Equality, Identity and Factoring the Left back into the Political Equation

Urvashi Vaid, long-time progressive activist and former head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) has recently become more widely known as the author of the book Virtual Equality (see box). We talked to Urvashi at considerable length shortly after she had moved to New York, in her office, surrounded by packing cases, folding chairs and the infectious enthusiasm of her own energy and convictions.

Chandana: We were curious to know how you came to be, as you describe yourself, someone specifically on the Left. How did you come into your political beliefs, what radicalized you, what formed your opinions?

Urvashi: It's a difficult question for me to answer because I feel as though I've been fascinated by politics ever since I was a child. Besides, I was a child during the Sixties, and ideas of radical social change were in the air. We moved to the US in 1966 (from Chandigarh, India) when I was eight. My father had a teaching job at the State University of New York, in a little town called Potsdam. And the social upheavals in this country made a lasting impression on me. My parents are not what I would characterize as political. But they were pretty progressive in their thinking. I got a lot of early support for my political thinking from them. But I also think that the experience of being an immigrant child in upstate New York, in an all white little town, of feeling different, is where I began to understand politics, to question myself in relation to the people around me. To ask, am I like that? Do I want to be like that?

One of the first ways in which I came into politics was as a student activist. I speak a lot right now in colleges and to student groups. And I really stress to them that politics is not something you do as a job later on in your life, it's what you are living through right now. Most students don't really see that. There's a careerism that has developed around political work and around organizing, especially with gay and lesbian students. In the 70's when I was in college, you couldn't imagine working full-time as a gay activist. Everything was done as a volunteer. You tried to create an institution with a bunch of like-minded people to achieve certain goals and to work on that all night if you had to and then do whatever you had to during the day to earn a living.

Now I meet young people who say, "I want a career as a gay rights activist, I want a job, and how do I get one?" My answer is always the same. It is, "You do that by looking around your own community, where you live, and figuring out what you're interested in, and volunteering for that organization, stuffing envelopes, doing shit work, answering phones, organizing demos or meetings or conferences and learning." There is no short cut on how to organize other than by doing it - by thinking and writing and arguing with people. When I graduated from college, I moved to Boston and I got really involved in this newspaper Gay Community News(GCN). It was 1979 and there was a lot happening in the gay and lesbian community. GCN was the only national weekly newspaper. At the paper, there were Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, gay liberationists, and others who were liberal Democrats. And we worked and fought together. We worked to create a forum where a spectrum of views ranging from the left to the center could argue with each other and create something that was ultimately very exciting.

Aniruddha: Did your realization of your own lesbian identity further politicize you, radicalize your thinking, make you start questioning everything else about you?

Urvashi: Absolutely. But before I realized I was a lesbian, I realized that I was a feminist. Again, I would have to attribute some of my early feminism to my parents. But I got really radicalized when I discovered feminism in journals and books. Through getting involved in women's groups and meeting lesbians, and through the process of reading, that's when I started to look at my sexual orientation. I had just assumed that I was heterosexual; but as soon as I encountered lesbians, my head turned. I wondered, "What does this mean?" and, "Am I?" And then I realized that I was. Being a lesbian is quite radicalizing - because it places you so outside the traditional cultural institutions of womanhood, manhood, femininity, masculinity, marriage and family.

Monique Wittig has written that lesbians are not women. Even the most conventionally acting and appearing lesbians are not women in the way that I was raised to be a woman. The experience of being outside of the gender-dualism of our cultures, autonomous of patriarchal thinking, is scary and unique.

Aniruddha: Could you go over the main theses of your book, the strengths and weaknesses that you see in the current form of the gay movement and your suggestions for future directions?

Urvashi: My book is called Virtual Equality, and subtitled The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation. My basic argument is that the pursuit of mainstream integration and civil rights has led the gay & lesbian movement not to genuine equality but to a status of conditional - or virtual - equality. The pursuit of civil rights does not challenge the fundamental inequalities of a system that is built upon an exploitative, inherently racist economic system, in which the family is by definition heterosexist and patriarchal.

