Interview by Terry Messman
Street Spirit: It has been four months since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act which denied federal benefits to gay couples, and in a separate ruling, allowed gay marriage to resume in California. In light of those rulings, do you believe the country is making real progress in upholding equal rights and equal protection under the law for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people?
Urvashi Vaid: Well, it’s been an incredible year of advances on several different fronts, and the Supreme Court cases were the biggest, most visible evidence of a real fundamental shift that we’ve seen in the last few years in public opinion about LGBT rights. The shift has been a shift in awareness about who LGBT people are, and a shift in people’s sense of not being threatened by us. That’s the way I read the public opinion polls. And law and policy follows public opinion; that’s usually the case.
Spirit: In what ways do you think the public’s outlook on LGBT people has shifted?
Vaid: It’s a shift from seeing us as sinful, immoral and dangerous, to seeing us as the people next door, as members of families, as somebody’s relatives. I think the shift has been in seeing LGBT people not so much as the other, but as part of the community.
In my time in activism — and I started in the late 1970s — there has been just a dramatic change in awareness about LGBT people and in public support for us. I think that years ago, we could not have conceived of so many non-gay people standing up and being allies in this fight. I mean, we could have conceived it, but we didn’t have it [laughs]. We wanted it, but we certainly did not have it. AIDS began the process of changing that, I think, with more people coming out and getting involved in caregiving and helping to build services.
Spirit: Many, many people were profoundly touched by the AIDS crisis, and began providing care and support for people with AIDS. But how and why do you think this began to change the larger society’s views of gay and lesbian people?
Vaid: I think AIDS had a lot to do with changing society’s views. AIDS touched millions of people in this country in a very personal way. And it helped the gay community come out of the closet about itself. People were in life-and-death situations and felt very politicized by the fact that the government wasn’t doing more to take care of LGBT people and to take care of all the different kinds of people affected by HIV.
It was a real eye-opening moment for many gay people in the 1980s, and I think it was really an eye-opening moment for many straight people and our family members and caregivers and doctors and professionals and politicians who saw people affected by AIDS as human beings and wanted the government to more aggressively fund medical research, drug development and needed services. Yet there was a resistance to that.
So I think that the government’s resistance to dealing with the epidemic in a compassionate way was very, very important in starting to shift many people’s minds.
Spirit: Your new book has a very hopeful title: Irresistible Revolution. Beyond the recent Supreme Court rulings, why are you optimistic that things are changing for the better in terms of equal rights and marriage equality for the LGBT community?
Vaid: I think it’s important to note that a lot of attitudes have changed. Public opinion polls show this change in attitude about support for LGBT rights. There’s majority support for non-discrimination laws and for including sexual orientation and gender identity in non-discrimination laws. There’s overwhelming majority support for treating LGBT people fairly, and larger and larger numbers of people are now supporting marriage equality. It’s gone from most of the country being opposed to it, to more than 53 percent supporting it. So it’s tipping in the other direction now. And if you look at younger people, those numbers are really different — the majority of the younger generation support it.
Spirit: The younger the people, the more they support same-sex marriage.
Vaid: Exactly. The younger the people, the more the support. The other thing that’s changing is that 21 states have passed some kind of non-discrimination law and 14 states now have marriage equality laws.
Spirit: So much of that progress seems to have happened in only the last four years. Haven’t these outcomes surpassed many people’s expectations?
Vaid: But what that also reveals is that there are large parts of this country that do not have any laws protecting gay people from discrimination. 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. There is a vast difference between persons working in Alabama, and what they have to contend with, or working in the state of Michigan or working in Indiana, compared to someone who is living in Massachusetts or in Vermont. So we have a long way to go.
Spirit: Yet, you write in the introduction to Irresistible Revolution that the ultimate victory of the LGBT movement is inevitable. So, even though you just pointed out that there is a very long way to go, aren’t you still offering an optimistic prognosis that social change will happen and justice for all will triumph?
Vaid: Sure! I am an optimist and I believe that the arc of history bends towards justice, as Dr. King said. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. That’s Dr. King’s beautiful phrase. So that’s why I think that. I believe in justice. I believe that people working and talking in each generation about what justice means will make a more perfect union, and we’ll be able to transform laws and policies and make meaningful changes in our society.
Many things that seem reasonable or just today may seem wrong 30 or 40 years from now. I ‘ve seen things change. Each generation, each historical moment, brings up new challenges and new issues. So I’m optimistic about that process. I believe in it. I believe in the idea of justice, I believe in the rule of law, and I believe in the perfectibility of law and governance. So that’s why I’m optimistic.
