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Entertainment & Sports,
Civil Rights

Sep. 20, 2022

The Seventies: A Breakthrough Decade for LGBT Rights

In the 70s, seeds previously sown took sprout and grew ultimately into a uniquely successful civil rights movement, with such blazingly fast results, comparatively speaking, that even the most optimistic of us were startled and amazed.

Jay M. Kohorn

Assistant Director, California Appellate Project


If we don't document our history, it never happened.

Tom Coleman's "Memory Book" intimates some important questions: Who gets credit in a civil rights movement? And who cares?

As history progresses, the vast majority of critical participants - their names and their contributions - evaporate from public memory, leaving only those few lucky or unlucky enough to be memorialized in motion pictures, literature, artistic media, and the history books that actually record only the most highly visible or notorious.

In truth, however, civil rights movements are propelled by tsunamis of individuals, from the aggressive and boisterous to the private and humble. And the more we take for granted the benefits they all achieved for us, because we now can, the more their specific contributions disappear from the historical record.

When examining the visible trailblazers, we find leaders in law, academics, and grassroots social movements. Some were architects and designers of an otherwise unimaginable future. Others participated through their work-a-day jobs and professional lives. They reflected every letter in the acronym that represents our diversity. However, in the LGBTQ+ community, the largest number of heroes who made a difference were those, within that full spectrum of human diversity, who simply and all too often not so simply found the courage to live their lives out loud, coming out to families, friends, neighbors and colleagues. They did so gradually, changing minds and transforming animosity, hatred, and ignorance into acceptance, then support, and, finally, love - many times at great personal risk and pain - in an often long, arduous, organic and very personal process.

Kierkegaard's philosophy would have us live forward and learn backward. John Philpot Curran, articulating a similar idea often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, reminded us in an 1808 speech, paraphrased here, that the cost of liberty is eternal vigilance.

My friend and colleague Thomas Coleman has spent most of his professional life living forward in a number of ways: as a law student, creating and encouraging community through LGBTQ+ organizations; as a criminal defense attorney, confronting judges with the systemic human rights abuses inherent in the law; educating the legislative and executive branches of governments about personal privacy, family diversity, and fair treatment of persons with disabilities, and always championing those who did not fit into the majoritarian comfort zone.

Now, looking backward in his "Memory Book," Tom isolates a unique and wonderful decade in which the voices of LGBTQ+ legal trailblazers were beginning to emerge into the mainstream. In the 70s, seeds previously sown took sprout and grew ultimately into a uniquely successful civil rights movement, with such blazingly fast results, comparatively speaking, that even the most optimistic of us were startled and amazed. I had thought a level of social acceptance that would include same-sex marriage and welcome LGBTQ+ individuals into the country's armed forces was decades away and would not arrive during my lifetime. Yet, with some significant and inevitable setbacks, even amid ever-present extremist and supremacist rumblings, much of the LGBTQ+ community is now accepted, appreciated, and respected throughout most of the country. While the process started before the 70s, that momentous decade poked the bear and pierced the curtains like no other before it, virtually putting the movement for change into high gear. Accordingly, we learned an important lesson: the accumulated commitment, dedication, and vision of ordinary individuals - some notables and most unsung - can lead to extraordinary historic results.

Now in his own mid 70s, Tom looks back, recognizing and keeping alive the contributions of scores of people, many personal friends and colleagues, and others discovered during his research, who helped to propel the legal side of the LGBTQ+ movement and whose work added to the development of the legal and social acceptance that we enjoy today. Those mentioned in his book serve as surrogates for many others, unnamed, who exhibited similar courage in their quest for acceptance and realization of full personhood.

For us now, the responsibility is to look back and learn, remembering the lessons of the past and the people who taught them, in order to guard against retrograde movement in the future. To maintain the gains, we must learn about our history and not allow the inevitable voices of those bothered by our very existence to once again hold sway.

This book is suggested reading for attorneys and law students, as well as professors and students of history and political science. Present day LGBTQ+ advocates might also benefit from the inspiration and understanding they may gain from reading the stories of their historical counterparts whose efforts fashioned much of the genesis of our legal civil rights movement.

Book Release: The Seventies (Spectrum Institute - 350 pp.) is available in paperback at Those who attend The Seventies Webinar on October 11 will receive a complimentary pdf copy of the book. To register for the webinar, click here. Others may obtain a pdf copy through the Birds of a Feather project website with a donation of $15.


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