Urvashi Vaid, noted LGBTQ leader, dies

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Monday May 16, 2022
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LGBTQ leader Urvashi Vaid. Photo: Rex Wockner
LGBTQ leader Urvashi Vaid. Photo: Rex Wockner

Pioneering Indian American LGBTQ leader, attorney, and author Urvashi Vaid died May 14. She was 63.

Ms. Vaid was a cancer survivor. Kate Kendell, former executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Ms. Vaid's peer and friend, confirmed that recurring cancer was the cause of the activist's death.

A publicist for Ms. Vaid's partner of 33 years, the comedian Kate Clinton, told the Bay Area Reporter that Ms. Vaid died in a hospital. The National LGBTQ Task Force news release stated that she died at home.

After publication of this article online, the Task Force confirmed Ms. Vaid died in a New York hospital. The Task Force was aware that Ms. Vaid was at home earlier in the week and believed she died there. The Task Force was unaware that Ms. Vaid had been moved to the hospital.

Ms. Vaid was the first female executive director of the Task Force, formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The organization announced Ms. Vaid's passing.

Ms. Vaid led the national progressive LGBTQ rights group from 1989-1992. Prior to taking the helm of the organization she served as its media director, among other positions during her decade-long tenure there. She co-founded the Task Force's popular Creating Change conference, now in its 33rd year. She resigned from the Task Force in 1995.

"Urvashi was an uncommon intellect, a loyal and good friend, a fierce and uncompromising advocate, and a relentless activist for true justice for all," Kendell wrote in an email. Kendall is a close friend of lesbian comedian Kate Clinton, Ms. Vaid's life partner of 33 years who often performed at NCLR galas. "I feel such grief at her loss and such honor that I knew her. The world of what is possible feels more cramped at her passing. We've lost a giant."

Kendell currently is the chief of staff at the California Endowment.

Clinton did not respond to the B.A.R.'s request for comment.

Kierra Johnson, the current executive director at the Task Force, expressed sorrow at Ms. Vaid's passing.

"We are devastated at the loss of one of the most influential progressive activists of our time," Johnson stated. "Urvashi Vaid was a leader, a warrior, and a force to be reckoned with.

"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," continued Johnson, who credited Ms. Vaid's leadership, vision, and writing for helping to "shape not only the Task Force's values and work but our entire queer movement and the larger progressive movement.

"We will strive every day to live up to her ideals and model the courage she demonstrated every day as an activist and a person. She will be deeply missed. I miss her already," concluded Johnson.

Most recently, Ms. Vaid was instrumental in creating the American LGBTQ+ Museum, which will be housed at the New York Historical Society, and launched the National LGBTQ+ Women's Community Survey earlier this year.

"Urvashi had a vision for what our world and our lives should be — free, proud, and full of joy and love. She wasn't afraid to demand the change that is required and she has inspired generations of rising activists to lead with generosity and integrity," said Richard Burns, chair of the museum's board, recalling his close friend and colleague in a May 14 news release from the organization.

Her life

Throughout her life, Ms. Vaid championed issues related to equity and social justice.

Born in New Delhi, India, on October 8, 1958, Ms. Vaid's family immigrated to the United States in 1966 when she was 7 years old. Her family settled in upstate New York where her father, a novelist, taught English literature at the State University of New York, Potsdam, and her mother, a poet, also taught school.

Ms. Vaid told Queer Forty that she watched the news that reported on the movements of the day regularly. "I felt like those were my people early on," she told the magazine about connecting with the anti-war and the civil rights movements through the TV screen.

She was 10 years old when the Stonewall riots happened in 1969, she wrote in the preface of her award-winning 1995 book, "Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation." The book was part memoir, part political manifesto, and part call to action for a real civil rights movement rather than "conditional equality" under the guise of acceptance.

Her vision for "actual justice" had not wavered in the 27 years since she formed her criticism of "mainstreaming" the LGBTQ community and the push for equality.

"Equality is like a precondition to actual justice," she told Queer Forty, explaining that equality is "not the end goal," calling it "a step" on the path toward creating "maximum freedom for the maximum number of people."

Ms. Vaid followed her groundbreaking book with "Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics" (2012) and she co-edited an anthology with John D'Emilio and William Turner, titled "Creating Change: Public Policy, Sexuality and Civil Rights" (2000). She also was a columnist for the Advocate magazine and wrote many articles and essays over the years.

Ms. Vaid delivered her first political speech in junior high school. By the time she graduated high school, she was already an anti-war, civil rights, and feminist activist. She honed her community organizing skills at Vassar College and came out by the time she graduated. She earned her law degree at Northeastern University School of Law.

After graduation, she launched her career as a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. It was there where she initiated the project's work on HIV and AIDS in prisons, reported the Advocate.


