The Official Website Of Urvashi Vaid

Lesbian Concentrate

Fenway Women’s Dinner Party – Susan Love Award

March 31, 2012 - Judith B. Bradford, PhD, Co-Chair of The Fenway Institute and Director of the Center for Population Research in LGBT Health (left), presents Urvashi Vaid with The Dr. Susan M. Love Award. (Photo: Marilyn Humphries)

Thank you Judy Bradford for that very generous recognition. It is an honor to receive it from both an institution and an individual whom I respect so much.

We are, all of us formed by our early influences, and Boston’s LGBT movement was my schooling ground. The great American and lesbian feminist poet Adrienne Rich, who died three days ago, captured the spirit of the movement into which I came out in her 1976 masterpiece, 21 Love Poems. In Poem #13 she wrote:

The rules break like a thermometer
quicksilver spills across the charted systems,
we’re out in a country that has no language
no laws…
whatever we do together is pure invention
the maps they gave us were out of date
by years….

All that we have done as LGBT people has been uncharted — there were no maps, there was no language, and there were so many more hostile laws arrayed against us 30 years ago. To refuse the compulsory heterosexuality to which we were channeled and to begin to create openly lesbian, bi, and trans lives as women and as gay men was an act of pure invention.    I love that about us.

Two weeks ago, a gay man told my partner Kate that he had never really understood how important reproductive freedom was to LGBT rights until the recent hullabaloo about Planned Parenthood and invasive vaginal sonograms. He said he finally got that this fight was about the social and political control of women’s freedom, and women’s sexual agency, and not just a moral argument about when life begins.

As Kate told me about that conversation, I wondered, to what extent the leading organizations and funders of the LGBT movement would agree that issues like reproductive freedom, violence against women, women earning less than men, or expanding the definition of family in welfare programs to enable low-income lesbians with kids to be covered would be seen as important issues for the LGBT movement? For millions of lesbians, economic justice, addressing racism and winning fair treatment as women are issues that matter a great deal. But these, and many other feminist concerns, remain on the periphery of the LGBT movement that we as lesbians have helped to build.

What gets to be on or is held off the LGBT movement’s agenda is about who has power. Are lesbians powerful enough as members, leaders and donors in the LGBT movement to demand that the movement we built, and the politicians we elected, stand strongly and defend us as women?

The answer, sadly, is no. Lesbians comprise fewer than 40% of the board members of the 40 largest LGBT organizations (Movement Advancement Project, 2011 State of the Movement Report), and we are a much smaller number of the major donors to any of these groups. At the political decision-making meetings where key strategies are set, lesbians are grossly under-represented; and to most political leaders, we are invisible or indistinguishable from gay men.

Two weeks ago, a New York Times story about the upcoming Political OutGiving Conference was titled “Gay Donors, Key Group for Obama, To Plot Strategy in Washington.” In the article’s title and content, the fact that “gay” meant male was just taken for granted. This article was not an anomaly – the public face and voice of the LGBT movement has once again become dominated by that of our brothers. Again and again, unless a lesbian politician is quoted or a lesbian comedian or celebrity is present, lesbians are just not mentioned. Even in today’s New York Times column about the importance of Adrienne Rich as a poet, the fact that she was a lesbian was not even mentioned.

There are two major national lesbian organizations in the country – the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and Astraea National Foundation for Justice.  These effective and amazing groups deserve the support of everyone in this room but they struggle for funds every day. Yet, their size is tiny compared to the much larger lifestyle lesbian infrastructure that exists – Dinah Shore, NCAA finals, NBA Women’s Basketball, the cruises. These gatherings are our circuit parties. They organize tens of thousands of lesbians, but they aspire to no greater purpose than a hangover. Largely depoliticized spaces, they leave the lesbians who participate in them oblivious of how important their leadership can be, and therefore render us all disempowered in the larger political sphere.

I am not against just having a good time, as anyone who knows me can attest. And there are certainly reasons for gaps in lesbian giving and participation. Yes, women do earn less than men; if we have wealth, our families of origin often disable us from controlling it; many of us have kids and many kinds of care giving responsibilities that demand our resources; we have to work harder to make our careers a success.

These reasons are all valid, but they can no longer be our excuses. Lesbians must step up, and step out politically and philanthropically. The time and need is now.

A new moment of opportunity is upon us. Tammy Baldwin is running for the U.S. Senate and if elected would become the first out gay, lesbian, bi or trans person to be elected to that body. Christine Quinn will run for Mayor of NY next year and if elected will become the first woman to hold that office. Annise Parker in Houston is the openly lesbian mayor of the fifth largest city in the US and will run for reelection in two years. Scores of other outstanding lesbian and lesbian-supportive feminist candidates (both men and women) are fighting to win against deeply reactionary opponents.

A new wave of attacks on women’s rights and on people of color is also upon us. The anti-immigrant bashing of recent years, the high incidence of racially motivated violence against people of color, the excessive criminalization of certain populations and the racially biased policies of the right demand our attention.

Like all of you, I care very much about nondiscrimination, equal rights, marriage equality and parenting rights. But I also care passionately about LGBT people who are parts of the communities being vilified in today’s toxic mainstream politics. I care about women and gender nonconforming people being free from violence, about insuring that my womb and my sexual freedom is not regulated by the likes of Rick Santorum; about insuring that gender and race-based income inequality ends.

That is why I want to use the platform you have given me tonight to urge every lesbian who can hear me to do much more than we already are doing. Lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender women, and the feminist men who love us, must stand up for ourselves and each other politically now more than ever.

I urge you to commit to changing the statistics on lesbian leadership on boards – inside and outside the LGBT movement.

I ask each of you who has found success in business and life, as I have, who is comfortable and prosperous, to give back even more. Let us all become even more generous and active politically and philanthropically. Join NCLR, give generously to Astraea so it can support lesbian organizations. And give even more aggressively to Fenway so it can better serve all of our communities, especially those facing economic hardship.

And I also want to ask us all to do something we have not yet done as lesbians – to organize ourselves into a political voice that must be heard and a political force that cannot be ignored. We need lesbian political mobilization now more than ever. We need to energize and organize lesbians, bisexual women, transgender women and all who love us into a new national force to influence politics. We need to push harder to secure outcomes that are pro-LGBT, pro-feminist and pro-social, racial and economic justice.

My friends we are going to do just that.  I am proud to be working with a committed and smart group of women and men to make some of these ideas a reality — to really try to build a national lesbian political network and voice. We will have major news in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned as we continue to enter uncharted territory.

Adrienne Rich wrote, “The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic and the most potentially transforming force on this planet.”

I love being a lesbian.  I love my very diverse LGBT communities.  I love our inventiveness and respect our courage. And I am confident that as lesbians get more powerful, a different voice and politics can be raised at the tables of political power. I hope you will join me in that effort.

Thank you for this wonderful award and for all the amazing work that you support at Fenway.

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