Urvashi: The Boston Years, 1980-83
This roundtable features four friends of Urvashi from her years in Boston (1980-83). Richard Burns is chair of the founding board of directors of the American LGBTQ+ Museum in New York and interim executive director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) in Boston. He was the executive director of the LGBT Community Center in New York from 1986 to 2009. Catherine Hanssens is a sexual health and criminal justice activist and consultant. She is founder of Center for HIV Law & Policy, a national legal and policy strategy center that launched the HIV decriminalization movement in the United States; former HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal; and former visiting professor and Director of the Women and AIDS Clinic at Rutgers University Law School. Amy Hoffman is the author of the novels Dot & Ralfie and The Off Season, and three memoirs—Lies About My Family; An Army of Ex-Lovers: My Life at the Gay Community News; and Hospital Time. She is the former editor-in-chief of Women’s Review of Books and a faculty member of the Solstice Low Residency Master of Fine Arts Program at Lasell College. Sue Metro is a guitar player, audio engineer, and technician from Rochester, New York, currently living on Cape Cod.
Marc: How and when did you meet Urvashi? What were your first impressions?
Sue: I first met Urvashi in the summer of 1979, just after she graduated from Vassar. She was living in my hometown of Rochester, New York, with her sister, working a temp job before moving to Boston. I was rehearsing in my band’s remote warehouse space when she wandered in with a couple of other women. When the music stopped, she asked me if I was familiar with a number of different bands and if I wanted to go get a drink at the local lesbian bar. Since it was clear we had enough in common, we spent that summer hanging out together. I had never ever met anyone remotely like her. She was energetic, focused and brilliant on so many levels. She had a vision for the future of the gay rights movement, smashing the patriarchy, empowering women, eliminating racism, and fighting injustice, and was ready for a cultural revolution. It was incredible to watch her on Sunday mornings, with a strong pot of coffee, read every important newspaper article and hear her plan to better the world. Her enthusiasm was contagious.
Richard: Urvashi and I met on our first day of law school at Northeastern University in September of 1980. She was reading a copy of Gay Community News, where I had been Managing Editor (like you, Marc, except your title was Coordinating Editor!), until the day before. Urv and I quickly became friends and comrades (although she usually sat in the front row of our first year classes and I would sit in the back). I turned out to be the only openly gay man in our class and there were three, later four, open lesbians, including Urvashi.
Catherine: I met Urvashi at Northeastern School of Law in 1980--she, Richard Burns, and I were in the same class. I don't really recall the details of our first meeting except that she was short, intense, and funny. I do remember that she got herself on the law school admissions committee after her first year and that there were a ton of lesbians in the class following us.
Amy: I was introduced to Urvashi by Richard Burns. She and I both attended a conference sponsored by the socialist-feminist group, the Boston Women’s Union, and after that she invited me to her house for dinner—a date! We were lovers for about two years.
Marc: What do you remember learning, during your time together in Boston or later, about Urvashi’s family background and history—her parents and siblings, her family’s immigration story, her childhood, her sense of herself as Indian or South Asian or Hindu, her visits to India?
Amy: As a child, Urvashi had lived with her grandparents in India while her parents were going to university and working in the US; they took her to the US with them when she was eight, after some tension with the grandparents, who wanted to keep her with them. She left for college at Vassar when she was sixteen—after living with her parents for only eight years. When she was eighteen, she had the choice to become an American citizen, which she did (so, when I met her, at 23, this was still a recent decision for her). When I was involved with Urv, she had only recently come out to her parents. Her mother, in particular, was very upset and angry about it: she would call Urv every weekend and berate her in Hindi about her “lifestyle,” which her mother attributed to Urv’s being too Americanized. In those years, I think Urvashi was somewhat alienated from her Indian identity—perhaps in part because of the difficulties with her parents. She was focused on defining her lesbian sexuality and LGBTQ and feminist politics—and it was only later that her identity as a person of color and an immigrant came into clearer focus for her—especially as she moved into queer leadership circles, where she was often the only person of color, and lesbian, in the room. When she was thirteen or fourteen, the family went to India for a long visit. It was there that Urvashi first developed asthma—maybe another reason why she did not develop an attachment to her country of origin until later in life. She was plagued by asthma throughout her life—including a long bout during the year before I met her.
