Urvashi Vaid and the Irresistible Revolution

The contradiction between increased equal rights under the law and increased inequality in the economic realm means that many members of the LGBT community are left out of the supposed progress being made by the movement.

Susan Allee (left) and Urvashi Vaid (right) joyfully celebrate a big victory for marriage equality at the New York City Dyke March in 2011.

by Terry Messman

In her book, Irresistible Revolution, Urvashi Vaid, a community organizer and attorney who has been a leading activist in the LGBT movement for 30 years, writes that, in the present moment, “a dizzying array of events seem to suggest that the ultimate victory of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement is not only inevitable, but also irresistible.”

For decades, the notion of achieving full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in America has seemed more like an impossible dream than an irresistible revolution. Yet, in her interview with Street Spirit, Vaid marshals impressive evidence that the growing movement for liberation and equal rights for the LGBT community may indeed be gathering irresistible momentum.

Urvashi Vaid describes several recent, unprecedented victories on the road to liberation and equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

In a landmark decision on June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act which had blocked federal recognition of gay marriage and denied federal benefits to gay couples; and in a second case, the court allowed same-sex marriages to resume in California by letting stand a lower court’s ruling against Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot initiative that banned gay marriages in the state.

The tides are turning and the times are changing — and Vaid seems to have captured the spirit of the age in describing this as an irresistible revolution. At present, some 21 states have passed non-discrimination laws to protect the legal rights of the LGBT community, and 14 states now have marriage equality laws.

These major legal victories are the most visible signs of a new dawn for equality, and dozens of smaller, yet still significant breakthroughs for the human rights of the LGBT community are occurring with increasing frequency.

Vaid writes, “This is a uniquely gratifying and exciting moment in which to be part of the LGBT movement.”

Although she describes herself as an optimist who carries out her activism buoyed up by her faith that justice can be won even against high odds, Vaid has lived through prolonged periods of social intolerance when oppressive laws and cruel bigotry seemingly had cast a permanent shadow on the aspirations of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Her activism began during the dawn of the modern gay liberation movement in the early 1970s. Along with thousands of other determined and principled activists, she has steadfastly championed the legal rights and human dignity of a persecuted and vilified LGBT community, in good times and bad.

Vaid was the media director and then the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force for many years. She was a staff attorney for the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and initiated the ACLU’s work on AIDS in prisons. Currently, she is the director of the Engaging Tradition Project at Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law.

Springtime of Hope or the Winter of Despair

The present moment seems to herald a springtime of hope for the LGBT movement, a new era when increasing victories will be won in the courts, in the legislatures, and in public acceptance of the human rights of LGBT people.

Yet the springtime of hope often is only a day away from the winter of despair.

Vaid quotes the opening words in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Vaid believes in the spring of hope and an irresistible social revolution that will usher in true liberation for the LGBT community. In her interview with Street Spirit, she said, “I am an optimist and I believe that the arc of history bends towards justice, as Dr. King said.”

But she also is sensitive to the approach of winter, a season that can unexpectedly freeze the momentum of an irresistible revolution.

“There are large parts of this country that do not have any laws protecting gay people from discrimination,” Vaid said. “The South doesn’t, and many states in the Midwest do not have statewide laws banning discrimination.

“And the federal government has not passed a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. So even though we’re talking in this interview about how much has changed, it’s really important to remember that there is a long way to go before you can be openly gay and comfortably gay in all parts of your life and in all parts of this country.”

In mid-October, the extent of the malice and intolerance still directed against gay people by the right wing became clear when Tea Party leader Rick Scarborough advocated a class action lawsuit against homosexuality as a way for punishing gay people for the HIV virus and AIDS.

Scarborough unleashed his blame-the-victim bigotry in a conversation with Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality. LaBarbera agreed that he would “love to see” such a class action lawsuit, and said that he had dreamed of finding a young person afflicted with HIV that could be the poster child in their lawsuit.

“We always wanted to see one of the kids in high school who was counseled by the official school counselor to just be gay, then he comes down with HIV,” said LaBarbera. “But we never really got the client for that.”

Even some of his fellow Tea Party conservatives are disavowing Scarborough’s cruel tirade, but these same kinds of bullying accusations have driven many LGBT people to despair.

Yet, despite the demonstrated hostility of right-wing Republicans to the very existence of gay, lesbian and transgender people, Vaid warns that the LGBT movement has so narrowed its focus to the single objective of winning legal equality and same-sex marriage that some mainstream LGBT organizations are working with conservative Republicans and right-wing donors.

