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Appreciating lesbian thinker, activist Urvashi Vaid

‘A whip-smart lesbian of color who stood up and fought’

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Urvashi Vaid died of cancer at age 63. (Screen capture via PBS)

Urvashi Vaid was whip smart. She could look at you with some analysis spinning behind her eyes and then smile a deep broad smile and you could exhale as a shared vision started coursing through your veins — a warrior sisterhood striving and fighting for liberation.

And you didn’t even know liberation was on your wish-list. 

It’s hard to register that Urvashi Vaid is gone. 

Urvashi could seduce your brain with elevated and clear-spoken common sense. And damn if she couldn’t rile you up and spur you to action as she did in Sacramento in 1991 after Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed AB 101, the gay rights bill he promised to sign, and with her 1993 speech at the March on Washington.

And we needed that. After years of excruciating pain losing lovers, family and friends while Ronald Reagan’s spokesperson laughed about the scourge of AIDS in the White House press room, a serious LGBTQ political movement was emerging in the late 1980s. And igniting those righteous flames of fury was this short, thin, proud lesbian of South Indian heritage who exuded the perfume of power. She knew her stuff. And she was at ease with powerbrokers, including Hollywood A+ types who made history attending an August 1991 benefit for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, thrown by gay Hollywood manager Barry Krost, entertainment attorney Alan Hergott and Hergott’s lover, NGLTF Board co-chair Curt Shepard. Hollywood was finally showing up for AIDS benefits — but gay rights was still just too controversial. It was a very big deal. 

Among our own, Urvashi would let fools yammer on with puffed-up opinions. But eventually she would halt us with a glance, a quick quip or a concise Marxist-ish dissertation on any situation and its connection to poverty, rendering you dumbstruck, agog – pick a synonym. 

Urvashi was a teacher, a mentor — though I don’t think she thought of herself that way. She was merely trying to help a brother or sister — especially younger folks — learn to think differently, think for themselves, and think of themselves as part of the larger movement for civil rights. 

One moment perfectly captures that for me. I was a freelancer covering the monumental 1992 Creating Change conference in Los Angeles. That was the year when esteemed gay author Paul Monette (Borrowed Time) ripped up a picture of the Pope, freaking out a lot of Catholic Latinos. I kept an eye on Urvashi and her pal Torie Osborn, head of the LA Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center, as they talked art with closeted LA City Councilmember Joel Wachs, as well as the usual leadership discussions, debates and skirmishes among activists in a heightened political year. 

I also covered breakout sessions and one proved to be particularly daunting. It was a discussion about race in the gay movement. A young fierce gay Asian artist named Joel B. Tan took over the discussion and challenged my press credentials, my commitment to the movement, and my ability to report ANYTHING accurately or fairly about that meeting because I’m white. He called for a vote on whether I should be allowed to stay or get kicked out. 

Some folks in the room, familiar with my reporting since the late 1980s, defended me. I was prepared to get shamefully kicked out when Joel went just a tad too far and started claiming the Task Force itself was a cauldron of white racism. In fact, the whole damn gay movement was basically a rich white gay conspiracy to get power and use everyone else as pawns. 

When Joel finally took a breath, a muffled sound came from just outside the room. We looked and there was Urvashi, casually leaning on the door jamb with Phill Wilson, then co-founder of the National Black Gay & Lesbian Leadership Forum and of the LA chapter of Black and White Men Together. “What about us?” Urv asked very simply. The tension evaporated, I was allowed to stay and racism within the gay community was discussed with passion but without grandstanding. (I called Joel later and he said my report was acceptable.) 

The tension eased so quickly because Urvashi had been fighting systemic racism at every level for a very long time, including within the gay community. Her power was smarts, compassion, humor — and credibility.    

