A native of Atlanta, Williams received his B.A. in History and Anthropology at Georgia State University in 1970. Then he went on to receive his Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1974. He wrote his dissertation on "Black American Attitudes Toward Africa" as a case study in inter-ethnic relations. His revised dissertation was published as a book in the African Studies Series of the University of Wisconsin Press.
In 1978 Williams received a Rockefeller Award to do postdoctoral research at the Newberry Library Center for Family and Community Studies, in Chicago. While there he did research on Southeastern Indian ethnohistory and the history of American Indian legal status.
Williams began his professional career in museum development, then moved into academia by earning his Ph.D. in history and anthropology from the University of North Carolina. He was hired at the University of Cincinnati, where in 1979 he founded and edited southern Ohio's first Gay newspaper.
A year later he was elected executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Gay Coalition. He also co-founded and chaired the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History for the American Historical Association, and was an officer of the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists.
Williams' research in the 1980s and 1990s has focused on homosexual subcultures and gender variance in the United States (especially among Native Americans and Asian Americans), and in Asia-Pacific nations (especially Indonesia, Polynesia, Thailand, and China). Emphasis has been given to applied research that helps to reduce anti-gay prejudice and to medical anthropology research that provides multi-cultural strategies to assist in the reduction of sexually transmitted disease infections.
In 1981 he moved to Los Angeles, teaching American Indian Studies at UCLA and later at USC. In the late 1970s he began doing research on homosexuality in Native American cultures, using the resources at ONE Institute and at the International Gay and Lesbian Archives. After being invited to join the board of directors of the Archives, he later served as its president.
In 1986 he published his fourth book, The Spirit and the Flesh. This book won the Gay Book of the Year Award from the American Library Association, the Ruth Benedict Award from the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists, and the Award for Outstanding Scholarship from the World Congress for Sexology.
Walter Williams has published nine books and well over a hundred articles in professional journals, magazines, edited books, and encyclopedias, mainly on topics relating to sexuality, gender, and H.I.V. prevention. He has given speeches across the globe, for example, speaking on the history of sexuality to the 2002 annual meeting of the World History Association held at Korea’s Seoul National University, and on H.I.V. prevention to Shanghai Medical University and to Beijing University in 2001. He has been widely interviewed on television, radio, and the internet. He is the Founding Editor of "International Gay & Lesbian Review" at http://gaybookreviews.info.