Richard: I had thought that Urv was sworn in as a U.S. citizen in 1983 or ’84, before we were sworn in to the Massachusetts Bar, but I might be confused on this.
Catherine: Urvashi came out to her parents after she started law school. I remember speaking with her about her plans to come out to her parents while we were standing on a T platform in Boston. I recall her being anxious but determined about it.
Richard: In those years Urvashi’s relationship with her parents was fraught. They were furious that she was a lesbian and she would often be frustrated and upset by their lack of acceptance. She and her two older sisters, Rachna and Jyo, had all gone to Vassar. Urv was enthusiastic about her time at Vassar, lots of activism, organizing against apartheid in South Africa in particular, and very close friends. She had visited India with her best friends from Vassar, Susan Allee and Betsy Ringel, before moving to Boston. When her dad retired from teaching at SUNY Potsdam, her parents moved back to India. I remember Urv saying that her parents wished that their three daughters would move back as well–something that was never going to happen. Years later, in the winter of 2000 or 2001, Urvashi, Kate Clinton, Susan Allee, Kevin Cathcart, and I all traveled around India together and Kevin and I stayed with Urv’s parents in Delhi for a couple of days. They had pretty much made their peace with Urv’s lesbianism by then. I think they had fallen in love with Kate, which made it easier.
Marc: Do you know why Urvashi moved to Boston after graduating from Vassar?
Sue: She and a couple of her Vassar friends had a plan to live in Boston and further their educations. Urvashi intended to go to law school.
Amy: Boston had a vibrant feminist and gay community and she wanted to be part of it.
Marc: What can you tell me about the places where Urvashi lived in Boston, her roommates or housemates, and her connections with her local neighborhoods?
Sue: She lived in a lesbian feminist collective type of household that included Vassar friends during her years in Boston. I eventually landed there when I moved to Boston in 1983, just before she graduated law school. That house was a great place for dinner parties, meetings of all kinds, and a great outlet for Urvashi’s stints as a DJ. Our ragtag punk bands would also rehearse there. The back yard had a huge garden space which was used, for a while, as sort of a community garden. I think it was also a Safelight house for the neighborhood.
Richard: Urv loved living in her lesbian collective house in Allston. These were the days of “chore-wheels” on refrigerator doors. Urv would laughingly tell us that her housemate Betsy would complain that Urv was wasting lesbian energy by spending so much time with me and Kevin Cathcart. (We became friends with Betsy, too.)
Amy: It was very important to her to live with other feminists and lesbians. They were close friends as well as roommates, and they did a lot of political work together: Allston-Brighton Greenlight, which was an anti-violence group that offered shelter to women who were being harassed on the street; Boston Food Co-op; anti-nuclear demonstrations; and a reading and discussion group called LUNNA.
Marc: Was Urvashi strongly identified as a lesbian when she moved to Boston or did that happen later?
Richard: Absolutely. When we met we were all immersed in living queer liberation.
Amy: She was very strongly identified as a lesbian.
Catherine: Urvashi was an unequivocally proud dyke when I met her.
Sue: She was totally a strongly identified lesbian prior to her move to Boston. She gave me a much needed education in lesbian culture when we met. I was starving for this, since my experience with the lesbian scene mainly revolved around local newspapers and bars at the time we met.
Marc: Do you remember Urvashi’s significant intimate relationships during her Boston years? Do you remember her having sexual relationships with just women or with both women and men during those years? Any fun or funny Boston sex stories that you think Urvashi would be happy to have you share? Anything you want to share about how Urvashi understood her gender identity and how she presented herself in terms of gender?
Amy: Urvashi was only involved with women at that point. One of her significant relationships in Boston was with me! There were others, too, since we were (for me, aspirationally) nonmonogamous. Urvashi liked to identify as femme, although this wasn’t really part of our relationship; I think it became more important to her in her relationships with Mary Farmer and Kate Clinton.
