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Urvashi Vaid, Kate Clinton in Chicago
by Carrie Maxwell

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Race, class and LGBT politics were the themes of a talk by community organizer, author and attorney Urvashi Vaid April 3 at the Center on Halsted. Political humorist, author, and activist Kate Clinton—Vaid's longtime partner—lead a discussion and Q&A session following Vaid's remarks.

An LGBT and social justice movement leader for the past 30 years, Vaid is currently the director of the Engaging Tradition Project at Columbia Law School's Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. Last summer Vaid was a founder of LPAC—the first lesbian political action committee. She serves on LPAC's advisory board as well as the board of directors of the Gill Foundation.

Vaid is the author of Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation and co-edited an anthology Creating Change: Public Policy, Sexuality and Civil Rights with Dr. John D'Emilio and Dr. William Turner. She previously served as a staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, was an executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and a columnist for The Advocate. Vaid has also received awards from a number of organizations including the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association, the American Foundation for AIDS Research and Lambda Legal.

In addition to her books—Don't Get Me Started, What the L? and I Told You So—Clinton also performs her comedy act around the country and writes a column for the national monthly magazine The Progressive.

After an introduction by Jane Saks, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College Chicago, Vaid spoke to a crowd of more than 150 people about her new book Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics.

Before Vaid read an excerpt she revealed that this was one of her first outings since she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "Everything is fine now. It's been quite a year for the two of us ... we've done everything together. We've been together for 25 years and this is the first time we've been this fused," said Vaid.

Vaid noted that the book and her talk is an act of self-criticism. Reading from her book, Vaid remarked that "honesty changed attitudes, laws, cultural possibilities, sexual ideas and family forms in revolutionary ways by telling the truth about desire and gender by showing the power of intimacy beyond reproduction ... yet lately, I've come to a cynical conclusion that by ... investing heavily in making sure that the heterosexist world sees us as no threat to its norms and traditions ... the LGBT movement has been co-opted by the very institutions it once fought to transform."

Of her political activism, Vaid said she is motivated by a desire to change the material conditions of people's lives, issues surrounding race and gender, and creating participation by people without authoritarian, patriarchal control. Vaid said that in the 17 years since her book Virtual Equality was released so much has happened. In that book, Vaid argued that the LGBT movement needed to be placed among racial, economic and gender social justice frameworks; LGBT policies should be shifted to the state level instead of the federal level and the right-wing needed to be defeated both culturally and politically. What amazes Vaid is how everyone is now taking notice of the LGBT movement's progress without recognizing the decades of hard work among activists.

While talking about the positive changes that have occurred over the years, Vaid noted that some things haven't changed including who is the subject of the LGBT movement, the difference between politics of recognition versus redistribution and the difference between rule shifting and culture shifting. Vaid argues that the subject of the LGBT movement is still predominately white, middle/upper class men, the economic needs of the LGBT community haven't been addressed and the rules (laws), practices (implementation) and norms (who we are) are not aligned. Formal legal equality hasn't changed the way LGBT people are perceived and treated by society.

LGBT people's relationship with the government has been affected by the increase in state and social control over the last 20 years, Vaid remarked. Race-based disparities as well as issues surrounding the financing of the LGBT movement are other things that need to be looked at with a critical eye, said Vaid. Vaid noted that no matter how much of a financial investment one makes to LGBT organizations and causes everyone should have an equal voice.

On the topic of marriage equality, Vaid said that Clinton calls it "mad vow disease." Vaid said marriage has been a great and a problematic issue. She said it addresses rules, practices and norms and as a result attacks cultural prejudices, however, it promises more than it delivers and it won't be the end of the struggle for equality because marriage doesn't address other societal issues.

As for the future, Vaid said that creating an electorate that will push progressive causes including LGBT equality is essential. Refocusing the agenda toward economic, gender (women and the trans community) and race within the LGBT community should also be a priority, she said.

Following Vaid's remarks, she and Clinton launched into a discussion about the Prop 8 and DOMA Supreme Court cases. Vaid said she is still troubled by the justices use of the word homosexual. However, it was exciting for her to see the law used to tell a story about people. Of the upcoming DOMA decision, Vaid said she is optimistic.

The audience asked about climate concerns in relation to the LGBT community, whether labor unions should align with the LGBT community, if the LGBT movement is going backwards by fighting for marriage equality, the criminalization of HIV/AIDS, the fight to overturn DADT and DOMA, the theme of liberation by counteracting internalized heterosexism, and homophobia.

Responding to the marriage question, Vaid said she sees how people are troubled by the institution itself (Vaid and Clinton were married last June). Regarding the efforts to repeal DADT and DOMA, Vaid said there is an assimilation logic surrounding those efforts.

Vaid asked D'Emilio—who was in the audience—his thoughts. He spoke about a passage in Vaid's book where she critiqued the mainstream LGBT organizations and called for a federation of the queer, radical, multi-issue groups including those who are concerned with immigrants and labor. D'Emilio liked that idea and said he wanted to join such a federation.

As for the future, Vaid said new structures, new avenues for funding and investing in new leaders who are younger and more diverse are essential for the LGBT movement.

The event was co-hosted by the Center on Halsted, the Community Media Workshop, Ellen Stone Belic Institute for Women & Gender in Arts & Media at Columbia College Chicago, Women and Children First Bookstore, and Windy City Times. The Windy City Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf provided ASL services for the event.

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