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Race and Class After the Election: Talking With LGBT Activist Urvashi Vaid

12/20/2012 03:44 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Like many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans, longtime activist Urvashi Vaid woke up on Nov. 7 with a smile on her face. Vaid, the former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, spoke with me from her office at Columbia Law School about the challenges facing progressives, the class and race-based issues that get left out of mainstream conversations and her latest book, Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics.

Christopher Carbone: Progressives have historically had a hard time maintaining the momentum after presidential elections when the midterm elections roll around.

Urvashi Vaid: What struck me about the win -- a lot of people talk about how President Obama's campaign did a brilliant job micro targeting and using data. The unexpressed story of this election is that it's the fulfillment of an electoral coalition that people have talked about, written about, dreamed about and worked on for over 30 years. Jesse Jackson, in 1984, ran a campaign in which he spoke about a Rainbow Coalition that included gay people, women, immigrants, progressive whites, labor, African-Americans, Latinos, youth. In 1984, we didn't have the deep connections between members of the gay community and the African-American community. I'm so struck by the fact that there are deeper relationships across all of these constituencies and that perhaps that holds the key to sustaining the coalition. The constituencies that woke up and felt good after the election have to remember that this feeling will not happen on its own. We're going to have to keep winning elections at the local level, keep fending off the right-wing attacks.

CC: You write about the lack of diversity at the top of the national LGBT organizations. Are you optimistic about change happening in this area?

UV: Most of my work has been in the mainstream LGBT movement -- the book is critical, self-critical -- of that area. It is so easy for every organization to change the composition of its boards and staffs. It's not rocket science. I don't see a deficit of amazing and brilliant people of all colors to have racial and justice interests. The politics of younger queers and non-queers are much more intersectional and integrated around race, gender, class and sexuality. In my generation, we were much more siloed. People bring in issues that come out of their lived experiences. If I'm the only woman in a room, it's difficult for the issues I'm raising to be prioritized by the larger group of people around the table. From an organizational perspective, there's no excuse anymore for any of our groups to be unrepresentative. The issues of poor LGBT folks are real and they're slightly different than the issues of someone like me who has a good job with health insurance through my employer.

CC: Why do you suggest the potential consolidation of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in your book?

UV: I'd love to see changes and imaginative conversations about what we need for the next 30 years. I love the Task Force. They're the most grassroots-responsive organization that we have at the national level. I look at the lessons we can learn from other social movements, like the women's movement. The grassroots kind of died. As women won more and more, power was consolidated in Washington, D.C. That was the case for much of the 1980s and '90s, and you saw a revitalization that began on the web. That's a good sign for that movement. We still have a struggle to win formal legal equality. Beyond that, the lived experience of LGBT people is impacted by different systems of state control. Those structures are racialized and classed, so different kinds of gay people experience them in different ways.

CC: There's been a growth of queer zines and LGBT digital spaces. There's also more coverage of LGBT life in the New York Times. Is it a growing pie or just shifting?

UV: It's expanding, but the problem is distribution and amplification. I don't know how to solve it. I wish there was a way to aggregate content in more powerful ways. The problem with relying on the Times and the Wall Street Journal for your gay news is that you're only getting a very slanted view of the movement. You only get a certain kind of gay news. I was so amused and horrified at the coverage in the Times the other gay about lesbian Republicans. Now, in my lived experience, I've met five. I've met maybe five million non-Republican lesbians. That's what I'm saying. A perfectly fine story, but it's like, why would you choose to run that story in this year after this election? If you want to run a story about lesbians in politics, make it more rounded. The context that was missing from that story was annoying. It's dangerous to rely on the mainstream to represent us.

CC: What do you think about the cultural progress of the LGBT community?

UV: There are all sorts of ways in which queer people are in television, and movies are being made about us. That said, the structure of the entertainment industry is still problematic. What gets financed and what does not; how few openly gay actors are allowed to be openly gay. There are depictions, but filmmakers and artists I know who are trying to get films make still can't get financing. Hollywood is a boys club. Women haven't even broken into the decision-making area. And it really is a white boys club. Look at the coverage that started when black characters first started in television -- fast forward to today, I'm not so sure that I would claim that depictions of African-Americans on film and television have matched the cultural power and presence of those communities. They don't.