Urvashi Vaid, forward-thinking rights activist, dies at 63

Urvashi Vaid, a lawyer, author and longtime force for gay rights who championed a sweeping vision of social justice during the AIDS crisis and launched a super PAC to promote LGBTQ women in politics, died Saturday at a hospital in Manhattan. She was 63.

The cause was cancer, said her friend Richard Burns, board chairman of the American LGBTQ+ Museum. Vaid was a fellow board member at the New York City museum, which aims to open its doors in 2025.

Long before the concept of intersectionality was widely discussed, Vaid connected issues of race, class, gender and sexuality, drawing on her own experience as a lesbian immigrant from India who was often the only woman of color in the room – sometimes the only woman.

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“She wanted us as gay activists to come out of our silo, and to realize that our movement for LGBT equality had to be part of a much broader movement for justice and change in the country,” said Burns, the former executive director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in New York City. “It took years for people to hear that message and internalize that message.”

From 1989 to 1992, Vaid was the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, leading the country’s oldest national LGBTQ advocacy organization during a tumultuous period when the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the community, same-sex marriage was not yet legal and sodomy laws were targeting gay intimacy. Much of her time was devoted to AIDS, a disease that was widely stigmatized, initially treated as a “gay plague” that was unworthy of serious study.

“Right from the get-go she kind of blew us away,” said Peter Staley, an influential member of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP. While other activists were critical of the organization’s raucous, confrontational protest tactics, Vaid “realized that the ‘don’t rock the boat’ approach wasn’t going to cut it on its own,” he said, and supported ACT UP while championing grass-roots efforts from within her own group, now known as the National LGBTQ Task Force.

“Sometimes you’re wowed by somebody’s ability to theorize about what we need and what’s happening,” Staley added. “But rarely does that person know how to get something done now. And she had both.”

Vaid was sometimes arrested as part of her activism, including during a protest outside the Supreme Court on behalf of abortion rights. In 1990, when President George H.W. Bush gave his first speech on AIDS since taking office, she was removed by police after trying to interrupt the address, carrying a sign reading “Talk Is Cheap, AIDS Funding Is Not” and shouting that Bush’s appeals for compassion should have come much sooner.

As a result of her heckling, she was not invited to join other gay rights organizers at the White House later that year, when Bush signed legislation ordering a study of hate crimes, including those motivated by homophobia. Still, she was invited to FBI headquarters a year later to stand with bureau Director William S. Sessions at a ceremony recognizing the law’s first anniversary. “I thought, ‘Wow! J. Edgar Hoover must be turning over in his grave,'” she later told The Washington Post.

Friends and colleagues described Vaid as a masterful coalition builder, capable of enlisting support for LGBTQ rights and other causes through speeches as well as by working behind the scenes.

“She could sit down with a group of multimillionaires and billionaires and cajole them, conjoin them, prick their consciences, and make them understand that they had a duty and an opportunity to make the world better,” said journalist and author Mark Harris, in a statement shared on Twitter. “But she was just as much at home – more so, in fact – when she would stand on the street talking to an audience of two that would then become four, eight, sixteen, and suddenly it was a rally.”

During the 1993 March on Washington for gay rights, Vaid addressed an audience estimated at some 1 million people, saying that while she and other attendees saw “beauty and power” in the march, right-wing opponents saw the movement in apocalyptic terms.

“Perhaps the right is right about something,” she continued. “We call for the end of the world as we know it. We call for the end of racism and sexism and bigotry as we know it. For the end of violence and discrimination and homophobia as we know it. For the end of sexism as we know it. We stand for freedom as we have yet to know it, and we will not be denied.”

Urvashi Vaid was born in New Delhi on Oct. 8, 1958, and moved to the United States with her family at age 8. Her mother was a homemaker who became a poet and painter, and her father was a prominent Hindi-language novelist who taught English literature at the State University of New York at Potsdam, where Vaid spent much of her childhood.

Drawn to activism from a young age, she participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement as an 11-year-old and joined anti-apartheid groups while studying English and political science at Vassar College, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1979.

She later worked at Gay Community News in Boston and became an early board member of the Boston Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance while studying at Northeastern University’s law school. After graduating in 1983, she worked in Washington as a staff lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, seeking to improve treatment for prisoners with HIV and AIDS. She left in 1986 to become the media director for the Task Force.

Vaid stepped down from the organization to write a book, “Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation” (1995), in which she argued that the gay rights movement needed to seek fundamental social changes, not simply tolerance. The book received mixed reviews – Washington Post reviewer Adam Goodheart criticized its “plodding, repetitive prose” but praised some of its “valuable ideas,” including the formation of think tanks and grass-roots networks – and won the Stonewall Book Award for nonfiction.

Vaid later wrote a column for the Advocate and published books including “Irresistible Revolution” (2012) while advancing her social-justice mission as the head of the Vaid Group, a consulting firm. She was also a board member for groups including the Ford Foundation, Gill Foundation, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and Arcus Foundation, which she led as executive director for five years.

In 2012 she founded LPAC, often described as the first lesbian super PAC. With backing from figures including tennis player Billie Jean King, actress Jane Lynch and Chicago Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts, the LPAC went on to support candidates including Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who in 2012 became the first openly gay politician elected to the U.S. senate.

Survivors include Vaid’s wife and partner since 1988, comedian Kate Clinton of Manhattan; and two sisters. She was also an aunt of Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender nonconforming artist, writer and comedian with a large social media following.

“I would not be alive today if it wasn’t for her,” Vaid-Menon wrote on Instagram. “Before I had the language to describe who I was, Urvashi saw me. I grew up a suicidal gender non-conforming kid in Texas. I was being told that the world was better off without me. Urvashi made me feel like I could grow up and become the adult I am now. She showed me queer life was possible . . . and beautiful.”

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