The other dimension of what the “irresistible revolution” means to me is the fact that gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people are part of every family — whether we’re acknowledged as that or not, we are there. It makes it seem to me that there is a kind of an irresistible pull towards understanding us and knowing us. We’re there, inside of so many different kinds of families.
Spirit: Yes, and many legislators, and even many conservative Republican officeholders, have learned they have gay family members or close lesbian friends.
Vaid: Indeed! Indeed they have. As have so many religious folks who have had to contend with that, and people from all different backgrounds. My family is Indian-American and we come from a very different cultural tradition, and it’s been a really wonderful opening up.
So I feel optimistic, yes, but not Pollyanna-ish. I’m just an organizer at heart, so I feel optimistic about the process by which change happens. But I’m very realistic about how many obstacles we’ve got ahead of us. My book talks a lot about some of the obstacles that we face from the right wing, and how organized the conservative right is, and what we’re going to have to do to really address that.
Spirit: What is there in your personal history or values that led you to a lifetime of activism? You could have chosen other work as a lawyer or professor, yet you’ve been an activist for 30 years now. Do you understand what led you to this path of lifelong work for social change?
Vaid: I think it was feeling like an outsider. And, second, I’m guess I’m just constitutionally anti-authority.
I came to this country as an immigrant. My family moved here from India, where I was born, when I was 8 years old. I grew up in a very Indian-identified family. We spoke Hindi at home and mixed Hindi and English. And we moved to a little town in upstate New York in the mid-1960s and it was a very different world. So I always felt like an outsider from that experience.
I didn’t know that I was a lesbian when I was a kid. I didn’t know what I was in terms of sexuality. But I think that the experience of becoming a feminist and becoming more aware of my sexuality as I grew older also contributed to this sense of being an outsider, or looking at the society that I was in from more of an outsider vantage point.
Spirit: Many activists, many dissenters, share that feeling of being an outsider.
Vaid: And I always identified with the other outsiders. They were my people [laughs]. The people on the streets protesting the war and the people in the civil rights movement that I was reading about and watching on TV in the mid-1960s. I was a child in the ‘60s — I always say that. I was 10 years old in 1968. And those were incredibly important images of these movements to me.
Then, the women’s movement was the movement that I first joined when I was in college in the mid-1970s. I also got really involved in anti-apartheid work at college because there was a huge student movement around that, particularly around divestment of college funds from companies doing business in South Africa. And then I graduated from college and got involved in the gay movement more fully. All these kinds of experiences became ways of really working from the outside to change various systems.
Also, I love music. Music is really an important part of my life. I love Indian music. I love classical music. But the music that really resonated for me and really hit home for me when I was young was, first, rock and roll, and then punk rock. I loved Patti Smith and Television and Talking Heads and the Ramones and those kind of bands in the mid-1970s. Their anti-authoritarian stance is what I really related to.
So I think I’m kind of built in a way that questions authoritarianism and dogma and that is very skeptical of bullies. I’m very infuriated by them and feel a responsibility to do something about it. I’ve always felt that responsibility. I can’t remember not feeling it.
Spirit: You’ve always felt a responsibility to stand up against bullying or speak out against the misuse of authority?
Vaid: Yes, I’ve always felt that responsibility. I can’t remember not feeling it. A responsibility to do something, to participate, to get involved, to really do something. So when I read about the Koch Brothers, I get infuriated. How dare they? How dare they hijack my life? And I can’t say that I’m doing a lot of effective things to stop them, but I’ll be darned if I’m just going to sit around and do nothing.
So just taking action is a real important principle in my life — doing something, getting involved, and through that process, learning and connecting with other people. I’m just really an activist, what can I say?
Spirit: In your book’s chapter on “Politics as an Act of Faith,” you wrote, “My experience with politics leads me to see it as an act of faith.” In what way do you see politics as an act of faith?
Vaid: Faith by its definition is belief in the outcome of something which you’re not sure is ever going to be achieved. That’s kind of the William James definition of faith. You have faith in something or somebody, and I think politics is a deeply optimistic, faith-based project.
I don’t mean to tie faith to a particular religious tradition. I see the concept of faith as being about belief, about commitment, about hope, and very much about optimism. Despite its bitterness and its ugliness, which is on full display right now in Washington, I find the experience of engaging in political change work to be a very inspiring and hope-filled process.
Sometimes you get really crappy outcomes, or you lose and it’s devastating. But I think there’s something magical about groups of people getting together, identifying a problem, and saying we’ve got to figure out a strategy to address this — whether they’re lawyers or they’re community organizers or they’re parents trying to fix the schools.
In my experience, politics is an imaginative process, too. And that’s another reason why I associate it with faith.
