2018 Trailblazer Awardee Matthew A. Coles


Matthew A. Coles is a member of the faculty at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. He has been involved in the LGBT civil rights movement since before he graduated from law school, when, as a legal advisor to Supervisor Harvey Milk, he drafted what became San Francisco’s sexual orientation nondiscrimination ordinance in San Francisco.

At the start of his legal career, Coles hung out a shingle on Castro Street for ten years, specializing in civil rights, including LGBT rights, race discrimination, and sex discrimination. At the same time, he worked together with friends to start Gay Rights Advocates, the first public interest law firm devoted to gay rights in the West. In 1987, he joined the ACLU of Northern California. From 1995 to 2010, Coles was the Director of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and AIDS Project. In his fifteen years in that role, he helped transform the nation’s laws on LGBT rights. He retired from the ACLU in 2016 as the Deputy National Legal Director and Director of the ACLU's Equality Center, focused on racial justice, voting rights, immigrants’ rights, and justice for people living with disabilities.

Coles is probably best known in the LGBT movement and among civil libertarians for insisting that changing public attitudes is as important as changing the law, and to that end, for designing litigation and legislative efforts built around powerful personal stories.

Coles wrote and helped lead the campaigns to pass many gay rights laws, including the first comprehensive law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in California (San Francisco, 1978), California's law barring employment discrimination based on sexual orientation statewide (1992), the nation's first domestic partnership law (Berkeley, 1985), and the first domestic partnership law to allow couples to register their relationships (San Francisco, 1982 and 1990). Based on his experience, in 1996, he wrote Try This at Home! A Do-It- Yourself Guide to Winning Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, a practical guide on how to pass nondiscrimination and domestic partnership laws.

Coles was one of the three lead lawyers on the successful challenge to Colorado's Amendment 2, Romer v. Evans, which culminated in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the amendment, and established the principle that the government cannot disadvantage lesbians and gay men solely because of hostility. He was also the lead attorney in important AIDS cases involving health care workers and prisoners, and was one of the two lead attorneys in a comprehensive challenge to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and to Florida’s law banning adoption by gay people. He has taught at Hastings College of the Law and Berkeley Law, both part of the University of California, and at Stanford University and New York University. Coles is a board member and former board chair of the Guttmacher Institute.

He graduated cum laude from Yale University in 1973 and from Hastings College of the Law in