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Attorney, LGBTQ activist and author Urvashi Vaid dies

Former National LGBTQ Task Force executive director passed away in New York

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Lorri L. Jean, Rea Carey, Urvashi Vaid and Matt Foreman (Photo courtesy of the National LGBTQ Task Force)

Urvashi Vaid, a powerful longtime influential attorney and LGBTQ activist whose career spanned from the early days of the AIDS pandemic to the contemporary battles over equality and equity for the LGBTQ community died today at her home after a bout with cancer in New York.

Vaid, 63, known for her extensive career as an advocate for LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, anti-war efforts, immigration justice and many other social causes, had served as the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force from 1989-1992 and served prior to that as the organization’s media director.

Urvashi Vaid, on front left, speaks at an ACT UP DC demonstration in 1990 in front of the U.S. Capitol calling for funding of the CARE Act. (Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

“We are devastated at the loss of one of the most influential progressive activists of our time,” said Kierra Johnson, current executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. “Urvashi Vaid was a leader, a warrior and a force to be reckoned with,” continued Johnson, “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.”

“Her leadership, vision and writing helped shape not only the Task Force’s values and work but our entire queer movement and the larger progressive movement. We will strive every day to live up to her ideals and model the courage she demonstrated every day as an activist and a person. She will be deeply I missed. I miss her already,” concluded Johnson.

National LGBTQ Task Force

Vaid’s impact on the politics of the the AIDS crisis and the battles over full equality was considerable. During former President George H.W. Bush’s 1990 address on AIDS, Vaid, then the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, made a statement with her sign: “Talk Is Cheap, AIDS Funding is Not.” Her critique made waves, disrupting the press conference, and shedding light on the failures of the Bush administration.

Another former executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, Rea Carey noted in her post on Facebook:

“I am deeply sad that Urvashi Vaid has died. My heart is with Kate and all of Urv’s beloveds who have been with her these last years, months and days as she dealt with cancer. My activism has been greatly shaped by the fact that Urv took me seriously as a young leader in our movement. She seemed endlessly excited about the ideas and passion for justice that young activists held. She was one of our movement’s motivators and north stars.

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 10-20 rapid fire ideas of things she thought I should be doing, or doing much better … tomorrow!

Urv pushed me to see connections, dig deeper, and I was a better activist and leader for it. Her impact within the National LGBTQ Task Force carried on long after she left its staff. The sheer intellectual and strategic hole in our movement’s 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 liberation, gathering data through the National LGBTQ+ Women’s Community Survey. The only thing I ever saw Urv be more passionate about than her pursuit of freedom and liberation, was her love for Kate, their family, and her energy for her friends.

The best way we can honor Urv is to continue to fight for justice and the full liberation of all people,” Carey said.

Her time at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in which she held multiple positions for over 10 years, notably media director, then executive director, saw her bring all aspects of queer life and struggle into the public eye. While at the Task Force, she co-founded the annual Creating Change conference, now in its 33rd year. 

“I first met Urv in the early 1980’s when we were both young attorneys and lesbian activists in Washington, D.C. As we became friends and, eventually, colleagues, I admired her leadership and all that she accomplished, both within and outside of our movement—for queer people, for women, for people of color and against poverty. She continued her work to advance equity and justice until the very end.  

“I’ll always be grateful to Urv for being one of the people who encouraged me, back in 1992, to accept the job running the Los Angeles LGBT Center. And when the National LGBTQ Task Force faced severe financial challenges in 2001, she played the key role in recruiting me to step in and help turn things around, lending her support every step of the way.  

“Over the years, we spent many an hour laughing and scheming about ways to advance the causes we cared so deeply about. Urvashi was a visionary. But she was so much more: Brilliant, hilarious, charismatic, loving, determined and, above all, courageous. She made life better for all of us. Our community and our nation owe her an enormous debt of gratitude. Our hearts go out to Urvashi’s wife, Kate Clinton, and to everyone who loves her. If there’s a heaven, Urv is already organizing the angels,” said Los Angeles LGBT Center CEO Lorri L. Jean.

Troy Masters, the founder of Gay City News in New York, a longtime LGBTQ advocate and currently the publisher of the Los Angeles Blade noted upon hearing the news; “On a day when millions march to protect our rights and stand up to a right wing SCOTUS, we celebrate the life of one of our greatest social justice LGBTQ and AIDS warriors—keep shining on Urvashi Vaid.”

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. Rather than tolerance, she argued, the objective for the movement should be fundamental, actionable change. It was not an immediately popular notion, as media representation for queer people was just beginning to take shape, though it was, for her, of great moral importance. In 1996 “Virtual Equality” won the Stonewall Book Award. 

In her position as president of the Vaid Group, Vaid advised, mentored, and supported the LGBTQ movement. 

In 2012, Urvashi Vaid 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. 

