I am deeply sad that long-time activist Urvashi Vaid has died. If anything this last week has shown, there are as many stories and experiences and memories of Urvashi as there are hundreds of thousands of people who met her, heard her speak, danced with her, ate a meal with her, strategized with her, or read her work over the course of her too-short 63 years.
She was one of the LGBTQ+ movement’s motivators and north stars. My heart is with her partner Kate Clinton and all of Urv’s beloveds who have been with her these last years, months, and days as she dealt with cancer.
I served as the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force many years, and more than a few executive directors after Urv held that role from 1989 to 1992. I can tell you that her ideas, her projects, her values lived in the cells of the organization long after she left.
She had been the media director, the Policy Institute director and the executive director. She used her leadership at the Task Force and her voice as the first woman of color to lead a national LGBTQ organization to push the larger LGBTQ movement to take on issues and make connections it was not always eager to pursue — racial and economic disparities, keeping sex and our sexuality front and center, and always making connections like how reproductive justice, sex, and HIV/AIDS were all connected by the State’s desire to control our bodies.
My activism has been greatly shaped by the fact that Urv took me seriously as a young leader in our movement. I first met her in the early ’90s through street activism in D.C. and as I became the first executive director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition for LGBTQ youth. She seemed endlessly excited about the ideas and passion for justice that young activists held. To see her strategizing just as intensely and seriously with a 20-year-old as with a 70-year-old was a wonderful thing to behold.
Urv pushed me to see connections, to dig deeper, and I was a better activist and leader for it. Whenever Urv called, I’d clear my schedule for the next hour (at least!), pull out a pen and pad of paper, and prepare to feverishly write down what were likely to be 10 to 20 rapid-fire ideas of things she thought I should be doing, or doing much better — tomorrow!
The sheer intellectual and strategic hole in the drive towards liberation and freedom left by Urv’s death is hard to grasp. Up until her last months, she was creating projects, mentoring others, pushing for funding, and gathering data through the National LGBTQ+ Women’s Community Survey. There are more than a few stories people have told about being on zoom meetings with her as she was getting her treatments for cancer, Urv holding off the doctors a few more minutes so she could get her ideas across.
Loss is a layered thing. There is the loss of the person themselves — empty space where they would otherwise be moving through the world. I know that at the next in-person Creating Change Conference there will be this empty space in the shape of Urv’s body moving around the sessions, the hallways, the plenary, the dance floor. When Urv moved through a room, it was as if a compelling energy drew people to her, and her to them. To strategize, to argue, to create, to encourage, to celebrate, to plan. The absence of her laugh filling up a room will make all other voices sound louder.
Then there is the loss of the past, marveling at all she accomplished, all she loved, all she created into existence, the “legacy.” Urv’s intellect and actions were prolific, to say the least. Her legacy could fill a dozen lifetimes. Lists of organizations for which she served on staff, the board, as an advisor, founder, creative collaborator can be found elsewhere. For me, her legacy also exists in every single conversation she had, every person’s life she touched, and the knowledge that even as challenging as things are now, we will continue to move towards liberation.
Finally, there is the loss of potential. If she did all of that in 63 years, what else could she do in decades more?! With the loss of potential, comes the sadness — and anger — that at least another generation or few will be deprived of getting to know her, be encouraged by her, taking her ideas and creating something even more powerful out of them.
And, in the very spring that the Supreme Court seems poised to overturn Roe, when we could use her passion, her brilliance, her hope, her vision for fighting the Right Wing social and political forces, Urv has died. It is particularly cruel that at the same time the LGBTQ movement is finally starting to have even a few more leaders of color running organizations, Urv has died. Knowing personally the challenges, barriers, racism, and sexism faced by women of color, Urv was committed to supporting leaders of color — especially women of color. The loss of potential of how she could both support them and be fueled by their leadership is heartbreaking.
So many of us have been through enough death — with AIDS, with cancer, with gun violence, with COVID — to know that no one is immortal. And yet one can’t blame us for thinking that someone with that fire and intensity might live forever — or at least 30 more years.
We are left hungry for more. But Urv has left a legacy. A legacy of activism, of ideas, of strategies. In that way Urv will be immortal — her passion for liberation, her curiosity, her determination being manifested in each person she knew or met. Her legacy lives in me, in you, and in others who know that liberation is possible. We will fight on.
Thank you, Urv, for changing the world. Dance on, Urv, dance on!
Rea Carey is the former executive director, National LGBTQ Task Force (2008–2021), and principal of Carey Forward consulting.
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