Thomas Steel

1950 - 1998
Hastings College of the Law 1975
Practice: Civil Rights

Thomas Steel grew up in a family closely associated with law. He was widely recognized and admired for his powerful involvement in gay activism. Steel was a strong advocate for anti-sexism, gay freedom and other progressive social causes. He founded the Gay Caucus - the first Gay and Lesbian Committee of the Lawyers Guild, as well as Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom (BALIF) - the nation’s first gay and lesbian bar association.

As president of the Bay Area chapter (1980-82), Steel organized lawyers in the fight against discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS. During those years he also created the Thomas Steel Summer Law Student Fellowship with BALIF, a summer internship that is still active and offered every summer nationally. The Steel Fellowship provides funding for recent law school graduates to work on a law project serving the LGBT community. Many whom have completed the project have made significant progress such as joining the Immigration Equality Legal Team, providing LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants a safe haven for free or low cost legal representation and HIV status based asylums where the client’s sexual orientation or HIV-positive identity is an issue in the case.

Tom was truly a people’s advocate. As a lawyer, Tom took on some of the most widely followed cases in California including many unpopular and controversial cases, representing the Black Panthers, the adult entertainment industry and religious groups. In his most celebrated case, he won the case for Brian Willson, whose legs were severed by a train as he participated in an anti-war protest against U.S. involvement in wars in Central America. He also defended Huey Newton (1978), leader of the Black Panthers, on assault charges, winning a not guilty verdict.

From the Examiner: “He successfully sued [San Francisco] in several major police brutality cases, and in another case prompted it to sell the Mount Davidson cross.”

Tom passed in 1998, however his contributions to civil rights and legacy live on. Steel’s contributions towards the renovations of the Lawyers Guild office in San Francisco has given advocates a place to work and grow, leaving us a lasting impression for his devotion to our civil liberties. Along with the fellowship for graduates, an internship for law students, overseen by the Bay Area chapter, also continues.

Obituary from the SF Examiner, July 21, 1998.