Williams takes long road back to Cheney


Pride Center Coordinator Sandra Williams knows what it is like to be different.

As a part of both the LGBT community and black community and growing up as the daughter of a military man, being different is part of who she is.

Born in South Carolina, Williams moved around with her family a lot. According to Williams, it was a regular occurrence every three years.

When she was 12, she and her family came to Spokane. Williams attended Cheney Middle School followed by Cheney High School where she graduated. After graduation, Williams studied psychology and received her bachelor’s degree from Washington State University.

The times in between these milestones were when Williams began to notice how she differed from her peers.

According to Williams, when she and her family would move to a new place, they would usually be the only black family in the area. Children would tease her and her brother, and sometimes parents of the children would not want them to play with Williams and her brother. This was a pain shared with her parents.

However, during middle school, she developed more differences that were not necessarily easy to tell others about.

Williams recalled a time during middle school when she began to notice that she was different. She had a teacher whom she was always seeking to be around. She would buy her little gifts, make her cards and stay after class to clean the blackboard.

“I remember one day kind of looking around and noticing that no other girls were doing that,” Williams said. “It’s like it was all boys. It was like all the boys who had crushes on Mrs. Mundinger — and me.”

She said she remembered the scenario and thinking that it was a little bit odd at the time.

Another time she and a group of girls went to see a romantic film. While the girls were swooning over the male lead she said she remembered pretending to be the male lead.

“I didn’t tell anybody that because that is not what they were talking about,” said Williams. “So, I clearly knew that there was something different about me than my friends. I did not feel like I could tell anybody that or talk it through with anyone.”

When Williams got to high school she had a clear moment of realization.

“I was standing in the hallway,” said Williams. “I was at Cheney High School and in one of the buildings there was this long hallway with lockers on each side and I saw this person at the other end of the hall and it was like, ‘Oh my god.’”

“The sun came out. Do you know? It was amazing. For about 30 seconds there was sun and there was birds like in Disney movies. It was just great for about 30 seconds and then it was like, ‘Uh-oh,’ because, clearly, it was a female.”

She said that she knew it would not be okay for her to share that with anybody. Williams started her own mission to make those feelings go away. She decided to study psychology in high school because she thought that would make it go away.

“I did that and it didn’t work. I tried to date it away. I tried to study it away. I eventually met a guy who asked me to marry him. I thought that would do it. That didn’t do it either. Then I thought, ‘Okay, well maybe if I have a kid.’ So, I got pregnant, intentionally, thought that would do it and that didn’t do it either. So now I’m pregnant, engaged and gay.”

Williams said she then considered suicide because she thought the alternatives were to say something about her struggles with her sexual orientation or to get rid of the struggles entirely by ending her life.

Fortunately, her husband was also noticing that things were not going well in their marriage so they began counseling. She says that that was probably what saved her life.

The therapist suggested that the two of them come for a session separately and then after the individual sessions were done, the two of them would come in for a session together.

“So, during the time I was by myself was the time I was finally free to start talking about this stuff and eventually came out to the guy,” said Williams.

She said that it took her a year for her to get to that point. She then started the process of becoming comfortable with herself and telling her family and friends. Eventually she began to speak about her story publicly.

It took time for her father, but overall both of her parents have been supportive. She said her mother has been “ferociously supportive.”

The thing that has been most difficult for Williams, she said, has been being comfortable within her own community, specifically the black community.

“I don’t really fit in with the majority culture. Now, I don’t fit in necessarily with the LGBT community because I’m black, and then I don’t fit in with the black community because I’m gay. So, you sort of walk this line, and that’s been the part that’s been the hardest,” said Williams.

Williams’s pastor, the Rev. Percy ‘Happy’ Watkins, has publicly supported Referendum 74, a Washington state referendum that, if passed, will legalize same-sex marriages.

“So in church on Sunday I stood up and I told him, ‘I’ve been waiting for thirty years for that … [for a] black preacher to stand in the pulpit and say that I was okay.”

Williams graduated from Washington State University and did some traveling before she came back to Cheney.

She first went to Boulder, Colo. Then she decided it was far too cold and made her way to Los Angeles. The first time, an old roommate of hers suggested that she come and visit. She did and split her time between Spokane, to see her parents, and Los Angeles.

The passion for a second return to Los Angeles was ignited by a conversation among friends and herself about things that they had never done and wished they had.

“I was sitting around with some friends,” said Williams. “I was working here [in Spokane]. I had already bought a house. I had a house and a kid and a job, a decent job, but we were sitting around talking about things we had always wanted to do in our lives that we had never done and mine was, I always wanted to go to film school.”

Williams made the decision to pack up her things and her child and move to Los Angeles to pursue her degree in film.

After earning her degree, she said she felt that it was time to come home and be closer to her parents as they were getting older. She started by working with a nonprofit group specializing in suicide prevention. Then she became the executive director of Spokane’s LGBTQ youth center, Odyssey Youth Center.

Meanwhile, at EWU, the development of the Pride Center was in full swing. Terry Ashby-Scott, a member of the president’s advisory committee at the time, asked Williams to apply for the coordinator position. Williams applied and was hired for the position.

“I liked the idea of helping start a center. I thought it was kind of fascinating that I would end up back in Cheney,” said Williams.

As the coordinator of the Pride Center, Williams has left an impression influenced students students who frequent the center.

“She has shown me how to be supportive, but know how to delegate responsibilities and know how to maintain a distance as well. So, she balances [a] supportive mentoring role but also knows when to step back and let other people grow more. You know, challenges them,” said Angela Rak, a senior and office aide for the Pride Center.

“She’s written all my recommendations for my pride foundation scholarships, which are basically the reason I am able to go to college,” said Molly Fitzpatrick, a senior. “So she is pretty much one of the reasons I am able to go to college at all.

Williams attributes a lot of her personal success to her daughter.

“That’s a big part of the reason I am as healthy as I am, is because of her,” said Williams.

Renika Williams, Sandra Williams’ daughter, said that she has learned a great deal from her mother and has been influenced by just seeing the way she lives.

“For one, she probably has the most integrity of any person I’ve ever known,” said Renika Williams.
“My mom has pretty much done anything and everything necessary, not only to get us stable in life, but to support the things I want to do with my life.”

Renika Williams says she also feels like her relationship with her mother differs quite a bit from other mother-daughter relationships. She says she feels like they are more like sisters than a mother and daughter.

“Me and my mom are best friends,” said Renika Williams. “If I had to put my neck out for my mom, Iwould do it at the drop of a dime and she would do it too.”