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Activist/author Urvashi Vaid keynotes DignityUSA event
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2019-07-07

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Attorney, author and advocate Urvashi Vaid gave a keynote address at DignityUSA's three day conference, "True to the Spirit, True to Ourselves," July 6 at The Westin Michigan Avenue Chicago. ( DignityUSA is a national pro-LGBTQ Catholic organization. )

Vaid is a longtime activist in the LGBTQ movement and is currently the president of the Vaid Group, a social innovation firm working for equity, justice and inclusion.

DignityUSA board member and Dignity/Boston member Peggy Hayes introduced Vaid and spoke about her influence on the international stage.

Vaid spoke about the ways in which Dignity has helped LGBTQ Catholics over the past five decades navigate their faith in the face of resistance by the institutional church leadership.

"My focus today covers three areas," said Vaid. "A personal reflection on faith and liberation; where we find ourselves as a movement in terms of what we won, the unfinished business and this cultural moment we are in and where we go next."

Vaid joked that because she was raised as a Hindu in India it makes her a pagan and apostate in the eyes of Christians worldwide.

"I am one of those heathens that my beloved spouse and partner, Kate Clinton, the recovering Catholic, was asked to pray for every Sunday during Mass," said Vaid. "'Pray for the pagan babies,' she was told. Little did she know that her prayers for one would be answered."

This drew uproarious laughter and applause from the more than 300 people in the room.

Vaid said she has always viewed her political activism as an act of faith even though she did not have a religious practice, a fact that bothered her late mother. She explained that there is a difference between religion and faith and being spiritual is more interesting than any tradition.

She said emigrating to the United States in 1966 and moving to a small upstate New York town when Vaid was 8 made her an outsider and that, she explained, was revealing to her. She said that an outsider's perspective has informed her entire life's work.

"Alongside the experience of being an outsider, this formative experience of being an immigrant taught me that migrating and leaving everything you know behind to seek a better life for oneself and one's family is a deep act of open-heartedness and faith," said Vaid.

Vaid decried the Trump administration's inhumane and violent conditions and treatment of the human beings who are imprisoned in for-profit camps because a "vicious, opportunistic, loathsome, immoral, monstrous, slimeball …decrees that it must be so."

Activism and faith in change was also shaped by two encounters Vaid had with Catholic tradition—attending Catholic school in India where she was taught by Carmelite nuns and discovering liberation theology in college, including reading theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez, credited as a founder of liberation theology.

"Gutiérrez … proposed that there are three levels or dimensions of liberation—material, internal, and spiritual … and that the true measure of spiritual life was to be found in praxis or action for social justice," said Vaid.

According to Vaid, the LGBTQ movement is an example of the principles of faith and liberation in action.

"The advocacy arms of our movement have worked to enable each person to find well-being and emerge from material conditions of suffering caused by inequality and discrimination," said Vaid. "The service and cultural arms of our community have worked to strengthen our inner sense of freedom, and overcome self-hatred and shame as well challenge as intra community prejudice. The faith-based arms of our movement have built alternate churches, theologies, spaces and movements within each faith tradition despite massive persecution and repression."

Vaid spoke about LGBTQ movement advances across five dimensions—legal equality, cultural respect, material or lived equality, inclusion, power and freedom and self-determination. She noted that LGBTQ people have only won partial legal equality, gains have been uneven and transgender and gender non-binary people, people of color and people living in poverty have not benefitted as fully.

"Cultural progress has been great because of marriage equality and Kate always says it 'turned outlaws into in-laws,'" said Vaid.

Vaid noted that 37 percent of U.S. residents still say that sexual relations among same-sex adults are always wrong, and an indicator that they still see LGBTQ individuals as immoral. She also analyzed the history of the backlash that is still happening in the U.S. Vaid cited a number of individuals to discuss the alliance between evangelical white Christians, the religious right and the Republican Party—from Nixon to Reagan to both Bush presidents to Trump.

"There is an intricate connection between racism, sexism and religion," Vaid argued. "We have to face it and organize against it especially in this country."

Vaid said many white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump—whom she called a candidate without any moral or Christian values because they fear they are being displaced and losing cultural control. She discussed her theory of how a form of toxic masculinity is fueling the white nationalist movements, and urged LGBTQs to speak out about the danger and limitations of traditional forms of masculinity and femininity from our feminist and non-binary gender perspectives.

The current political climate does not leave Vaid in despair. Instead, she said she sees a vital role for Dignity and faith-based organizations in this moment, to provide the moral compass for liberation. She urged Dignity members to continue to love and support LGBTQ Catholics, be an outspoken moral voice on gender and sexuality and a witness for social justice in society, work for those who are the most vulnerable and persecuted and organize with other progressive faith-based groups and leaders.

Vaid called this moment the most exciting time for progressive politics in her lifetime because of the organizing that has emerged since 2016.

"I refuse to give in because I have a stubborn optimism," said Vaid.

A Q&A session followed.


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