Awards of Courage
Honoring with Pride 2002 Honoree
Urvashi Vaid is an organizer and attorney whose work in social justice organizations spans more than 20 years. She is currently the Deputy Director of the Governance and Civil Society Unit of the Ford Foundation, where she manages the U.S. Civil Society program. From 1997 to 2001, she was Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) Policy Institute, a think tank dedicated to research and policy analysis on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) issues. Ms. Vaid also worked at NGLTF from 1986 to 1993, first as Public Information Director and then as Executive Director. She is a former staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) National Prison Project (1983-1986), where she initiated the organization’s advocacy on HIV/AIDS in prison.
Ms. Vaid is the author of Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation (Anchor, 1996), a political analysis of the gay and lesbian movement. She is co-editor, with historians John D’Emilio and Bill Turner, of an anthology on public policy history on GLBT issues titled Creating Change: Public Policy, Sexuality and Civil Rights (St. Martin’s, 2000). She serves on the National Board of the ACLU and is a founding member of New Yorkers Say No To War, a grassroots peace organization. Ms. Vaid is a longtime columnist for The Advocate, the national gay and lesbian news magazine, and has been a frequent lecturer on college campuses on the issues of social justice, civil rights, and GLBT equality.
Ms. Vaid is a graduate of Vassar College and Northeastern University School of Law. She lives with her partner, Kate Clinton.
Over the last two decades, you have been one of the leading voices in the gay and lesbian movement. Can you describe how you came to be involved in this work and describe what you consider to be some of the most important advances in the gay and lesbian movement?
I got involved because I was a politically progressive person and involved in women’s movement work as a college student in the mid- to late 70s. I also did work on the divestment movement to end apartheid in South Africa. Throughout this period I was unclear about my sexuality and I eventually came out late in my college term. The early political work that I had been doing drew me to gay and lesbian activism because I wanted to find out more about what was going on in the community when I got out of school. I then moved to Boston, a city with a reputation for both feminist activism and a thriving gay and lesbian community. I got involved in a whole range of grassroots organizations there. I went to law school and worked on a fabulous weekly newspaper called Gay Community News, a really progressive gay and lesbian weekly. After law school, I moved to Washington, D.C., to take a job with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, where I did one of the first surveys on prisoners with HIV. During this time, I was still involved in community activism at night. I then got involved with the National Gay Task Force and ended up working with the organization off and on from 1986 to 2001.
I think I’m one of those people for whom politics is a tremendously empowering and interesting process. I really don’t accept the injustices of the way things are, and I find political organizing and community political action a really satisfying process to be engaged in—it doesn’t discourage me, even when it looks totally bleak, and even when you lose. I get a lot of energy and hope from being involved. I think the worst thing I can imagine is just sitting on the sidelines. And I had the good fortune of participating in the gay and lesbian (and bisexual and transgender) movement, which emerged in the 80s and the 90s. I say ‘emerged’ because it has been great to see how tiny we were and how big we’ve become, to see how invisible we were then and how visible we are now. . . . Without question, what we have won is cultural visibility.
I think we also won more mundane things like political access, which we didn’t have as a community. We had no access to political leaders, community leaders, or civic institutions—we were just completely on the outside. But people persisted and I was one small person in this process. It’s an amazing thing to be part of a social justice movement and see it go from plots hatched by four people in a little room to real policy implementation, and thousands of people being able to live more fulfilled lives.
How has the epidemic changed the gay and lesbian community, either for the better or the worse?
I think the political focus on AIDS in the gay community has decreased and that worries me. I understand it; there are many issues facing gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people. But I think the GLBT voice on HIV is important to maintain because it affects our communities so deeply. And I think it’s important because we have some clout now that we can bring to the table—we have energy, money, and attention that we can bring to this epidemic.
Certainly the advent of antiretroviral drugs brought a measure of relief. . . . We were so hopeless back then about the possibility of surviving this thing. So for the ones who were on the verge and were brought back from the edge with the new treatments, there has been a kind of vindication of the aggressive strategies activists pursued in pushing for research on new drugs and faster approval processes. The bad news, of course, is that it was never a permanent solution. We will continue to experience setbacks and losses. Today there is a tremendous sense of hope, possibility, and future throughout GLBT communities all over this country, and I see that as a very positive sign. The downside is that there are a lot of people living with HIV/AIDS, and the infection is still sexually transmitted and still transmitted through blood. The problem is that people are forgetting, and the rise in new infections among young gay men is extremely depressing to me.
