Person Of The Year: Elizabeth Coffey Williams

Elizabeth Coffey Williams

“I always say that what I do is, in my eyes, relatively small,” said LGBTQ+ advocate, quilter and former actress Elizabeth Coffey Williams. “But I think if we all do what we can cumulatively when it comes together, that’s where we create change.” 

Whether it’s helping to deliver food to her neighbors or volunteering at William Way LGBT Community Center as a co-facilitator of TransWay, Coffey Williams avidly gives back to her community. She serves on the boards of Philly’s Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club and the Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund, and has done substantial work for the LGBTQ elder advocacy organization SAGE. Coffey Williams has also been a member and facilitator of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt; her work has been exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute, among other national venues. 

“Besides being a fabulous friend, Elizabeth is the most giving person I know,” Coffey Williams’ good friend and neighbor Mary Groce said in an email. “She’s always there with an ear and a shoulder to cry on if you’re feeling down in the dumps; and she’s a passionate advocate for each and every one of us.” 

When Groce and her partner Suz Atlas first moved into the JCAA, Coffey Williams extended a warm welcome to them. “Our building and William Way and the entire community would be much diminished without [Elizabeth’s] bright light,” Atlas added. 

An out and proud transgender woman since the early 1970s, Coffey Williams has been active in her community since the get-go. When she was married and raising a son in Rockford, Illinois, she co-founded and led the Chrysalis Gender Group, produced dozens of yearly concerts as program director of a local performing arts organization, and served on the board of the Rockford AIDS Care Network. 

John Waters and Elizabeth Coffey Williams at the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Photograph by Erika Nizborski.)

In addition to doing community work, Coffey Williams spent some of her younger years as an actress. She became one of filmmaker John Waters’ Dreamlanders, having appeared in his films “Pink Flamingos” (which features her infamous “flasher” scene), “Female Trouble” and others.

Her story as a trailblazing trans woman has appeared in numerous publications including the books “Sisters,” and “The Book of Pride.”  She appeared in the Netflix documentary “Disclosure” and has been interviewed multiple times as part of the LGBTQ archival project “I’m From Driftwood.”

Coffey Williams’ advocacy work around affordable housing for LGBTQ seniors was born in part after she got divorced after 25 years of marriage, moved back to Philly, and eventually moved into the JCAA. 

“After 25 years of a purse full of credit cards and never having to pay a bill, I found myself selling my quilting machine to rent a truck to take what few possessions I could back to Philadelphia,” Coffey Williams said. She stayed with her niece at the time, but did not have a permanent home of her own. 

“Were it not for the extraordinary project that is the John C. Anderson Apartments, I would still be in that position,” she said. “It wasn’t just a life-changer, it was a life-saver. When I was the one that was desperately in need, the wonderful people who created [JCAA] made sure that I had a safe place to fall. I feel compelled [and] privileged to pay it back.” 

Coffey Williams has indeed given back to the JCAA community. She has been volunteering for JCAA’s Food and Nutrition program, facilitated by William Way’s grant-funded, regular distribution of groceries and hot meals to JCAA residents during the pandemic; she works with her friends Frank Potoba, Cornelia Weathers and others to keep the building’s community garden thriving; she proofreads the JCAA monthly newsletter that Groce and Atlas publish and she regularly collaborates with Ed Miller, senior programs manager at William Way.  

“Her relentless and understated community engagement through this kind of work and her work to sustain the TransWay program through the pandemic are some examples of why we cherish and respect Elizabeth,” Miller said in an email. “Yes an actor, award winning gardener, a national quilting champion, a lifetime trans equity advocate, but for me a smart, insightful, honest and dear friend.”

Coffey-Williams co-leads the weekly peer-led support and discussion group TransWay in tandem with trans activist Kendall Stephens. The group’s members are diverse in age, ethnicity, socio-economic background, sexual orientation and gender expression, and join the weekly meetings from other states and even other countries, Coffey Williams said.  

“In developing our own philosophy for our own little group, which has become like a family to us, Kendall and I felt [it important to provide] the opportunity to have a young trans-feminine Ph.D. astrophysicist meet an elder trans-feminine indigenous woman, meet an extraordinary man of trans experience who’s a cowboy, meet nonbinary people or trans, or genderqueer people who are students, or are sex workers. It’s in that coming together that we find our commonality, that commonality being the human experience.”  

Coffey Williams’ contributions both to JCAA and William Way illuminate the interconnectivity between the two organizations, she said. 

“We’re all in this together,” she said. “We all have our challenges, so we all have to paddle. I know that every once in a while we’re all too weak to paddle, even though we’re all in the same boat. If you’re too weak to paddle, I’ll paddle for you. Just do me a favor and don’t drill a hole in the bottom of the boat, and we’ll all be okay.”

In fall of 2021, John Waters, who remains friends with Coffey Williams, invited her to be the first to use his eponymous all-gender bathrooms at the Baltimore Museum of Art. She commented on the film producer’s tendency to convey heavy issues, in this case gender inclusion, in a very light, jocular way. “It sounds really playful, and it was,” Coffey Williams said. “But [John] was addressing a really serious issue, and he wasn’t kidding.”

The summer of 2022 will mark 50 years since Coffey Williams transitioned and since she has been living authentically and standing up for her fellow queer and trans community members.  

“Fifty years ago, when I was running around with John and my friends in Baltimore and I was unapologetically out and proud, it never occurred to me to hide,” Coffey Williams said. “Then I came back to Philly, and I guess way back then, I didn’t know that I was joining a movement. Metaphorically I call it standing up, and I never stopped standing up. I realized there were times I had the opportunity to stand up for what was right — things like LGBT equity, LGBT rights and now the rights of LGBT elders.”