BORN: October 8, 1958 • New Delhi, India
American activist; attorney
Urvashi Vaid's name is not widely known outside of civil rights circles, but she was the first woman to head a national gay rights organization in the United States. Since the 1980s, she has worked to make America a more accepting and tolerant place for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-gendered (GLBT) men and women through her work as an attorney, author, and activist. She was still active at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but had adopted a broader approach, one that rejected what she called "single-issue" agendas. Instead, Vaid argued, gay rights activists should seek out and work together with other social-reform groups.
"I have never been a single-issue person. I feel that I have always been a progressive person who happened to be working in the gay and lesbian movement."
Arrives in the United States
Urvashi Vaid was born in New Delhi, India, on October 8, 1958. When the United States loosened its immigration policies in 1965 and allowed a greater number of citizens of non-European countries to enter, Vaid's parents joined a wave of middle-class Asians who were the first to take advantage of the opportunity to live in America. Her father, a novelist, obtained a teaching position at the State University of New York in Potsdam after they arrived in 1966, and this is where Vaid grew up.
The Vaids arrived in the United States just as civil unrest was becoming widespread. Within a few years, assassinations of political and civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), devastated the social reform movement, while many teenagers and young adults took to the streets to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1954–75). Vaid was fascinated by all of this at an early age. A poster of King hung in her room, and she went to her first protest rally at the age of eleven.
Vaid came to America with parents who had little sympathy for rebellion against the existing social and political systems, and this shaped her attitudes and arguments. "In immigrant households there's a lot of criticism of the dominant culture," she explained to journalist Anne-Marie Cusac, who interviewed her for Progressive. "In my household there was—'Oh, Americans this, Americans that,' with the unstated assumption that 'in our country things are better and different.'" Vaid found this line of thinking faulty. "I always used to challenge the chauvinism [prejudice] of my parents," she told Cusac, "because I identified as bicultural [belonging to two societies] very quickly."
Reveals her homosexuality
Vaid was an exceptional student. She graduated from high school a year early, then entered Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, about an hour's drive from New York City. Originally founded as an all-female college, Vassar was one of the first institutions in the United States to offer women a four-year degree. By the time Vaid enrolled, the school admitted both men and women. There, for the first time in her life, Vaid met women who were openly gay. Over time, she came to identify herself as a lesbian, too, but she kept this a secret from her parents for a few more years. When she finally revealed to them that she was gay, her mother had a more difficult time accepting it than her father did. Vaid told Vanity Fair: "I think I would have been a lesbian whether I grew up in India or America. Eventually I would have found it. This is how I feel about my sexuality. It's very very deep in me, and it was formed at an early age, and once I could name it and accept it, it became fixed."
At Vassar, Vaid had been active in the feminist movement, which was organized around the belief that women and men are politically, socially, and economically equal. However, she broadened her social justice interests when she moved to Boston, Massachusetts, to attend law school at Northeastern University. She was a co-founder of the Boston Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance, which endorsed candidates for public office based on their support for gay rights issues. Vaid also helped with the start-up of Allston-Brighton Greenlight Safehouse Network, an anti-violence project in a neighborhood that was home to many college students.
For a time, Vaid felt like she had to withdraw from her Indian culture and family events as part of her "coming-out" process. The phrase "coming-out" refers to the time when an individual reveals to others that he or she is gay, lesbian, or bisexual (attracted to both genders). This isolation from her family left Vaid feeling somewhat disconnected from her roots. But she was a member of a tradition-bound family and culture, in which parents still arranged their children's marriages. As a lesbian, she had no other South Asian role model for many years. Once, at a women's music festival, a concertgoer approached Vaid and asked if she was Indian. "And we were hugging and practically crying because it was so remarkable to meet another one," she said in the Progressive article. "We thought we were the only ones."
After she graduated from law school in 1983, Vaid went to work for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington, D.C. She had already been involved in the Women's Prison Project while living in Massachusetts. In her new position, she worked to help inmates as part of the ACLU's National Prisons Project. This was an ongoing effort that sought to end overcrowding, inadequate medical care, and human-rights abuses in U.S. correctional facilities. In 1986 Vaid began working for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), which had been founded in 1973 and was the first national organization for gay and lesbian Americans. Vaid was hired as its director of public information, which involved handling all communications with the media. During this time, the NGLTF became the leading gay rights organization in the country, taking on several significant legal and public health battles.