Spirit: Politics is an imaginative process in the sense that you’re imagining the building of a new world or imaginatively creating a new form of justice?
Vaid: Oh, what makes the engagement with social change fun is that you’re imagining a new world, or you’re imagining solutions that don’t necessarily exist, or you’re problem-solving a way forward, or a way through something. So that’s the fun of it to me and the creativity of it.
I was thinking a lot also when I was doing that chapter on “Politics as an Act of Faith,” about religiously faith-based people, and how much I’ve learned from working in partnership with people of faith. I have organized a lot of faith-based roundtables and leadership networks and meetings in coalitions, and the values basis of people of faith is something I completely connect with.
Because to me also, the politics that I’ve tried to live and believe in, is values-based. The values of justice and fairness and dignity and compassion are deep values that are the basis of my moral politics.
I’m an unusual activist, I think, and many of my peers look askew at me when I use the word “morality,” but I believe in an ethical framework guiding the work. You’re not always going to be perfectly moral, but you’ve got to strive to be. You know, you’ve got to try to do the right thing, to be questioning yourself about whether this work is grounded in some values basis. Or is this just grounded in my own ambition and my ego?
Values operate on every level: how you conduct yourself and how you try to do the work. Again, believe me, I am not perfect, and it’s not about purity, but it’s just an ethical framework that I relate to and I respect people of faith for having that.
Spirit: In your work with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, why did you focus on working with the faith community on LGBT issues? And what did you learn from this experience?
Vaid: Well, initially it was sort of pragmatic. I felt back in the early 1990s, that we were being hammered as a movement by these anti-gay ballot initiatives that were being proposed in Oregon and Colorado and all over the country, and were winning. What was happening was that the evangelical, white right-wing was organizing Black pastors and people of faith of different backgrounds to stand up and say, “This is immoral, this is unnatural, this is sinful and we shouldn’t give these people rights. They’re looking for special rights, not equal rights, and they’re denigrating the civil rights movement.”
All of those messages were coming out. I felt very strongly that we couldn’t respond to those messages effectively unless we had faith-based leaders standing up and saying, “Actually this isn’t the correct interpretation of scripture.”
So when I was working at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, I organized the first religious roundtable of pastors that were prominently speaking out for gay rights, and activists who were working in different denominations. It was really amazing, because the group of people that we had assembled had never been in a room with each together. Most had been working locally and were not connected to each other nationally. But it began a lot of good relationships and mutually supportive efforts.
I saw a great deal of value in supporting these kinds of organizations that were working inside different faith traditions to argue that they should be more embracing of LGBT people. It became an opportunity to really strengthen a whole lot of religious organizing that was going on.
And, as I said, the third, deeper dimension in which I’ve learned from that whole experience was this whole notion of the connection between values and activism for me.
Spirit: One major part of your book that I found just remarkable and even visionary is your analysis of what you call the “resistance of the mainstream LGBT movement” to incorporating issues of economic justice, racial justice, and gender justice. You speak out very strongly for people who have been marginalized not only by society, but have been mostly disregarded even in the LGBT movement. In what ways do you feel the LGBT movement has been silent or too inactive on the issues of economic and racial justice?
Vaid: There are several ways in which the movement has been silent. It’s been silent around the agenda that it works for. It’s been silent around who it represents. And it’s been silent in the alliances it has built with other social justice movements.
The gay rights agenda has been pretty narrowly focused on gay rights — such as adding sexual orientation to laws, adding gender identities, and trying to win formal legal equality. But there’s a way in which that approach ignores the difference between how different types of people experience equality and the conditions under which we live.
In other words, you can win formal legal equality, but the lived experience of somebody who is a person of color who is gay is different than the lived experience of somebody who is an urban white person who is gay. Right? It’s just different.
And there are different conditions and realities that face us. As a lesbian, as a woman, I experience a whole lot of challenges to just simply living my life, getting a job, being paid the same as a guy. It’s just structurally different for me. A movement that doesn’t take those kinds of realities of our lived experiences into account, and only focuses on formal legal equality, is a pretty narrowly focused movement.
Another way to look at the agenda of the gay movement is that it doesn’t really take up issues of racial justice, for the most part. It doesn’t take up issues of economic inequality in our country. And despite the fact that half of the people in the movement are women, the movement organizations aren’t even particularly pro-choice.
In other words, there are LGBT political organizations that will endorse candidates based only on their support or non-support of gay rights. They don’t even look at their positions on choice, so they might support a conservative Democrat who is anti-choice. I think that’s crazy because to me the issues of reproductive rights are so connected to the issues of sexual self-determination and sexual freedom that it just seems crazy that we would even distinguish between those two issues, but we do.
