There has never been a queer leader like Urvashi Vaid. Until her death of metastatic breast cancer on May 14 at age 63, she spent the better part of five decades fighting injustice.
At her passing, the LGBTQ community mourned—as did countless others dedicated to important fights for women’s and civil rights. We mourned not just because someone we respected or admired or even loved was gone. We also mourned because we knew that the causes we care so deeply about would suffer without her brilliant insight.
Urvashi and I first met in the early 1980s as activists and newly minted attorneys in Washington, D.C. Young and earnest in our lesbian feminism, we bonded around the fact that each of us, as a matter of principle, practiced non-monogamy. (This was a principle we each later abandoned after falling in love with the women who would become our life-long partners and, eventually, lawfully wedded wives—in Urvashi’s case, that was the phenomenal political humorist Kate Clinton, with whom she spent 34 years.) Our meeting was the beginning of a 40-year friendship that spanned multiple cities, organizations and professional relationships, all in service of making the world a better place, not just for LGBTQ people, but for everyone.
Urvashi developed her political instincts early. Born in New Delhi on Oct. 8, 1958, she was the youngest of three sisters. When she was 8, her family immigrated to the U.S.
A self-described nerd as a youngster, Urvashi avidly followed politics in the newspaper, demonstrating against the Vietnam War at age 11. By the time she entered Vassar College in 1975, she was developing her organizing skills. She cofounded the campus Feminist Union and became involved in anti-apartheid rallies and efforts pushing for divestment from South Africa.
Urvashi went on to receive her law degree from Northeastern University School of Law. She then moved to Washington, D.C., and was a staff lawyer for the ACLU’s National Prison Project. Her professional trajectory was forever changed in 1989 when she became the executive director of the pioneering National Gay and Lesbian Task Force—the first woman of color to lead a national LGBTQ organization. Principle drove Urvashi in almost everything she did. She exploded onto the scene with a dynamism that has never been equaled since.
After stepping down from the task force in 1992, Urvashi went on to do many things. She wrote books. She worked in philanthropy. She appeared in a documentary with icons like Gloria Steinem and bell hooks. She mentored countless other leaders. She founded her own consulting group. And unceasingly she organized for change.
What I will always admire is both her substance and her style. Urvashi was a pint-size powerhouse, a firebrand and a truth-teller. She was living and proselytizing about intersectionality before it had a name. One of my favorite Urvashi quotes was from a speech she gave at the National Lesbian Conference in Atlanta in 1991:
“The lesbian agenda is the reconstruction of families … the reimagining of power … the reorganization of the economic system … the reinforcement of civil rights and dignity for all people … the end of the oppression of women, the end of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia … the reestablishment of a proper relationship to our environment. … When I list this laundry list of oppression, it does not overwhelm me; it tells me how far I have to go in my struggle; it tells me who my allies are.”
She took this breadth of perspective everywhere she went. When the New York City Dyke March in 2011 was celebrating marriage victories, she carried a sign reminding everyone of all that remained on the agenda: ending violence against women and trans people, racial justice, immigrant rights, reproductive justice, ending corporate welfare. She concluded with the exhortation: “Let’s keep going!”
And then there was Urvashi’s joy, often expressed with reckless abandon. Her completely infectious laugh. Her passion. Her urgency. Her insistence that no cause should demand the denial of joy nor, as Emma Goldman said, the right to “freedom … to self-expression … to beautiful, radiant things.”
Urvashi Vaid wanted beautiful, radiant things for everyone. Indeed, she was one herself.