For the next few years, Williams went around performing in black clubs in the Bay Area. Then Gomez asked her to perform at San Francisco's gay pride, cautioning that it would be in the papers and everyone would know that she was gay. Williams was undaunted.
â€œI made the switch to performing on the women's circuit as opposed to sticking with the black comedy competitions and the black comics, basically because of the homophobia,â€ Williams says. â€œI wanted to be out, and even though there's racism in the LGBT community, I still felt that there were more opportunities for me to be able to be who I am than listening backstage to all the negative commentary about gay people.â€
It was the early '80s, â€œwhen GRID, gay-related immune deficiency, was showing up,â€ she recalls. â€œI'd be going to the clubs and we'd hear that Michael was sick, or this one was sick, and in a week or so they'd be dead.â€
Along with Gomez, Karen Ripley and other fledgling women performers in the area, Williams took part in some of the earliest AIDS benefits. They were grassroots affairs, usually raising money for just one individual. â€œEarly on, producers figured out that if they could make $1,500 at a benefit, they'd make twice as much if they had a comic, and it was low-end to produce,â€ Williams says.
That was the start of a longstanding project for Williams, using comedy to work toward social justice: â€œMy activism was really born in the lesbian feminist arena, and then being a comic has given me lots of opportunities to be a social activist within the community.â€
Williams believes she was in the right place at the right time when she started out: â€œMy coming into comedy coincided with the whole lesbian and gay movement. I think there was sort of a ready-made atmosphere in the Bay for what has come to be known as lesbian comedy.â€
She had gigs at the Baybrick Inn and Valencia Rose, and was the first performer to take the stage at Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint. â€œJosie's was a home base, like a workshop/workout space for a lot of us in the area,â€ she says. â€œEvery comic I know has performed there.â€
â€œThe club wasn't entirely ready to be open yet but they had me perform, and no one showed up,â€ Williams recalls. So the owner promised her that from then on she could perform there whenever she wanted to, and she did so frequently over the next 12 years.
The legendary Josie's has since given way to a restaurant. Williams laments: â€œI'll be in the Bay Area next week and it's quite a sad thing for me to go over to that place now. It was such a cultural icon in San Francisco for lesbian and gay comedy.â€
Williams has moved on too. In 1992 she relocated to a Cleveland suburb, where she founded the HaHA (humor and healing arts) Institute, for the â€œstudy and active use of humor in the healing process–personal, societal and planetary.â€ The institute provides workshops, lectures, keynotes and online tutoring.
Williams has also taught comedy at Cleveland State University, where she created her own major, â€œHumor and Healing,â€ and graduated summa cum laude. She also holds a master's of education from the university's adult learning and development program.
Williams can be seen in Laughing Matters, a documentary on lesbian comics, alongside Gomez, Suzanne Westenhoefer and Kate Clinton. She and Gomez have remained friends over the years and still find themselves on the same bill from time to time.
On her upcoming tour Williams will be the keynote speaker at San Francisco's Dyke March Rally later this month. She's also slated to perform at the National Women's Music Festival in Bloomington, Ill., in early July, and then on two Olivia cruises in Europe during the last two weeks of the month.
Next on the schedule is Montreal's Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, and then the Michigan Women's Music Festival in August. In addition to performing standup at the Michigan festival, Williams will lead two workshops: â€œLet's Laugh About Sex,â€ and â€œComedy 101.â€
â€œMy idea about humor is that it opens people's hearts and it opens people's minds,â€ Williams says. â€œWith that they can laugh at themselves and share more freely than if it's delivered as straight commentary.â€
And Karen Williams knows what it means to have an open heart and an open mind. â€œI'm one person who never, ever, ever felt bad or ashamed or any negativity about the fact that I love women. Never. From day one.â€ Now, that's something you don't hear very often.