COVID claims Judith Colbs, 89, stand-in mother for Atlanta’s LGBTQ community

Judi Colbs became a leader, advocate and mother figure for many in Atlanta's LGBTQ community.
Judi Colbs became a leader, advocate and mother figure for many in Atlanta's LGBTQ community.

The determined group of protesters that descended on a DeKalb County Cracker Barrel restaurant on Mother’s Day in 1992 was mostly young, intense, in-your-face and somewhat scruffy.

Judith Colbs was among them — motherly and beaming — and a distinct contrast.

“The picture in my mind from that day is her coming dressed in her Sunday best with a corsage and that beautiful smile,” said Lynn Cothren, a coordinator with the activist group Queer Nation. It helped stage protests against the restaurant chain over its treatment of gay and lesbian employees.

Not only that, Colbs beefed up the crowd by corralling other moms and members of a LGBTQ support group to join in.

It was a snapshot of much of Colbs’ adult life, serving, advocating for and protesting mistreatment of marginalized people.

She was compassionate and direct but not abrasive as she worked to improve the lot of learning-disabled kids, the LGBTQ community and those battling AIDS. Colbs was a coalition-builder who didn’t shy away from laboring in the trenches and who didn’t do anything by halves.

Daughter Sandy Colbs remembers her love and commitment.

“I was ready to come out to my mom in 1982. I was crying and shaking, and I said to her, ‘I have something to tell you, but I’m afraid you won’t love me anymore.’ "

Her mother replied “I can’t imagine anything you’d do that would stop me from loving you.”

The secret out, Colbs devoured books on the topic, made connections in the LGBTQ community, and joined the Atlanta chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), where Judy became its president and held the position for nearly 20 years.

Judith Colbs, 89, died Jan 5. of complications from of COVID-19. She is survived by daughters Sandy and Alison and their spouses, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. A private memorial service was held Jan. 10.

Sandy Colbs thinks her mother’s drive was born out of her ancestors’ struggles with being persecuted for being Jewish in Eastern Europe and then in the U.S. after they emigrated.

“All that shaped a worldview that focused on compassion and reaching out to others and an emphasis on advocating for civil rights and equality,” she said.

Judy Colbs got her master’s degree in special education from Georgia State University. She taught Fulton County students struggling with learning disabilities and behavior disorders. It was the early 1970s, an era in which many believed such youngsters were less intelligent, retarded or just plain bad. Colbs worked to dispel such myths.

She advocated for more resources and was direct in emphasizing to parents that they also had a role to play.

“We worked to achieve a partnership and that was very important, " said Sondra Epstein, a member of Colbs’ team.

At PFLAG, Colbs ran chapter meetings “which at that time were basically a support group for parents concerned about their kids being gay, “said Sandy Colbs. She counseled both children and parents, staffed a help hotline, set up a speaker’s bureau and established a scholarship program.

The Cracker Barrel controversy erupted over the chain’s firing of gay and lesbian employees.

Cothren says during that Mother’s Day protest the group occupied the restaurant, ordering only coffee or tea, refusing to leave and breaking at points into the song “We Shall Overcome.”

The company eventually changed its policies.

Colbs also took a central role in the effort to move 1996 Olympics events out of Cobb County after county commissioners passed a resolution condemning “the gay lifestyle.” She also helped increase the size and scope of Atlanta’s Pride Festival and Parade, of which she was twice Grand Marshal.

Working with groups like AID Atlanta, she advocated for the needs of AIDS sufferers and sometimes sat at the bedsides of dying friends.

Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim took his position in 1999 and weathered pushback from some who were uncomfortable with his being gay. He credits Colbs, a member, as a key supporter.

“My relationship with Judy was critically important,” he said. “She became an important colleague at a time when a lot of people weren’t affording me the treatment of a colleague. "

“She was not only an activist, she got things done,” he said “She didn’t shame people but she also didn’t let them off the hook.”

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