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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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Obituary

Local resident, sales manager Malek Zaarour dies at 72

Lebanese American beloved for his support and respect for others

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Malek Sleiman Zaarour (Photo courtesy of Alexei Michalenko)

Malek Sleiman Zaarour, a native of Beirut, Lebanon who immigrated to the U.S. in 1991 to pursue degrees in business administration and accounting in the D.C. area before specializing in kitchen appliance sales, died on Aug. 23 from pancreatic cancer. He was 72.

His domestic partner, Alexei Michalenko, said Zaarour, who spoke Arabic, English, and French, spent his early years living in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, and for a short time in Athens. Michalenko said his partner developed a keen understanding and respect for different cultures that drew the admiration of those he knew and befriended during his more than 20 years living in the D.C. area.

“For me, he was a living example of what all people should be,” said Michalenko. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. And that was the greatest thing about his openness,” his partner said.

A write-up on Zaarour prepared by Michalenko says he was the sixth of nine siblings born in Beirut on Sept. 26, 1950. After graduating high school, he joined a government teaching program and earned a bachelor’s degree in math at Beirut Science University, the write-up says.

It says he left Lebanon for Saudi Arabia in 1976 shortly after the start of the Lebanese civil war. In Saudi Arabia he worked as a sales manager for a Lebanese company that specialized in kitchen cabinets and appliances, the write up says.

After 13 years in Saudi Arabia, he returned to Lebanon for one year, according to his partner’s write up. He then spent three months in Athens, before immigrating to the United States in October 1991, the write-up says.

For the next several years, the write up says, Zaarour pursued degrees in business administration and accounting from Strayer University in Maryland while working for the Sears department store chain in the kitchen appliances department.

Malek Sleiman Zaarour

Under a U.S. immigration policy that considers someone’s sexual orientation as grounds for asylum due to possible persecution and danger if they return to their home country, Zaarour was granted asylum and became a U.S. citizen in October 2014, the write up says.

“Malek met his late partner, Thomas W. Wadlow, in September 1991,” the write up continues. “They formed a love partnership for 20 years, traveling to various places and beaches and entertaining guests until Thomas’ passing on Oct. 28, 2011,” it says.

“Five years later Malek met his current partner, Alexei Michalenko, with whom he shared seven and a half years of life, fun and travel,” according to the write up. “After selling the house he shared with Thomas in S.E. Washington, Malek moved in with Alexei, sharing an apartment in Alexandria, Va.”

The write up says Zaarour was diagnosed with bladder cancer in November 2019 for which he was successfully treated. But in October 2022 he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and suffered the “challenging side-effects of chemotherapy, until deciding to cease further treatment and requested hospice palliative care until his death,” the write up says.

Zaarour is survived by his partner, Alexei Michalenko; his sisters, Afaf, Souad, and Mariam; his brothers, Ameen and Khodr (Zeineb); several nephews and nieces among whom he was especially close – Ali (Katrina), Mohamad, and Beleal, Ahmed and another Mohamad; and many friends in the U.S. and abroad.

The write up says final funeral arrangements were carried out through Islamic International Funeral Service, with prayers offered at the Islamic Guidance Center, also known as Ahlul Bayt Mosque, in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a burial held in Forest Green Park Cemetery in Morganville, N.J.

“May Malek’s memory continue to be a blessing to all who knew and loved him and whom he knew and loved,” the write up concludes. 

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Air Force veteran Charles Albee Riley dies at 75

Known for a passionate drive to succeed

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Charles Albee Riley

Charles Albee Riley, a U.S. Air Force veteran, passed away at Inova Hospital in Alexandria, Va., on June 12, 2023, with family at his side, according to a statement released by family. He was 75. 

Riley was known for his passionate drive to succeed, his family said, which allowed him to excel during his service in the U.S. Air Force. As a gay man he could not serve openly, and ultimately found his true calling as a real estate agent. His success allowed him to provide for his husband and children.

His hard work and personable demeanor proved an invaluable trait for a man who began in the Air Force and progressed to a Staff Non-Commissioned Officer and was able to thrive in his true calling as a Realtor in the Washington, D.C. area, the statement says. He loved being a Realtor. In both endeavors he accumulated numerous accolades and awards. 

The youngest of three children, Riley was born Oct. 21, 1947, in Philadelphia, to Helen Arathusa Riley (Albee) and Marion Eugene Riley. He loved art and had a passion for drawing. He attended William B. Evans Grade School and Yeadon High School, both in Yeadon, PA. 

According to the statement, his dream was to attend art school, but it was 1966 and his uncle advised him to enlist in the service before he got drafted. He took that advice and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force just a few short weeks before he received the draft notice in the mail. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Riley returned to Philadelphia and on January 5, 1967, he married his first love Charlotte Ann Riley (Doan). She remained one of his closest friends throughout his life. Soon after they were married, he and Charlotte moved to Minot, N.D. where he worked on the Minuteman Missile. In 1969 they had their first of three sons, Scott Warren Riley.

He was discharged after four years and in 1970 they returned to Philadelphia to reunite with family and embark on a career in banking. This endeavor was short lived and in less than 2 years, they were expecting their second child and the benefits the Air Force provided compelled him to reenlist. In 1972, they welcomed Kyle Patrick Riley. Riley would go on to change career fields and switched to administration and then served in Okinawa, Japan; Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, where in 1977 he and Charlotte had their third son Matthew Charles Riley; Hill Air Force Base, Utah; and McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey. Riley closed out his career with tours at the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington, D.C., and his last duty location was Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. 

