providing funding to create The Bryson Institute for Sexual and Gender Diversity Education at The Attic Youth Center, an organization serving LGBTQ youth. The initiative, which launched in 2001, educates schools, workplaces, faith-based organizations and social service groups across the tri-state region on creating supportive, affirming environments for LGBTQ youth.

“He grew up at a time when it was beyond not OK to be gay, and so he knows what it’s like to have a hard time as a kid,” said Bryson’s daughter, Jennifer Bryson-Alderman, 50. “He felt…that there are lots of kids for whom being gay is not OK for them or their families and he wanted them to have support.”

Bryson came out as gay during the 1980s. He is survived by Elizabeth Cecil, his wife before he came out, daughters Bryson-Alderman and Elizabeth Beers, and grandchildren Daniel Alderman, Nora Alderman, Elizabeth Beers and Graham Beers.

Bryson worked as an insurance broker. In 1977, he founded Bryson Associates, a company that focused on providing specialty insurance for high-risk businesses. He also helped establish NAPSLO, the first trade association for insurance brokers of this type, said Jason Alderman, Bryson’s son-in-law.

“He was always a very, very involved and committed father,” Bryson-Alderman said. “When he came out, he didn’t walk away from that at all, even though it was challenging because at the time, socially — there weren’t a lot of other men of his generation who had children.” 

She added that after Bryson came out, he grew into his true self, becoming even more generous, kind, understanding and thoughtful.

Bryson then dedicated himself to LGBTQ rights. He educated politicians on issues affecting the LGBTQ community, gave financial support to LGBTQ organizations and worked with the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C. during its early days in the 1980s. Bryson also organized a social support “buddy program” for people living with AIDS and established a philanthropic fund benefitting the LGBTQ community at the Philadelphia Foundation, Bryson-Alderman said.

Born in Chester County, Bryson spent most of his life in the Greater Philadelphia area. Visiting the Chesapeake Bay with his family as a young boy turned into a lifelong tradition, and Bryson bought a beach house where he regularly hosted friends and family, Bryson-Alderman said. He loved sailing and was a “wonderful combination of tons of integrity, ability to think strategically and also a really deep, compassionate soul,” she added.

Bryson was a 1955 business alumnus from Smithfeld, Rhode Island’s Bryant College — the original iteration of today’s Bryant University. He served in the Navy from 1955-57 before jumpstarting a career filled with vice president and director roles at insurance companies across the Northeast.

Maureen Caviston worked for Bryson right out of college in 1979. Bryson made gender neutral management decisions and sent her to New York City in the mid-’80s to open an office for his company, despite negative feedback from others in the industry, said Caviston, now executive vice president for insurance company AmWINS Group, Inc.

“He was ahead of his time in how he approached business,” she added. “He was absolutely, incredibly fair and really believed in the team environment that all employees were equal and valued, as opposed to just the top performers, and he made people feel like that.”

Caviston described Bryson as polished, ethical, extremely professional and a pioneer.

“In 1994, [coming out] was truly a very difficult thing to do and shocked a lot of people,” Caviston said. “He probably knew the pain all that caused for him internally, and that’s why I think he tried to make it better for others. Once he did it, he totally embraced it.”

Jasper Liem, vice president of The Attic’s board of directors, said Bryson’s death was a “huge loss for [the LGBTQ] community.”

“[Bryson] was so instrumental in helping fund this institute and develop it in the beginning…and we recognize that we have to do this work not just within the LGBTQ community, but also we live in a larger world,” Liem said. “His legacy continues on by making the larger world a kinder and more accepting place for all of our youth.”

Bryson was also active in supporting the work of William Way LGBT Community Center. Chris Bartlett, executive director of the center, described Bryson as a “force of nature in our LGBT communities.”

“His visionary work at the Attic, DVLF and William Way helped those organizations to grow stronger and mature,” Bartlett said. “I remember him calling and saying, ‘What’s new at William Way?’ He was particularly interested in supporting and getting involved with innovative, visionary ideas that could solve problems for those most in need.”

“He was also a mentor to me and a whole generation of LGBT leaders,” he added. “He, through his example, affirmed the value of community service.”

Bryson-Alderman said she’s glad to see her father’s work continue on in the LGBTQ community.

“It’s wonderful that he’s left this legacy to be able to continue and support his vision, even beyond his own life,” Bryson-Alderman said.