Veteran activist Urvashi Vaid explores that question at a Rice-sponsored lecture in February.
by Brandon Wolf
In a stunning turn of events for marriage equality in 2014, 35 states now have legalized same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court let stand decisions by several U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal to invalidate state marriage bans in their circuits. This effectively voided the bans of all states within those circuits.
Only four of the 11 federal circuits still have bans in effect, and one of them recently decided in favor of marriage bans. When all federal circuit courts do not agree on an issue, the Supreme Court becomes the arbiter. Thus the issue may be on the Supreme Court’s 2015 list of cases it will hear. Given the current tenor of the Supreme Court, it is highly likely that they would vote 5–4 against marriage bans. This would finally open up all 50 states to marriage equality.
It’s a heady time these days for a community that has been fighting for their rights since the early 1950s. It’s taken 65 years of activism to win what seems like the final prize. Understandably, the question in many minds is, “What next?” It’s also understandable that for some members of the community, this is game point. What could possibly be left to fight for? The revolution has come to a successful completion, hasn’t it?
A Gifted LGBT Leader and Thinker Speaks to the Issue
On February 5, Urvashi Vaid visits Houston to present “A Critical Look at the LGBT Movement,” as part of Rice University’s Gray/Wawro Lecture Series. This distinguished series is facilitated by Rice’s Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality.
Vaid is a community organizer, writer, and attorney who has been a leader in the LGBT and social justice movements for over three decades. She has written three books, and is considered one of today’s great thinkers within the LGBT community.
Some of what Vaid will say can be derived from her 2012 book Irresistible Revolution, a collection of nine essays. Many of them are speeches she has given over the years.
But there were only eight states with marriage equality when she wrote the book, and Barack Obama had not yet been re-elected to a second term. Her speech will no doubt reflect the changes since the publication of that book.
Gay Activism 3.0
Vaid is pleased with the success of marriage equality, but for her it’s far from the final chapter. It’s another beginning—a time for re-invention. Marriage equality is a noble goal, and probably a necessary one, but Vaid believes it was achieved by ignoring large segments of the national LGBT community in the short term—both the people themselves and their issues.
Persons attending her lecture should plan to bring a notebook and pen, because she will not be handing out wreaths of valor for the success of marriage equality efforts. Instead, she will be explaining what needs to done now, why it needs to be done, and how it can be achieved. Vaid thinks far outside the box—a box many people may not have even realized exists.
Certain themes run through each essay of her book, and after finishing it, you pretty well have the mantra: racial equality, economic equality, gender equality, coalition building, and re-inventing our national organizations.
Making Revolution Irresistible
“The responsibility of a writer representing an oppressed people is to make revolution irresistible,” Vaid writes, quoting Toni Cade Bambera. Vaid believes that what has long made the LGBT movement “irresistible” was its honesty. “Truth may be unpleasant, unpopular, and sometimes unbearable to speak, but its power is undeniable,” she writes.
“The fact that we have come out of the closet is the truth that has made us successful,” she noted in a recent interview with OutSmart magazine. “We have exposed reality and provided evidence. We have shown the nation a wide range of sexual orientation and gender identity—and the many different types of people within our community.”
But Vaid feels great concern that today’s LGBT movement is run by mostly white, mostly male, mostly affluent board members and CEOs. There is little involvement with the broader community to set an agenda. Instead, an agenda is set by an elite group and then told to the rest of us. “It’s the national organizations’ dirty little secret.” She believes it’s time to change this.
No Queer Left Behind
What would a re-invented movement look like? Vaid envisions organizations that include racial equality, gender equality, and economic equality in their mission statements, and in their staffing structures.
She evaluates today’s national organizations: “We assure the wealthy and powerful that our admission to their club will not rock their privileges or their worldview; we demur that we are just like them, that we believe in what they believe. We are asked to prove our loyalty, and our adherence to their elitist values, by being willing to sacrifice part of our own souls, and our own people, in order to win short-term battles.”
This has resulted in a leadership nearly devoid of diversity. Vaid experienced first-hand what she relates in her book. Because she had dark-brown skin, she had to organize a mail and phone campaign in order to win the position of executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force.
It has also resulted in economic realities going unaddressed for a large segment of the community. The priorities of an organization are set by their board, and none of the major organizations have either racial, gender, economic, or social justice in their mission statements. Vaid is especially concerned about the lack of strong support for the transgender community and for homeless LGBT teens—a result of weak mission statements.
Vaid also believes that coalition building—like that of the early days of gay activism—is essential to our success. The national organizations need to take stands on issues of the day and actively link arms with others who are fighting for social justice—for example, timely issues such as immigration reform, minimum-wage increases, police brutality against the black community, and sexual assault of both women and men in the military.
We cannot expect support from others if we do not offer it to them. She rejects the current attitude that “it’s not our issue.” A movement in a vacuum does not gain sufficient momentum.
“An LGBT movement focused on more substantive notions of equality would fight for the broadest and most inclusive possible parameters of the issues on which it campaigns, and not the narrowest or safest,” Vaid says. She feels we should commit ourselves to the principle of “No Queer Left Behind.” For Vaid, “the movement is not ‘over’ until the weakest among us has seen the benefits of freedom.”
