William H. “Bill” Nelson

by Mike Anglin

young bill nelson.jpg

In 1979, Bill Nelson, a teacher and coach at W.T. White High School in Dallas, attended a public “gay rights rally” in Lee Park.  A photograph of the event was published in the Dallas newspaper, and a student at W.T. White recognized Coach Nelson as one of the people attending the rally.  Dallas Independent School District attempted to reprimand Bill for this public display, but he refused to accept the censure, and the school district ultimately backed down.  Their action only accelerated Bill’s growth into a principal leadership role in the gay rights movement in Dallas.

Bill’s first concrete step in this process came later in 1979, when he appeared before the executive committee of the Dallas Gay Political Caucus to urge that organization to fully support the upcoming National March on Washington.  He and his partner, Terry Tebedo, publicized the event in Dallas and generated a list of Dallas residents who would commit to attend the October 14, 1979, march.

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In early 1980, a group of leaders of the Dallas Gay Political Caucus (later to be reorganized as the Dallas Gay Alliance on March 23, 1981) met in Bill and Terry’s dining room to discuss the feasibility of a novel political undertaking by the gay community of Dallas, the concept being the "brainchild" of Bill's friend and president of the Dallas Gay Political Caucus, Don Baker.  Baker's concept was to carefully enlist and prepare individuals to attend their Democratic precinct conventions and become elected as delegates to the District Convention.  There, as many as possible would be elected as delegates to the State Democratic Convention of 1980 and attempt to have that year’s Democratic Party platform contain a “plank” calling for the repeal of Sec. 21.06 of the Texas Penal Code (which made same-sex relations a crime).  The effort took on the name “Project/80” and was organized and lead by Bill Nelson.  It was a complete success.  In the summer of 1980 the Texas Democratic Party's state convention adopted a new plank in its party platform calling for the repeal of Sec. 21.06.  Naturally, no one believed that such a move would lead to repeal, but the process had accomplished the over-arching goal of educating the public (and the news media) of the existence of the law, and its negative impact on the gay community of Texas ... painting all gay men and women as "criminals," and thereby giving a pretext to open discrimination against members of the GLBT community, whether in being prohibited from teaching in public schools or being employed by municipal fire departments and police departments.  Any discrimination against an individual who was gay could be "justified" on account of that person's criminality.  It would take many more years before such laws were finally banned by the United States Supreme Court in the Lawrence vs. Texas landmark decision. 

Terry Tebedo, Bill Nelson and Mike Anglin at a brunch for Razzle Dazzle Dallas board members

Terry Tebedo, Bill Nelson and Mike Anglin at a brunch for Razzle Dazzle Dallas board members

In 1981, Bill and Terry pulled together a number of friends and created an organization that would sponsor a city-wide social event for the gay community.  The new organization was named “Razzle Dazzle Dallas.”  Although it was originally intended as an elaborate way for the GLBT community to have a great citywide party once a year, it soon evolved into an important fund-raising event for charitable support of persons with AIDS.  It held its first gala later that year of 1981 at the Hall of State in Fair Park.  That same year they, along with friends William Waybourn and Craig Spaulding, opened a business at the corner of Cedar Springs and Throckmorton in Dallas called “The Crossroads Market,” which became as much of a community meeting place as a commercial book and sundries store.

[Left to right] John Thomas, Jean Nelson (Bill's mother), Bill Nelson, Terry Tebedo

[Left to right] John Thomas, Jean Nelson (Bill's mother), Bill Nelson, Terry Tebedo

In June of 1983, Bill and Terry, along with other supporters, created a new umbrella organization for the gay community named the Foundation for Human Understanding (eventually to become the Resource Center Dallas).  FHU was designed to be the parent organization for a number of groups, programs, and smaller organizations affiliated with the Dallas Gay Alliance.  In 1990, FHU purchased the MCC Church building at Reagan and Brown streets in Dallas (where DGA had conducted its general membership meetings since the late 1970’s).

As president of the then Dallas Gay Alliance from 1984 to 1987, Bill helped open the first lesbian and gay community center storefront location (where Union Jack is now located on Cedar Springs), later to become a clinic for an HIV population left underserved by county and government institutions.  In fact, the clinic today carries his and his partner Terry Tebedo’s names as the Nelson-Tebedo Clinic.  He was also among the first to sound the alarm about AIDS and help educate individuals to avoid the transmission of HIV, turning the Alliance from a purely political organization to an agency delivering real services, including food, clothing and financial assistance.  These services continue today under the Resource Center of Dallas, and through other cooperating organizations like AIDS Services of Dallas and the AIDS Arms Network.

Terry Tebedo and Bill Nelson vacationing in Provincetown, MA.

Terry Tebedo and Bill Nelson vacationing in Provincetown, MA.

In the fall of 1985 Bill became the third recipient of the Black Tie Dinner’s “Humanitarian of the Year Award” (known today as the Kuchling Award, named for Ray Kuchling, one of the co-founders of the Dallas Black Tie Dinner).  Following his term as president of the Dallas Gay Alliance, Bill was elected president of the Texas Human Rights Foundation, and in 1989 the Texas Senate honored Bill for his many accomplishments as a community leader. Throughout all of these periods of leadership positions in so many organizations, Bill's life partner and constant companion, Terry Tebedo, was always present, full of energy and creative ideas for achieving agreed upon goals.  Terry never sought the limelight, although everyone around him saw him, too, as a natural leader and builder of coalitions and consensus during difficult, painful times.  

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Sadly, Bill and Terry didn’t survive the AIDS epidemic they both so valiantly fought to end, but they paved the way for many others to hold out until more effective medications were discovered and incorporated into the treatment of people with HIV.  In a famous press interview at one point at the height of the AIDS crisis, Bill was asked if he had AIDS.  His simple reply became known far and wide because it answered so much more than the question.  He said: "Everyone 'has' AIDS."  In other words, this crisis was not limited to those who had contracted HIV.  It would affect everyone at some level.  It was everyone's problem.  Terry was diagnosed with HIV-related Hodgeskins disease on April 17, 1987, and died January 28, 1988.  Bill Nelson died February 19, 1990, also of complications from AIDS.

© 2017 by M. W. Anglin