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James Williams, Gay Activist in India, Dies at 35


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This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

James Williams was a gay man who grew up in a conservative and religious milieu in Alabama, where homophobia was rampant. But over time, he saw the United States move toward greater tolerance, which he attributed partly to nonthreatening television shows like “Will & Grace,” the long-running sitcom with an openly gay lead character.

While on vacation in India in 2017, he met Ayush Thakur and moved to India to live with him. Gay sex had been decriminalized there only in 2018, and Mr. Williams saw that persecution persisted. He thought that if Indian television shows were modeled on “Will & Grace,” they could bring gay people into Indian living rooms and help change hearts and minds.

So he spent his days meeting with producers and others trying to get such shows off the ground.

Then, last year, the coronavirus pandemic hit and halted his efforts. In recent weeks an explosion of cases has put India under siege, sapping medical systems, overwhelming crematories and leaving some people to die in lines outside hospitals.

Mr. Williams tested positive for Covid-19 on April 24 and joined the desperate scramble for a hospital bed and oxygen. He eventually found both, his brother, John, said, but to no avail: He died on April 28 in a hospital in the Delhi region. He was 35.

James Robert Williams was born on June 30, 1985, in Florence, in northwest Alabama, and grew up in nearby St. Florian. His mother, Kay (Carter) Williams, was a schoolteacher. His father, Paul Kenneth Williams, a former Marine who served in the Vietnam War, was an I.R.S. agent.

James’s mother died in a car accident in 1992, and his father committed suicide in 1995. Jim, 9, and John, 11, went to live with their father’s sister, Sharon Alexander, a volunteer for nonprofits, and her husband, Bill Alexander, a financial executive, in East Amherst, N.Y., near Buffalo.

In addition to his brother and Mr. Thakur, Mr. Williams is survived by the Alexanders and their two daughters, Christie and Jessica Alexander, and their son, Doug.

Mr. Williams majored in English at Columbia University. “He was a campus character, a big, tall, funny guy who always had a good story to tell,” Laura Kleinbaum, a former classmate and close friend, said in a phone interview. A talented writer, he loved composing observational essays and especially admired Joan Didion.

Understand the Covid Crisis in India

What to Know: Shortages of oxygen and hospital beds, along with low vaccination rates, have added to the surge in illness and deaths in India.Case Counts: Experts say the true death count far exceeds official figures. This chart illustrates how known Covid cases have grown over the last few months across the country.Travel Bans: The U.S. has begun to restrict travel from India, and Australia has banned all incoming travel from the country, including among its own citizens.How to Help: Donors around the world are giving money for meals, medical expenses, P.P.E. and oxygen tanks, among other essential supplies.

After he graduated in 2008, he became a personal assistant to the writer Daphne Merkin and began traveling the world.

“He was really into getting airline points, and he would make random trips to random cities to get them,” Ms. Kleinbaum said. “You’d be texting with him, and he’d be, like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m in Shanghai.'”

Eager to understand his boyhood and his parents, Mr. Williams had begun an oral history project by interviewing his parents’ friends in Alabama. In those interviews, John Williams said, James was characteristically blunt, typically starting by saying, “You know I’m gay, right?”

In recent months James was trying to get a visa for Mr. Thakur, who was by then his fiance, so that they could be married in the United States. They had hoped to settle in Los Angeles and work in the entertainment industry.

John said that his brother had “really believed in the power of the media to change the way people thought about certain disfavored populations.”

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