Look at the history of the major social justice movements of the 20th century, of which the gay and lesbian civil rights movement is the youngest - it's only about 40 years old, while the women's movement started over 100 years ago in this country, with the movement for suffrage, and the movement against slavery started hundreds of years ago, basically with the start of the institution of slavery. With each of those movements, when their vision got collapsed into fighting for narrow legislative rights, rather than broader economic justice and cultural transformation, when they began to work for just the Equal Rights Amendment, or the 1964 Civil Rights Act, those movements lost something. They became reformist and became involved in perpetuating a structurally unequal system. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on social justice movements to do just that in this country.

Chandana: We were struck by your insistence throughout the book that all forms of oppression had common roots. That gay oppression had roots similar to that of gender oppression. We would like to hear more about such linkages and how you conceive of them.

Urvashi: What I argued is not that these different forms of oppression, have common roots. Rather, there needs to be a common movement for social justice that can address them all: racism, gender oppression, homophobia. Until there is that understanding on our part as social change activists that we can't work on one without working on the other, we won't succeed. I do believe that the oppression of women and the oppression of gay people are linked through a common, rigid, social construction of gender. In most cultures you find these very rigid understandings of gender, of biology, of binary sexuality. In Judaeo-Christian heritage, you know, male and female, He created them in Genesis, and that was the primary division between people. And we have created around this division all these cultural and supposedly biological meanings as to what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman, limiting men and women to certain forms of behavior, relationships, desire, expression, aspiration.

I believe that the gay and lesbian movement and the feminist movement really challenge these rigid social definitions. That's why these movements are so threatening to all sorts of cultures. We challenge, and we should challenge, the limited view that biology is destiny. I don't believe that most gay people see it that way. Most gay American men see gayness as something completely distinct from gender. This is one of the biggest political differences between lesbians and gay men or between feminists and nonfeminists. You can't be a lesbian without questioning the traditional role of women in society. But I don't think that gay men question manhood in this way. They aspire to be accepted as men; they seek legitimation in the fraternity of man.

Chandana: Does this imply that the gay movement in the US has been historically a gay men's movement, which is why it has sidelined women's issues?

Urvashi: It is not a men's movement now. It is very mixed. But that change happened in the 80's and 90's. In the 50's, 60's and 70's, it was very male dominated. The new women's liberation movement drew in a lot of lesbians and got us politically energized. In the 70's, the lesbian feminist movement went on its own separatist track for a while. And so did the gay liberation movement, which involved some women but was largely male dominated. Also in the 70's, as I detail in my book, the gay and lesbian movement clearly split into a liberation- and transformation-oriented wing and a movement for civil rights and mainstreaming. Gay and lesbian liberationists wanted to question gender, to redefine family, to place sexuality and desire on the table alongside economic and political issues. Gay and lesbian legitimationists argued they didn't really want to challenge gender roles, or change the family, or to challenge the economic system - all they wanted was to not be fired because they were gay, to get fair treatment and full civil rights. Status Queer.

When I came into the movement, I was one of a handful of women working with gay men on gay and lesbian issues. Most of my lesbian friends were working inside women's organizaions - for choice, for battered women, creating the institutions of the second wave of the women's movement in this country. With the appearance of AIDS and the emergence of the right wing, a lot of those women realized, "I am under attack as a lesbian, too, and I've got to do something." That brought large numbers of women and gay men out of the closet and into the gay and lesbian movement. Still, even now, when you look around the landscape of progressive to liberal organizations in this country, you will find lots of lesbians working in leadership positions in social change organizations - against the death penalty, in the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), as social workers, for reproductive freedom. We have multiple identities, partly because we face multiple discriminations.

