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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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Reflecting on Center Faith’s Pride interfaith service

Much work to be done before welcoming the world in 2025

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(Photo by WINDCOLORS/Bigstock)

“We must not rest! We must not rest! We must not rest!” These words rang out in Foundry Methodist Church during Center Faith’s recent 2024 Pride Interfaith Service. Rev. Cathy Alexander, associate pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC)-Washington, DC, implored everyone in attendance to keep fighting “until the doors of churches and temples and houses of faith open wide in welcome to all people.” She quoted Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the first MCC church in 1968, from the 2000 Millennium March for Equality. 

It was a moving reminder of the many LGBTQ elders who have passed on, who have fought for LGBTQ rights today and made this service, held in a rainbow draped church, possible. This was especially meaningful as this year’s service also remembered Allan Armas — co-founder of the Pride Interfaith Service — who died this past October. 

Held on a drizzly evening, the service began with an opening drum call to gather by members of the Unity Fellowship Church of Washington, D.C., and a procession of all presenters. Church Elder and Unity Fellowship Pastor Akosua McCray offered a libation to the ancestors, like Armas, who won many of the rights that LGBTQ individuals have today. “Let us together call out their names and invite their spirit here today,” McCray shared. “Carlton Smith,” an attendee shouted from the back. “Allan Armus,” said another. “Marsha P. Johnson.” “Bishop Thomas Gumbleton.” With each name, McCray filled a red vase with water in their honor. 

Thus commenced the 41st annual Pride Interfaith Service, focused on the radical past, present, and future of LGBTQ interfaith action in the nation’s capital. The three-part service resonated with Capital Pride’s theme of “Totally Radical!” and included representatives from the DC LGBTQ+ Community Center and Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs. McCray’s Libation was the first part of the creation and blessing of a sacred space, featuring a call to the elements, directions and divine by Jonathan White of Stone Circle Wicca, a call to prayer by Nabeel Kirmani and translated by Sister Michelle Munson of Muslims for Progressive Values, and an opening prayer by Rev. Thomas Wieczorek from the National Catholic Church, among others. 

GenOut Chorus, the youth chorus for the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C., provided music, opening with Philip Silvey’s “Always a Place for You.” Their song began a reflection on the radical origins of the Pride Interfaith Service all the way back to the 1960s. Reverend Elder Robert “Michael” Vanzant, a Doctor of Theology at the Faith Temple and one of the pioneers of the Pride Interfaith Service, recounted his own journey from a fundamentalist rural Southern community all the way to the steps of the Temple Church of God in Christ on Sunday, Sept. 19, 1982. 

Together, he and 16 others “embraced being same-gender loving and created a gathering of predominantly people of color, called a Third World gathering, to create a community for our sacred selves.” They gathered with signs, his reading “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people” (Isaiah 56:&, Mark 11:17), after a Church elder Dr. James Tenney was told by the Bishop that by including LGBTQ+ individuals at All Souls Church DC, he had excommunicated himself from the Church. The bishop warned that Tenney’s problem was that he had no shame so the group gathered that Sunday morning before and after church “bearing witchess that we lived our lives without shame.” Thus Faith Temple was born. 

Rev. Cathy Alexander reflected on MCC’s own history, followed by Rev. Eric Eldrith, Pagan clergy with Circle Sanctuary, Kirmani, Jonathan White, myself, and Armas’s best friend cellist John Kaboff sharing fond memories and words of love and life about Armas. Eldritch spoke to Armas’s radical welcome of him as an ex-ex-gay fundamentalist to a Radical Faerie to Pagan clergy at Circle Sanctuary. This tribute spoke to the importance of all including faith communities beyond Abrahamic traditions. Pagan, Wiccan, and folk magic communities have for centuries been places of belonging and acceptance for LGBTQ+ people but are normally excluded from LGBTQ+ religious historical narratives. Armas challenged this exclusion. 

“His deeply held Jewish faith,” White explained, “led him to care passionately about justice and liberation for all people, especially LGBTQ+ people, and to pursue justice as part of his own spiritual journey. He was humane, kind, thoughtful–he was a mensch. May his memory be a blessing.” He led his community surrounded by elders until he himself became one; one of the far too few LGBTQ+ elders who see the realization of their efforts. White celebrated this queer elderhood in Armas’s faith community, of bringing his experiences and wisdom to the community he helped to create. Kaboff played a Jewish funeral piece–one performed at an annual memorial service Armas founded, and Rabbi Jake Beilin-Singer blew the shofar, an instrument sounded during High Holy Day services, in recognition of his leadership. 

Armas’s radical welcome has made LGBTQ faith experiences possible, from radical living as interfaith families, to radical justice through collective liberation, to radical presents through living as authentic selves, and radical leadership through DC’s LGBTQ+ religious leaders including the first lesbian rabbi, Julie Spitzer, at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in 1987. Even radical pride from that first Pride Interfaith Service in 1983. 