Alliances with reactionaries

Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg co-chaired a fundraiser held on Oct. 13, 2011, in New York City that raised $1.2 million for four Republican candidates who had voted for marriage equality. Vaid notes that the mayor’s fundraiser was co-hosted by Tea Party founder David Koch, hedge fund managers Paul Singer and Daniel Loeb, and joined by prominent gay political activists.

This may seem like a sensible bipartisan strategy to advance the cause of marriage equality, yet Vaid asks a disturbing question: “When the movement makes alliances with economic reactionaries, what message does it send to our own community members who are targeted by the campaigns these conservative donors have launched?”

She valiantly defends the principles of a LGBT movement that historically was allied to the broader progressive movement, labor unions, peace groups, women’s organizations, and civil rights activists. It is a betrayal of those progressive values when mainstream LGBT groups today make common cause with a Republican Party that is hostile to gay rights, people of color, poor people and women’s rights.

“The Republican Party platform remains deeply hostile to LGBT equality, to reproductive choice, and to a wide range of issues of social, racial and gender justice,” Vaid writes.

Strange bedfellows

Politics sometimes makes strange bedfellows, yet Vaid refuses to pretend that a reactionary is no longer a reactionary just because he shows up at a fundraiser. Sometimes, selling out is just a bad bargain, and joining the right wing at this moment in U.S. history is far too high a price to pay for a few votes.

The far-right ideology of Paul Singer and David and Charles Koch (the Koch Brothers) is deeply hostile to poor people, civil liberties, immigrants, women’s reproductive rights and environmental regulations. As Vaid points out, David Koch has even advocated abolishing Social Security and the Federal Reserve, and is implacably opposed to government programs that help poor people survive.

Vaid offers an outspoken indictment of these sell-out politics and ill-considered backroom alliances with the right wing. She writes: “When prestigious gay donors ally with right-wing elements in the Republican Party on marriage, they ally themselves with a set of moneyed interests whose agenda is overtly hostile to the needs of many differently situated LGBT folks.”

I literally cheered many passages in her book where Vaid described the true values of the progressive movement and issued a clarion call for the LGBT movement to return to its commitment to a broad liberationist struggle for peace, racial justice, workers rights, women’s rights and economic justice.

It has always been the difficult and thankless role of the prophet to deliver their most piercingly honest — and controversial — words to their own community.

One of the most revealing insights of Irresistible Revolution is her analysis of the mainstream LGBT movement’s “resistance to incorporating issues of economic, racial, and gender justice.”

The trouble with equal

With eye-opening clarity, she draws our attention to a deeply important paradox that too few have understood. In a time marked by growing legal equality for African Americans, women and LGBT people, economic inequality is worsening for these very same groups.

Even as some legal barriers to equality are falling, growing poverty, unemployment, homelessness, unaffordable health care, and racial and gender discrimination jeopardize their economic survival.

Vaid sums up this paradox in an unforgettable phrase: “The trouble with equal.” This contradiction between increased equal rights under the law and increased inequality in the economic life of the nation means that many members of the LGBT community are still marginalized and left out of the supposed progress being made by the movement.

In an important historic parallel, at a certain point in the U.S. civil rights struggle, African American leaders including Martin Luther King and A. Phillip Randolph also confronted this paradox of inequality.

After the Black-led Freedom Movement had won the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King and Randolph realized that the movement’s boycotts and protests had opened the doors of formerly segregated restaurants, and yet many Black citizens — even those who had repeatedly been arrested and beaten by police as they struggled to win these rights — did not have the money to eat at these restaurants.

At that historic moment, King demonstrated what a visionary he was by summoning the Freedom Movement onto the next waystation on the road to justice — a Poor People’s Campaign for economic justice. King began building alliances with peace groups, labor unions and poor people’s organizations to take on the larger struggle for equality and freedom.

As Vaid writes, “The civil rights movement’s leadership acknowledged then what is painfully evident today — that formal, equal rights were a crucial first step from which the struggle for black empowerment, freedom and respect had to enter another stage.”

That is why I consider Irresistible Revolution to be a visionary book. Rather than resting content with an easy, complacent celebration of the recent victories for the equal rights of LGBT people, Vaid is pressing the movement forward to battle for full justice for all of the people still victimized by poverty and discrimination.

