Urvashi Vaid (Oct. 8,1958-May 14, 2022) leader in the U.S. gay and lesbian rights, social justice movements

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Urvashi Vaid. Photo: orgs.law.harvard.edu

On March 29, 1990, while President H.W. Bush stood up to speak at an AIDS conference in Greater Washington, D.C., Urvashi Vaid, then executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, stood up with a banner saying “Talk Is Cheap, AIDS Funding Is Not” and made national headlines.

A press release from NGLTF dated April 10, 1990, described the incident – “The coast-to-coast media coverage of the incident presented a powerful image of Vaid’s action: There she stood, almost directly in front of the President, holding her sign…”

Just days after that headline grabbing incident, this writer, then on the D.C. beat at India Abroad, with the job of tracking any and all Indian-Americans making waves, was granted an interview by her at Vaid’s modest D.C. office.

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It was the first time I met the firebrand leader. She spoke in steady and measured tones albeit about her passion for the rights of fellow gays and lesbians, her background, exuding all along, a strong sense of her self and her future.

Vaid, 63, who died May 14, 2022, at her home in New York City, was not just a legendary leader of the American LGBTQ movement, but also a defender of women’s rights, anti-war efforts, immigration justice and many other social causes. She was the Executive Director of the oldest national LGBT organization, National LGBTQ Task Force from 1989 to 1992 after having served as the organization’s media director.

During her long career, Vaid held several offices, including as Director at the Ford Foundation and wrote books. And she never refused to give an interview whenever this writer called to ask for comments.

In 2015, when Harvard Law School presented her the, Women Inspiring Change award, the HLS members who nominated had this to say, Urvashi Vaid represents the best of where the queer legal movement has been and of where it might go next” and is continuously “challenging all of the many movements of which she is a part to strive for greater inclusivity, class consciousness, and radicalism.”

Kierra Johnson, current Executive Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, put out a statement after Vaid’s death.

“We are devastated at the loss of one of the most influential progressive activists of our time,” Johnson said, adding, “Urvashi Vaid was a leader, a warrior and a force to be reckoned with. She was also a beloved colleague, friend, partner and someone we all looked up to – a brilliant, outspoken and deeply committed activist who wanted full justice and equality for all people.”

“Equality is a fine aspiration. It’s simply not enough,” Vaid wrote in a 2014 piece on liberation quoted by the LGBTQ Task Force in its press release.

In 1995, after resigning from her position Vaid published her first book, Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation, in which she criticized the idea of “mainstreaming” what was and is, in fact, a civil rights movement, she contended. The objective for the movement should be fundamental, actionable change, according to her, and not just  tolerance for it. In 1996 Virtual Equality won the Stonewall Book Award.

She was also the author of Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics (2012). She co-edited, with John D’Emilio and William Turner, an anthology titled Creating Change: Public Policy, Sexuality and Civil Rights (2000).

Vaid also established the Vaid Group, and as president of the organization advised, mentored, and supported the LGBTQ+ movement.

In 2012, Urvashi Vaid launched LPAC, the first lesbian Super PAC, and it has since invested millions of dollars in candidates who are committed to social justice through legislation, the press release from LGBTQ Task Force said.

Vaid was Senior Fellow at the City University of New York Graduate Center. From 2005-2010, Vaid was Executive Director of the Arcus Foundation, a global funder of LGBT human rights. She served as Deputy Director of the Governance and Civil Society Unit of the Ford Foundation from 2001-2005. Vaid was Senior Fellow and Director of the Engaging Tradition Project at Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law from 2011-2015.

She was also on the board of the Gill Foundation. She was a leader in the development of the currently ongoing National LGBTQ women’s community survey.

During her career, Vaid also worked with the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union where she jumpstarted the organization’s work on HIV/AIDS in prisons.

Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, said of Vaid, “We should all be so lucky to have even 1% of the positive impact on the world that Urvashi Vaid did, and in a life cut short today. Vision, commitment, brilliance — yes, but her relentless persistence to see it through was truly rare. God bless you, Urv. A life so well lived.

From left, Gautam Raghavan, Urvashi Vaid, Aditi Hardikar. Photo: Aditi Hardikar via Twitter @gauragDC

Gautam Raghavan, a former Obama White House official and now with President Joe Biden, broadcast a series of Tweets about Vaid after her passing.

“In 2006, I was new to D.C. and even newer to LGBTQ movement politics. On a whim, I sent a cold email to Urvashi Vaid — the most prominent queer South Asian activist in America — asking for her advice. …  And she replied.”

“Over the years, we stayed close. I brought her to the White House and she brought me to Creating Change, proving that the best operatives know how to navigate and leverage dramatically different spaces. She taught me you can agree on goals while disagreeing on tactics,” Raghavan recounted.” Going on to say, “She introduced me to @alokvmenon @kateclinton and dozens of other powerful and provocative thinkers and organizers. She always took my call and never stopped inspiring me with her passion for justice and love for our community. What a life and legacy. She will be missed.”

Vaid was the aunt of activist and performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon. She is survived by Alok Vaid-Menon as well as her longtime partner, political humorist Kate Clinton.

A graduate of the prestigious Vassar College, Vaid did her J.D. from Northeastern University School of Law.

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