attorney and longtime gay rights activist. She is the executive director of the Arcus Foundation and the former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. She is the author of Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation. In April of this year, she was named one of Out magazine’s fifty most influential men and women in America.
Tens of thousands took to the streets of Washington, DC on Sunday to continue the nationwide fight for equal protection for LGBT people in all matters governed by civil law. It’s been described as the largest demonstration for gay rights in the nation’s capital in over a decade. We speak with attorney and longtime gay rights activist Urvashi Vaid about the state of the gay rights movement and the Obama administration’s stance toward gay rights. [includes rush transcript]
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re also joined in the firehouse studio by Urvashi Vaid. She’s an attorney and longtime gay rights activist, executive director of the Arcus Foundation.
Urvashi, the significance of this protest on Sunday and where you see the gay rights movement right now?
URVASHI VAID: The protest on Sunday was very large. There were over 200,000 people who marched. And in many ways, it was a surprise to some of the more established organizations, because they hadn’t, in fact, called for it. This was called for by a grassroots younger generation. And I think the significance is threefold. First, it’s a generational shift in the LGBT movement. There is a new wave of activism coming up.
And it’s gay and straight. That’s a second, I think, big change. In my many years of involvement in the LGBT movement, it’s been primarily LGBT people who have been out there on the streets. In this rally and march, there were really quite large numbers of non-gay families, friends, allies. They had signs. That’s how I could identify. And people with signs, like an interracial couple who were standing there — they must have been in their early thirties — a white man, African American woman, with a sign that said, "Our marriage was once illegal, too." And other people with signs saying they were supporting their friends and family members.
I think the third difference is — or the third shift that’s happening in the LGBT movement is that it’s much more of a multi-issue agenda that is being carried by the people who are marching. Certainly the focus of the march was equality, equal rights across the country, in every state and at the national level. And it was wonderful to have a very concise and clear focus. But as people spoke at the rally, you could hear it in their — in the way they described equality, that they see it as linked to racial justice, they see it as integral to the concept of social justice. And I think that’s really wonderful that it’s a progressive movement.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Urvashi, talk about the gay and lesbian establishment organizations — I mean, you were once head of one —-
URVASHI VAID: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- and where they stand with President Obama and the pressure that Obama is under right now and the kind of grassroots insurgency that’s risen up.
URVASHI VAID: You know, I think that the — I ran the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and I have a lot of affection and empathy for what it takes to build an LGBT movement and an infrastructure. I’ve been part of building that infrastructure from the local, state, national and now international level. And we need those organizations. Without them doing the day-in, day-out work of training, organizing, education, advocacy, you wouldn’t have the conditions for progress. You wouldn’t have the litigation that we have won in the courts.
At the same time, what happens in almost every social movement is that organizational development can actually stifle grassroots innovation and activism. We saw that in the women’s movement. I think we’ve seen that in the women’s movement. I think that the existence of national organizations and the disappearance of a grassroots activist movement has hurt women’s liberation. I think we’ve seen that in the civil rights movement, where you have an aging leadership in the institutional infrastructure, and younger people of color are doing other things. They’re in the immigrant rights community. They’re in the economic justice movement. So I think what was heartening to me about this was that there is a new wave of energy that will come into the LGBT movement and revitalize those organizations.
I think that the other thing I wanted to observe is that, you know, Congressman Frank’s remarks got a lot of attention this weekend and this week, where he was very dismissive of the grassroots protests and the energy, and he said the only thing that this was going to leave an impression on was the grass, or something like that, in Washington. And it was a very, you know, typical, beautifully stated Barney comment, you know, sarcastic and brilliant, but it misses the point, that you must have outside pressure in order for the lobbying to succeed. Power yields nothing without a demand. And you have to have people pressing people like Barney in order for him to be able to walk in and say, “Hey, do you want to deal with me, or do you want to deal with them?” It gives people like — who are working the inside game a lot more credibility. And I think he didn’t do the movement a good service by those comments.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: But your thoughts on President Obama? His election was hailed by gay advocates around the country. He, on Saturday, did not give any new timeline for repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” where he could issue an executive order. I mean, at the very beginning of his taking office, at his inauguration, he selected Rick Warren, which angered many gay advocates —-
URVASHI VAID: Sure.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: —- a leading opponent of same-sex marriage. Where do you see his administration right now on this? And also the fact that it was under a Democratic administration that DOMA was passed, that "don’t ask, don’t tell" was passed — or do you see it happening in Congress and at the White House level?