Sue: Urv and I became romantically involved during the summer before she moved to Boston. After she relocated we kept a long distance relationship, which quickly became more casual, but continued for a few years. Neither of us believed in monogamy and this seemed like a great solution. The most significant relationship of hers that I remember was with Amy. She was clearly committed to being with women only at this point. During one of my visits I remember going out to one of the lesbian bars with her and having to convince security at the door to let her bring in her gay male friends (I’m unsure, but it may have been Kevin or Richard). Not allowing gay men in the lesbian bars was unacceptable to her and she argued until we were all let in together. However, once we got inside, just to make a statement, she grabbed her male friend and dramatically started fake making out, ending up rolling around on the dance floor together. The club management was furious with her and we got kicked out!
Richard: We were in our 20s at this point and we were all pretty busy sexually. Urv was jealous that gay men had sex clubs and glory holes and she wanted that for lesbians, too. She used to talk about how to design a lesbian glory hole. I remember one winter night when we tried to get into a sex club right behind Boston police headquarters. It was cold and snowy and Urv pulled a hat deep over her face as we tried to get in. And of course the bouncer caught on and threw us out immediately. I think we were all having sex for fun and also for love (and infatuation). So of course there was lots of heartbreak, tears, hysterical laughter, and some STDs.
Catherine: One thing that seemed universally true: everything and everyone Urvashi pursued she pursued with passion. When we were studying for the bar exam together in 1983, Urv tried to persuade me to have an affair with her (her word choice), but I was involved with men at the time and Urv's intensity could be a bit scary at times. As I’m sure Amy can attest, she was a world-class kisser and was happy to demonstrate the right way to do it.
Marc: From what I’ve learned about Urvashi, she was passionate about arts, culture, and music. What do you remember about those aspects of Urvashi’s life in Boston?
Sue: I spent a lot of time going out to see bands and listening to new music with her. She was always discovering radical underground bands or performers who were new to the Boston area or had a tour stop in town. She bought lots of records, books, and zines. She would organize punk rock jam sessions at her house, where a group of friends, including myself, would learn and play her favorite songs. She tried her hand at writing punk tunes. She named our group Church Bizarre, alternately known as Lezzie Fair. Urvashi and I played one afternoon on the street in Harvard Square. She had a LOT of energy for performing. When she left Boston, there was a huge going away party held in the back yard of her house that we performed at. We were pretty loud, so neighbors called the police. It was epic and legendary to a few at the time!
Richard: Urv loved punk rock and dragged me to a few clubs in Boston to hear different bands, and we both loved Patti Smith. About the time we graduated from law school, she had a party outside at their house in Allston and pulled together an impromptu band. She played guitar and the police shut us down really fast.
Catherine: Yes, I think Urv might have been a frustrated rock star--she loved rockers and certainly was a rocker in her heart. One funny (to me) story: Richard, who I believe is allergic to rock, and I are big musical theater fans and one night we were at Richard's place listening to Broadway show tunes and Urvashi burst into tears and screamed that the American musical theater was an affront to people of color. And yes, a big Patti Smith fan–I remember her in ecstasy at a PS concert.
Richard: Although Urvashi did star in a high school production of Guys & Dolls and would sing the score from memory with little prompting!
Amy: Urvashi loved punk music, and wished she could play the bass. We went to rock and roll shows together. Later her taste in music became more eclectic—she loved all sorts of blues, jazz, hip-hop. She was also interested in Bhangra, a mashup of western dance music and Indian rhythms.
Marc: Turning to Urvashi’s life as an activist in Boston, what would you say were her priority political issues during that period? What were the causes, struggles, and campaigns most important to her? How would you characterize her politics during that time?