Not to say Urvashi was perfect. In fact, I had a serious disagreement with her over an incident that happened in Los Angeles. There was a ballot initiative that called for a new statewide Insurance Commissioner to be appointed by the governor. APLA Board Chair Dr. Scott Hitt and political consultant David Mixner opposed the initiative, which drove some AIDS activists crazy. We were in the middle of the second wave of AIDS and we needed government help. Hitt and Mixner explained that they didn’t oppose the idea, just the method: the Insurance Commissioner should be elected, not appointed. Imagine if we had a governor more horrific than Pete Wilson?

I reported that and activist writer Stuart Timmons freaked out. He wrote a 7,000 word thesis in a treading-water alternative weekly bashing Hitt and Mixner. He also showed up at my apartment screaming about how I was afraid of these prominent politicos. I was pissed — so I did my own deep dive into his tome and found people who complained that he quoted them out of context or actually changed their quotes to fit his activist premise. Eventually, we all moved on, including me since Stuart was friends with my friend Harry Hay. 

But then Urvashi quoted extensively from Stuart’s disinformation piece in her book Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation.  I tried to reach her but failed. I later heard her cite Stuart’s story as an example of bad gays. I fumed for a moment, then let that go, too. 

Besides, Urvashi was doing so much good. And her relationship with Kate Clinton was so cool and extraordinary. I learned what a “soft butch” was — but that’s another story.

Urvashi Vaid is appropriately being lauded as an exemplary warrior for justice and civil rights. I remember her as a whip-smart lesbian of color who stood up and fought but also offered peace and hope when possible — as she did appearing with conservative gay writer/editor Andrew Sullivan on the Charlie Rose show before the 1993 march.

Last July, Urvashi was the guest on Gay USA, anchored by her friends Ann Northrop and Andy Humm. She talked about the National LGBTQ+ Women’s Survey, an American LGBTQ+ Museum — and about fighting breast cancer. Urv seemed upbeat but a burdened aura of mortality cloaked her Zoom appearance. She seemed determined to approach death as she had lived — educating people about our ongoing fight for liberation and, with a deep, broad smile and thoughtful eyes, telling the truth about her own humanity. 

Thank you, Urvashi Vaid.

Karen Ocamb is a longtime journalist and former news editor of the Los Angeles Blade.

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Monkeypox is a gay thing — we must say it

Will there be stigma, judgments, and homophobia? Of course

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The mainstream media and public health officials are being so damn careful not to label monkeypox “a gay disease” that they’re doing a disservice to the gay men who most need important information about the outbreak – while misleading everybody else.

In a July 28 New York Times story of the excruciating symptoms and lack of care available for those with monkeypox in that city, the sexuality of the men profiled isn’t referenced until 11 paragraphs into the story, and even then it refers to them as “men who have sex with men,” which is technically correct but dodgy. Moreover, the article, which supposedly addresses barriers to care, ignores the fact that gay men routinely experience apathy and even judgment from health providers.

Other media stories, and statements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have mentioned monkeypox cases in the context of “the LGBT community.” Really? Should lesbians be lining up for a monkeypox vaccine, whenever the heck they become widely available? This is happening to gay men. Say it.

Journalist Benjamin Ryan, in his excellent Washington Post opinion piece, draws a hard line between attempts not to unnecessarily stigmatize gay men and the importance of telling the truth about monkeypox, writing that “public health officials cannot be expected to police the public’s reactions to epidemiological facts.”

Ryan lays out those facts plainly:

Here is what we can discern from data collected about monkeypox so far: This viral outbreak isn’t just mostly occurring among men who have sex with men. The confirmed cases, at least to date, have consistently almost entirely occurred among this demographic, which accounts for 96 percent or more of diagnoses where data are available.

Per capita, the few monkeypox cases in women and children remain minuscule compared with the rate among gay and bisexual men. Of course, substantial transmission could always occur among such other groups. But researchers at the WHO and elsewhere have speculated that the monkeypox reproduction rate will likely remain significantly lower in such demographics — meaning the virus will more likely hit transmission dead ends among them than among gay and bisexual men.

