It was her daughter coming out as a lesbian that sparked Colbs’ LGBTQ activism, from leading PFLAG Atlanta to supporting those living with HIV, giving “mom hugs” to LGBTQ children rejected by their parents, supporting numerous LGBTQ groups and taking part in protests from Atlanta to Washington, D.C.
Sandy Colbs was nervous about coming out to her mother. She finally did while visiting home from graduate school in 1982.
“My mom asked what I wanted to talk about and I burst into tears and started shaking and trembling. I was a mess,” she told Project Q Atlanta. “I said, ‘I’m afraid to tell you because I’m afraid you’re not going to love me anymore.’ And she said, ‘What do you mean? Did you kill somebody? Are you a mass murderer?’ And I’m like no [laughs].”
“I finally blurted it out. She was instantly accepting and loving, and it was not a big deal,” she added.
The path of an activist
Judith Gettlin Colbs was born on Nov. 24, 1931 and grew up in Philadelphia, Penn. She began her career as an elementary school teacher before shifting to special education, according to her obituary. After receiving her master’s degree from Georgia State University, Colbs coordinated the learning disabilities program in Fulton County Schools.
Colbs died on Jan. 5.
After Colbs’ retirement, Sandy Colbs came out, and her mom’s work for LGBTQ causes began. But first she wanted to learn more about LGBTQ life.
“She devoured every book I sent her,” Sandy Colbs said. “She was so invested in it that I got a little bit worried. I thought she might come out [laughs]. I worried for my dad. I thought, ‘She’s really into this.’ But she didn’t [laughs].”
She found out about PFLAG through one of those books, and she started attending meetings with the Atlanta chapter, eventually rising to lead it for nearly 20 years. PFLAG Atlanta noted “the hope, the love and the inspiration” of Colbs.
“Her memory lives on in all of us,” the organization said in a statement.
Colbs and her husband Marvin became “fierce allies” of LGBTQ Atlantans, according to Cathy Woolard, a former Atlanta City Council president and the first openly LGBTQ elected official in Georgia.
“They were always there to stand with us at a time when most would not,” Woolard said. “Many in our community had lost connections to parents and family. It seemed at times that Judy and Marvin had a chosen family bigger than anyone could imagine, and they were loving parental figures to their own kids plus many more.”
‘Love is not finite’
Colbs also formed coalitions with other HIV and LGBTQ groups in Atlanta, including Congregation Bet Haverim and AID Atlanta. Colbs, her daughter Alison, son-in-law and granddaughters were members of Bet Haverim, according to Rabbi Joshua Lesser.
“What was remarkable is that she was a loving parent to her family, and she also became a mother to so many LGBT people whose parents were not quite fully accepting,” Lesser said. “She embodied the truth that love is not finite.”
“From a place of love, she met people wherever they were at with dignity, but also held them accountable for their growth in becoming more accepting to LGBT people, and I was inspired by the combination,” he added.
Colbs took part in several protests for LGBTQ rights, including Cracker Barrel sit-ins in 1991, the Olympics Out of Cobb movement in 1996, and the March on Washington for LGBTQ Rights in 1987 and 1993, according to her obituary. For her efforts, Atlanta Pride made her a parade grand marshal in 2004. In 2010, Southern Voice gave her the “Hippest Heterosexual Award.”
Colbs’ final acts of civic responsibility were voting for Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. She died on the day of the runoff elections ultimately won by Warnock and Ossoff.
She lost many friends to complications from AIDS and spent countless hours supporting them through their illness and by their sides as they died.
“We would like to believe they, along with her loving husband and sister were at her side as she transitioned,” her obituary said.
Congregation Bet Haverim hosted a virtual memorial service for Colbs on Jan. 10. In lieu of flowers, Colbs’ family asked that donations be made to PFLAG, the Democratic National Committee, Congregation Bet Haverim and the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for the World Health Organization.