To know Urvashi Vaid was to have a life-changing experience.
That’s a common thread that runs through remembrances of the legendary LGBTQ+ activist, who died of cancer May 14 at age 63.
Vaid’s résumé was impressive by any standard. She spent a decade with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (now the National LGBTQ Task Force), rising from media director to executive director, and cofounding its Creating Change conference. She was executive director of the Arcus Foundation, a global funder of LGBTQ+ causes; the force behind LPAC, the first lesbian super PAC; cofounder of many other social justice groups; and most recently president of the Vaid Group, dedicated to equity, justice, and inclusion.
But that’s just part of the story. She was an acclaimed author (Virtual Equality, Irresistible Revolution) and eloquent public speaker as well as an early advocate of intersectionality in the LGBTQ+ movement. And she was known for arguing that LGBTQ+ people needed fundamental social change, not just a place at the table. Those who knew her recall her ability to persuade and inspire — and her sense of humor.
“Urvashi Vaid was a shining leader, a friend with a smile and a hard-rock lover,” musician Melissa Etheridge recalls. “My coming out in 1993 was very much the result of our friendship and her guidance. She brought me into the world of brilliant, powerful LGBTQ+ human beings working to bring peace to our community. She was a dear friend and will be lovingly missed.”
Vaid “had an intensity of focus that was thrilling to experience,” remembers Lorri L. Jean, a former Task Force executive director and now CEO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center. “Urv was a natural leader who was followed and greatly respected by many other leaders, myself included. I’ll never forget when she came to my house in Hollywood in 2001 to try to convince me to consider leading the National LGBTQ Task Force. I experienced the full power of Urvashi’s persuasiveness. I gave her countless reasons why it wouldn’t work or wouldn’t be a good idea. Next thing I knew, I was running the Task Force!”
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Cathy Renna, communications director at the Task Force, found Vaid a major influence too. “I have vivid memories of working with, for, and alongside Urvashi, who inspired me, taught me so much about activism and the mechanics of communications, and always, always gave me a to-do list at the end of every conversation!” Renna says. “I was sitting on the edge of the stage when she gave her speech at the 1993 March on Washington. It changed the direction of my life and inspired me to see activism as a lifelong journey, a career, and a vocation.”
Renna notes Vaid’s talent with the written word as well. “Reading Virtual Equality was a game changer for how I approached my work, and it is not lost on me that I now hold the same position she did at the Task Force,” she recalls. “This was her political home and where she did so much extraordinary movement building, from founding the Creating Change conference with Sue Hyde to leading us as executive director to returning to run the Policy Institute. We don’t just stand on her shoulders; we have an obligation here to carry on her legacy.”
“The reason for so many lengthy and heartfelt tributes to Urvashi in the wake of her untimely death is simple: She was a singular voice,” adds Kate Kendell, former executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and now chief of staff at the California Endowment. “A force of nature who drove us all to strive relentlessly for not just equality, but justice — truly for all, especially those most denied justice. She was the conscience of the LGBTQ movement, and knowing her and following her example made me and every queer activist a better human.”
While Vaid took her activism seriously, she had a lighter side. “I can’t think about Urvashi without remembering her infectious laugh,” Jean says. “No matter the seriousness of the battle we were waging or the challenge that may have been on the horizon, Urv was always great fun to be around, and she never lost her sense of humor.”
She did, after all, share her life with a comedian — her partner of many years was political humorist Kate Clinton, who survives her. Vaid was also aunt to Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender-nonconforming performance artist who carries on Vaid’s legacy of activism.
That legacy shapes the LGBTQ+ movement as a whole, Renna notes. “Everyone talks — as they should — about ‘intersectionality’ in doing their work in the LGBTQ community today,” she says. “It’s become more than a buzzword to many and part of the DNA of our work every day. But the reality is that years before it was even a term, that is how Urvashi always operated and urged all of us to look at how we approach our activism. She wasn’t ahead of the curve. She was the curve. She was the unstoppable, relentless force that made us bend.”
This story is part of The Advocate’s 2022 Advocacy and Politics issue, which is out on newsstands July 18, 2022. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.