So we have a broader window from which we look out on the world. Lesbians have not been single issue. And we work on a wide variety of political fronts. I'm not fighting for gay rights so that we can all live in a lavender bubble - as though that would be Nirvana if I lived only in a gay community and met gay people and went to gay plays and read gay magazines. I want all of those things to exist so that we have the vehicles to express ourselves, but I want to live in the whole world as an open lesbian. I want to have my sexual identity integrated, in a sense, into the fullness of my life.

Chandana: I was curious to know, why you think there is such a category as conservatives in the movement, how did it grow historically. Is that linked with what you describe as the difference between lesbian and gay politics?

Urvashi: I think there is a large lesbian and gay conservative element and it is very much about class and about money. I don't know if it is as much about race. There are gay people of color who are conservatives. One way gay conservatism expresses itself is in its explicit acceptance of Republican economic policies. "We need smaller government. Less taxes. Cut welfare. People need to take care of themselves. Individual responsibility." That's one element of it. The other side is an excessive concern about how gay people represent themselves to straight people. "We shouldn't have drag queens as representatives of gay people. What does bisexuality have to do with homosexuality?" It's like gay fundamentalism, with self appointed moralists saying, "These sexual minorities within the gay community don't represent what it really means to be gay - people like me do! What it really means to be gay is that we just want to have families like straight folks. We want to have a nice suburban house with two kids, two dogs."

Against this kind of whitewash, gay and lesbian radicals and progressives say that there are many kinds of queer people - from gays to bisexuals to transgendered people, and we need a movement in which each group has a voice. We live in a moment of enormous conservative dominance. In that sense, it's no surprise that there is a large gay conservative emergence as well. Today's cultural and religious conservatives are reacting chiefly to the emergence of an international women's liberation movement. That is what threatens them most. This is evident in America, where a new, reactionary men's movement is beginning - the Promise Keepers are all about re-imposing traditional patriarchy in the family. This anxiety is evident in the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the persistence of the horror of female circumcision in Africa, in calls to shut off "western" influence in India and in other parts of the world. Women's economic, political and personal freedom is a central element of any liberation movement.

Aniruddha: I wanted you to also talk about the other side of it, about the large number of identity-based gay groups on the Left. Groups like, say, SALGA or TRIKONE (See Resources below). What role do you think they play in the movement towards a broader Left agenda in gay politics?

Urvashi: There is a tremendous value to identity-based organizing. And the value is visibility, clarity, mutual support. Being able to find like-minded souls and, through that process, figure out who you are. It's very important. For years I was the only out lesbian South Asian I knew. Then I would meet individuals, a woman here, a woman there, they would come up to me and say, "Are you lesbian ?" and I would say, "Yeah, are you ?" And we would trade addresses. The first South Asian lesbian newsletter in this country called Anamika was founded in the mid 1980s by two women. Trikone was next and it still continues. SALGA and TRIKONE have done so much to provide a home for gay and lesbian South Asians, to network us to one another and to provide a vehicle through which we can challenge the homophobia of the straight Indian and South Asian communities.

SALGA and other South Asian gay and lesbian groups have a huge challenge ahead of them in confronting the anti-gay bias that is present among many Indians and South Asians. In New York City, there are gay-bashings outside gay bars in Queens; the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) has banned SALGA from the India Day Parade. There could be more collaboration between the straight community and the gay and lesbian community on political issues like AIDS or immigration policies, or poverty and welfare programs. Gay, lesbian and feminist South Asian organizations are at the forefront of thinking about and raising these concerns within our broader communities. I think there is a historical progression in the work of identity-based groups. For the first period, the focus is often internal - each of us who is gay or lesbian needs support, a place to talk about family pressures and our culturally-specific issues. SALGA, Trikone, Masala (in Boston) and other support groups provide that context.

