Visionary LGBTQ+ activist and attorney Urvashi Vaid, who worked tirelessly for what she called “real equality,” died in a New York City hospital on May 14, 2022. The cause was metastatic breast cancer, said her friend Amy Hoffman. She was 63.
At the War Conference of 200 gay leaders held in Warrenton, Va. in 1988, Vaid met the political comedian Kate Clinton. They became partners for life, splitting their time between New York City and Provincetown. “They loved and treasured their time in Provincetown,” said Debbie Nadolney, a close friend, recalling their spontaneous feminist reading sessions to appreciative passers-by in front of Spiritus Pizza.
Vaid was born in New Delhi, India on Oct. 8, 1958 to novelist, playwright, and critic Krishna Vaid and poet and painter Champa (Rani) Vaid. In 1966, the family emigrated to the U.S., where her father became a professor at the State University of New York in Potsdam.
As a child, Urvashi watched television news reports on the antiwar and civil rights movements with great interest, the Bay Area Reporter wrote. “I felt those were my people early on,” she told Queer Forty.
She graduated from Potsdam High School in 1975, started college at 16, and graduated from Vassar in 1979 with a degree in English and political science. Drawn to Boston, a hub of feminist activism at the time, she earned her juris doctor degree from Northeastern University Law School in 1983. In law school she met Richard Burns, now board chair of the American LGBTQ+ Museum, and began making regular visits to Provincetown.
Her first job was as a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, working on the HIV/AIDS crisis in prisons.
On March 29, 1990, as executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Vaid made national headlines by protesting President George H.W. Bush’s speech at an AIDS conference, criticizing Bush’s tepid response to the crisis and raising a sign that read: “Talk Is Cheap, AIDS Funding Is Not.”
This and her April 25, 1993 speech at the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights, solidified her in reputation as “the prophet in our movement,” according to Brian McNaught.
But Vaid did not just call for action; she was, said Burns, “an activist leader for queer liberation at the intersection of racial and reproductive justice.” As cofounder of the Donors of Color Network and participant in the National LGBTQ Anti-Poverty Network, the National LGBT/HIV Criminal Justice Working Group, and other organizations, she worked for “real equality,” which she defined as “full moral acceptance,” from many angles.
She also served on the political action boards of Planned Parenthood and the Civil Liberties Union, Burns said.
From 2001 to 2005 she served as deputy director of the Governance and Civil Society Unit of the Ford Foundation, then as executive director of the Arcus Foundation, a funding source for LGBTQ justice initiatives and for the conservation of great apes. Most recently she was president of the Vaid Group for the advancement of equity, justice, and inclusion.
She wrote for The Advocate and in 1996 published her groundbreaking book Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Lesbian and Gay Liberation, in which she made the case that tolerance is not enough. Real equality for all marginalized groups should be the goal, she argued. Virtual Equality won the Stonewall Book Award that year.
Her other books include Creating Change: Public Policy, Sexuality and Human Rights (2000), co-edited with John D’Emilio and William Turner, and Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics (2012).
In 2015, Harvard Law School presented Vaid with the Women Inspiring Change award for representing “the best of where the queer legal movement has been and where it might go next.”
On May 14, Rachel Maddow tweeted this tribute: “We should all be so lucky to have even 1 percent of the positive impact on the world that Urvashi Vaid did, and in a life cut short today. Vision, commitment, brilliance — yes, but her relentless persistence to see it through was truly rare.”
“She was a visionary,” said Nadolney. “She had a way of reading the world to see what was ahead, very loving and very fierce.”
Vaid used her formidable knowledge and organizing skills to serve Provincetown. She was instrumental in creating the Provincetown Commons, a collaborative workspace for artists and small businesses, with philanthropist Terrence Meck and a group of businesspeople.
“Working alongside Urvashi,” Meck said this week, “was a highlight of my adult life. Like everything she did throughout her life, she made every one of us better.”
In a “Stonewall Portraits” interview recorded on June 4, 2021, Vaid told Brian McNaught that she was dedicating her time to writing a book called Against Tradition, which would be an exploration of the ways in which tradition is in tension with social justice. She worked on that project even as she made regular trips to Boston for cancer treatment, with her Provincetown friends providing “an amazing support network,” said Hoffman.
Vaid also had “an incredible love of rock and roll and punk rock,” said Nadolney. “She was a huge fan of Patti Smith.” On Vaid’s 50th birthday, some of her Provincetown “rock and roll friends” gathered at the Cutting Room in New York, where Nadolney and her former bandmates celebrated Vaid with three Patti Smith songs.
Hoffman recalled “the beautiful and enormous Indian dinners that Urvashi loved to cook for her friends.” Those dinners were particularly welcome on New Year’s Day, when Vaid would organize a bonfire on the beach at Herring Cove to burn away the dross of the old year and celebrate the possibilities of the new.
Vaid is survived by her longtime partner, Kate Clinton of Provincetown and New York and her sisters Rachna Vaid of New York City and Jyotsna Vaid of College Station, Texas. She is the aunt of the writer and performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon, who in an Instagram post wrote, “She showed me queer life was possible … and beautiful.”
A memorial celebration is being planned for Vaid’s birthday on Oct. 8.