An uncomfortable truth, one documented in peer-reviewed papers, is that sexual behaviors and networks specific to gay and bisexual men have long made them more likely to acquire various sexually transmitted infections compared with heterosexual people. This includes not only HIV, but also syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis B and sexually transmitted hepatitis C.

Global public health experts agree that skin-to-skin contact in the context of sexual activity between men has been the principal driver of the monkeypox outbreak, at least thus far.

Such experts have also asserted that the risk of monkeypox to the broader population not having multiple sex partners remains low — even “very low.” This is hopeful news, and the wider public deserves to be reassured accordingly. Assuaging fears of contagion will help fight unhelpful hysteria and prevent gay and bisexual men from being subjected to even greater stigma should they be painted as culprits of the spread of virus to others.

Monkeypox didn’t begin with gay men, that much is true. As Yale infectious disease expert Gregg Gonsalves explained to the New York Times, “This is not a gay disease; it has been circulating in West and Central Africa for many years… What likely happened, in this case, is that somebody who had monkeypox had a lesion and showed up at a gay rave in Europe, and it spread to those in that social and sexual network.”

Whatever the origins, we’re now dealing with an outbreak almost entirely limited to gay men in the United States and Europe. And that is worth saying explicitly.

Why? Because identifying those at risk and getting information to them is a basic public health strategy for containing an outbreak. Gay men are getting monkeypox and suffering greatly. When gay men understand the threat, we are more likely to take precautions, get vaccinated, or be informed about treatment.

Will there be stigma and judgements and homophobia? Of course. And we’ll have to deal with that. But that doesn’t mean we bury crucial facts in vague, evasive messaging.

Monkeypox is a gay thing. That’s the truth.

Mark S. King is an award-winning blogger, author, speaker, and HIV/AIDS activist who has been involved in HIV causes since testing positive in 1985.

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Casa Ruby folds — was money stolen?

The community deserves answers and accountability

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Ruby Corado (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

It is both sad and frustrating when what was once considered a great organization folds for what appear to be questionable reasons. 

That is the case with Casa Ruby. It is sad for all the people who worked for and were served by the organization. It is my hope other organizations will take up the slack and the transgender community will continue to be well served in the District of Columbia.

Also sad are the questions people are asking about the founder of Casa Ruby, Ruby Corado. It has appeared for a while that she let her desire for publicity — and apparent desire for the good life — to lead her in a questionable direction. A number of years ago David Perruzza and I, both early supporters of Casa Ruby, met with Ruby for lunch. We talked with her about the apparent issues at Casa Ruby and urged her to take a good look at what she was doing. We asked her to remember the reason she founded Casa Ruby, and it wasn’t about her. Her goal she said had been to help others in the transgender community.

We met with her because we cared about her and the organization and it seemed her ego was being fed by all the honors the community was affording her. Recently Dito Sevilla posted on Facebook that an associate of his found who they assumed is Corado on Facebook, under the name Jada Wilkins, now living in San Salvador. That Facebook page is very sad to see. 

It is important for the District and any other grantors to Casa Ruby to do a forensic audit to see where all the money went. I am pleased, according to the Blade, that is now happening with the D.C. Attorney General investigating and filing lawsuits. The result of the first hearing on one of the two lawsuits filed by the AG is the judge granted the freezing of all Casa Ruby bank accounts as reported in the follow-up Blade article. As a community we should know if any money was stolen. Aside from all the grants, a lot of money was donated by well-meaning individuals. If some of it was stolen, which sadly could be the case, those who stole it should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. 

Casa Ruby is not the first organization this has happened to and it will not be the last. The LGBTQ community, which is a very generous community, must always be careful to ensure organizations we donate to, and support with our volunteer time, are well run. We should insist those organizations are not about any one person, because if they are they are more likely to fail. A solid organization is never built around one person, which is what seemed to happen at Casa Ruby. 