Next comes a process of building community with one another. This is an exciting process of cultural and artistic expression. You can see it in the wealth of writing, film, art and creative projects coming out of queer South Asian artists. We are celebrating our existence. Toronto's Desh Pardesh conference is the most exciting example of such political, queer supportive celebration. We are also building the service-groups and organizations we need to address the problems that we face - this is the work that feminist and queer-supportive groups like APICHA (Asian Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS), Sakhi or Manavi are engaged in. I believe it is important, for those openly gay South Asians who can, to participate more widely in mainstream South Asian organizations. This kind of interaction is difficult and essential.

The example of the Black gay and lesbian community here is instructive. The National Coalition Of Black Lesbians And Gays was formed in the 1970's . It had a mission to challenge the racism in the white lesbian and gay movement, provide a place for African American queers to organize and do training and skills building, and articulate a political agenda. But the Coalition also had the mission of advocating within the Black community, within the Black civil rights movement. And because NCBLG did its work in the early 1980's, we saw 13 years later, the NAACP endorsing the 1993 March on Washington, and we see today the Southern Christian Leadership Conference working with the Black Lesbian & Gay Leadership Forum. The lobbying and educational work bore fruit. I believe South Asian queers are just at the threshold of that kind of work with the broader South Asian communities in this country.

Chandana: But so far - this will be a generalization like all other generalizations - the Indian American community has been spoken for primarily by conservative male voices. I would be curious to know how they have reacted to your prominence? Have they rushed forward to claim you?

Urvashi: Well, let me tell you a story before I answer that more broadly. When I moved to NYC, I went on a mission. I called the FIA number and mentioned that I was new to town, and was trying to figure out how to connect to the Indian community. I made an appointment to meet someone at the FIA office. And we ended up in an almost 2-hour conversation about homosexuality. It started simply enough with him saying, at one point, that I could work on some committee for the annual India Day Parade. I said, as a member of the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association, I knew we had been denied the right to march for three years. At this he got immediately defensive and angry, and said, "Well, we don't have much to talk about. That group abused its privilege, and marched out of order, and had signs that had nothing to do with India." So I said, "Well, those sound to me like reasonable issues to raise, but I don't see why they can't be worked out. Has the FIA ever sat down with representatives of SALGA ?" No, he thought that that would be unproductive. And it went on.

Then he started to get to his own feelings about homosexuality, saying things like, "Whatever you do, go ahead and do, but what you do is morally wrong." So I challenged him on that, I challenged him to tell me that my moral values were any less rigorous than his. I said, "I defy you. You can't do it, you don't know me, you don't know my family, you don't know my relationship, you don't know anything about me except that I am a lesbian. So how can you say anything about my moral character ?" We engaged like this, for another hour and a half. And the end of this conversation, I'm not saying that he changed his fundamental views. But he was saying things like, "Well, if people do come in and get involved, that would be a way to start building some understanding." After this long conversation as I was getting up to leave he asked if I knew the woman who was the head of all the gays? So I said, "You mean do I know the president of SALGA ?" He said, "No, no, no, no, she's a woman, and Indian, and she's the head of all the gays." I'm so dense, I'm sitting there, and I did not understand who he was talking about. I started to name people in Trikone's leadership. He kept insisting that was not the person he was talking about. I suddenly realized that he was talking about me. I said, "Oh, I think you are asking about me, I used to run the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force." He did a double take, and nodded. I had told him my name, but he had not put it together. He knew that I'd moved to Massachusetts, and had written a book.

So here's a man in the FIA who is aware that the 'Head Of All The Gays' is an Indian woman. That was such a wonderful moment. To answer your question about how the Indian community has reacted to me or my work - the reaction varies. The reaction I get from the older generation, my parents' generation, is polite but distant, it's "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue." My generation and younger are really supportive - at least to my face. They seem genuinely interested in the specifics, in the details of the political process. With the younger generation, the second and third generation South Asians who are in college, I'm noticing another whole response. Whether they are straight or gay, they identify with me as a symbol of a politically active South Asian - I think this younger generation wants very much to be politically involved, to connect with progressives and feminists and so on, and to be connected to some understanding of what it means to be an Indian.