URVASHI VAID: That’s a great question, and I think that, you know, I might be a little more moderate about my critiques of President Obama than some of the people who were at the march, who were quite unimpressed with the speech. I thought it was a really impressive statement of commitment. I thought it was quite unequivocal in its support for LGBT human rights.
I think there are three or four areas in which I think he needs to go farther. One is, I don’t understand how you can support all the rights and responsibilities of marriage, but then not the term “marriage” or the equal status of marriage. And marriage equality is a sort of a non-negotiable issue for the gay movement, because we believe we are morally equal, we believe we are politically equal, and we should be morally equal in every aspect of life. So I think he didn’t go far enough there. I think on the military, I don’t understand the obstacle there either. He has been committed to it. There is tremendous support in the country for it. And he needs to just use his political capital.
So I agree that there are some critiques that we can be — that can be made, but unlike Bill Clinton, Barack Obama’s endorsement of LGBT rights was quite deep. And it’s true, Bill Clinton gave us DOMA. Bill Clinton gave us "don’t ask, don’t tell." And hopefully the Obama administration will not give us terrible policies that we’ll have to undo for the next thirty years.
My critique and my beef is much more with Congress, the Democratic-controlled Congress, and we have absolutely no traction. Or, you know, a hate crimes bill passes, and we’re supposed to be excited about that. Well, this is sort of basic. People should not be beaten up because of who they are. And if it’s a big thing to celebrate that, I think that’s sad. I think the leadership of the Democratic Party has been on the record in support of gay rights, but they have not expended their political capital to push for gay rights. And that has got to change.
So, to me, the focus has to be those 435 congressional districts. The focus has to be — and this is what I called for at the march, was that people go home and take seriously what the polls are telling us, that there is a new electoral majority that we are part of. It is a majority of progressive whites, black, brown people, young and old. And we need to take that seriously and work together to defeat right-wing candidates, to defeat conservative Democrats, and to put progressives in office at every level. And we are not really taking advantage of the opportunity that we have.
AMY GOODMAN: Urvashi, I asked Lieutenant Dan Choi how he got to this point, standing, speaking before hundreds of thousands of people. You, too, spoke. How did you get to this point?
URVASHI VAID: Well, I’m an Indian American. I was born in New Delhi, and my family moved here when I was eight years old. So I’ve grown up here my whole life. I’m an immigrant, a naturalized US citizen. And my coming out process was very connected to discovering the women’s movement, to being part of women’s liberation in the ’70s, to being part of the anti-apartheid movement and a lot of social justice activism in the ’70s and ’80s. And I started working full-time in the LGBT movement in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
So what brings me here is a sense of the interconnection of all of these battles for justice. I feel that, you know, as a woman of color, it’s not really separable for me. Racial justice, gay rights, social justice, economic justice, they’re intertwined. And the context that we live in requires, I think, the gay movement to see how intertwined our struggle is with the defeat of right-wing values and right-wing ideology. And that’s another point that I think is really important for people to remember.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And also, your thoughts — many think that President Obama — you hear this a lot on the networks — he’s dealing with healthcare reform, he’s dealing with the economy, he’s dealing with two wars. They say he can’t expend the political capital to reform gay rights in this country. Your thoughts?
URVASHI VAID: I think that’s a misreading of the impact of those crises on ordinary people. When people are losing their jobs and they’re so insecure and they’re so fearful about the future, there is an opening for very, very destructive authoritarian forces to gain in power, and that’s what’s happening in this country. Who is speaking to those people right now? It’s the right wing saying, “You’ve got to be — you have a right to be angry. The government’s the problem. This is the problem. Obama’s the problem.” And I think that it’s a mistake to separate these issues from the context, because what’s happening is that the immigrants are being blamed, the gays are being blamed, you know, women’s equality is being blamed, racial justice is being blamed.
And that’s where I think Obama is missing the boat. He has to stand up and use his platform and use his moral authority as president to talk about how important it is for people to work together to solve these economic problems. The economy affects everybody, and it’s bad. And we need jobs, and we need some real answers. But he’s done is bailed out corporations and banks, and it hasn’t really helped ordinary people.
So I guess the point — the way I’m trying to answer your question is that I don’t see it as, oh, let’s solve these problems, and then we’ll get to the social issues. I think that social issues are often exploited in times of economic crisis, and we’ve known that from history all over the world. So we have to really speak to those realities together.
AMY GOODMAN: Urvashi Vaid, we want to thank you very much for being with us, attorney, longtime gay rights activist, one of those who addressed the massive crowd in Washington, DC, executive director of the Arcus Foundation, former head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Her book is called Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation.