Imagining the Impossible
Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Politics
By Urvashi Vaid
New York: Magnus Books, 2012, 238 pp., $21.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Bettina Aptheker
Urvashi Vaid is currently the director of the Engaging Tradition project at Columbia University Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. Trained as an attorney, she has been a remarkable and courageous organizer in the LGBT movement for thirty years. Her work is marked by a feminist intersectional politics in which she weds (ironic pun intended!) LGBT issues to those of race, class, and gender. She insists that any one of these civil rights and liberation movements cannot succeed without inclusion of the others.
I first heard of Urvashi Vaid when she was executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) from 1989 – 1992; I first met her when the Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I teach, invited her to give a public lecture in April 2002. Two years into George W. Bush’s first presidential term, amid post-9/11 proclamations of “endless war,” Vaid’s presentation was titled, “Sexuality and its Discontents: What’s Race, Class, and War Got To Do With It?” During an evening of powerful analysis and discussion, the hundreds in attendance were galvanized by Vaid’s vibrant optimism, passion for politics, and charisma.
As I read the speeches and essays collected in this volume, so hopefully titled Irresistible Revolution, I heard Vaid’s voice in my mind, and recognized again the themes that animated her talk that night in Santa Cruz. In successive keynotes and presentations, from the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 in Beijing through late 2011, Vaid hammers home her intersectional political agenda again and again. Each talk is preceded by an italicized introduction, in which she explains the circumstances under which it was given and places it within a historical context. In some cases she also updates the references for greater currency.
The majority of the presentations here were written after 2008 and the election of Barak Obama to his first presidential term. However, the book went into production before Obama’s re-election and his declaration of support for our “gay brothers and sisters” in his second inaugural address—a declaration that was unimaginable only a few months earlier. For those of us raised in the 1950s or earlier, the president’s recognition of our humanity and equality is simply stunning. It represents a seismic shift in American politics and opinion.
However, as Vaid’s opening essay, “Still Ain’t Satisfied: Equality and the Limits of LGBT Politics,” presented in 2011 at New York’s Hunter College, makes clear, this cultural shift has come at a significant political cost. Vaid challenges mainstream lesbian and gay organizations on their focus on marriage equality. This comes, she says, at the expense of a radical and inclusive political agenda that includes transgender rights—which she notes seem to have been all but abandoned in the push for legal marriage. She writes forcefully that,
Without a more substantive definition of equality, without a commitment to its extension to all LGBT people, without deeper and more honest appraisal of the limits of traditions [such as marriage] to which LGBT people seek admission, without a willingness to risk gain for the opportunity to create a world that truly affirms the intrinsic moral and human worth of people’s sexual, racial, and gender difference, the LGBT politics currently pursued will yield only conditional equality, a simulation of freedom contingent upon “good behavior.”
While affirming that nothing she is saying should be interpreted as an argument against marriage equality, Vaid argues—not only in this essay, but throughout the book—that racial, class, and gender politics not only matter but should be front and center in queer politics. She grounds her politics in an intersectional feminism, placing reproductive rights, violence against women, and gender-based income disparities among the key issues for the LGBT movement. And she notes that racism has determined much of US public policies on issues as disparate as immigration, police violence, and the prison system—all of which come down particularly hard on LGBT folk. In practical terms, she observes that the mainstream movement’s “narrow focus on the bullied child in school” ignores “the question of racial bias in the administration of school discipline.” Likewise, she goes on to suggest that the LGBT movement ought to “become a major voice campaigning against sexual abuse and how it harms all young people; it might tackle the violence of budgetary cutbacks as an attack on young people; it might resist the right-wing’s attack on Planned Parenthood and defend an organization that provides urgent primary care to many poor women and kids.”
Themes from this opening chapter are reiterated in various incarnations throughout the book. For example, in the chapter, “Ending Patriarchy: Political Legacies of the 1970s Lesbian Feminist Movement,” Vaid describes an October 2010 conference, In Amerika They Call Us Dykes: Lesbian Lives in the 1970s, which she helped to organize at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York. There is no nostalgia in Vaid’s representation of the seventies movement. In her historical talk, she observes that the lesbian-feminist movement made four historic contributions:
1. It greatly strengthened the inclusivity of feminism, emphasizing an intersectional analysis first articulated in the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977. Also, for the first time, it included disabled people in a progressive coalitional framework.