So, maybe there's a need for an Indian or South Asian coalition that is built on a different set of assumptions than that to be Indian means to go to Diwali dinner in the basement of some church, which is what it was for me as a young person.

Aniruddha: Which way do you see yourself headed now in your work?

Urvashi: Right now I want to extricate myself from working solely on gay rights. What I want to do now comes from my belief that we must have a Left in this country to present an alternative vision of the future. The prominence of progressive solutions to social problems has been systematically eroded by the Right's attacks, and by our own failure to create a serious united movement. I want to be involved in building up a lively, big, exciting Left. I have a number of different ideas for how to do this work. One notion is to create an organization whose goal would be the building of relationships between people in the different movements - racial justice, queer, women, labor, environment -- all these single issue groups that haven't had an opportunity to come together on anything other than a piece of legislation here or there or a national march on Washington convened by somebody.

Even the Left think-tanks, frankly, have no presence in the grassroots movements because they don't coordinate with grassroots organizations, they don't provide strategic leadership, they don't convene others, or teach their ideas to organizers. There's no network. What if we could try, in 25 cities in this country, a model program, a series of discussion groups that meet, once a month, so grassroots activists from different movements can begin to get to know each other and develop common ideas, a common platform. I believe that all politics is about people's relationships with each other. Without those personal relationships you will never have trust. Without trust there can't be meaningful cooperation and common ground. So, as progressives, we need to build those relationships. I'm working with others to start this project and we are calling it a Center for Progressive Renewal, CPR, because the Left needs it.

Another thing that we don't get to see is clear progressive analyses of important issues of concern to all of us in our ordinary lives. For example in this whole Welfare Reform battle, as plugged in as I am through my computer, I am so poorly informed about what progressive thinkers in the field of poverty work want. What kind of system do they want? I would like to know that so that I could push for these goals in my own corner of gay and lesbian politics. I believe great ideas and thinkers exist. What's missing is a bridge between their analysis and ordinary people. My hunch is that we could identify 10, 15 topics, like crime, health care, educational systems, homelessness, and create accessible digests of progressive positions on each of those issues. The challenge is to distribute them widely. We need to re-create the sense that there's a living Left that has sound, reasonable answers to social problems.

Chandana: I wanted to ask you if the book has helped with this. Because the book ended with this call to action. Has there been any response?

Urvashi: Yes. My book has given voice to a lot of progressive gay and lesbian people. I think I say things that come from a perspective in the gay movement that hasn't been dominant or articulated much lately. I know of political organizations that have literally assigned this book as reading to their board members, study groups of leaders who have argued my conclusions chapter by chapter. The best organizing comes out of your own experience. It always motivates you more. I know that there's a large queer Left. It is completely disconnected from the broader Left.

The New Left in this country was very homophobic, in the 60's and 70's. "What, gay liberation, that's just bourgeois indulgence." And there's still some of that attitude amongst the former leaders of that who are still around in positions of power and prominence in many of the important think tanks and policy institutions created by the New Left. They don't see that there are, literally, thousands of queer progressives who are homeless as progressives. The gay and lesbian movement is where we put our energies. But all of us are pretty realistic that it's a mainstream movement. In my book, I make the distinction between a movement that seeks legitimation and a movement that seeks liberation. And I believe that our choice ought not be either one or the other. You can work for a legitimationist end - like I have to work for civil rights, because there are 19 states that still criminalize gay and lesbian behavior. I can't abandon that work, for civil rights reform of those laws. But I'm very clear as a progressive that's not my agenda. The liberation agenda is a lot broader. And I think that there are many people in the gay movement who see that. Quotes: ä politics is not something you do as a job later on in your life, it's what you are living through right now. Most students don't really see that. There's a careerism that has developed around political work and around organizing.

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