During this time when over 500 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country, lay member of Sunstone Chapel Ebony C. Peace called us to remember, “hatred continues to come our way in full force because our liberation threatens their control. The liberation of all people threatens them. They are coming at us strong because we ourselves have become stronger.” It is only through love, Peace shared, that we can drive out hatred. This was especially true when two protestors interrupted the service, and were met with all attendees singing “This Little Light of Mine” to drown out their voices as ushers escorted them outside. 

The service ended by envisioning this future of love, including radical inclusive love in faith communities and interfaith relationships that imagine a future of collaboration with newly established groups like Queerly Gathered, introduced by Presbyterian minister Matt Nabinger and Cali Bronkema. 

Richmond looked ahead toward World Pride to be held in D.C. in 2025. Just as attendees committed this year’s service to “demonstrating the breath, depth, and sincerity of our faith, exposing the lie that anti-gay fundamentalists have a monopoly on faith and religion,” Pride Interfaith Service planner Jonah Richmond shared, next year’s service will include people from around the world remembering their LGBTQ religious histories, celebrating their presents, and pushing for LGBTQ+ religious liberation and community. It will celebrate LGBTQ elders of faith from around the world. As Alexander said, we must not rest! There is much work to be done before welcoming the world at the next service on June 3, 2025. 

Emma Cieslik served as a historian for this year’s Pride Interfaith Service.

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ROSENSTEIN: Is D.C. prepared for World Pride? Not just yet

An incredible opportunity for the city to shine

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(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The 2024 Pride parade and festival in D.C. were a tremendous success. Congratulations to all who worked so hard on this at Capital Pride, and others, including the mayor’s office, to make it a success. Now it’s onward to the next event, WorldPride 2025.

From all accounts, WorldPride celebrations around the world have been amazing. From Tel Aviv, to Rome, to Sidney, millions have enjoyed them. It is an event awarded to a city by InterPride, the international Pride organization. In 2025, from May 23-June 8, it is D.C.’s turn to shine. The event was awarded to the Capital Pride Alliance. While I know the great people in D.C. can handle this event, I have real concerns over whether the city as a whole will be ready. It will take an incredible amount of work and coordination, to prepare for close to three million people who will descend on D.C. in less than a year.

Since I moved to D.C. in October 1978, it has been a place that supports the LGBTQ community. That was the year Marion Barry was first elected mayor. In early 1979, I attended a dinner, even though not yet out, of what was then called the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. Barry spoke and thanked the leaders of the Club, and the “GLBT community,” that is what we were called then, for helping him win the mayoralty. Today the club is called the Stonewall Democratic Club. I quickly got involved in the civic life of D.C., and local politics. Over the years there were members of the community on the Council, including Jim Graham and David Catania. Today, Zachary Parker represents Ward 5. As an activist, I have always had positive interactions with the mayors and Council. 

Recently, the Washington Post had a column on how much the D.C. Council has placed in the budget for the LGBTQ community. It includes grants for housing, and for the new LGBTQ Community Center. It also has about $5 million for World Pride. It was sad to see some of the negative online comments, some asking why the money wasn’t being spent instead on the poor. Part of the problem is that it was a poorly written column. While talking about WorldPride as good for the economy of the city, it left out any detail, easy to calculate, on how good it will be. How much money will be spent in D.C. by the millions coming here for those two weeks. How much the city will add to its tax revenues. How much small businesses will make and how this benefits workers. This information would have helped people better understand the investment the city is making. I don’t think the budget investment is big enough. This is a giant undertaking, and I’m not sure there are enough people involved. This will be a citywide, multi-state event, because of our close-in suburbs. At least it should be. There should be planning for events in all eight wards of the city. Council members and community leaders in each ward, should be working on events, ensuring the businesses and residents in their wards feel a part of, and benefit from, the huge influx of tourists to our city. There will be concerts, dances, sporting events, and a Human Rights Conference. Potentially there could be an HIV/AIDS conference, as major research is going on in D.C. 

I question whether those planning for this event have had serious discussions with airlines, and global companies like Amazon, and FedEx, to involve them in funding and sponsoring events. Is there a committee working to involve all the embassies, in planning events beyond a float in the parade? They will all have attendees from their countries here. Like it or not, there will be issues with visas and passports, and people will need help solving their issues. Then there is the worldwide press operation. I can imagine that could be set up in the convention center, or other facility. If D.C. is to get the kind of long-term public relations promotion such an event should bring, organizing that is crucial. 