Richard: Before law school Urv engaged in organizing around violence against women in Allston Brighton Greenlight. In law school she thought a lot about and asked questions in class about socialism and capitalism and was a star in the class on taxation policy. She was part of the Boston Pride March committee and joined me on the boards of directors of GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders) and BL/GPA (the Boston Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance that Eric Rofes founded in 1982). She also became deeply involved in the Gay Community News collective. At that time, our lesbian and gay liberation movement wanted to dismantle patriarchy, the military, and the nuclear family, among other things. And AIDS was still in the future. In 1982 and 1983, AIDS activism was just beginning and was deeply entwined with the lesbian and gay movement.
Amy: Urv was involved in all sorts of political activity in Boston, mostly feminist and LGBT. I mentioned Greenlight. She was involved in GCN. I think she did some Friday folding (volunteers came on Friday nights to mail the paper to subscribers); later she did an internship there on the staff. She worked with the gay pride committee. She also loved doing guerilla actions, like tagging the Copley Square T station.
Marc: In her social and political life in Boston, how did Urvashi navigate being a South Asian woman in a city that was mostly white and one where the most visible people of color were African American? Do you recall any direct encounters with racism, sexism, or anti-LGBT animus that Urvashi experienced while living in Boston?
Richard: Race was a topic at GCN and at the law school and it was obvious that Boston was an extremely segregated city. I think that most of the anti-LGBT animus that Urv focussed on at that time had to do with her family.
Amy: I don’t think Urvashi was strongly focused on her identity as Indian or South Asian at the time—although obviously that was an important part of who she was. She was not connected with the Indian community in Boston, and there wasn’t any queer Indian organizing then—that came later, and Urvashi became involved in it. She’d experienced anti-Indian bigotry growing up in the northern New York, white, university town of Potsdam, where her father was teaching—mocked for her accent (which she quickly got rid of), for example. In Boston I think she didn’t experienced that kind of “active” bigotry—it was more “passive”—ignorance and erasure. So, for example, she and I were sometimes identified by straight people as “sisters”—something that happens to all lesbians—but it felt particularly egregious because of the way it erased Urvashi as a person of color: we hadn’t even been born on the same continent.
Catherine: I don’t know the extent to which this is still true, but when we all were in Boston together Black people lived in neighborhoods that were segregated from non-Black neighborhoods by bridges and bodies of water. We had three Black people in our entire law school class, so I wouldn't call Blacks "visible" in Boston, other than in Dorchester. They certainly weren't visible in our law school. It's my understanding that in the 1980s most South Asians in Boston were upper middle class, professionals, much like Urv's parents, and did not experience the same discrimination as Southeast or other Asian communities, who were less affluent. Class is a huge factor in the U.S. and in Boston. But in my experience Urvashi did identify as a person of color at law school, and that identity was important since people of color were so sorely under-represented. And again, she really hated show tunes!
Marc: How did Urvashi become involved in Gay Community News and what were her major contributions there? How did GCN influence Urvashi?
Amy: GCN had enormous influence on Urv’s politics, as it did on everyone affiliated with the paper. She was actively involved in our constant debates as we felt our way toward what we conceived of as a liberationist sexual politics, which went beyond the reformist struggle for legal rights to a revolutionary vision of social justice for all people. As I wrote elsewhere, “What I want to say is that Urvashi’s politics had an origin story. As original as she was, and as forcefully and eloquently as she expressed herself, she was not entirely sui generis. She came out of a particular tendency in the movement, and she evolved along with it. Urvashi debated and questioned and demanded along with the rest of us, and she took our GCN politics, our liberation politics, and she ran with them.” The people who were involved in GCN developed not only a liberationist politics but also a sense of instrumentality: we could make things happen. Urvashi later became executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force—the youngest person and first woman of color. Around the same time, Eric Rofes was running the LA Gay Center; Kevin Cathcart was the head of first GLAD and then Lambda Legal; Richard Burns was executive director of the New York LGBT Center; Bob Andrews was founding Boston’s AIDS Action Committee—in which other GCNers were also involved—I could go on. Basically, any important LGBT organization at the time was being run or had significant participation from people who had learned their politics from GCN. People began calling it the GCN Mafia.