Prior to that, Vaid 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 on-going National LGBTQ women’s community survey.

Urvashi Vaid with her longtime partner Kate Clinton/Facebook

Vaid was the aunt of activist and performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon.

She is survived by Alok Vaid-Menon as well as her longtime partner, political humorist Kate Clinton. 

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JR.’s owner Eric Little dies

Beloved figure supported LGBTQ charities, started iconic high heel race

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Eric Little (left) with longtime friend Paul Williams (right). (Photo courtesy Williams)

Eric Little, longtime owner of the iconic 17th Street gay bar JR.’s and the recently closed gay bar Cobalt, also located on 17th Street, died peacefully in his sleep on May 1 at his home in Hollywood, Md., of unknown causes, according to his partner Barry Spencer.

Under Little’s stewardship, JR.’s has been the recipient of multiple neighborhood and community awards, including the Washington Blade’s Best Neighborhood and Best Happy Hour bar. Little has also been credited with arranging for JR.’s and the nearby gay bar Cobalt that he owned from 1999 to 2019 to host fundraisers for local LGBTQ charities, including Casa Ruby.

Little began his involvement with JR.’s since the time it opened in 1986 as an employee and manager for its original owners. He bought the bar in 1996, according to David Perruzza, who began working at JR.’s under Little in 1997 and continued working there as manager until 2018.

Little owned the popular gay bar Cobalt, located at 17th and R Streets, N.W., for 20 years before he closed it in 2019 after the owners of the building in which the bar was located sold it to developers who planned to convert it into residential occupancy. Cobalt featured dancing and live entertainment as well as a restaurant with outdoor seating at various times during its 20-year run.

Perruzza said Little started the annual Halloween high heel race on 17th Street, which now draws thousands of spectators, in 1986 when he first came to work at JR.’s. In 2018, Perruzza left JR.’s to open his own gay bars Pitchers and A League of Her Own in Adams Morgan. He has credited Little with serving as his mentor.

“I spent 22 years with Eric Little and he taught me everything I know about the bar business,” Perruzza said in a Facebook post. “He was my gay dad and helped me make a lot of life defining moments.”

D.C. nightlife advocate Mark Lee said he recalls that Little started out as a server and bookkeeper at JR.’s and later as manager under the previous owners before buying the popular gay bar.

“Like nearly every other operator of our city’s nightlife hospitality establishments, Eric Little started out working in service and support staff positions,” Lee said. “He exemplified the best and the beauty of what is an industry of opportunity, in which servers and bartenders and bookkeepers become managers and operators and owners, both leading local venues and creating new ones,” said Lee, who now coordinates the non-profit advocacy organization D.C. Nightlife Council, a trade association.

“He employed and mentored others who have continued that expanding chain of commerce by going on to open new venues or grow as nightlife professionals,” Lee said. “Eric’s legacy will be long-lasting and much-appreciated, remembered for his straight-up straight-talking leadership helming the socializing and entertainment venues, past and present, that have been his gift to the LGBT community.”

“I considered Eric my best friend and muse for nearly 30 years,” said longtime friend and D.C. resident Paul Williams. “He helped many, and our laugh sessions together likely annoyed many. But they remain priceless as do the many shenanigans we brought upon ourselves together all over the world,” said Williams. “He will be deeply missed by all.”

“We are blessed that there are so many people who love him, and we feel the warmth and prayers of our Southern Maryland friends and our JR’s family,” said Spencer in a Facebook post announcing Little had passed away. “Thank you to all who have reached out today.”

Family will receive friends for Little’s celebration of life on Wednesday, May 18, from 4-7 p.m., with a memorial service at 7 p.m., at Brinsfield Funeral Home, PA, 22955 Hollywood Rd., Leonardtown, MD 20650. Interment will be private.

Memorial contributions may be made in Little’s name to the Alzheimer’s Association, 225 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60601 or www.alz.org.

Condolences may be made to the family at www.brinsfieldfuneral.com.

Arrangements by Brinsfield Funeral Home, Leonardtown, MD.

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Longtime LGBTQ+ journalist & editor Thomas Senzee dies at 54

California native’s award winning career spanned nearly thirty years in media

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Thomas Senzee at San Diego Pride in 2012 (Thomas Senzee/Facebook)

PALM SPRINGS – The former Editor-In-Chief of the San Diego LGBT Weekly webzine and frequent contributor to The San Diego Reader, an alternative press newspaper, has died at age 54.

Thomas Senzee, a California native whose award winning career spanned nearly thirty years in media, writing for outlets including The Huffington Post, The Advocate/OUT, The Fight Magazine, The Washington Blade, The Los Angeles Business Journal and other publications, was found deceased on Thursday, March 24, 2022, in Palm Springs.

The Coroner’s Bureau of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has listed his death as undetermined pending further investigation by the Coroner’s office.