Spirit: You also describe what’s missing from the mission statements of most LGBT organizations.
Vaid: If you look at the mission statements of nonprofit organizations, it tells you what they’re organized to accomplish. Very few of the mission statements of the organizations in our communities actually reflect a commitment to racial justice. I think that’s really amazing and it should change. I think that is one way to change what the organizations work on, and it’s a very practical suggestion actually.
In terms of the representation issue, that’s about who is speaking for the movement, who is leading the institutions we’ve created, and who is on the boards.
Spirit: Who is speaking for the movement, and who is on the boards?
Vaid: It’s a majority white movement and leadership. It’s changing a bit. I think you have to acknowledge the presence of incredibly strong, talented, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of color. But a lot of the time you find LGBT people of color who have leading roles in people-of-color organizations, and less so in the major national LGBT organizations — the legal groups and the political groups. So I think it’s problematic that the boards aren’t very representative either.
I think it’s very important to have strong leadership, and the leadership for racial justice can come from many people. It doesn’t have to only come from people of color at all. So another way to look at representation is why is it that the leaders in our community aren’t representing the interests of a wider range of people? Because they could!
Spirit: Since the LGBT movement wants mainstream society to become more tolerant and accepting of gay, lesbian and transgender people who have been marginalized, isn’t it ironic that such a movement itself would forget that lesson of inclusion when it neglects the issues of people of color and very poor people and marginalized homeless youth?
Vaid: Right. And on that point, I see a difference between the national movement and the grass-roots movement, and one does find that groups working at the local level are the ones that are talking about race, class and gender. They’re the ones that are working with homeless youth who are affected by all these issues, right?
A lot of people working with transgender populations confront immense issues of economic inequality because trans people have quadruple the rate of unemployment of other gay people. They have a hard time getting jobs. People won’t hire trans people because of prejudice.
Spirit: It seems that more people are becoming aware that prejudice against transgender people has resulted in economic hardship and exclusion.
Vaid: Yes, and I think it’s important to recognize that there are grass roots LGBT groups that are working with these groups that are worse off because of oppression.
Spirit: One example is that during the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s in the Bay Area, ACT UP was a grassroots group that was great at making common cause with homeless organizations and fighting for housing and economic rights.
Vaid: Right. And ACT UP was working for health care as a right, not just as part of AIDS policy or AIDS-specific funding, but for health care for all. I thought that was really important. That speaks to my point that the grass roots parts of the community tend to be more intersectional and progressive, but the national movement is very single issue and narrow.
Spirit: You’ve taken an outspoken stand in saying that racial and gender justice and economic justice need to be a central part of the LGBT movement. Why has it become so personally important for you to insist that the movement focus more on championing the causes of poor and homeless people and people of color?
Vaid: For two reasons. One, because it’s a matter of principle and justice and we’re a justice movement. So we should always be fighting for social justice. It’s inextricable. It’s inseparable from broader justice issues.
The second reason is that even if people say, “Oh, a gay movement exists to serve gay people,” LGBT people are also people of color. We are represented among poor people in this country, among working people in this country, and among homeless people in this country. We’re a part of all of these populations. So a movement that is trying to address the lived experience of LGBT people has to be addressing these issues of poverty and racism.
Spirit: I see a parallel to the peace movement which also tends to be white and middle-class, and has often forgotten to work for racial justice. And even as it works against military violence, it seems to have forgotten that Gandhi said poverty is the worst form of violence.
Vaid: I also think about the parallel to the women’s movement. There has been a longstanding critique of the feminist movement and its lack of attention to women of color and economic justice issues.
I think that it’s been a problem and it has led to splits so that you had feminists who are working more on issues that affect all women and are more focused on economic rights and economic justice issues. And then others are more focused on, “Gosh, we need to get our husbands to help take care of our kids.” Which is important, I don’t mean to be putting it down. But I find it very interesting that the economic realities of all women were collapsed into the experience of some women.
That’s what happened in the women’s movement, and that’s what I don’t want to see happen in the LGBT movement. Some of us are successful and business owners and upper-middle-class professionals. I’m a professional. I’m a lawyer. And others of us are middle class, and others of us are working poor, and others of us are poor people, and others of us are homeless. The community has to be seen in its fullness and represented by the leaders and institutions that claim to represent us in our fullness.
I’m encouraged, and I’m not totally pessimistic and down on the gay movement at all. The book is very hopeful and full of lots of examples of positive things and lots of practical ideas and practical things that organizers are doing. That’s what gives the gay movement its liveliness right now, is that there is this conversation going on. It isn’t just me having it. It’s tons of people having this conversation and trying to change the approach of our movement, and trying to incorporate other parts of our community.
