Bill Woods, Same-sex marriage supporter also a man of many firsts in Hawai'i

2 Oct 2008

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Bill Woods, who could give even his strictest opponents reason to rethink their positions on same-sex marriage, has died at the age of 58 after a prolonged illness.

Woods organized Hawai'i's first gay pride parade in 1989 and was the first chairman of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.

He also was a community activist who abhorred exclusion of any kind and was the first male member of the Waikiki chapter of the American Business Women's Association and later head of the women's group, in addition to serving as chairman of the Kalihi Valley Neighborhood Board.

"Bill never wanted to be known as just a gay activist," said Lance Bateman, who married Woods in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Aug. 31, 2003. "He worked regarding civil rights for everybody, for public health education, environmental issues, community issues. One of the things that always irritated Bill the most was any organization that was formed to include some and exclude others. He didn't like the concept of, 'We're a group and you can't be in this group.'"

Former state Board of Education chairwoman Debi Hartmann had opposed Woods on the issue of same-sex marriage since 1996 but years later she grew to consider Woods a cherished friend.

"He took me to court, he took me to the Ethics Commission," Hartmann said yesterday. "He did everything he could to prove I was rotten to the core."

Their relationship changed right after Woods' marriage in 2003.

They were both at the Hawaii Democratic Party convention when Hartmann walked over to congratulate Woods.

"Bill and I had fought across tables, we had fought across various Legislatures, we had always been on different sides of the aisle," Hartmann said. "I thought, 'I wonder if I can actually be a person who appreciates someone achieving their goal, even if it wasn't mine.' He said, 'Is this the Debi Hartmann I love to know and hate?' ... We were surprised at how much we agreed about particular candidates and our discussion veered off into a discussion about laws and rights."

Hartmann's husband, Don, and Woods' husband, Lance, began going out to dinner and Woods recommended Hartmann for committees and Hartmann recommended Woods for other committees.

They never shied away from discussing same-sex marriage but marriage seemed to mellow Woods' approach, Hartmann said.

"Instead of coming at me to fight with me, Bill started saying, 'Are you aware of what protections you have and I don't?' " Hartmann said. "Being someone who loves to look at the law and ensure the protections are equal, I said, 'I think I am.' He challenged me to check instead of telling me I was stupid."

As they got to know each other after seven years of opposition, Hartmann and Woods found plenty of similarities.

"We actually found that we're advocates for many of the same things: Universal healthcare for people who are least protected, whether it's the elderly or children; education; public health; never sitting back and thinking that all is well," Hartmann said. "He has a saying, 'Do Good' and I had one that says, 'Do Good Always.' We had no idea that we had so much in common."

Woods was born in Decatur, Ill., on Oct. 9, 1949, and grew up nearby in Arthur, Ill., a farming town of 2,000 people -- half of whom are Amish, Bateman said.

"It did have an impact on Bill's values," Bateman said yesterday. "The family always encouraged everyone to think for themselves and, of course, the Amish are very nonjudgmental. They're not a group that tries to impose their values on others."

It was the sort of town where the operator ran the switchboard out of her living room "and if you wanted to know where all the kids were, you looked for the pile of bikes and dogs," Bateman said. "Even now, you wake up hearing the clip clop of horses on brick-lined streets. The local bank had a buggy-through, not a drive-through."

Woods accompanied a friend on her Hawai'i honeymoon in 1969 and returned to stay in 1970, eventually obtaining a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Hawai'i and a UH master's degree in public health.

"He always commented that when he came to Hawai'i it would be the first time he would openly recognize himself as a gay person," Bateman said. "He was the first person to testify as an openly gay person at the Legislature and was the first openly gay person to make a speech at the state Democratic Convention."

Woods is survived by Bateman; his mother, Mary Blanche Woods, brothers Robert and Jim.

Services are pending.