The fight against AIDS galvanized the gay and lesbian community to a certain extent. Can you shed some light on how the community was able to mobilize so quickly in the early days of the epidemic?
Even before AIDS came along, there were real crises in the community. Attacks against our civil rights were being launched, and there was an emerging conservative, anti-gay, religious right movement [in the 70s]. But the scale of community activity just exploded because of HIV/AIDS-related worries. It was [made up of] a lot of volunteers, people caring for their best friends and lovers. These relationships started the service networks, which became the AIDS service organizations. I remember screaming out one of ACT UP’s slogans, “We die, they do nothing,” in Washington at different buildings. But it was so hard to get a response from the people in those buildings. And we were trying to do that every day.
The mobilization of our community is remarkable, because people were deeply closeted and terrified of being out. To be connected with AIDS in the 80s was to be associated with homosexuality, if not to out yourself as a gay and lesbian person. It changed, and we consciously helped change it by “de-gaying” AIDS. We said AIDS is a health crisis; it’s not about sexuality. We used certain messages and lines in the 80s to try to invite heterosexual participation. And the good news is that AIDS became mainstreamed. People now go on AIDS fundraising walks just like they go on diabetes fundraising walks. It’s wonderful and very gratifying to see this. The downside though, from a gay community perspective, is that mobilization around AIDS has not continued at the same level, and we desperately need to address this issue in our community.
In Virtual Equality, you wrote, “Gay people do not fight for freedom to live in a lavender bubble, but in a more just society.” How do you see the gay and lesbian movement in relation to other social justice movements, especially HIV/AIDS advocacy?
I’ve clearly been one who has seen GLBT work as part of a broader social justice movement. I feel that we are trying to achieve a more just society for all people. We’re all about freedom, democratic participation, and fair treatment under the law, which so many different communities have been struggling to achieve. There’s this whole rich, undiscovered history of connection between the social justice movements—movements for economic, social, and racial justice—and GLBT organizations. And then there is this whole other history of gay and lesbian leadership in the environmental movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement, and the racial justice movements. Justice is not severable, and that’s where the link lies for me.
As the demographics of HIV/AIDS in this country have changed, do you think AIDS activism needs to redefine itself to effectively target those most at risk in this country, such as women, young people, and African Americans and Latinos?
I think there always has been and there continues to be leadership coming from affected communities. But the problem today is that the GLBT community-based organizations
have often been white, community-based organizations and come out of networks of white activists, donors, and leaders. Some have diversified and engaged in different strategies, and certainly their clients have changed. But I think there continues to be a lot of tension around race among groups working on HIV.
I think the challenge is that we have to continue to make systemic changes in health care access, delivery, and financing—all of the systems that inhibit poor people’s access to life-saving drugs. We need all classes and colors of people to be pushing for those reforms. And that’s what doesn’t exist today. We’ve got thousands of AIDS service organizations that are in many ways de-politicized. The paradox is that the organizations representing communities most affected have the most knowledge about what’s really going on, what’s needed, and how policy frameworks need to change. This knowledge needs to come back into the system and inform lawmakers and researchers, and I’m afraid that isn’t happening because service organizations are busy providing services and not seeing their roles as advocates and leaders in a policy sense.
Looking to the future, what would you ask of the gay and lesbian community with regard to the fight against AIDS? What kind of responsibilities does the community have in this battle?
I think the gay community has a continuing obligation to be a leader on this issue. We’ve lost too many, and we have too many lives at risk to this day. We’ve invested too much to walk away from this. So that means recommitting ourselves to the mission. It means pushing for systemic reform. Our first challenge is to continue to agitate, to use our political muscle. Our second challenge is to fight denial. I think it’s problematic that there have been some voices saying the epidemic is over. It’s not over. Our world governments are still devoting too few resources. Our own government isn’t stepping up in the global fight against AIDS. Drug companies could do a lot more.
There is also a message that I would make to the straight community. I fear that the obstacles to a full response to AIDS continue to be prejudice, racism, poverty, and the lack of a health care system that can adequately deal with poor people. I think all of us who are in elite and privileged positions (and I definitely include myself in that group) really have a responsibility to create a social structure that deals with poverty, one that meaningfully supports people who have less and spreads the resources that are so abundantly available. AIDS should not be seen in isolation. It’s part of a health care crisis. It’s part of a racial crisis. It’s part of a third world debt crisis. It’s part of a corporate greed crisis. If we look at it that way, whether you are gay or lesbian or straight, you realize it is not just a problem that existed in the 1980s.