For example, I use a lot of data in the book that has been developed by different think tanks. It has been very helpful to have more solid research come out that documents what I’ve been saying.
So now we can say that large numbers of homeless youth are gay, and it makes it more visible. And it makes homelessness an issue that has to be on the gay movement’s agenda.
I think that many people have done good work to shatter the myth of gay affluence. You know, there’s a real myth out there that all gay people are well-to-do. I mean I’m happy that some gay people are well-to-do, but not everybody’s in the same boat.
Vaid: The end point should be seen as a change in the life chances and the lived experience of the person. So, if I win a gay rights law in New York State, how does it materially help the transgender person that’s trying to get a job? Actually, in New York State, we don’t even have a transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination bill. We’re still struggling to pass that in New York State. If you’re a trans person, and you get fired because you’re transgender or in transition, you can’t do anything about it. But let’s say you’re in a state where you could do something about it, the problem still is that you have to change the attitudes of employers and you have to educate people in the workplace to understand transgender issues.
What happened to the women’s movement is a great illustration. Women’s rights laws were passed in the 1970s banning discrimination based on sex and gender, and all sorts of changes were made, including Title IX and all these things, right? [Editor: Title IX, a federal law passed by Congress in 1972, states that no one can be excluded on the basis of gender from education programs or any activity receiving federal assistance.]
Spirit: When the Civil Rights Movement won the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965, it was then confronted with the terrible economic disparity that stood in the way of true freedom and equality. As you’ve pointed out, the LGBT movement now faces the exact same problem — even if equal rights are established, profound levels of poverty and economic inequality still remain. At first, winning equality under the law seems like it will result in liberation, but in reality, many people are still left behind in poverty and still subjected to intolerance and bigotry.
Vaid: I think that’s one of the pacifying effects of law, if you will. Law is the structure of all things, in many ways — said like a lawyer, that’s me. It structures so many systems of resource distribution and access. It gives you the illusion that if you change the law, you’ve changed the system. But there’s so much work to do after you’ve changed a law. I think we’ll see that in the marriage situation after winning the right to marriage — which we haven’t won, by the way, in all states.
Spirit: But there have been so many recent victories — big victories.
Vaid: There are so many victories, and the Supreme Court decision which held that the federal government could not constitutionally fail to recognize same-sex marriages in states that have passed it.
That part of the Supreme Court opinion that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act has had a profound effect on so many people’s lives, and yet, even with that court opinion, marriage equality has not been won in all the states where it needs to be won. There are still anti-marriage amendments that have to be overturned. There are also situations in which LGBT people who are unmarried don’t get advanced in any way by the Supreme Court decision. People who don’t have health insurance and can’t get it through their partners are still affected. We still have a lot of work to do in this country.
Spirit: I’m curious about the feedback you receive, given that your analysis must seem challenging to affluent and white gay and lesbian people who may benefit the most from the equal protections under the law that the movement is trying to achieve. Do you think that they may feel it is disadvantageous to tie the fate of the LGBT movement up with poor and homeless people, and people of color, and prisoners and immigrants, and transgender people, and all the others that you keep reminding them not to forget?
Vaid: That’s a great question. I feel like an interesting shift is happening, but it’s not going to happen just on its own. There’s nothing inevitable about this shift. The shift that I see happening is that, as middle class and mostly white people see their rights being won by the gay rights movement, I actually feel like people are looking at this and saying, “Wow, not all parts of our community are equally benefiting.”
I actually see the awareness of this increasing. I’ll give you an example. Here in New York, I was struck by the fact that we have won so much. There’s an equal marriage law, there’s a statewide nondiscrimination law, we have governors and mayors and state legislative leaders who speak in favor of gay people and are very gay-friendly. And yet, we don’t have a transgender bill. We don’t have gender identity included in the state law.
I was talking to a friend of mine who is a wonderful, successful lawyer, a gay white man who has been very active in the AIDS work in the 1980s and has been very active in supporting gay rights. He recently told me how radicalized he has become around the rights of transgender people. He said he had never thought about it in his whole life until he got involved in a statewide organization, and then he realized, “Oh, this is an unfinished piece of the agenda and I’m going to work to get it done.”
So he’s been trying to get it done by working on transgender issues for four years, and he’s been meeting such prejudice and such resistance that it has transformed his whole way of thinking about the community. And that’s what I see among a lot of activists. I feel like when you get involved in the LGBT community and in the movement, you have to start thinking about who does this benefit? Who is not included and who is included?