Heads the NGLTF
In 1990 Vaid was named the NGLTF's new executive director, becoming the first woman to head the 17,000—member organization. This
In 1989 Margarethe "Grethe" Cammermeyer became the highest-ranking officer to be dismissed from U.S. military service for being gay. Cammermeyer fought back and eventually won her discrimination case against the U.S. Department of Defense. The legal battle, which received a great deal of media attention, helped raise awareness for the rights of gay men and women in uniform.
Cammermeyer was born in 1942 in Oslo, Norway. Her family came to the United States in 1951. Wanting to enter the medical field, she joined the U.S. Army after learning that it had a student nurse program. After earning her nursing degree in 1963, Cammermeyer fulfilled her active-duty obligations, went to boot camp, then served on bases in the United States and West Germany. In 1965 she married a tank commander and both served in the Vietnam War (1954–75) in 1967. She received a Bronze Star, the fourth highest award for bravery and heroism, for her war service. But she was soon forced to resign from the army because she was pregnant. At the time, women who had dependent children could not serve in any of the U.S. armed forces. Her husband decided to return to civilian life, too, and the couple settled in Seattle, Washington. Over the next few years she had three more children.
When the U.S. Department of Defense changed its policy in 1972 and allowed women with dependent children to serve in the military, Cammermeyer joined the Army Reserves. She worked as a Veterans Administration (VA) nurse. She also came to realize that she was gay. Her marriage ended, and her four sons stayed with their father when she moved to San Francisco, California, to take a job in a VA hospital. She did not tell any co-workers or supervisors why her marriage had ended. A rule dating back to the 1940s prohibited gays from serving in the U.S. military.
In 1985 Cammermeyer was named VA Nurse of the Year and promoted to colonel two years later. She returned to Washington state and was serving as chief nurse of the Washington State National Guard in 1989 when she came up for promotion. She was being considered for the position of national chief nurse. The job would lift her rank to general at the Army War College. The only obstacle was a security check. During the interview process, Cammermeyer was questioned about her sexual orientation, and she told the truth. Instead of awarding her the promotion, military officials began discharge proceedings against her.
Cammermeyer was officially discharged from service on June 11, 1992. She challenged the decision and filed a lawsuit claiming that the official military ban on gays in uniform was unconstitutional. The case attracted widespread media attention. In June 1994 Cammermeyer's dismissal was overturned by a federal judge, and she was reinstated. She retired in 1997 after thirty-one years of service, with the benefits that the U.S. military provides for all retired personnel. Her 1994 autobiography, Serving in Silence, is a first-person account of her toughest battle. It was made into a film starring Glenn Close (1947–) as Cammermeyer.
achievement was recognized by the New York Times in a December article. Reporter Katherine Bishop explained that in an earlier era of gay activism, gay men and lesbian women had been separated by a substantial difference in ideas. The situation changed after the onset of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) in the early 1980s. AIDS is a collection of infections and symptoms that results when a person's immune system has been damaged by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The spread of the disease, which affected a large number of gay men, served to bring the two sides together.
Vaid also was recognized in December 1990 by the Advocate, the national news magazine for the GLBT community. The publication named Vaid its Woman of the Year in honor of her achievements. Her male counterpart was the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989).
Vaid's work with the NGLTF was largely political in nature. It included an arrest outside the White House for demonstrating without a permit, when she joined with several leaders of feminist and human-rights organizations to protest new restrictions on reproductive rights for American women. But her most significant achievement came because of the NGLTF's political activity and pressure at the local, state, and national level during the 1992 presidential election. In this race, political experts claimed, the GLBT vote helped send Democratic candidate Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) to the White House.
Republican attacks on the GLBT community had turned the 1992 election campaign into a war over ideas. Especially objectionable, according to reporter Jeffrey Schmalz in a New York Times article, was a paragraph from the 1992 Republican Party platform (the list of issues a party supports) which stated its opposition to efforts "to include sexual preference as a protected minority." "It's hateful," Vaid told Schmalz about speeches at the Republican National Convention that August. "The [Republican] party is saying, 'We don't want you.' We're the only ones left to attack. Communism is gone. There's too much support for women's issues. The Los Angeles riots make it impossible to attack blacks, and the party is wooing them anyway. That leaves us as the ones to beat on to divert [deflect] attention from the economy and other failings."
Following the 1992 election, Democratic political candidates actively campaigned for the support of gay voters, while their Republican counterparts often tried to distance themselves by speaking of "family values." Vaid left her job as head of the NGLTF after the 1992 race so she could spend more time with her partner and write a book. Three years later, Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation, was published.
