There She Isn't

Like many people with the AIDS virus, Nancy Williams is trying to educate the public about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. During the past two years, Williams frequently has spoken to high school students, urging them to practice safe sex and answering their questions about the disease.

But last year, Williams, 63, became determined to reach out to her peers.
Although she'd never entered a beauty contest, Williams decided to enter the Ms. Senior Arizona Pageant, a contest for women older than 60. According to the pageant's application, "The judges are instructed to look for a talented lady with 'INNER BEAUTY' and energetic and Positive Outlook on life and the world."

Williams phoned pageant coordinator Helen McKnight in November, and told her of her medical diagnosis and her desire to enter the contest, as well as her intention of delivering her personal message of AIDS education. Williams says McKnight told her she would have to take up the matter with the organization's board of directors.

So Williams sent a certified letter to McKnight, formally expressing her desire to compete. She wrote, "The focus of your pageant 'Inner Beauty,' I feel could not be better expressed than for a woman to address her concern for her fellow-women and fellow-men in a public demonstration of love for their well-being and the well-being of their children and their children's children. The epidemic can only be prevented through education."

As it turned out, the Ms. Senior Arizona Pageant didn't want someone with Williams' kind of "Positive Outlook." She never received a reply letter. Assuming her request had been rejected, she decided not to return the application--particularly after she read the "Confidential Medical Profile" enclosed in the application packet.

The form stated: "Are there any other conditions or medications you would like us to know about? No one is permitted to enter the pageant if they have any communicable diseases, i.e.: AIDS, HIV pos., TB, etc."

Williams says she spoke with the contest's executive director, Hedi Headley, days before the pageant and was told that the pageant organizers inadvertently had neglected to respond to her letter.

Officials with Ms. Senior Arizona say they never rejected Williams' application, since she never sent it in.

It was not until Williams finally found a lawyer, Sarah Allen of the Arizona Center for Disability Law, that the pageant changed its rules. Per the center's request, the application form now reads, "Do you have any Physical Limitations that we need to know about for assisting you with mobility?"

Allen says, "[The discrimination] was quite blatant. . . . It would have been a slam-dunk kind of a lawsuit."

Officials of the national organization, Senior America Inc., have assured Allen that their policies do not discriminate against women with HIV/AIDS. Maureen Donovan, executive director of Senior America Inc. in Essington, Pennsylvania, says affiliates will be required to use standard application forms in the future.

Allen is pleased with the victory, but disappointed for Williams.
She says, "[Williams] could have just not divulged or something. Instead, she was forthright . . . and instead of getting back with her and making arrangements, they just ignored her and hoped she'd go away."

And, Allen adds, Williams could have made an impact on the 2,000 or so people who attended this year's Ms. Senior Arizona Pageant at the Sun City West Sundome in February.

"I think that most people's picture of somebody with HIV/AIDS is not Ms. Williams. Which is why, again, she's just so perfect as a spokesperson," Allen says.

Williams will become a great-grandmother in August. It's difficult to believe. Despite her age and five-year-old diagnosis, Williams is energetic and elegant, a manicured, soft-spoken Texas native with brown eyes.

She laughs at the suggestion that she looks much younger than her years. "You know how I know I'm a senior?" she asks. "'Cause when I go to the colonel's to get chicken, they don't ask me how old I am--they automatically give me my discount."

Williams was raised in Tennessee and lived in California before settling in Sun City, then Scottsdale, a few years ago. She contracted HIV through unprotected heterosexual sex--a difficult admission for a woman who was raised Southern Baptist, a member of a generation that didn't discuss such things.

She says, "It's not easy to go forward and tell the whole world, 'Look, I got this stuff by being an immoral lady,' 'cause that's the way a lot of people are gonna look at it. Course, they don't realize I've been single for 25 years. What are you gonna do? You could be a saint. Unfortunately, I wasn't."

After careers in retail management and housecleaning, Williams decided to make her story public as a volunteer for the Red Cross here in Phoenix.

Williams is leaving town soon to travel, and doesn't intend to apply for the pageant again. Luckily, after more than five years, her health is still good and she is not on any medication.

She's still waiting for a formal apology from Headley.
"She denied me an opportunity to reach all the people that were in that audience, to make them aware that they and their families could contract this disease," Williams says.

In fact, the Arizona Department of Health Services reports that of the 3,013 cases of full-blown AIDS reported in Maricopa County between 1984 and 1995, 10 percent of those afflicted were older than 49.

"I've lived in Sun City," she adds. "The people out there I'm quite sure have unprotected sex. I guarantee you because they're older does not mean they're not sexually active.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at