I feel that a lot of the donors and activists I see are grappling with that. I’m very encouraged that the conversation in many, many circles is not: “Oh great, we’ve won. Let’s pack it up.” But it’s much more about, “Hey, who has been left behind? What do we have to do to secure the wins that we’ve won? Where haven’t we won? Where do we need to focus next?”
Another friend of mine, a very successful guy, has just become completely involved in trying to support and raise funds for groups working in the South, because he feels that even as he lives in New York City, he has a responsibility to support work in the South.
Spirit: Still, these are only individuals who are beginning to see the need for a broader struggle for the rights of all the people who have been left out of the movement so far. But do you feel they represent a widespread awakening or is this just a matter of a few individuals becoming more politicized?
Vaid: Well, another problem that exists for the gay movement and for many social movements is that very, very few people are invested and involved. Only a tiny fraction of the LGBT community is actively involved in the movement. The Williams Institute estimates that there are something like 8.5 to 9 million gay people in this country. And yet, if you added up the memberships of all the national LGBT organizations, it would number well under one million. Well under one million.
Spirit: So less than one-tenth of the LGBT community really gets involved in movement work and political advocacy?
Vaid: Yes. Many, many people may participate in gay pride celebrations, or they might go to a gay bar, or support a gay and lesbian event in their community, but they’re not really connected to the advocacy and the political side of the movement enough. The movement has been self-financed and also financed by a small number of foundations. But mostly it’s been funded by volunteers who end up giving their time and contributing to make these organizations exist.
Spirit: You also write that the LGBT movement has sacrificed its broad liberationist agenda, along with its allies in the peace movement, the civil rights movement, labor unions and the anti-poverty movement, and this has weakened the movement because it has become a more single-issue movement that’s narrowly focused on equal rights. What led to that loss of vision and those past alliances?
Vaid: Well, that’s a good question. A friend of mine challenged me on that point. He said I was idealizing the 1970s [laughs]. Maybe so, but I do remember that the mainstream of the movement was very much committed to peace, poverty work, and to women’s rights, and to supporting labor unions.
Spirit: Definitely it was. You’re not idealizing anything. There was a broad connection to other parts of the movement, broad participation in the peace movement and labor struggles.
Vaid: Harvey Milk was a labor activist, right? He made alliances with unions.
Spirit: Yes. You’re not falsely remembering that. All that is historically true.
Vaid: Yes, so there you go. When you think about a political leader like Milk, and you think about Jim Foster, who was the head of a gay Democratic association back in the ‘70s and was the first openly gay person to speak at any of the political conventions, these were the mainstream gay political leaders of the time, and they were talking about all these other social issues. And the mainstream gay leadership of our time is not really talking about the national security state, the escalation of war, the decimation of jobs in this country and what we’re going to do about that, or the relationship between women’s rights and gay rights. They’re just not talking about it enough.
Spirit: What do you think has happened to that broader vision that true liberation includes peace, economic justice and racial justice, and women’s rights?
Vaid: I feel like you don’t get rewarded for talking about that. You get rewarded for being narrow. I talk about that in the book. You know, the incentive system for funding and for what success is seen to be, is pursuing very narrow objectives and winning on one particular thing.
I also think that we’ve gotten a bit more moderate, actually, as a community. I think the politics of the LGBT community has moved to the right. That’s not to say that there isn’t a vigorous and healthy progressive wing of the gay movement — there is. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is the best representative of that, and it’s multi-issue and progressive. But even the Task Force isn’t as left as the grass roots of the movement. So I do think that the goals and the aspirations of the movement have become more moderate. This could be part of the larger rightward shift in our country.
I think that some people have lost faith in the idea that we can make fundamental change in this country, and they’re settling for what we can get. So there’s many, many reasons for this shift, but again, what I tried to show in the book is that, even as I’m voicing this critique, there are vital, vibrant leaders in parts of the LGBT movement that are raising up the progressive voice.
Spirit: Where do you see that progressive spirit in today’s movement?
Vaid: When you look at the immigrant rights movement, there are a lot of openly gay people involved in the grass roots immigrant rights movement. They’re making the connections. If you look at the people who are looking at the criminalization and the over-incarceration of African American people in this country, and are working on prison reform or abolition, a lot of those people are talking about issues of sexuality, gender, race and class all together, because the criminal justice system brings you all of that, so you have to confront it. So, if you look at the folks who are working on particular issues such as homelessness, you see there are places where liberationist critiques are being articulated. So all is not lost.
Spirit: When you describe how it weakens the LGBT movement not to honor these past alliances with the peace movement and labor unions, you’re hitting on something very revealing. Back in the utopian past — but it was really only back in the 1970s and 1980s — feminists and lesbians became such a crucial leadership component of the nonviolent movements against nuclear weapons and nuclear power.