One of Ms. Vaid's most memorable moments of activism was when she disrupted a news conference at former President George H.W. Bush's 1990 address on the AIDS crisis, holding a sign, "Talk Is Cheap, AIDS Funding is Not."

Her critique made waves and shed light on the failures of the Bush administration, according to the Task Force release.

"Equality is a fine aspiration. It's simply not enough," she wrote in a 2014 piece on liberation. And it is the politics of liberation that shaped her career and informed her vision for the world. Ms. Vaid's vision and passion for defending and promoting civil rights for the LGBTQ+ community led to a lifetime of changemaking, according to the release.

Ms. Vaid went on to found, co-found, lead, and serve on the boards of other organizations and political action groups.

According to Ms. Vaid's biography on her website, she was the executive director of the Arcus Foundation, a global LGBTQ social justice funder, from 2005 to 2010 and served on its board. While at Arcus, she also led its great ape conservation program. She was deputy director of the Ford Foundation's Governance and Civil Society Unit from 2001 to 2005.

She co-founded the Donors of Color Network, the first cross-racial network connecting individuals of color to leverage their giving for racial equity. She also co-founded the National LGBTQ Anti-Poverty Action Network at NCLR, the National LGBT/HIV Criminal Justice Working Group, the Equality Federation, and the National Religious Leadership Roundtable.

Ms. Vaid also served on the board of the Gill Foundation from 2004 to 2014. In 2012, she launched LPAC, the first lesbian political action committee. LPAC has since invested millions of dollars in queer and progressive women candidates for political office who are committed to social justice through legislation.

Ms. Vaid also served as a senior fellow and director of the Engaging Tradition Project at Columbia Law School's Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. Prior to that, she was a senior fellow at the Social Justice Sexuality Project at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, according to her biography.

Most recently, Ms. Vaid was president of the Vaid Group, a strategic and social justice consultancy firm where she advised, mentored, and supported the LGBTQ+ movement.


An outpouring of condolences began to swell on social media from LGBTQ activists who had been touched by working with Ms. Vaid as the news of her death spread.

LGBTQ South Asian activists expressed the loss of one of their own.

Neena Hemady, co-founder of Khuli Zaban ("open tongue"), a Chicago-based South Asian queer women's group that operated from 1995-2002, according to the South Asian American Digital Archives, was inspired by Ms. Vaid. "Urv was the fire and the brains and the heart behind countless things," Hemady wrote, recalling their argument about identity politics versus true equality, which they opposed at the time.

"Decades later, I understand how right she was," Hemady wrote. "Today, our community has lost a giant. She made us so, so much better."

Sandip Roy, author, podcaster, and former editor of Trikone magazine, the publication produced by the LGBTQ South Asian organization Trikone founded in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1986, recalled Ms. Vaid's constant giving of herself to other activists.

"Even with her immensely busy schedule as head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Urvashi Vaid was always so generous with her time and unstinting in her support for the fledgling South Asian LGBTQ+ movement in the USA," Roy wrote in a statement to the B.A.R.

He wrote about the influence Ms. Vaid had on other South Asian LGBTQ people in the United States and in India.

"At a time when South Asian queers were hardly visible even in bars and clubs, seeing someone like her in the forefront of the American LGBTQ+ movement, challenging President Bush on AIDS and writing about virtual equality was truly inspiring," he wrote. "It gave many of us the confidence to be both South Asian and queer at the same time without apology."

Ms. Vaid was the keynote speaker at the organization's first conference, Pride Utsav, the precursor to DesiQ, in 1995. She was honored with the organization's inaugural Pink Peacock Award that year, Roy wrote.

"In 2006 when Trikone turned 20, we asked her for her thoughts. As always, she replied promptly and one line feels prophetic now, 'The right-wing in America would not be as powerful as it is today if moderates and liberals took LGBT people or the centrality of racial justice more seriously.'"

Kenrick Ross, executive director of the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, wrote in a statement to the B.A.R. that the movement has lost a champion.

"Urvashi Vaid meant something more, deeper, and more intimate, and for me, as a South Asian leader, when I felt so invisible in the LGBTQ community, Urvashi's leadership said, 'Yes, we are here, and yes, we can lead,'" he stated.

In addition to Clinton, Ms. Vaid was an aunt to Alok Vaid-Menon, an activist and performance artist who identifies as nonbinary.

Kendell said a public memorial honoring Ms. Vaid's life will be held on her birthday, October 8.

Updated, 5/16/22: This article has been updated to indicate Ms. Vaid died at a hospital.

Updated, 5/18/22: This article has been updated with additional information on the location of Ms.Vaid's death from the National LGBTQ Task Force.

Updated, 5/19/22: This article has been updated to correct that one of Ms. Vaid's survivors identifies as nonbinary.

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