Urvashi Vaid's Irresistible Revolution
The activist on her new book and diversifying LGBT politics.
“I’m such a nerd, and I’m proud of it,” says Urvashi Vaid, laughing. The title of her new book, Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics, sounds a little nerdy. And if “nerd” can be defined as “intellectual political activist and theorist,” then nerd she is. Move past the intense title of Irresistible Revolution and into the table of contents, however, and you’ll see that her nerdiness is synonymous with passion: a passion for justice, equality, inclusion, change.
“It’s a very optimistic and practical book,” she says. What Vaid wants does seem practical enough: for LGBT people to have a place at the table. A political animal, she has spent her life working to get women and queers into seats of power. But she also wants more—hence that subtitle. As Vaid sees it, the LGBT movement is at a crossroads. Her biggest fear is that LGBT activists will see the recent gains in the fight for marriage equality as a reason to slack off and lose ground, the way the feminist movement did after Roe v. Wade became law. “One of the worries that underlies my book is a movement that demobilizes because it wins marriage equality,” she asserts. “I get energized by the wins, but I also get energized by the losses.”
Born in New Delhi, Vaid came to the U.S. at age 8. By the time she was 11, she was involved in anti–Vietnam War politics. As a student at Vassar College, her politics became infused with feminism, and as a law student at Northeastern University, she founded the Boston Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance in 1983. Six years later, at the age of 31, she was hired as the executive director of the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, then the most powerful queer political action group in the country.
Fast-forward to 2013 and Vaid is still on the same mission: to mainstream queers into political power. But she is also on a new mission: to make sure we broaden our movement—be more inclusive with regard to race, class, and gender.
If it sounds heady, it is. But Vaid is a big-picture woman: focused, dynamic, and incredibly driven. When she talks about creating change, the passion comes through in her voice. She really wants people to get it. And while she knows changing the world takes time, you can hear the urgency in her tone. She doesn’t want moments like the post–2012 election season to pass without maximizing our political gains, but she doesn’t want LGBT people to relax either, hearing only “a triumphalist message, because the job isn’t done, the win hasn’t been achieved.”
Vaid explains that the gains made in the 2012 elections—marriage equality voted in for the first time in history, the first lesbian elected to the Senate, and a host of other local LGBT wins—were the result of “coalition politics.” It’s one of the messages she touts in her new book, a message she has been promoting for years in speeches around the country.
She gives as an example the passage of the marriage equality referendum in Maryland. “We won in Maryland because we forged a coalition—black churches, the NAACP, the governor, who was on our side. Allies are the big lesson of this election.”
Allies are what Vaid wants us to cultivate. As the Republican Party discovered in the 2012 election, voter demographics have shifted. But Vaid knows we can’t just presume that other minorities will be on our side.
“This 2012 election was won by a coalition of people,” Vaid asserts. “Years ago, when we used to talk about this coalition of our people, we were in a very different place.”
She goes on to explain that the 2012 election season was harsh, with the Right doing everything possible to attack the very coalition she’s talking about—not just queers, but poor people, people of color, immigrants, and, of course, women.
“We have been on the receiving end of a really vicious movement against us. This election had its roots in what Jesse Jackson was doing in 1984—that rainbow coalition.”
When Vaid talks about building coalitions, forging alliances, and making the changes that will impact each person in the LGBT community, she’s talking about her own history as much as she is the future of LGBT politics.
“What can I say? I write in the book about how many times I have been the only woman of color in the room—or even the only woman,” she says, a hint of pain in her voice. “I wanted to make explicit [in the book] the limits of the LGBT movement and the assumptions that we operate the movement under—that everyone is white, everyone is middle class.”
That’s not a perception LGBT people can work with anymore, Vaid says. We need a more “values-based” perspective, she says; as a community, we need to recognize that some of us are poor, are immigrants (not necessarily documented), are on Social Security, SSI, disability, even welfare—and so, issues related to the fiscal cliff and entitlements cuts impact us all. Because our movement really does encompass everyone—people of every race, ethnicity, gender, age, ability.
Vaid has always been invested in politics as a means of achieving equity. Now she’s started her own lesbian political action committee, the Lesbian Super PAC (check out teamlpac.com).
“I conceived and launched a lesbian super PAC to achieve the balance I’m talking about,” she says. “It’s a values-based PAC that is pro–social justice. In just six months we were able to raise $750,000.” Vaid adds that she wants to “use technology to encourage lesbians and people of color” to engage in the political process and adds that LPAC is dedicated to “supporting progressive candidates at every level,” with coalition building in mind. Vaid also wants to shake things up.
“Lesbians are much more mobilized around lifestyle things—social experiences like the Dinah Shore, or the Final Four, or cruises, or parties. I love those things. I’m a big sports nut. But the primary gatherings of lesbians have become lifestyle things and not political gatherings. Why can’t we have both? Someone has to make demands on our politicians. We need to be campaigning for pay equity, addressing the high levels of cancer among lesbians, queer kids going to school without debt—there are so many issues. If I could get just 10 percent of these women....”
Vaid underscores a point she makes in her book—that “feminism has to be reintegrated into the LGBT movement.” Not just for lesbians, but for everyone. She also notes, “Lesbians have lots of oomph to put in there in the women’s movement, but we aren’t really asserting ourselves.”
Vaid is well aware of the reality that “we are still a volunteer-reliant movement”—and she knows that she has to reach a new generation of lesbians. She also recognizes that “we’re a young movement—I see how far we’ve come.” But her focus is now on where we have yet to go, which is why she’s promoting the book as well as LPAC.
“The visibility of the queer movement makes more and more queers want to get involved,” she explains. “It sounds so basic, but the way we are able to be a vigorous queer movement is by being visible.”
Vaid may live and breathe politics, but her 25-year relationship with lesbian comedian and social satirist Kate Clinton also sustains her. Vaid’s fiery voice takes on a wholly different pitch when she talks about Clinton—it softens. She’s no longer a woman fighting on the front lines, but a woman in love.
“I’m still crazy about her,” she says simply. “She’s really wonderful. She’s really different from me. She can’t stand process. She’s such a smart observer of manners and trends and politics. I actually enjoy how she sees the world. I’m quite literal and lawyerly about how I see the world. That kind of engagement keeps us happy. I’m happy.”
The long-term relationship grounds both of them, says Vaid.
“We communicate. We support each other. I feel so much support from Kate about the political work I do. I guess I think that all relationships are so complex. We try to simplify them, but they are work. As Kate says, ‘We’ve been together 25 years, but some afternoons are 25 years long.’ ”
What Vaid says about her relationship with Clinton applies equally to her relationship with the LGBT civil rights movement she’s devoting her life to. “Commitment is at the root of it,” she asserts. “It’s just all about commitment.”