I know the District requires financial reports for the grants they give and there was an accounting firm involved in looking at the financial functions of Casa Ruby. That accounting firm needs to be involved in looking at what happened to the money. There were 990s filed, but were they accurate? Again, I hope the AG will find all that out and if they find illegal activity will forward that to the DOJ for prosecution. The community needs to know what happened.  

Again, if there was fraud and money stolen, the law and the community must hold the people responsible for the demise of this once valued organization, accountable. If by any chance, and I pray it’s not the case, Ruby Corado is found to have participated in stealing money from the organization, people and organizations must take the time to publicly rescind the awards and honors she was given over the years. Again, I hope that is not the case. But if it is, then we owe that to the transgender community, which will suffer because Casa Ruby is closing. 

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Joe Manchin: enigma to some, hated by others

New bill proves you can’t always get what you want

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Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The headlines in the New York Times and Washington Post screamed: “Manchin and Majority Leader Schumer agree to compromise on reconciliation bill.” 

The bill is a 725-page, $739 billion proposal, called the “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.” Now they must get every Democrat in the Senate to vote for it with Vice President Harris breaking the anticipated tie, when every Republican will vote no. Then Speaker Pelosi must rally the Democratic votes in the House. If and when this bill passes it’s a huge victory for President Biden, Democrats, and the people. 

This bill was negotiated in secret and that in itself is amazing in this day and age. By keeping it secret Democrats were also able to first garner enough Senate Republican votes for the CHIPS-plus bill funding both computer chips and science. The House then passed the $280 billion ‘Chips and Science Act’ that would subsidize domestic semiconductor manufacturing and invest billions in science and technology innovation. It’s now on the president’s desk to sign.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is someone progressives love to hate. He has thwarted numerous efforts to move forward the Democratic agenda. In the last two weeks he has shown not only can he compromise, but is way better than if we had a Republican from West Virginia, which we would have without him. First there was the announcement of an agreement between him and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) on a bill to update the 1887 law that governs how Congress counts Electoral College votes. Then the Wednesday announced agreement on the climate bill. 

It has been reported that bill does a lot of things Democrats have said they wanted for years. One is allowing Medicare to negotiate some prescription drug prices. “This could save the federal government some $288 billion over the 10-year budget window. With those savings they could lower costs for seniors on their medications.” It has been reported the bill also includes a $2,000 out-of-pocket cap for older adults buying prescriptions from pharmacies, and free vaccinations. The bill “would invest $369 billion over the decade in climate change-fighting strategies including investments in renewable energy production and tax rebates for consumers to buy new or used electric vehicles.” 

Bloomberg reports some of the other details. “The bill includes $4,000 tax credits for lower and middle income buyers to use to purchase used electric vehicles, and up to $7,500 tax credit for new vehicles. The plan has $60 billion of incentives to bring clean energy manufacturing into the U.S. … The plan also includes $9 billion for home energy rebate programs for low-income consumers to make their homes more energy efficient and $1 billion in grants for affordable housing energy upgrades. The plan would also extend to 2025 an expansion in Affordable Care Act premium subsidies that’s currently set to end at year-end. This will lower prices for millions of Americans, according to a summary of the deal.”

All this would be paid for with what some call tax increases, and Manchin calls closing loopholes. “The proposal would raise an estimated $739 billion, with the revenues going to fund climate and health initiatives, as well as to reduce the budget deficit. The Internal Revenue Service would get $80 billion to add auditors, improve customer service and modernize technology. Democrats hope to pull in $124 billion in tax revenue from cracking down on tax cheats and increasing compliance by rebuilding the IRS.” There would also be a minimum 15% tax on corporations with over $1 billion in revenue. 

When this bill passes, President Biden will be able to go to voters and tell them he did what he promised — make the rich pay more, cut healthcare costs for all, and make the biggest investments ever in fighting climate change. When I asked a friend who is one of the world’s top environmentalists what she thought of the Manchin/Schumer bill she responded by quoting the Rolling Stones: “No, you can’t always get what you want, You can’t always get what you want, You can’t always get what you want, But if you try sometime you find, You get what you need.”

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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