“Our mother, Charlotte, is the epitome of strength and love,” the statement reads. “When dad decided to live his life as a fully integrated gay man, she singlehandedly held the family together.” 

Riley met Wayne Edward Schwandt at a Gay Fathers Coalition (GFC) Halloween Party for the children of gay fathers in 1984. “Chuck and Wayne had their first kiss that night, and he became the love of my dad’s life. … Dad came out in a time when it was difficult and taboo to be gay. He would often talk about his and Wayne’s courtship and how there were no examples of how to be a male/male family with children. The Gay Fathers Coalition was so important to them and was an amazing support network.” 

Riley loved the arts, the theater, and “every time we hear Barbra Streisand, a song from Evita, or Cher, we will think of Dad and over time our tears will become smiles. He was a wonderful and thoughtful man. Dad will forever be in our hearts.” 

He is predeceased by his husband Rev. Dr. Wayne Edward Schwandt, his brother William “Bill” Riley (Eve), and his daughter-in-law Sherry Riley (married to Scott). Riley is survived by his former wife Charlotte Ann Riley; sister Lynne Leonardo (Joseph) of Aldan, Pennsylvania; sons Scott (grandchildren Brian (Alina and great-grandson Jameson) of Ranson, West Virginia, Kyle (Kathy and grandchildren Samantha, Sean, Shane) of Chesapeake, Virginia; Matthew (Michele and granddaughter Jordan) of Allegany, New York and close friend Dean Daniel of Elkridge, Md. 

A Celebration of Life Service will be held on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, at Immanuel Episcopal Church-on-the-Hill, 3606 Seminary Rd, Alexandria, Va., at 11 a.m.. In lieu of flowers, Chuck’s family has asked that a donation be made in his name to the Human Rights Campaign. 

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Obituary

Janne Marie Harrelson dies at 70

Worked for 32 years at Gallaudet University

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Janne Marie Harrelson

Janne Marie Harrelson died Aug. 23 from ovarian cancer while in hospice care in Rockville, Md. She was 70. 

Harrelson left an indelible mark on those who knew and loved her as a kind and generous person, according to a statement released by family. “Her thoughtfulness was legendary. Her home office remains filled with personal mementos and birthday and anniversary cards she kept ready so that her many connections could be nurtured.”

The oldest of five siblings, Harrelson was born in Fort Slocum, N.Y. Being in a Navy family meant that growing up, Harrelson rarely lived in one location for more than two years. Long Beach, Calif.; Japan; Hawaii; Key West, Fla.; Kernersville, NC; New Orleans, La.; various spots in Virginia; and Pensacola, Fla., were all considered “home” at various points in Janne’s life. Following in her father’s footsteps, Harrelson attended the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. She followed up with a master’s in higher education administration/student personnel administration from Florida State University in Tallahassee.  

Harrelson moved in 1978 to the Washington, D.C., area and began what became a 32-year career at Gallaudet University and the affiliated Model Secondary School for the Deaf and Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center. Although she didn’t know American Sign Language when she was first hired, Harrelson quickly became highly knowledgeable in the language and in deaf culture and deaf education. She retired from Gallaudet in 2010 after serving in multiple leading positions, the final ones being director, National Mission Planning, and director of the nationwide Gallaudet University Regional Centers. Throughout her tenure at Gallaudet, Harrelson made lifelong professional and personal relationships that she cherished, according to the statement.

Harrelson met her life partner in 1978 through their participation in the D.C. Area Feminist Chorus. They married on March 9, 2010, the first day that D.C. recognized marriage equality. 

Her greatest love and gift was her singing. Harrelson’s graceful soprano voice was part of multiple ensembles, including Sing Out Key West!, the (UNC) Carolina Choir, the DC Area Feminist Chorus, Brock and the Rockets a cappella group, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring choir, and Not What You Think a cappella group. She was also often asked to be a singer with other performers, which gave her immense pleasure. 

Harrelson had many hobbies, including scrapbooking, which combined her passion for photography, connecting people through memories and experiences, and artistic and creative freedom. She also did needlepoint, a skill she learned from her mother and grandmother and shared with aunts and cousins. She was an active volunteer with the Capital-area team of AFS Intercultural Exchange until she was no longer able due to her illness. Harrelson expanded the scope of AFS to welcome international deaf students to local school communities, which positively affected the lives of many young people. In 2010, Janne and Deb and Lucy hosted a German exchange student, Johanna, and that connection became lifelong. 

After Janne and Deb built their family through international adoption with their daughter Lucy, they became active with suburban Maryland international adoption groups and helped them to extend their outreach. Their family bonded with several others with adopted children and those relationships have remained lifelong. Harrelson was also an active leader and volunteer with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring over the 26 years of their family’s participation. Janne and Deb had deep roots in their former Silver Spring neighborhood, and beginning in 2021, in their new community in Rockville.

Harrelson was predeceased by her mother, Nancy (nee Bowling) Harrelson; father, Navy Capt. George David Harrelson (ret.); and infant brother John. She is survived by her wife, Deborah Weiner; daughter Lucy Youyou Jade Weiner Harrelson; brother George (Laura); brother Clay (Diane); brother Paul (Erin); and numerous close relatives in North Carolina and Atlanta.

A memorial service will be held Sept. 22 at 11 a.m., at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, 10309 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring, Md. It will be interpreted in ASL and streamed.

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