2. It emphasized “process” in all political decision making. In ever more inclusive meetings, lesbian-feminists sought consensus in all decisions, an often exhausting effort.
3. It linked culture to politics, including coffeehouses, poetry readings, dances, music, comedy, and theater in its organizing efforts.
4. It developed a radical feminist theory and practice that included analysis of heterosexism, patriarchy, and the nuclear family. In a way, Vaid is describing second wave feminism here, but her purpose is to emphasize in particular how the multiracial, explicitly lesbian-feminist movement drove that political and cultural formation—a fact too often overlooked in historical renditions of the period.
One of Vaid’s most trenchant essays is “Assume the Position,” a discussion of class that she presented as the keynote address at Vassar College on the occasion of its 150th anniversary in 2010—just as the Occupy Wall Street movement was launching itself into the public discourse. Vaid is acutely aware of the way in which attending Vassar changed her own socioeconomic status. Speaking out of her experience, she remarks, “Class positions embody and generate a way of seeing and being seen—and like all observation and experience, this way is being raced and gendered [Vaid’s italics].” Thus, she says, because the staffs and boards of mainstream queer organizations are usually composed of people from the middle- to upper-middle classes, who see the movement as a single-issue campaign for legal rights, the poor sections of the community are invisible to them. But these sections are not small: Vaid documents homelessness among queer youth and impoverishment among transgender people, citing damning statistics on all counts. For example, she cites a study by NGLTF on transgender discrimination that demonstrates that “transgender people are nearly four times more likely to live in poverty than the general population.” Likewise, using data from Welfare Warriors Research Collaborative of Queers for Economic Justice, Vaid reveals the number of low-income LGBT and gender nonconforming people in New York City where, for example, 58 percent currently live in shelters and eighty percent of the respondents receive city and state services from Medicaid and the New York City HIV/AIDS Service Administration, as well as federal benefits such as food stamps, public and housing assistance, and Social Security disability. Making the connection to racial discrimination, Vaid points out that even as racial barriers in higher education, professional employment, and cultural recognition fall, even though a black president is elected, the actual economic status of black America is worse today than it has been in several decades. So it is with LGBT equality. LGBT rights are advancing in a larger context of growing class inequality.
An important element of Vaid’s politics is her continual effort to make coalitions, even though agreements between conservative and progressive groups can be only narrowly constructed. Included in this volume is her 1998 keynote address to the Log Cabin Republicans at their annual convention. At the time, she explains, she was running NGLTF’s Policy Institute think tank, and coalition building was a significant part of her job. She initiated projects on racial and economic justice, interfaith organizing, and creating unity among LGBT organizations no matter what their politics. She explains that she included this talk “to give a sense of the romance I have left behind, but one that many in the LGBT mainstream still cherish.” While there may well be elements of romanticism in this position, I still believe that coalition politics is vital to all social justice movements, even when the grounds are narrow, so I especially appreciated Vaid’s inclusion of this piece. When she spoke at the Log Cabin conference, she could not have foreseen the virulent, right-wing, Tea Party turn that was to churn the country into fanaticism and gridlock, and how it would overtake the Republican Party.
Eleven years after the Log Cabin foray, Vaid addressed the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Intergeneration Seminar in a talk she titled, “Politics as an Act of Faith.” Her title, meant ironically, upends the meaning of both politics and faith. Offering up gay and lesbian historical figures such as Harry Hay, who founded the gay male Mattachine Society in 1951, and Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who founded the lesbian Daughters of Bilitis in 1955—both at the height of the McCarthyite repression that included vicious anti-Communist and antigay persecution—Vaid observes that, “You have to be able to imagine the impossible to be able to believe in change.”
Urvashi Vaid’s speeches over more than two decades provide both a remarkable history of the LGBT movement and a stunning vision of just how “impossible” have been the changes in the lives of tens of thousands of LGBT folks, to which this book bears excellent witness.
Bettina Aptheker is professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her most recent book is a memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech and Became a Feminist Rebel (2006); her new project is a history of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in the Communist left in the United States. She appreciates any leads. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.