The groundbreaking lesbian leader Urvashi Vaid, who died on May 14, wanted a political funeral—the sort where the mourners take over the streets and break windows. She didn’t get that, but her service did start with a chapel full of loved ones, some in saris, some in suits, screaming “Fuck Cancer!” and “Fuck the Supreme Court!” at the top of our lungs.
Which was very Vaid. Over 40 years of activism, Vaid believed in the power of telling the truth, standing together, and fighting for liberation—our own as LGBTQ+ people, and the world’s—and doing all of it more, better, louder.
Addressing the 1993 March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights, Vaid said, “The gay rights movement is not a party. It is not a lifestyle. It is not a hairstyle. It is not a fad, or a fringe, or a sickness. It is not about sin or salvation. The gay rights movement is an integral part of the American promise of freedom.”
Born in India in 1958 and coming to the US at age 8, Vaid became the first woman, and the first woman of color, to lead a major gay rights organization when she assumed the leadership of what was then the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force in 1989. In a critical position at a turning-point moment, Vaid challenged straight allies to take the queer movement seriously, and pressed the mainstream gay civil rights movement to think more critically about the racist, sexist, capitalist society from which they sought acceptance.
“What if our work were defined not as getting for gay people that which other minority groups have won, but as dealing with the violence that threatens all of us?” she wrote in her 1995 book, Virtual Equality, the Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation.
I met Urvashi in 1992, soon after she’d left the Task Force and was preparing to leave Washington. Portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Patti Smith hung on her wall. Commissioned by the late Sarah Pettit to write a feature for Out magazine, I was shy and remember nothing of what I asked but everything about Urvashi’s energy and generosity and her fury at the pale, male, money media that was killing so many with their passivity and their lies.
Vaid was rightly proud of how the movement had forced LGBT issues from the margins to the mainstream of US politics. But she felt betrayed by the Clinton administration—and stabbed in the back by gay conservatives. She’d taken flak for interrupting a presidential press conference in 1990. At a time when DC policy work was designed to build influence quietly through discreet donations, Vaid smuggled an enormous sign into George Bush’s first AIDS policy speech, and was ejected, yelling, “Talk is cheap! AIDS funding is not!”
She’d gotten grief for leading the Task Force to oppose the first Gulf War. “Even when they agreed with our premise that homophobia in the military and the abuse of federal funds made the war a ‘gay issue,’ people said a gay group shouldn’t take a stand.”And she was fuming about the threat from the right. As she wrote in Virtual Equality:
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Though profoundly antidemocratic, the Right uses the tools of democracy to win power. Their self-described war (more like a jihad) covers many terrains: politics, morality, racial relations, art, education, economics, the role of government, even the methodology by which we analyze the world. At its core, this right-wing movement rejects the two-hundred-year-old experiment of American pluralism
Her friend and longtime colleague Scot Nakagawa recalls: “Whether her demands were being made to local policy makers or the president of the United States, Urvashi never backed down, never forgot who she was fighting for. Especially for people of color. She was our Urvashi, our national movement avatar.”
An obituary in The New York Times described Vaid as “the rare activist who was as comfortable within the confines of pragmatic electoral politics as she was marching in the streets.” It would be truer to say she was comfortable with none of it.
“I do both because I have to,” she told me.
As a program officer at the Ford Foundation, she made long-shot investments in grassroots initiatives. As executive director of the Arcus Foundation, “she successfully integrated racial justice into their LGBT DNA,” says lifelong friend and colleague Richard Burns.
“She was too much of an activist to stay in traditional power structures long, but she kept trying, and supported those of us who stayed,” says public health advocate Terry McGovern, who followed Vaid at Ford.
With her lifelong love, humorist Kate Clinton, she made home-cooked Indian dinners for a circle that embraced the hottest queer celebrities and the freshest activist newbies. She founded more organizations, delivered more speeches, and mentored more of today’s movement leaders than any list can reasonably communicate.
“While much of Urv’s incredible leadership was in the LGBTQ+ movement, most significantly her analysis and practice reached across issues and identities with an inclusive vision of social justice feminism,” says Katherine Acey, executive director emerita of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice.
As Vaid told me, “I don’t see why we should limit ourselves.”
Vaid died at just 63, two months after receiving the Sue Hyde Award for Longevity in the Movement at the Creating Change Conference, an annual organizing event she cofounded in 1988. She thanked Clinton, “my partner in life and movement activism and community building for the past 34 years.” And warned that “longevity is a precarious dream.”
Alluding to the onslaught of anti-trans and anti-choice bills, the rise in racist violence, anti-Semitism and attacks on education and voting rights, she declared, “Winning a feminist, anti-supremacist, multiracial, queer loving democracy is the challenge that lies ahead of each of us.” That future, she said, “is not guaranteed. “
Among other achievements, Vaid cofounded LPAC, the first Lesbian Political Action Committee, which helped elect Tammy Baldwin, the nation’s first out lesbian senator. She started Justice Works and the Vaid Group as vehicles to incubate the Donors of Color Network, the National LGBTQ Anti-Poverty Action Network, and the National LGBT/HIV Criminal Justice Working Group. She served as chair of Planned Parenthood’s National Action Fund board of directors and cofounded the American LGBTQ+ Museum of history and culture in New York, and The Commons, for “creation, collaboration and inspiration,” in her beloved Provincetown, Mass.
Vaid ended Virtual Equality not with vague aspirations but a precise list of to-dos. She’d want us to get busy.