Ukraine. Uvalde. Monkey pox. What a year 2022 has been already, and it’s not even halfway over.
Is it really time for Pride? Before we start blowing up balloons and jacking up our hair with glittery AquaNet, let’s do our perfunctory annual history lesson to remind us why we celebrate.
The rebellion at New York City’s Stonewall Inn, which exploded June 28, 1969, is considered the event that kicked off Pride, that highest of gay holy days when LGBTQs claim and celebrate their power and right to be who we are and love who we love. It was that night that patrons of the seedy, Mafia-run dive bar fought back — hard — to reclaim their dignity and civil rights from police and society in general.
Fifty-three years later, as demonstrated by ongoing discrimination, homophobia and various state-sponsored “Don’t Say Gay” efforts, the fight continues.
It would be unthinkable to share this year’s Pride message without lowering our collective rainbow flags to half-mast to honor the life of one of our community’s giants.
On May 14, the powerhouse activist passed on to that great Pride Parade in the sky. In the battle for LGBTQ+ equality, Urvashi Vaid was a five-star general. It’s impossible to accurately chronicle the role she played, but here’s a taste:
She helmed leadership positions in the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prisons Project that addressed HIV/AIDS in prisons. She helmed National Gay Lesbian Task Force, orchestrated its policy think tank, and co-founded the annual Creating Change conference, now in its 33rd year.
She led the Ford, Arcus and Gill foundations. Beyond serving in these essential groups, Vaid also launched LPAC, which is considered to be 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.
Stepped up and lead, she did.
Urvashi eventually founded her own think tank, the Vaid Group, a consulting group that works to reduce structural inequalities and advance social, racial, gender and economic justice.
In her spare time (ha!), she authored the canonical Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation (1995) and Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics (2012). Her subsequent appearances on nationally televised talk shows consistently blew back the hair of anyone who tuned in.
The woman stayed busy, but she was also a woman of balance, as proven by her choice of partner and spouse — the equally brilliant mother-of-lesbian-comedy, Kate Clinton. The two met at a conference (of course) in 1988. A couple of decades ago I had the honor of being in the same room with them; the sheer power they radiated was palpable and not unlike the sensation of standing beside an open blast furnace (but in a good way).
Spiritually, Urvashi defined herself as “a HindJew.” I’m not sure if that particular melding of religious affiliations has its own set of pearly gates and angels playing harps. I prefer to think that Urvashi’s version of nirvana places her at the head of a heavenly march, protesting that all those she left behind receive the same access to healthcare, civil rights and safety regardless of gender, class, ethnicity, religion or sexuality.
Urvashi wasn’t at the Stonewall Rebellion that fiery summer in 1969. She was only ten years old at the time; she didn’t start her life of social activism until the next year at an antiwar protest, when she was 11.
“The gay rights movement is not a party,” she said in a speech at the 1993 LGBT March on Washington. “It is not a lifestyle. It is not a hairstyle. It is not a fad or a fringe or a sickness. It is not about sin or salvation. The gay rights movement is an integral part of the American promise of freedom.”
As we celebrate Pride this year, let’s please stop and remember that without Urvashi Vaid — and folks like her — we would have little to celebrate.
Rest in peace, General.