Richard: As Amy says, GCN had a huge impact on all of us. It really shaped our political, social, and sexual lives for the next 40+ years. Urv came in to GCN through our social/political crowd and quickly fit right in. The GCN collective experience not only changed how we lived queer liberation and possibility; it made us believe we could create anything we believed in and dreamed for.
Marc: What varieties of feminism, lesbian feminism, and gay liberation most appealed to Urvashi in the 1970s and 1980s?
Amy: Urvashi always emphasized, in everything she wrote, that she believed in an expansive, liberationist LGBTQ movement, which not only fought for legal equality but also united with other movements for social justice and against racism. She was a proud lesbian, although not separatist. She saw that lesbians were often running social justice organizations—and urged us to do our activist work as out lesbians.
Catherine: What Amy said. Urvashi was absolutely consistent about the importance of connecting with other movements. This is something that sometimes seems to get lost in current descriptions of her work. She was a real radical. In my experience, the priorities that Richard describes as those of the 1970s and 1980s queers–anti-military, anti-patriarchy, along with a radical re-thinking of capitalism–remained her priorities throughout her life. Urvashi did not support hate crimes legislation, for example, because she saw it as an expansion of criminalization, while most mainstream LGBTQ people do.
Richard: Sexual liberation. Economic Justice. Racial justice.
Marc: What do you know about Urvashi’s decision to go to law school in general and Northeastern’s law school in particular? What kind of law student was Urvashi? Did she have any particularly significant mentors at Northeastern? How did law school influence Urvashi?
Richard: Urv was a thoughtful, well-read, quick student at Northeastern. She challenged our professors and our classmates with an approach that could be both provocative and full of friendly charm. Law school gave us a discipline to do our homework before beginning to act. We tried not to let law school interfere with our activism (although we liked law school, too).
Catherine: Urvashi was the furthest thing from a “traditional” law student in my experience. We did not join study groups. When a professor approached me about starting a “working class caucus” for the law school, we decided to respond by creating a very informal “leisure class caucus,” which involved a lot of after-class drinking. Urv was a member as I recall. But from our conversations, I don’t think any of us were envisioning a traditional legal career; I think we all saw the law as a way to be more effective activists. While at Northeastern, a group of us, including Urvashi, got our criminal law professor to sponsor an independent study called “Gay Rights and the Law.” We split up issue areas--family law, employment law, etc.--and did briefing papers on the state of the law in those areas as it affected queer people. I’d love to know if that work is still sitting in the law library somewhere.
Marc: What did Urvashi do, work-wise, after finishing law school?
Amy: Immediately after law school Urv moved to Washington, D.C., and went to work at the ACLU Prison Project. From there she went to the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, where she was first communications director and then executive director.
Catherine: As Amy said, Urvashi went to the ACLU's National Prison Project in Washington, D.C. She and I both were doing prisoners’ rights work at that time, although I was in Alaska and New Jersey and she was in Washington, D.C. She worked on issues such as the administration of DepoProvera to prisoners with sexual assault charges. She wound up taking on the organization’s HIV work, as I did at the agency where I worked, and we were in regular conversation on HIV issues then–I litigated my first HIV case in 1985, and we shared info about expert witnesses and strategies.
Richard: It was very hard for me when Urv announced she was going to leave Boston for the ACLU in D.C. My father had recently died, my boyfriend Mark broke up with me to go back to his college boyfriend, and Urv announced her departure. We talked on the phone all the time and made regular visits. She fell in love with Mary Farmer, who lived in the same small apartment building and who owned the feminist bookstore in D.C., Lammas Women’s Books.
Marc: What do you recall about her plans, aspirations, and hopes for the future at the time of her departure? Would it have surprised you, at the moment she left Boston, to learn that she would become the national/international LGBTQ leader that she later became?
Amy: I didn’t have a vision of any of us becoming “national/international LGBTQ leaders”—it wasn’t how I thought—so I guess I wouldn’t have predicted where she—or any of us—would end up.