In the volume, Vaid traces the roots of the gay and lesbian liberation movement in America, then discusses how this became a target for the religious and political right, or those supporting conservative views. She describes the GLBT movement as at a midpoint in its evolution during the mid-1990s. It has been accepted as a valid social issue by most Americans, but achieving full equal rights is a long way off, she warns. This is what she refers to as "virtual equality," borrowing a term from the jargon of computers and technology. "Virtual" suggests a fake or pretend reality. The rise of Christian-based political conservatism, she argues, could reverse hard-won legal rights in the near or near-distant future. "The liberty we have won is incomplete, conditional, and ultimately revocable [able to be cancelled or ended]," she states in the book.
Urges new direction for the NGLTF
In 1997 Vaid again joined the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, this time as head of its Policy Institute. The institute carried out research in the social sciences related to issues in the GLBT community, published analyses of public policy, and developed new strategies to promote tolerance. Over the next four years, she became an increasingly strong supporter for the idea of "intersection," as she called it, among the American left, those supporting a liberal view, especially relating to politics and social issues. She believed that organizations that were strictly for lesbian women should speak out in support of reproductive rights for all women, for example, and that the national GLBT leadership might take a more committed public stance on the issue of police brutality, since it was an issue that affected everyone, not just Americans of color.
In a 1999 speech Vaid gave before the Lesbian Rights Summit of the National Organization for Women (NOW), she urged more cooperation between GLBT activists and all social-reform groups. She warned against a reliance on what she called symbolic politics, or attention-getting events like mass marches, when there was still much more work to be done at the local level. The speech was published in the June 1999 issue of the feminist journal off our backs. In the piece, Vaid claimed the time had passed for "single-issue" activism, and that the GLBT movement needed to broaden its focus in order to move forward. "I want a movement that is not just focused on identity but that is engaged in defining what the kind of society we will have in the next century," she told the audience. "I want a movement of all kinds of people—black and brown, rich, middle class and poor, gay and transgender and straight, bi and multiracial—all kinds of people who believe in making a more just economy, and a real democracy."
Activist for other social issues
Vaid stepped down from her job as head of the NGLTF Policy Institute in 2001, believing the time had come to broaden her role in social-justice issues as well. "I have never been a single-issue person," she said in the Progressive interview with Cusac. "I feel that I have always been a progressive person [one favoring progress toward new policies and reforms] who happened to be working in the gay and lesbian movement." Her next job was with the Ford Foundation, a New York City-based charitable organization whose original donation came from the automotive pioneering family that shares its name. The foundation provides financial support for programs that promote democracy, reduce poverty, and further cooperation between the nations and cultures of the world. It has sometimes been attacked by political conservatives for its funding of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), a media watchdog group that monitors news organizations for prejudice or partiality.
During her time at the Ford Foundation, Vaid stayed out of the public eye. She continued that practice when she moved on to the Arcus Foundation in 2005 to serve as its executive director. Arcus, a charitable foundation, had roots in Michigan. However, Vaid's move to the organization coincided with its expansion to a national level with new offices that opened in New York City. Arcus provides support for a range of causes, especially those that work to help the GLBT community at local, state, and national levels.
Vaid settled in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a seaside resort community long known for its tolerant attitudes. She is the partner of Kate Clinton, a comedian and writer. While Vaid supports the idea of same-sex partner benefits in employment law, she is cautious about the move to legalize same-sex unions. "I think this whole desire on our part to marry, and to mirror heterosexual ways of relating, is about our own devaluation [lessening] of the relationships we have with each other," she told Cusac, "and how exceptional they are."
For More Information
Cammermeyer, Margarethe, with Chris Fisher. Serving in Silence. New York: Viking, 1994.
Vaid, Urvashi. Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.
Bishop, Katherine. "Lesbians Clear Hurdles to Gain Posts of Power." New York Times (December 30, 1990): p. 12.
Bull, Chris. "The War Continues." Advocate (August 15, 2000): p. 44.
Cusac, Anne-Marie. "Urvashi Vaid: Interview." Progressive (March 1996): p. 34.
Jackson, David S. "'I Just Don't Want to Go.'" Time (July 6, 1992): p. 62.
Schmalz, Jeffrey. "A Delicate Balance." New York Times (August 20, 1992): p. 1.
Torregrosa, Luisita Lopez. "The Gay Nineties." Vanity Fair (May 1993): pp. 124-129.
"Urvashi Vaid: The Politics of Intersection." off our backs (June 1999): p. 9.
Vaid, Urvashi. "Playing the Ex-Gay Games." Advocate (September 15, 1998): p. 72.
Vaid, Urvashi. http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/vaid_u.html (accessed on July 6, 2006)>