Senzee served on the board of directors of the San Diego Press Club, and was that organization’s Professional Development Committee chair. He was also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Los Angeles Press Club and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, the chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party and a Civil Service Commissioner with the County of San Diego government paid tribute to Senzee;

“I am saddened to hear about the passing of Thom Senzee the former editor-in-chief of LGBT Weekly. I met Thom a little over a decade ago and worked as one of his reporters and social media director. I learned a lot from him as he took me under his wing and educated me. He was kind, thorough, dedicated to the truth, and he always challenged me to do my best on every story,” Rodriguez-Kennedy said adding;

“He was an award winning veteran journalist with over 30 years of experience writing and editing for a number of news organizations and served on the board of directors of the San Diego Press Club. He would check in with me from time to time as the years went on. Rest In Peace, my friend.”

Veteran LGBTQ+ correspondent and former editor of The Los Angeles Blade, Karen Ocamb, marked Senzee’s passage writing:

“Thom Senzee was indefatigable. He loved the news. He loved journalists reporting the news. And he especially loved LGBTQ reporters and media personalities putting their spin on news about LGBTQ people and the ongoing issue of AIDS. Several times he invited me to sit on panels he created in conjunction with the Los Angeles Press Club. As host, Thom would throw out a question like: ‘Have sexual orientation and gender identity become non-issues?’ and then let actors Jason Stuart and the late Alexis Arquette and me vie for ‘air time’ in response. It was a hoot – and informative. And family. We need more folks like Thom Senzee. He will be missed.” 

Senzee is survived by a brother and two sisters. The family has started a GoFundMe page to defray funeral expenses and would appreciate any donations to help with his funeral/memorial costs

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Obituary

Law professor, LGBT rights advocate Joe Tom Easley dies at 81

Played key role in effort to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

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Joe Tom Easley

Joe Tom Easley, a nationally recognized attorney and LGBTQ rights advocate who taught at three U.S. law schools and served on the boards and in leadership positions at several national and D.C. LGBTQ and human rights organizations, died Feb. 13 at a hospital near his Miami Beach residence of complications associated with lung disease. He was 81.

Peter Freiberg, Easley’s husband and partner of 39 years, said Easley’s skills as a negotiator, speaker, teacher, and political strategist enabled him to serve as a volunteer advocate for LGBTQ and civil rights causes beginning in the late 1970s, when he began as a tenured law professor at American University Law School in D.C.

In 1978, according to Freiberg, Easley was appointed as an assistant dean at the A.U. Law School in addition to his teaching duties at a time when he came out as gay. “At that time, there were very few out university administrators,” Freiberg said.

From 1981 to 1983 Easley worked as a professor at the then-Antioch Law School in D.C., where he also served as an adviser to LGBTQ student groups. Antioch’s D.C. Law School later evolved into the University D.C. Law School.

Freiberg said that around the time Easley left Antioch in 1983 he began his affiliation as a lecturer with BARBRI, the nation’s largest training course and coaching program for law school graduates preparing to take their state bar exam.

“Based on student reviews, he was an extremely popular lecturer, making even his assigned, somewhat difficult subjects – contracts and real property law – interesting and enjoyable,” Freiberg said. He said the BARBRI organization arranged for Easley to travel to cities throughout the country to give his bar preparation lectures, usually in the months prior to when the winter and summer state bar exams are given for prospective lawyers.

He continued his lecturing with BARBARI until his retirement in 2013, Freiberg said.
Easley became active with D.C.’s Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance from 1980 to 1982, according to Freiberg, and in 1982 Easley was elected as president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, D.C.’s largest local LGBTQ political group. Freiberg said that around that time, then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry appointed Easley as a member of the D.C. Police Civilian Complaint Review Board, which LGBTQ activists played a lead role in persuading the D.C. Council to create.

“Joe Tom was certainly a passionate, articulate and politically savvy champion of human rights in so many ways, most crucially in the fight to establish a Civilian Complaint Review Board,” said D.C. LGBTQ activist Craig Howell.

From left, Leslie Harris, Craig Howell, Joe Tom Easley, Frank Kameny, Tom Chorlton, Mel Boozer and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry at the Civilian Complaint Review Board law signing ceremony on Nov. 21, 1980. (Blade archive photo by John M. Yanson)

In 1983, Easley moved to New York City to live with Freiberg after the two became a couple that year. A short time later, Easley, while continuing his activism, enrolled in Yale University’s graduate school where he received a master’s degree in public health in 1986. Freiberg said Easley then taught public health law at Yale’s medical school part time for the next two years. During his time as a student and as a teacher at Yale, Easley commuted from Manhattan to New Haven four days a week, Freiberg said.