Catherine: Again, what Amy said. But even as a new lawyer at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, Urvashi was challenging male authority. I have a particularly fond memory of her giving a talk at an ACLU event and taking shots at the then-Executive Director, Ira Glasser, in that charming way of hers. It was obvious to me even then that Urvashi was going to make a difference no matter what she did and where she was.
Richard: None of us knew what the future would be, we were all just full of ideas and naïve confidence.
Sue: Since she had lived and also worked in D.C. during a law school coop position, she was already very connected to the community there. As for whether it would have surprised me to learn that she became the leader that she later was, no, not at all! She was the most powerful and focused woman I had ever met and her path seemed obvious to me. She had a very clear vision of how the world needed to change and a plan for organizing to make that happen.
Marc: Did you remain close to Urvashi after she left Boston? How did your friendship change (or not) when you were no longer living in the same city?
Amy: Yes—she and I remained close friends until her death. We considered each other part of our queer family.
Richard: Definitely queer family. We were friends for 43 years. Lots of political projects, dinners, travels, fights, tears, sickness, and sleepovers. Urv and Kate eventually moved to New York!
Catherine: We remained part of an extended queer family, although it was not always smooth sailing. But we always shared a broad vision of what was possible and necessary beyond making the straight world more accommodating of queer people. We worked closely for years on creating a network of queer people around the county engaged in challenging criminal legal policies that affect LGBTQ people and people living with HIV. And we collaborated with several other people on publication of a series of “roadmaps” for changing federal criminal justice policy. Urvashi also worked with me on envisioning the next chapter of the organization I founded, the Center for HIV Law & Policy.
Sue: We remained very close for years. Eventually I moved to Boston and lived in the house where she was living until she moved to D.C. At times we would fall out of touch but always reconnected easily and continued to spend some great times together throughout the decades. Urvashi was always a very loving, loyal, and supportive friend.
Marc: What would you like future generations to know about Urvashi? Any concluding thoughts that you’d like to share?
Richard: I hope that rising generations of activists will find inspiration and hope in Urvashi’s life and vision. She was one of the founders of the American LGBTQ+ Museum and she knew that understanding our queer history must inform our future activism. We’ve got to get Urvashi on a U.S. Postage stamp. It took years for the Harvey Milk stamp to happen–we can make this happen together.
Catherine: Urvashi was at her most inspirational when she was poking the establishment, both queer and non-queer, in the eye. Urvashi was brave, and it is her bravery and brilliance in how she stood up for all queer people that inspired, I think. She was not unaware of how her positions could threaten her “fundability”–for example, publicly calling out President George Bush on his insufficient funding of HIV care and prevention–but that never seemed to affect her willingness to do the right thing. I hope that future generations will value and emulate Urvashi’s rejection of class and caste systems of any kind, and dismantle and rethink the capitalist structure and funding mechanisms for queer non-profit work that Urvashi bemoaned. I also hope that they will follow the logical progression of her work by continually challenging categorizations and the status quo, regardless of who is defining those things. Urvashi actually identified as working class–something I teased her about, telling her that you can’t pick your class and that with Vassar and law school degrees and parents who were professors, she was not “working class.” But the truth of it, and why she chose to identify that way, I think, is that that was where her real political heart and identity were–with queer people who suffer the most from racial and economic discrimination and from a patriarchal capitalist system. Time will tell whether the quiet activism of working class queers who battled discrimination and death threats in unions, jails, civil commitment systems, factories, and the like will be recognized and supported. And time will tell whether Urvashi’s political priorities and the work she would want to see carried on will get lost in the creation of her “legacy.” Urvashi worked in many different spheres and she is a wonderful model for effective ways to work with power structures while keeping principles intact. But she had limited support, funding or otherwise, for work she prioritized over the last decade or so of her life--on criminal justice, economic injustice, lesbian health. Keeping her values alive, providing ways for rising activists to pursue the radical systemic change that Urvashi envisioned, will be a lot harder, but a lot more important in my view, than getting her image on a stamp–with all due respect to my friend Richard, and as wonderful as an Urvashi stamp most certainly would be.