Urvashi Vaid, Legendary Indian American LGBTQ+ Activist, Author and Attorney, Dies at 63

  • Several activists, and groups mourn the passing of a “warrior” who “paved the way” and encouraged many.

Renowned attorney, longtime LGBTQ activist, and author Urvashi Vaid has died at age 63 after a valiant battle with cancer at her home in New York City. She is survived by her nephew, activist and performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon, as well as her longtime partner, political humorist Kate Clinton.

The Indian American was known for her extensive career as an advocate for LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, anti-war efforts, immigration justice and many other social causes, according to the National LGBTQ Task Force which she led as executive director from 1989 to 1992. Before that, she was its media director. Vaid was most recently president of the Vaid Group, a social innovation firm that works with global and domestic organizations to advance equity, justice, and inclusion. 

Vaid’s vision and passion for defending and promoting civil rights for the LGBTQ+ community led to a lifetime of change-making. During her time at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, she held multiple positions for over ten years, and brought “all aspects of queer life and struggle into the public eye,” said the press release. While at the Task Force, she co-founded the annual Creating Change conference, now in its 33rd year.

“We are devastated at the loss of one of the most influential progressive activists of our time,” Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said in a press release. “Urvashi Vaid was a leader, a warrior, and a force to be reckoned with. She was also a beloved colleague, friend, partner, and someone we all looked up to — a brilliant, outspoken, and deeply committed activist who wanted full justice and equality for all people.”

While serving as the executive director of the Task Force, Vaid made a statement with a sign during former president George H.W. Bush’s 1990 address on AIDS. Her sign, “Talk Is Cheap, AIDS Funding is Not,” made waves, disrupting the press conference, and shedding light on the failures of the Bush administration.

In 1995, after resigning from her position at the Task Force three years prior, she published her first book, “Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation,” in which she criticized the idea of “mainstreaming” what was and is, in fact, a civil rights movement. A year later the book won the Stonewall Book Award. She also wrote “Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics,” n 2012, and co-edited an anthology with John D’Emilio and William Turner, titled “Creating Change: Public Policy, Sexuality and Civil Rights” (2000).

In 2012, she launched LPAC, the first lesbian Super PAC, and it has since invested millions of dollars in candidates who are committed to social justice through legislation. Before that, she held positions on the boards at the Ford Foundation, The Arcus Foundation (where she served as Executive Director from 2005 to 2010), and the Gill Foundation. She was a leader in the development of the currently ongoing National LGBTQ women’s community survey.

“We should all be so lucky to have even 1% of the positive impact on the world that Urvashi Vaid did, and in a life cut short today,” tweeted journalist and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. “Vision, commitment, brilliance — yes, but her relentless persistence to see it through was truly rare.”

She was co-founder of the Donors of Color Network, the first cross-racial network connecting individuals of color to leverage their giving for racial equity, and of the National LGBTQ Anti-Poverty Action Network, the National LGBT/HIV Criminal Justice Working Group, the Equality Federation, the National Religious Leadership Roundtable.

She had been a senior fellow and director of the Engaging Tradition Project at Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, exploring how tradition-based resistance inhibits projects to advance gender, sexual, and racial equity. Before that, she was a senior fellow at the Social Justice Sexuality Project at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Vaid, a graduate of Northeastern University School of Law and Vassar College, began her career as a staff attorney at the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, where she initiated the group’s work on HIV and AIDS in prisons.

Several Indian Americans took to Twitter to mourn Vaid’s passing. 

“RIP to my Urvash Maasi,” her nephew Vaid-Menon wrote on their Facebook page. “I’m crushed. There’s no way I would be here today without your love.”

Journalist Vijay Prashad, director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research tweeted: “My friend, Urvashi Vaid (1958-2022), who bravely held the line for decades, has left us. Met her through her dad, Hindi literary titan Krishna Baldev Vaid, & then we were active in the 1990s movement to bring decency in the world. Her politics was like her smile: warm & genuine.”

In a tweet, California-based lawyer Krishna Desai wrote: “Urvashi Vaid showed this queer South Asian a world of possibility when the world itself begged to differ. A giant, a beacon, and already missed.”

Leading racial justice activist Deepa Iyer tweeted that Vaid “paved the way for so many of us,” and “empowered so many of us with your courage and vision.”

Meenakshi Menon, interim co-executive director of the Groundswell Fund said she’s “devastated” by Vaid’s passing. “She is a legend who always embodied the importance of intersectional organizing and the fight for collective liberation. Our movements and philanthropy are better because of her brilliance and sharp analysis.”

Other well-known LGBTQ+ celebrities and major groups are mourning her as well.

“We should all be so lucky to have even 1% of the positive impact on the world that Urvashi Vaid did, and in a life cut short today,” tweeted journalist and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. “Vision, commitment, brilliance — yes, but her relentless persistence to see it through was truly rare.”

In a statement, Kevin Jennings, CEO of Lambda Legal said: “Urvashi Vaid was a visionary whose leadership and analysis inspired a generation of LGBT activists, including myself.”  

Lori L. Jean, CEO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center said “the world has lost a giant in the movement for LGBTQ freedom, justice and equality.”

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