With far-seeing vision, she is urging the movement to march on towards a far-off horizon of economic justice, racial and gender equality, and resistance to the U.S. war machine.

Even though she celebrates the praiseworthy victories in the field of legal rights for LGBT people, Vaid calls on the movement for a new commitment to ending racial discrimination, achieving economic justice and gender justice, reforming the prison system, and fighting the virulent prejudice against transgender people.

In Irresistible Revolution, Urvashi Vaid asks LGBT activists to build a movement that fights for the rights of poor and homeless people, people of color, workers and immigrants.

Shrouded in silence

For decades, the gay rights movement has rightly challenged society for being silent on the injustices and inequality facing the LGBT community, silent on the denial of rights to this persecuted minority, silent on the hate crimes and murders, silent on the bullying and homophobia.

For too long, the most outrageous acts of anti-gay bigotry, violence and hate crimes have been shrouded in silence.

Vaid has spent 30 years of her life in speaking out and acting out against society’s deadly silence on these life-and-death issues. But now, she is a strong voice warning the mainstream LGBT organizations not to make the fatal mistake of keeping silent about the economic suffering, racial discrimination and gender inequality that jeopardize members of their own community.

She writes, “The overall silence of mainstream LGBT policy, legal, and advocacy organizations on bread-and-butter economic justice and social welfare issues is noticeable and rather remarkable, especially in the post-2008 global economy.”

Vaid breaks that silence by writing that “queer youth are disproportionately homeless,” that too many are under-educated and on track to low-wage jobs; that large numbers of lesbians with children live in poverty; and that gay men earn less than straight men due to discrimination in the workplace.

Where the Issues Intersect

Stephen McNeil, the director of Waging Peace for the American Friends Service Committee, first became aware of Urvashi Vaid’s commitment to social justice because of her work on the issues of AIDS in the nation’s prisons when she was the attorney for the ACLU National Prison Project. McNeil said he was especially impressed by her “deep caring” about the lives of people in prisons.

“She had both heart and head approach to these issues,” McNeil said. “She didn’t simply approach it strictly from a legal or human rights perspective, but she also got the fact that these were actual individuals whose dignity and lives were being trampled.”

In her writing and activism, McNeil said, Vaid sees the “intersection” between social justice issues and urges activists to not get trapped into advocating only for single issues, but rather to “see the connections between the various aspects of oppression, and see the underlying economic challenges that are really the basis of most everything we’re working on.”

McNeil pointed out that when Vaid was the director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force for several years, she strongly advocated for the LGBT community to be an active part of the progressive movement, and not just work narrowly only on its own issues.

“When she was at the helm of the Task Force,” McNeil said, “she saw the relationship to U.S. military imperialism, she saw the relationship to capitalism, and got that organization to take anti-war stands. She saw the relationship between the whole way that we operate in this country and what’s happening to the 99 percenters, especially those at the very, very bottom of the economy, and so I think she understands we all have to rise together.”

Recently in San Francisco, the annual federal count of homelessness reported that 29 percent of homeless people in the city consider themselves gay, bisexual or transgender. “That reveals the whole issue of class and economics,” McNeil said. “When you look at the various responses in the media and among the public, it just shows you that you have to consider class and economics and race a lot more carefully when we’re doing community organizing.”

Urvashi Vaid is one of the strongest voices urging the LGBT community to struggle against the economic inequality and racial injustice that affect many members of the LGBT community. She is eloquent in appealing to mainstream LGBT organizations to remember the plight of people who are most often marginalized and forgotten — immigrants, prisoners, homeless youth and transgender people.

Signs of hope

She sees signs of hope growing within the LGBT movement, emerging from the very places and people that have been  consistently ignored. Grassroots LGBT groups led by people of color are pressing forward in the struggle for racial justice and immigration reform, while other locally based LGBT groups are working with homeless people or on prison reform, and still others are working to fight societal prejudice against transgender people.

During our interview, Vaid described how one of her friends, a successful gay man, had been transformed and radicalized by working on transgender issues and discovering the enormous amount of prejudice, discrimination and violence faced by that community.

All across the country, transgender people have been murdered in horrifying hate crimes, and yet there is almost never a public outcry against these savage acts of murderous bigotry.

