Remembering Urvashi Vaid

With the passing of Urvashi Vaid, the world lost a fierce and beloved activist for social justice. Urvashi died in May at the age of 63, after fighting cancer for several years.

I first met Urvashi in 1987, when she was the media director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF). It was the height of the AIDS epidemic that was devastating the LGBTQ community and the same year as the birth of ACT-UP, the militant direct action AIDS activist group. Along with Sue Hyde, another staffer, Urv was organizing a panel on “the politics of sexual liberation” to coincide with the 1987 March on Washington for lesbian and gay rights and against AIDS. It was a brave event to organize at a time when sexual freedom was seen as a pathway to death. Several hundred people attended. The next year, she co-founded the “Creating Change” conference, which brought together LGBTQ activists from across the country. Creating Change became an annual event and for more than thirty years has remained a key setting that fosters relationships and spurs organizing campaigns among LGBTQ activists around a broad range of issues. Annual attendance has reached over 3,000.

Urvashi encouraged me to join the board of directors of NGLTF. Soon after, near the end of 1988, the Task Force’s executive director, Jeff Levi, announced that he was leaving.  Urvashi applied for the job, and it’s possible that one of the best things I have ever done was to fight like the dickens to have her chosen.  Several of the white male board members saw her as too militant and– as a woman of color– unrepresentative of the Task Force’s primary constituency.

They were certainly correct in judging her a militant.  In March 1990, President George H.W. Bush held his first press conference to address the AIDS epidemic. Urvashi attended, and she interrupted the conference by standing up and shouting the words on a large poster she lifted up: “Talk Is Cheap. AIDS Funding Is Not.”

But Urvashi did much more than engage in dramatic events during her tenure as executive director.  She profoundly shifted the focus of NGLTF.  Instead of a mission that prioritized Washington lobbying, Urv moved the Task Force toward community organizing. Staff like Sue Hyde continued to organize Creating Change.  A series of issue-oriented organizing projects were launched and staffed: an anti-violence project, a family project, an effort to create statewide organizations across the United States to make the LGBTQ community a more visible and powerful force for change. These projects not only mobilized activists in their states and local communities.  They also helped to build a groundswell of support for national legislation.  It was no accident that, during Urvashi’s tenure at the Task Force, Congress passed the first pieces of legislation that addressed LGBTQ issues. The Ryan White Care Act provided the first federal funding for AIDS prevention organizations that worked within the LGBTQ community; the Hate Crimes Statistics Act included sexual orientation as a category for gathering data; and the Americans with Disabilities Act included HIV-status as a condition protected from discrimination.

Urvashi left the Task Force in 1992, after almost four years as executive director.  She wrote a book, Virtual Equality, that was published in 1995.  At the time, the issues of the military exclusion policy and of marriage equality had the greatest visibility.  Urvashi questioned the value of “mainstreaming” the movement and prioritizing integration into U.S. society as it was.  She strongly opposed what she described as “single-issue organizing,” fighting only for legislation and policy that directly addressed the category of sexual orientation.  During the Task Force years, she frequently said that she wanted the Task Force to be the progressive wing of the LGBTQ movement and the queer wing of the progressive movement.

Urvashi returned to the Task Force in the late 1990s to direct its Policy Institute.  She used the position to produce studies that reflected her belief in multi-issue organizing. She also employed her stature in the movement to convene a number of gatherings of LGBTQ leaders from across the country in order to strengthen relationships and build ties across ideological differences. In 2005, she went on to direct the Arcus Foundation, which became a key funder of LGBTQ organizations. And in 2012, she was a co-founder of LPAC, a political action committee designed to give lesbians influence and visibility in electoral politics.

I will always remember Urvashi for the passion with which she argued for her perspectives on activism and movement building as well as for the way she was willing to embrace people and draw them to her, even when there were political differences. She influenced so many and propelled the LGBTQ movement forward during a period of intense activism.

Urvashi Vaid is survived by her life partner and wife of many years, Kate Clinton, a comedian well-known in the LGBTQ community.