Spirit: They trained the movements of that era in feminist consensus training and in non-hierarchical ways of organizing, and they were so persuasive that this approach became the model for the whole anti-nuclear movement. And since they were so influential in movement circles, it really helped to connect the peace movement with feminist and gay and lesbian issues. The movements were in very close relationship with one another.
Vaid: Well, one of the things that disturbs me so much is that, in the politics of our time, the consensus that we are supposed to build is with the right wing, and not with other progressive forces. Not with one another. And that is disturbing to me. Pragmatically speaking, many gay rights wins in state legislatures have been won by appealing to moderate and conservative Republicans. We’ve gotten a few of them on our side because they have gay kids, or because somebody prominent in the state who’s a gay Republican donor got involved and made it safe for them (to also become involved).
I explore that dynamic in the chapter of my book on class issues where I talk about what it means to be in alliance with the Koch Brothers, who are supportive of gay rights and who hosted a fundraiser for Republican politicians who supported gay rights in New York State. Many of the gay activists I know were like, “Well, this is smart politics. We’ve got to do this. It’s pragmatic. It’s the new wave.” And I’m thinking, “No it isn’t!” We’re standing with people who are anti-labor, who are anti-choice, who are anti-everybody who has stood with us for all these years. Why are we abandoning those people in favor of these people? Couldn’t we get the win without being allied with these people?
Spirit: What is the down side of being allied with these conservative forces?
Vaid: There is a serious down side of being allied with these people. Are these the values that we share? Is this what the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender movement wants? Is our worldview aligned with the worldview of the Koch Brothers? I don’t think so. And that’s not how we vote as a community. We vote progressive. The majority of our community doesn’t agree with this alliance.
It’s a very shortsighted approach and it’s a different strategy than saying, “Hey, we’re really going to make alliances with labor and the peace movement and the religious progressives and all these other parts of the community, and we’re going to build an electorate that’s going to be able to squash these people.”
Spirit: You described a fascinating survey by the Human Rights Campaign that found that gay and lesbian people of color identified their most important issues as affordable health care, jobs and the economy, housing and shelter. Yet none of these issues are the top priority for mainstream LGBT organizations.
Vaid: That’s correct. I think it’s the difference between what touches the lives of people and will actually help them in their lives and, on the other hand, what historically the gay movement was organized to achieve, which was recognition. So it’s the difference between the politics of recognition and the politics of redistribution. That’s one way to look at it.
In the national movement, we’re very much still engaged in trying to get ourselves recognized in the law. And I’m not denying the value of that. I understand that our rights have to be written into the law in order to be protected by it.
But what I’m saying is that being written into the law, in a way, brings with it a bunch of other problems. We’re bought into a system of compliance with the law when we really need to be talking about how to use the law to restructure power in this country. So there’s a disconnect sometimes between the issues that are important to people on the ground and what the mainstream organizations are fighting for.
But if you look at the legal organizations that are actually representing clients, like the immigration groups or the transgender groups, those groups are very much involved in these bread-and butter issues and the economic justice issues, and access to services and denials to services and fighting criminalization.
So marriage equality has dominated the headlines and it was a conversation that everybody was talking about. But the far less sexy issue of how many gay people and transgender people are unemployed didn’t dominate the headlines. It’s also harder to address.
So I was really intrigued by that survey of the disconnect. I also think it speaks to the fact that there is no mechanism for our organizations to be internally democratic — in other words, for members or participants in an organization to actually help set the agenda of that organization.
Spirit: You wrote about the widespread outcry over the murder of Matthew Shepard, and added that in your 30 years in the LGBT movement, you have seen no comparable outcry over the murder of a poor or nonwhite gay person.
Vaid: There are hundreds of transgender people and people of color who are murdered and assaulted. It’s all tragic, you know. There’s no need to make a hierarchy here. It’s all horrible. All hate crimes are horrible. But there are race and class politics that come into these situations.
People may not feel the immediate emotional connection there. It strikes me that the identification isn’t there. And that’s where the media is part of the problem, if they’re not covering this. The mainstream media presents certain racial stereotypes, and they present people of color in certain stereotyped ways. They won’t cover crimes against certain kinds of people.
So if the mainstream media are not going to take up cases and nationalize them, in the way that the Shepard case became a national thing, then people don’t even know about it. But it’s also the responsibility of our community-based organizations to talk about these racial dynamics and how they affect who is seen as a target and who isn’t. So much of the violence that’s been experienced in our communities is aimed at people of color. It’s astonishing.