Easley, an only child, was born in Robstown, Texas, near Corpus Christi and spent his early childhood years in Truby, Texas, a small farming town where he started school in a one-room schoolhouse. His family moved to Eagle Pass, a Texas border city on the Rio Grande River in 1950, Freiberg said, where Easley graduated from Eagle Pass High School.

He received his undergraduate degree with a major in English from Texas A&M University in 1963. Freiberg said when Easley was about to be drafted during the Vietnam War in 1966, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served on a Naval intelligence base on a small island near the Alaska-Russian border.

“After a year, he was told that a friend who had propositioned him for sex before he ever joined the Navy informed the government that he was gay,” Freiberg said in recounting Easley’s brief period of military service. “His commander apologetically told him that he had no choice but to kick him out—all gay people were barred from serving—but that because of his exemplary service he would ensure Joe Tom received an honorable discharge and veteran benefits.”

His Navy benefits through the longstanding G.I. Bill veterans’ education program helped to pay Easley’s tuition at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, where he received his law degree.

During and shortly after his law school years Easley became involved with the anti-Vietnam War movement and during summer breaks as a law student became involved with the first group of Ralph Nader’s, “Nader’s Raiders” drawing attention to government and corporate malfeasance, according to Freiberg.

After law school Easley served as a law clerk for a federal judge in Boston from 1971 to 1972 before serving as an assistant professor for the next two years at the University of Georgia Law School in Athens, Freiberg said.

Easley next left for Europe in 1975, where he worked for the Brussels-based European Bureau of Consumer Organizations. Among other things, he assisted with an investigation of price-fixing by pharmaceutical companies.

Freiberg recalled that over the course of his career Easley also taught part-time for short periods at the University of Virginia Law School and New York’s Cardozo Law School.

He said Easley’s devotion to LGBTQ equality and civil rights for other minorities, including African Americans, began in full force when he returned to the U.S. from Europe to begin teaching at American University in D.C.

In addition to his affiliation with local D.C. LGBTQ groups, over the next 30 years Easley became involved with and helped advance the work of a number of national LGBTQ organizations. Among them was Lambda Legal, the New York-based LGBTQ litigation group for which Easley served on the board of directors from 1981 to 1991 and as board co-chair from 1983 to 1987.

From 1988 to 1995 he served as president of the Human Rights Campaign Fund Foundation, which later changed its name to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. He also served on the board of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a national group that assisted LGBTQ service members facing discharge from the military due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Freiberg said Easley’s own discharge from the Navy for being gay helped to solidify his commitment and dedication to the cause of LGBTQ service members.

With Easley’s active involvement, SLDN played an important role in the successful campaign to persuade Congress to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law, which continued to be used to discharge LGBTQ people from the military if their sexual orientation or gender identity became known to military authorities.

Freiberg said Easley’s skills as a public speaker on behalf of LGBTQ equality surfaced in 1988 when he delivered the closing speech before more than 200 LGBTQ leaders from across the country attending a “War Conference” in Warrenton, Va., called by AIDS activist Larry Kramer to draw attention to the continuing AIDS epidemic, anti-LGBTQ court decisions, and anti-gay vitriol by religious right groups.

In what he and Easley also considered a gesture in support of LGBTQ equality, Freiberg said he and Easley in 2003 traveled to Toronto to legally marry. Their wedding became what the couple believed to be the first same-sex wedding to be written about in the New York Times’s wedding celebration feature.

“We felt strongly that legal marriage would not make one bit of difference in our relationship, and it didn’t,” said Freiberg. “But we wanted to make a political statement that our love and devotion was equal to anyone else’s, and that gay couples deserved equality before the law, including benefits and responsibilities,” Freiberg said.

“His whole life was animated by a desire to work for social justice and to do good,” said Freiberg. “He supported the underdog, whether LGBT people, African Americans, an injured Iraqi boy or the disabled, which he was in his last three years.”

Freiberg was referring to the national news media attention Easley received in 2005, including a story in the New York Times, after he arranged for an Iraqi boy injured in Iraq by a U.S. bomb to be brought to the U.S. for medical treatment.

“Joe Tom Easley was a dear friend and mentor who taught me much about leadership, LGBT politics, the law and about giving,” said Vic Basile, former executive director of the Human Rights Campaign and a longtime LGBTQ rights advocate. “He led by example, giving generously of his time and broad knowledge to help others in need, never asking or expecting anything in return,” Basile said.

Easley was predeceased by his parents, Tom Lee Easley and Lady Hampton Easley.

He is survived by his husband and partner of 39 years, longtime journalist Peter Freiberg; his sister-in-law and brother-in-law Eileen and Barney Freiberg-Dale; his niece, Sabrina Freiberg-Dale; his nephew, Hunter Dale and fiancée Eve Lichacz; a cousin, Jane Hays; and many friends around the world.

Plans for a memorial service, including a memorial event in D.C., will be announced. Contributions in his memory can be made to Lambda Legal, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the National Parks Foundation.

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