Urvashi: Introduction

            Urvashi Vaid (1958-2022) was a force of nature and a force for good. Born in New Delhi, India, she migrated to the United States to join her parents and sisters in Potsdam, New York, in 1966. She earned a B.A. from Vassar College in 1979 and a J.D. from Northeastern University in 1983. At Vassar and in Boston, she was active in feminist, LGBTQ, and other social justice struggles. In Boston, Urvashi served on the boards of directors of the Boston Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders; she also was an active collective, board, and staff member at Gay Community News. In 1983, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project (1983-86) and as the media director (1986-89), executive director (1989-92), and Policy Institute director (1997-2001) of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. She later worked at the Ford Foundation (2001-2005), the Arcus Foundation (2005-2010), and the Columbia University Center for Gender and Sexuality Law (2011-2015). In the last decade of her life she founded LPAC (a lesbian political action committee) and the Vaid Group LLC. Her major publications include Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation (1995); Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy, and Civil Rights (2000, coedited with John D’Emilio and William B. Turner); and Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics (2012).

            I met Urvashi a few times when I worked at Gay Community News (as a volunteer and board member in 1986 and 1987 and as coordinating editor in 1988 and 1989) and another few times in subsequent years in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. I always appreciated her warm and generous personality, her radical and intersectional politics, and her strategic and tactical sensibilities about social justice. I remember in particular one of Urvashi’s invited speaking engagements at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was a Ph.D. student from 1989 to 1994. After leading one of the country’s most significant LGBTQ newspapers, I was feeling a little invisible, marginal, and unimportant as a new graduate student. On entering the lecture hall, I figured that Urvashi would not remember who I was, but as soon as she saw me in the audience, she flashed a bright smile and walked over to catch up, which elicited surprised looks from my friends, classmates, and teachers. More generally, Urvashi was part of my extended GCN family and one of its most accomplished and influential members.

            In the aftermath of Urvashi’s death in 2022, I reached out to three other GCNers, Richard Burns, Sue Hyde, and Amy Hoffman, about doing something about Urvashi for OutHistory. As a historian, I knew that Urvashi’s later years as a national LGBTQ leader would be relatively easy to research, but her earlier years would be both more challenging to investigate and more revealing about the life experiences that shaped her future life as an activist. The two roundtables presented here, one featuring three friends from her years at Vassar College (1975-79) and one featuring four friends from her years in Boston (1980-83), reflect on Urvashi's life in her college and post-college years.