Last year, Denicia Montford Williams decided she couldn't do it anymore.
Williams been working for K-Mart since 2002. She'd risen from a seasonal worker in Garner to a retail manager for a store in Raleigh. She was making a good living—six figures, she says, and if she landed a district manager position, her salary would double. But something was gnawing at her.
"The things they were asking me to do—they were asking me to change my integrity," says Williams, forty-five. "They were asking me to lie to associates about their pay, about their wages."
She quit without having another gig in place. For a month she stayed home, unemployed, teetering on the edge of depression. Then, one day, her father called and asked her to dinner. Melvin Montford was the executive director of the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute, named for a man who helped bridge the civil rights and labor movements; her mother, Mary Montford, was the organization's president.
Her parents had a job for her. The money wasn't what she was making at K-Mart. But she wanted to give back. "The older I get, and I look at the history of the past and the history of the present, I'm thinking, What am I doing for my kids' future? I'm pretty privileged [because] of what people before me have done. So what is going to be my mark for my kids and my grandkids?"
So she said yes. Today, she's the program manager at the North Carolina APRI; she also started a spinoff chapter of the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition, named for the APRI cofounder who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington but was largely forgotten by history because he was gay. In those dual roles, Williams is leading a voter-registration drive in nine North Carolina counties, including Wake; advocating for paid sick leave, living wages, and against hostile immigration laws; hosting workshops related to financial and physical health; and seeking to bring LGBTQ people into advocacy work. A few weeks ago, Williams was also elected to the N.C. AFL-CIO's board of directors—the first openly LGBTQ director in the board's history.
It was a long and sometimes tumultuous journey for Williams, but the destination seems like a natural fit. She grew up on the picket lines. Her mother, a grocery-store cashier, was a shop steward in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Her father, who worked for a plywood company, became the first black president of the state chapter of International Woodworkers of America.
Williams had her first child at the age of fifteen—the result of her very first sexual encounter, she says. After her family moved to Memphis, she had a second son at nineteen and married the father. They divorced a few years later. A third son came a few years after that.
She eventually completed an associate's degree in computer accounting—a two-year program that took her five years to finish, Williams says—and she and her family moved to Atlanta. There she grappled with the reality of who she was and the cultural expectations she'd been surrounded by growing up.
"At that point," she says, "I was trying to figure out why I can't make these relationships work, what is wrong. At the same time, I was also having other feelings that I had been feeling before, but I really hadn't put a name to those feelings. I just kept on walking the line that I was supposed to walk, which is work, go to school, take care of your family, look for that spouse—that male spouse. I was still on that path and trying to figure out what was wrong with me at the same time."
She started going out to bars and meeting women, but it would take years before Williams fully came out. In the meantime, she followed her parents to Raleigh, embarked on another long-term relationship with a man, and had a daughter. But eventually, she decided she could no longer keep up the pretense.
This July, she married Joyce Williams, her partner of eight years and now the treasurer of the Bayard Rustin Coalition. "I drug her in," Williams says, "and now her daughter's involved, her daughter's husband, all the grandkids. It's a family affair, and we do it together."
Through that organization, she says, her mission is to create a more welcoming environment for LGBTQ people in the labor movement.
"I'm very comfortable," Williams explains. "I could care less what anybody thinks about me. But there are a lot of my friends and family and associates that are uncomfortable still, and I can come to the regular APRI meetings and I'm not concerned about what little snide stuff they would say, but a lot of people don't feel comfortable at that table. This is sad that we fight for rights, but we got people who don't want to come to this table to fight for rights because they don't feel equal at this table."