In Irresistible Revolution, Vaid noted that the public outrage over the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming in 1998 was crucial in sparking a renewed political commitment to challenge anti-gay violence and hate crimes. Yet, in the same year that Matthew Shepard was murdered, “dozens of queer, lesbian and trans people of all colors were also killed,” Vaid pointed out. Even though some locally based organizations have spoken out for justice in the wake of these hate crimes, Vaid asks the hard questions about why there is such a striking public silence over these murders at the national level.

She writes, “In my thirty years of work in the LGBT movement, I can remember no comparable nationwide mobilization around the murder of a poor, nonwhite, queer person.”

None of these murders and hate crimes should be ignored. Matthew Shepard’s murder deserved all the public attention it received. But so does every one of the murders of countless homeless people, gay people of color, and transgender people. Their lives are not worth less. Yet so many of these violent and frightening acts of prejudice have been virtually ignored.

Prejudice kills. And it also impoverishes people, excludes them from jobs and housing, and leaves them homeless.

One in five transgender people in the United States have been refused a home or apartment, and more than one in ten have been evicted because of their gender identity. One in five transgender people have experienced homelessness at some time in their lives because of discrimination or family rejection.

This kind of discrimination begins with the rejection and abandonment of transgender youth, which in turn may lead to poverty and homelessness. And then, this same cycle of prejudice and rejection stalks the homeless transgender person all the way to the shelter door.

“Unfortunately, transgender people facing homelessness also face discrimination from agencies that should be helping them, with nearly one in three reporting being turned away from a shelter due to their transgender status,” according to a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Even those who are allowed into the shelter door can still find themselves the victim of prejudice or ignorance. The same report found that 42 percent of trans people have “been forced to stay in a shelter living as the wrong gender,” a highly demoralizing and potentially destructive placement.

Prophetic truth-telling

In the Street Spirit interview with Urvashi Vaid, it was a gift to learn of the heartfelt commitment of an activist who has kept the faith during 30 years of organizing for social justice. Rather than being compromised or co-opted somewhere along the way, Vaid has sustained the passion and dedication of her youthful days in the movement, when the gay liberation struggle was just that — a broad liberationist struggle that made common cause with the peace movement and anti-nuclear protesters, with labor union organizers, and with the women’s movement and the civil rights workers.

When I read her description of how our democracy has been ransacked by corporations and the right wing, I was electrified by her act of truth-telling. The word “prophetic” kept leaping to mind as I read the following passage from her chapter, “The Meaning of a Progressive Movement.”

“As a result, corporations control all U.S. and global media. The wealthy control the outcomes of all national elections and their vassals pass laws to make it harder for those who might dissent to vote and participate. The economy is in the hands of oligarchs and financiers who operate shell games to create paper wealth but not actual jobs. The corporations that now run the U.S. military also control the intelligence apparatus, the prison system, and inform policing strategies; they work to erode the independent oversight of the judiciary, and their interests dominate the foreign policy options of the executive branch.”

As prophetic as those words are, they run the risk of telling the truth so bluntly that we may become overwhelmed at the enormously powerful system of injustice we must face. What inner resources can we draw on that can possibly prepare us for this struggle to build a new world?

After all, progressive activsts are only a small minority facing the seemingly all-powerful and interlocking systems of militarism, economic exploitation, computerized surveillance, and an inexhaustible army of prejudice and bigotry.

People Have the Power

All of which leads to my favorite passage from Irresistible Revolution. These are simple words, yet they are filled with hope and can strengthen us with renewed dedication.

Vaid writes, “It is in fact only blind and raw faith in the idea that justice exists beyond nation or law or police state, that something called a spiritual justice does exist, that keeps me believing that I can in my lifetime achieve a society where all people have affordable health care, food, work, shelter, access to education and freedom.”

In the interview, Vaid described how important the music of punk rockers like Patti Smith and the Ramones had been in sparking her rebellious youthful idealism.

Patti Smith was in her 40s, no longer young, when she released her “Dream of Life” album in 1988. Yet her hopes were still revolutionary, and her belief in the power of the people had not aged or eroded. She still believed, as she sang, that “People have the power — the power to dream, to rule, to wrestle the earth from fools.”

Perhaps in the end, all our hopes for peace and justice have no more substance than a song. We may have music in our souls, but the powers that be have all the money and the military might and unimaginable political power. Yet some day our songs will have the last word.

Patti Smith sang these words for us:

Listen, I believe everything we dream

Can come to pass through our union

We can turn the world around

We can turn the earth’s revolution

We have the power

People have the power.

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