Remembering Urvashi Vaid, an LGBTQ activist who spent decades fighting for equality
Tributes are pouring in this week for Urvashi Vaid, an influential and beloved activist who fought for LGBTQ rights and other progressive social causes for more than four decades.
The author and attorney died at age 63 of cancer on Friday at her home in New York City. Her death was announced by organizations like the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the National LGBTQ Task Force, which she led at the height of the AIDS crisis.
Kierra Johnson, the current executive director of the task force, called her “one of the most influential progressive activists of our time.”
“Urvashi Vaid was a leader, a warrior and a force to be reckoned with,” said Johnson. “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.”
Vaid began her career as a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, before going on to hold a variety of positions in advocacy groups, academic institutions and philanthropic foundations.
She advocated extensively for LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, anti-war efforts, immigration justice and health care justice, among other social causes. She published numerous columns, reports and books including Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation, which won the Stonewall Book Award in 1996.
Vaid was also a vocal critic of President George H.W. Bush’s handling of the AIDS crisis. In 1990, during her time as executive director of what was then called the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, she disrupted the president’s address on AIDS by holding up a sign reading “Talk is cheap, AIDS funding is not.”
Vaid reflected on that era in an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered after Bush’s death in 2018, in which she criticized his administration for its silence on AIDS and disparagement of gay people – and credited activists for pressuring him to take the actions he did, like signing the Ryan White CARE Act.
“The fact is that we were doing our best and hardest work in our community to build social services, to fight discrimination,” she said. “People were being rejected at hospitals. People were being turned away from mortuaries. We were dealing with that while dealing with loss. So I think what could have been done was done because of the activism. And more could have been done had the White House not been, frankly, bad on issues affecting LGBT people because they had bias.”
She made a career of fighting for equality
Vaid was born in New Delhi, India, and moved with her family to Potsdam, New York, in 1966 after her father got a teaching position at the state university there. She traced her interest in politics to an antiwar protest she attended at age 11, according to the nonprofit Women’s Media Center.
She attended Vassar College, where The New York Times reports that she was drawn to liberation movements in developing countries and joined the campaign pushing the school to divest from South Africa.
While a law student at Northeastern University, she worked off-campus at the weekly newspaper Gay Community News, founded the Boston Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance and helped persuade the university to add sexual identity to its nondiscrimination policy.
From 1983 to 1986 Vaid worked as a staff attorney for the National Prisons Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, litigating class action lawsuits that challenged prison conditions and spearheading the group’s work on HIV/AIDS in prisons.
Then she joined the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, serving first as its media director before becoming its executive director. It was there that she co-founded the annual Creating Change conference, which the group says is now in its 33rd year. Vaid left the task force in 1992 to focus on writing and organizing, but later returned to run its think tank, the Policy Institute.
In 2005, she became the executive director of the Arcus Foundation, a grant-making foundation focusing on issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity and race. She also held positions on boards at the Ford Foundation and the Gill Foundation, and helped create the ongoing National LGBTQ women’s community survey.
Vaid launched LPAC, which is referred to as the first lesbian Super Pac, in 2012.
“I’m involved in starting LPAC because I want to create a fresh politics, one in which the lives of ordinary working women and men, LGBT people and people of color matter, and because I believe lesbians must step up and lead in solving our country’s challenges,” she said at the time, according to a Twitter tribute from the group.
She also founded and served as president of the Vaid Group, a consulting group that works to reduce structural inequalities and advance social, racial, gender and economic justice.
Her body of work was recognized on a national scale, as Women’s Media Center notes. She was The Advocate‘s Woman of the Year in 1991, one of Time‘s 50 key leaders under 40 in 1994 and appeared on Out magazine’s list of the 50 most influential men and women in America in 2009.
Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at Yale who was involved in the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, tweeted “You cannot talk about LGBTQ rights in America without [Vaid],” adding that “we owe her everything.”
Her passion and purpose inspired others
Vaid is survived by her longtime partner, political humorist Kate Clinton. As news of her passing spread, a growing number of her friends, colleagues and admirers offered tributes on social media.
Many remembered Vaid’s tireless passion for her work and pledged to continue her legacy.
“Urvashi was a visionary, and a veritable idea machine,” said Dr. Sean Cahill, director of health policy research at the Fenway Institute, who worked with Vaid at the Policy Institute. “In meetings, she would come up with several brilliant ideas; we would struggle to get them all down on paper and then try to implement some of them.”
He expressed his gratitude for having been able to work with Vaid and learn from her “strategic brilliance, warmth and optimism,” adding that he feels those qualities “are needed now more than ever.”
Fenway Health CEO Ellen LaPointe shared in a statement that she was inspired by Vaid’s “profound eloquence, her fierceness and passion, her capacity to lead, and by her warm and beautiful heart,” and that the best way to honor her legacy is to continue the work that she started.
“She consistently centered the interwoven intersectionalities that are inherent in our fight for equality,” she added. “She was relentless, and she urged us not to compromise. And she helped us understand that we all have a role to play in our shared struggle.”
Others praised the value not only of Vaid’s community organizing, but personal friendship.
Tennis legend and activist Billie Jean King described Vaid as a dear friend, fondly recalling their dinners, gatherings, conversations and walks in Provincetown. She vowed to continue fighting for humanity and justice on Vaid’s behalf.
“She was a force for good, never taking her eye off fighting for meaningful change as an activist for the LGBTQ+ community,” King wrote. “Her passion and purpose every day was so inspiring.”
Los Angeles LGBT Center CEO Lorri L. Jean met Vaid when the two were young attorneys and lesbian activists in Boston in the early 1980s. Over the years, she said, they spent many hours “laughing and scheming about ways to advance the causes we cared so deeply about.”
“Urvashi was a visionary,” she said. “But she was so much more: brilliant, hilarious, charismatic, loving, determined and, above all, courageous. She made life better for all of us … If there’s a heaven, Urv is already organizing the angels.”
Author Mark Harris shared a lengthy tribute to his friend and role model on Twitter, in which he detailed her accomplishments as a savvy strategist, hard worker, community builder and patient changemaker. She was a leader in boardrooms, at rallies and even on Zoom, he said, adding that she could be as persuasive to a group of billionaires as the bystanders she often stopped to talk to on the street.
“She was so magnetic she was reproductive; I used to joke with her that seeing people coalesce around her was like watching lesbian cell division in action,” he wrote.
Vaid loved cooking, laughing, bonfires at the beach and dancing, he said (King made a similar observation). She was a fan of comedian Hannah Gadsby and TV shows from the comedy Schitt’s Creek to the drama Yellowstone. And while she was angry about the state of the country, Harris said, she set goals, enlisted allies and didn’t plan to stop fighting “until her body forced her to.”
“She believed to her marrow in social justice and the eradication of structural inequality, and she fought for LGBT people as if every one of us were a cherished friend while reminding us that our aspirations should be larger than mere personal gains,” he wrote, adding, “I loved her, and I learned from her, and I miss her already.”