Spirit: Your book reports that 100,000 LGBT youth are homeless in the United States, and one in five LGBT families are raising children in poverty. Were you concerned when you uncovered such high rates of poverty and homelessness?
Vaid: Yes, and I think poverty in our country is growing in every community. But LGBT people have long been characterized by the most visible members of our community, who have been middle class and upper middle class. So the assumptions have been that all gay people are well-to-do professionals and doing fine. No we’re not. The truth is that we’re represented in every income bracket.
The data that are now coming out about LGBT people show how many of us are poor. For many years, we didn’t have questions asked on surveys about people’s sexual orientation and gender identity. So surveys that were being done to determine rates of poverty, or to ask people about basic information in the census process, didn’t include questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.
To this day, those questions are unevenly asked. But the ones that have been added to the census data which allow you to figure out if there is a same-sex household, are the ones that are being used by a lot of researchers to identify the problem of poverty in the gay community.
There are many reasons for the high poverty rates. Some of them are that the economic situation in our country has moved away from manufacturing and those good jobs have left this country, and there’s a whole different kind of job that’s available. And so a lot of people are unemployed. The fiscal crisis of 2008 created more economic uncertainty for people. So those macroeconomic kinds of conditions definitely have affected gay people.
But there’s a lot of evidence that the inequality that gay and lesbian people experience from discrimination or prejudicial conduct also contributes to lesser wages and more poverty. The work that the Williams Institute at UCLA has done has shown, for example, that gay men actually earn less than straight men, and that there’s a wage differential based on sexual orientation.
I find those kinds of facts revealing and they paint a picture that sort of proves what we know experientially, which is that discrimination creates barriers. So transgender people in the workplace experience a higher rate of unemployment, clearly because of prejudice and discrimination. Women are still facing glass ceilings and barriers to promotion and differential treatment and differential expectations that are really hard to prove in a court of law, but they exist, in fact, in life, and in every workplace.
And the homeless youth issue is really troubling because so many of the young people are on the streets because their families have rejected them, or because they fear that their families will reject them, or their communities have rejected them. So that is a failure of a whole other part of our society, and that is familial homophobia. It’s a really big issue that is hard to address because you can’t really legislate your way out of that one. Families have to come to terms with the sexual identities and gender identities of their kids, and sadly, so many people are rejected by their families of origin.
Spirit: In the Bay Area, we have seen that many young people end up homeless because they’ve timed out of the foster care system, or had to leave abusive foster situations. And they may have been in foster care to begin with because of the family rejection you described. It’s very difficult for an 18-year-old to survive in today’s bleak economy if they have no family and have timed out of foster care.
Vaid: I’m not a deep expert or anything on this, but it seems as if the problem of youth homelessness has increased, and the documentation of the problem has also increased. There seems to be many more young people who are on the street and who are caught up in the foster care and other systems.
Spirit: Your book makes the point that, in economic terms, the United States is now one of the most unequal democracies in the world. In both the African American community and the LBGT community, even though legal barriers to equality are falling and civil rights protection are increasing, there is growing economic inequality in both these communities. What has gone wrong with equality?
Vaid: I think it goes back to the larger increase in income inequality in our country because of the Reagan-era and post-Reagan administration policies around so-called tax reform and cutting the amount of money that is collected for the common good by the government.
The tax breaks that were given to corporations and to high net worth individuals have had serious consequences. They have produced a society where the wealthier you are, the wealthier you get, and the poorer you are, the poorer you get. And the middle class is getting poorer because the supports that were provided to it by government programs are being eliminated.
So the income disparity between African American households and white households is huge in terms of assets. And this is despite the fact that there are more black professionals and successful people in every career path, and despite the fact that we have a wonderful black president. It’s a reality that income disparity is very real between black and white households.
And what is going on with gay households? The data are showing that gay households are actually poorer than heterosexual households. It’s very new information and from a small data set, so it’s hard to draw big conclusions from that.
But the point I was trying to make is that every movement has to stay focused on addressing this — not just on removing the formal, legal barriers of discrimination and inequality — but also the lived experience of people, which requires more of an engagement with the economic system.
We haven’t solved that. I certainly have not in my book. It’s a life’s work to figure out what a socially responsible form of capitalism could look like. And honestly, as contradictory as that is, I think that is what we’re left with, that’s what we’re trying to achieve — the moderation of this economic system so that it can socialize the benefits.
We have a system right now in which the risk of many things is passed on to large numbers of people and the benefits are held by very few people. The risk is socialized and the benefit is privatized. We need to reverse that. We need to come up with a system in which economic risk is not distributed to everybody and suffered by everybody, but rather the benefits truly benefit everybody.