How is the planning group liaising with Congress? How are the couple of hundred members of the Equality Caucus involved? This is the time for them to show their support, while thousands of their own constituents will be visiting D.C. for the event. Maybe WorldPride is time to encourage another push to pass the Equality Act. If Democrats take the House, keep the Senate, and Biden is president, we could pass it. It’s important to bring together HRC, the Victory Fund, the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, the National Center for Transgender Equality, Trevor Project, Carr Center at Harvard, among others, to work on this and other issues.  Each will contribute what they can and each will have ideas. Have the LGBTQ staffing groups on the Hill been involved with WorldPride yet? Then has the Capital Pride Alliance reached out to all the LGBTQ groups in the federal agencies, or to the wealth of talent within the leadership of groups like Whitman-Walker, SMYAL, and the LGBTQ+ Center, as well as those in the surrounding suburbs of Virginia and Maryland? Everyone should be involved. 

It is important to find a way to ensure visitors from around the world have a way to easily access information about all the events that will take place during the two weeks of WorldPride, as they plan their trips. This information can be shared through all the embassies, and worldwide press. We know many events, and venues, will require tickets, and reservations. Any traveler knows, having this information well in advance, clearly helps make for a successful trip. The information shared could include information on potential add-on trips to Rehoboth Beach, and other venues.  

One of the things we cannot know, is who will be president of the United States at that time. If it is Joe Biden, we are fine. If, God forbid, it’s Donald Trump, that could be scary. How would that impact how federal agencies get involved, how about Homeland Security? All contingencies need to be prepared for. 

WorldPride will bring together people from across the country. Young people from San Francisco to rural Mississippi, places where being out is not yet so easy. We must showcase how being free to be who you are will make your life better. We need to showcase the best of the LGBTQ community, and show the world here in the United States, we are working to be truly equal and free. We need to involve all those who support us, and who we support. That includes the corporate community, police departments, and the military. We have fought long and hard to get their support, now is the time for us and them to be proud of it. 

We have an incredible opportunity for D.C., and the entire United States, to shine. I urge those doing the planning to involve as many people as you can. Reach out, and let each person, and each group, take an active role in this venture. WorldPride 2025 will be better if you do. 

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

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Fathers should speak to kids about drugs, alcohol

Highlight dangers of illicit substances, how to manage peer pressure

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What does it take to be a good father? While there are many answers, it generally involves showing up daily, playing an essential role in their life, being there for them, and loving them unconditionally. 

Fathers are there to provide abundant love and support. Most fathers know the sacrifice it takes to ensure their children are loved and cared for. A father is always there for their kids, offering guidance, support, and education. The greatest joy for any father is seeing their children thrive, do well in life, and be healthy. 

However, things can get derailed in life, and teens and young adults take risks, such as experimenting with drugs or alcohol. Fathers have a responsibility to speak to their kids about drugs and alcohol and help them understand the risks and consequences. 

Data has shown that more than half of LGBTQ youth used alcohol in the last year, and more than one in three LGBTQ youth used marijuana in the previous year. Approximately 11% of LGBTQ youth reported regular use (defined as daily or weekly use) of both alcohol and marijuana.

Illegal drugs today are more readily available than ever before. According to the DEA, drug traffickers have turned smartphones into a one-stop shop to market, sell, buy, and deliver deadly fake prescription pills and other drugs. Amid this ever-changing age of social media influence, kids, teens, and young adults are easily influenced.  

Drug traffickers advertise on social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. The posts are promptly posted and removed with code words and emojis used to market and sell illicit drugs. Unfortunately, digital media provides an increased opportunity for both marketing and social transmission of risk products and behaviors. 

Fathers are responsible for protecting and preparing our children for the world. Drug education is essential. Take the time to speak to your kids about the dangers of illicit substances, how to avoid and manage peer pressure, and what to look for. Be prepared to share personal experiences and help them understand that some choices have consequences. 

However, it can be challenging to see our kids struggle with things in life, and as fathers, we can also face our own difficulties, making it more difficult to help our children. The responsibility of raising children can be a lot; there are many challenges along the way, and the pressure of being a good influence can get the best of us. 

All of this makes it vital not to ignore our mental health; children, especially younger kids, mimic what they see. How we cope with frustration, anger, sadness, or isolation impacts our children in several ways. 

Our actions have consequences. Children see how we handle every situation, and while no father is perfect, we must be conscious of the fact they are impressionable when they are young. They look up to us, mimic our actions, and see when we are doing well in life mentally.   

The key for fathers caring for children is to take the time to care for themselves. However, if you are struggling, contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Taking care of your mental health is the same as taking care of your physical health; it is an integral part of your well-being and contributes to you being the best father you can be.

Nickolaus Hayes is a healthcare professional in the field of substance use and addiction recovery and is part of the editorial team at DRS. His primary focus is spreading awareness by educating individuals on the topics surrounding substance use.

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