Out of India
In 1958, Vaid was born in New Delhi, India, and emigrated to the United States with her parents at the age of eight. An exceptional student, she won a full four-year scholarship to Vassar College. She went on to earn a J.D. at Northeastern University School of Law.
Vaid worked with the ACLU’s Prison Project as a staff attorney from 1983 to 1986. She was the public information officer for the Task Force from 1986 to 1989, and then moved into the position of executive director of the Task Force from 1989 to 1992. She returned in 1997 for four years as the director of their Policy Institute.
The next four years were spent at the Ford Foundation, followed by five years at the Arcus Foundation. Vaid is now director of the Engaging Tradition Project sponsored by the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School. She lives in New York City with her partner of 26 years, the comedian Kate Clinton.
Learning to Live Boldly
Vaid sees activism as “an act of faith.” She ponders the bravery of the community’s early leaders such as Harry Hay, Del Lyon, Phyllis Martin, Barbara Gittings, and Frank Kameny, who were all living in a world where homosexuality was considered sick, criminal, sinful, and immoral.
Activists need a vision, and then the courage to act on that vision. Vaid knows about courage in the face of oppression. In 1990, the Task Force was involved with the HIV epidemic that had already raged for a decade in the community, and was only getting worse.
Vaid was invited to attend what would be President George H. Bush’s first and only AIDS policy speech, at the National Community AIDS Partnership meeting on March 29, 1990. The president was talking about funding for babies with AIDS when Vaid quietly opened her briefcase and took out a folded-up sign.
She stood up, faced the president holding the now-unfolded sign that said Talk Is Cheap/AIDS Funding Is Not on one side and Remember Gay People With AIDS on the other. She interrupted him, in tandem with an ACT-UP member in the back of the room, and told him that he wasn’t doing enough. A security guard told her to sit down and remain quiet, or she would be ejected from the meeting. Once the guard left, she stood up and addressed the president again. The next day, she was front-page news in the Houston Chronicle and other media around the globe.
Looking back, she admits her heart was beating fast. “I was scared,” Vaid says. “But I knew what I was doing was right.” Her action had even more effect because she was scheduled to be part of a panel discussion at the meeting. Behind the table tent bearing her name was an empty chair. Time and again, organizers would look toward the empty chair and say, “Urvashi could have answered that question if she were here now.”
Vaid believes that although marriage equality brings with it legal rights, it does not give our community “moral equality.” We are no longer considered “mentally ill,” thanks to the 1973 American Psychiatric Association’s reclassification of homosexuality. Lawrence v. Texas removed criminal penalties in 2003. And a vigorous fight is now under way in almost every faith tradition challenging the demonization of the LGBT community.
“But full human rights is both legal and cultural change,” Vaid says. She feels that we must continue to contest the denigration of our lives by religious leaders who feel they are the sole arbiters of great moral codes. She echoes the words of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, delivered in an address to the United Nations, that “punishment of homosexuals is not cultural—it’s criminal.” LGBT equality must be seen as an issue of basic human rights.
“Morality is about ethical choices,” Vaid says. “The morality we need at this crucial time is not the ‘faith of our fathers’ nor the ‘traditional values’ of our mothers. It will not be found in the exclusionary forms of fundamentalist religions dividing the world today, even when it is disguised in the rhetoric of community and love. The moral values we need today can be found emerging from people who are creating movements for social justice around the world. These movements put their faith in imagination, not tradition.”
Know Your Enemy
Vaid has been involved as a careful observer of U.S. politics and the LGBT community’s struggle for more than three decades, and she understands our enemies. “The vision of the right,” she says, is “a national identity erased of color or class or gender or religious plurality. They want to ‘take this country back’ to pre-Civil War times, and they banally invoke ‘doing good’ while acting really badly against anyone defined outside of the Christian nation.
“Progressives seem unable to face and answer the worries and anxieties of the rank-and-file followers of the right. To defeat the right culturally and politically, we have to offer a new and inviting vision.”
Vaid sees the movement at a crossroads: “Down one road lies the pursuit of narrow self-interest, single identity, and the old paradigm of LGBT politics as we have been practicing it for the past three decades. Down the other road lies the pursuit of a just society. Both roads are legitimate, but they do represent a clear choice in tactics and strategy and goals.
“Standing against us on either side of the road is the same enemy: the theocratic right and supremacists of all kinds—racial, sexual, gender, religious—as well as powerful forces that place profit above human lives. Against these opponents,” she continues, “a politics of co-optation, adaptation, and friendship is not plausible. We need a practical politics of cultural engagement and resistance. We need to commit an act of faith.”
Vaid says that she looks forward to a political realization for the queer movement that does not limit itself to the status quo. She hopes to see “an emerging wave of liberation that is a multi-faceted movement, whose dominant symbol is not an ‘equal’ sign, but perhaps the ‘greater than’ sign, suggesting that we can be greater than the limits of the world in which we find ourselves.”
Vaid’s lecture will be presented on February 5, 6–7:30 p.m., in the sanctuary of Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, 2025 West 11th Street, Houston, Texas 77008. Free and open to the public. A reception follows the lecture.
Brandon Wolf also writes about Andy Mills in this issue of OutSmart magazine.