The Life of a Quiet Activist

Beyond the small entryway, on the dance floor and at the meat racks across from the bar, was where Louisville’s gay congregation met to whore-ship, and David’s first few weeks at that bar were a “real revelation.” 

“I found Jesus. Except he was sitting at the end of the bar having a drink,” Williams said. 

Nowadays, Williams can be found at home in Southern Indiana with husband, Aaron Bingham, the couple’s 3 cats, and remnants of the Willams-Nichols Archive, thought to be one of the country’s largest LGBTQ+ primary source archives. 

A self-proclaimed pack rat, Williams started the collection in 1982, and it has grown to include thousands of books, periodicals, and journals, as well as videos, photographs, and audio tapes on top of other historical LGBTQ+ items. 

David Williams

Before Williams moved to his home in Jeffersonville, Indiana, the historian lived in Old Louisville, amidst the boxes of queer memorabilia. The Williams-Nichols collection, named for Norman Lee Nichols, the activist’s late lover, had taken up so much space in his home that he moved it into storage.

In 2001, Williams got in touch with Delida Buie, who works with archives and special collections at the University of Louisville, and Williams started taking van loads of the collection to be housed at the William F. Ekstrom Library. 

But the archives aren’t Williams’ only contribution to recording Louisville’ gay history. Williams is a “living, breathing” personification of what queer activism looked like throughout the city’s history. 

“I am the archives,” Williams said. 

The life of a quiet activist 

“Kentucky Republics Wary of Hate Crimes Laws for Gays”

“Harassment Forces Gay Businesses to Close Early”

“Louisville Gay Bars Lead Protest Against Right Wing Activist”

Those are a few of the headlines from stories published in “The Letter,” an LGBTQ+ publication that circulated monthly in Louisville and surrounding areas during the 1990s. Williams wrote for The Letter for four years. 

After the publication parted ways with a few different editors, Williams was hired on for the job in 1994, where he would spend the next 9 years accumulating dozens of bylines about politics, snippets of gay culture, and notable features about contributors to the LGBTQ+ community. 

“I took to it like a duck to water…” Williams said. “This was what I was born to do.” 

Even before Williams worked on The Letter or met Jesus at the end of a gay bar, the journalist demonstrated a proven track record for quietly turning the gears toward progress regarding equality for LGBTQ+ Kentuckians. 

In 1981, Sam Dorr told his boss at First National Bank he was going to run for president of the Louisville chapter of Dignity/Integrity, a Christian gay rights group he was secretly involved in. Dorr was offered two choices: take a new position at the bank, where he had worked with the public for over 40 years, or quit. Dorr sued the bank for discrimination. He lost the trial in just two days. However, Dorr ultimately went on to win the case with help from the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. 

Enter Gays and Lesbians United for Equality (GLUE), a social group Williams was part of that eventually turned into a hub for political activism. 

Dorr was also running for the Board of Aldermann, a predecessor to metro council, and was President of GLUE at the time, Williams said. But the group didn’t initially want to get involved in Dorr’s campaign. 

“We were just kind of feeling our way in the public sphere,” Williams said of the group’s early days. People were afraid of “very fearful of losing their jobs or getting evicted from their apartments.” 

After Dorr’s death, however, GLUE became decidedly more political and would go on to help spearhead the gay rights movement that swept over Louisville in the 1980s. Eventually, the group would help secure support for what would become Louisville’s Fairness Ordinance, an order by the city that would protect LGBTQ+ people from employment discrimination. 

Before it’s foray into activism, GLUE hosted a half-hour cable television show during the 80s called All Together Now. Williams became heavily involved with its production and even directed a few episodes. The show featured a news segment and skits about gay life. 

Activists from GLUE, members of Lambda Louisville, a gay man’s social club that Williams wrote for, the Greater Louisville Human Rights Coalition, and other groups also formed an annual AIDS walk to bring awareness to how devastating the effects of AIDS was on the gay population during this time. Eventually, this led to AIDS Crisis center was built in the Urban Government Center downtown to combat the ineffectivity of the Reagan Administration’s treatment of the epidemic. 

The 80s continued to see gay rights activism thrive via newsletters, like “The Letter,” where Williams’ would advertise his growing collection of queer history, and “The Lavender Letter,” a lesbian publication in Louisville, which featured headlines like “Blood Sisters of Louisville,” about lesbians who assisted gay men during the AIDS epidemic. The Williams-Nichols collection saw a boom in donations, and its significance couldn’t be ignored. 

Williams could be found in crowds of protesters during the 80s and 90s as well, especially when it came to passing the Fairness Ordinance. Williams even recalled cheering on a lover giving a speech at such an event.  

The disparate groups involved in the early 1980s activism gave way to attempts to further organization during the 1990s. At that time, the Fairness Campaign was born with a mission to continue the work started by groups who first organized for the original Fairness Ordinance. The Fairness Campaign continues to act as a crucial LGBTQ+ rights group in the city today. 

In between protests, script writing, and getting cruised at the meat racks, Williams’ collection grew, and it represents the experience of every queer person through time. 

But Williams is ready to pass the torch, so…

Where do we go now? 

“Ohio drag queen storytime canceled amid armed protests by far-right groups”

“Tennessee moves to the forefront with anti-transgender laws”

“Anti-trans ‘bathroom ban’ proposed by Kentucky lawmaker seeking reelection” 

Those are headlines from regional publications from the last 2 years – eerily similar to the ones written by Williams in the 90s, if you ask us. Scores of anti-LGBTQ+and anti-trans headlines and discourse surrounding queer identity beg the question: where do we go from here? 

For archivists like Williams and Buie, the answer to combatting hate speech lies in the collection’s thousands of pieces of LGBTQ+ memorabilia. 

The Williams-Nichols collection is available to researchers and students at the University and can be useful for “historic research,” Buie said. 

“One of the things that this collection can do is to give people who want to argue back and engage hate speech with the information that they need to present a clear and cogent argument,” she said. 

As much hate is mounting from the far right, queer folks seem less fearful about reacting to mistreatment than have been in recent history, Williams said. 

The queer struggle for acceptance comes in waves, Williams said, but the most “gratifying” thing to him is how each new generation of queer activists reinvents themselves. We’re looking at you, Gen Z. “There’s no telling what they’ll do,” Williams said. 

Williams said Gen Z isn’t the only one ready for the spotlight – the journalist wants to bring more attention to what he considers his “legacy.”  

Williams hopes the new year will let him go beyond the current “paper board” and elect a group to make decisions about what will happen to the collection. That requires raising money, but Williams is in talks with donors about raising the remaining $75,000 they need to kickstart the project. 

In the meantime, Williams continues to index and deliver boxes of LGBTQ+ memorabilia to the Ekstrom Library, building the community’s living legacy for the next generation of queer activism.