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MLK Day Services @ Congregation Beit Simchat Torah



Congregation Beit Simchat Torah – January 18, 2013
Remarks by Urvashi Vaid

Thank you to Rabbi Kleinbaum for the invitation to be here tonight and for the honor of offering some words at this service. Rabbi Kleinbaum is a leader cut from the same cloth as Dr. King. A spiritual leader who believes that faith is made meaningful by an engagement with justice, a visionary leader who challenges us to examine biases and think more critically, and a brilliant organizer whose 20 years of stewardship have made CBST a vital resource for personal and cultural transformation. Thank you for the many years you have been my teacher.

Martin Luther King Day is the one official holiday with which every advocate who fights for justice, equality and liberation feels strong kinship. It is appropriate that this year it coincides with the second inauguration of our incredible President!

This holiday reminds us of the sacrifice so many before us made to create the legal and cultural landscape we inhabit. It calls upon us to make a personal commitment to the still imperative struggle for racial justice. And it inspires us as a reminder of the power of social movements to prevail against the most extreme forms of violence and repression. It is that power – the power of social movements, the responsibility of those of us who work in them, and the responsibility of each of us, that I want to address tonight.

The great American and lesbian feminist poet Adrienne Rich, who died in March of 2012 captured the spirit of the movement into which I came out in these words from her 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the maps they gave us were out of date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….
(Adrienne Rich, “21 Love Poems,” The Dream of a Common Language, W.W. Norton, 1993)

All that we have done as queer 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, gay, bi, and trans lives was an act of pure invention. I love that about us and our allies.

A dazzling set of events appear to suggest that the ultimate victory of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movement is if not at hand, certainly inevitable. Four electoral victories this past fall on marriage – at the ballot box! A President who embraces and champions our full freedom. Courts that increasingly recognize our human rights – perhaps even the Supreme Court this year. Growing recognition of our rights around the world and an active movement in every part of the globe. This is a uniquely gratifying and exciting moment in which to be working for freedom for all regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).

Despite the huge pride I feel as a movement veteran in these gains, I find myself more cautious than euphoric. (I am after all, a Hinju!). Let us always be clear-eyed and honest with each other in this giddy moment of White House invitations, gay inaugural galas, multi-million dollar queer organizational budgets, and the best influence that the money of the most powerful among us can buy – the equality we have won – is still partial, it is not evenly distributed, and its realization is affected by economic status, race, geographic location, gender, religion, among other factors.

This remains a mixed moment for LGBT liberation. We are making progress, and we face persistent prejudice. We are more visible than ever, and yet even today, large numbers of our people remain closeted, silent, and uninvolved. The economist Lee Badgett shows us that gay people report high levels of employment discrimination, even in places where there are policies and laws in place. Data from corporate surveys reveals that fewer than 50% of LGBT people in corporate America feel comfortable being out despite the 100% HRC ratings of many multinational corporations.

Cultural visibility is strong, social tolerance rising, yet family homophobia remains a pervasive reality for hundreds of thousands of LGBT people.
Support for LGBT nondiscrimination laws is high, but the national election campaign of 2012 was rife with anti-gay policy promises, and the opponents of LGBT freedom remain intransigent, crafty, and militant in their refusal of demands for justice.  Globally more than 70 nations still criminalize our existence, and 7 impose the death penalty for same-sex behavior. The entire US South is a red zone.  We are still bullied in schools and workplaces.  If we are transgender, we are even more harshly persecuted – for not conforming and for threatening violently enforced gender identities. The fact remains that the lives of large parts of our LGBT communities remain profoundly constrained by economic inequality, racial disparity, gender bias and fear. And our mainstream LGBT movement has very little to say about racism, economic inequality, the urgent need for a social safety net or gender dualism and misogyny.

Why we must address this reality leads me to the Haftorah reading tonight I want to offer, to augment this evening’s Parashat from Exodus. The words of the prophet Isaiah, who campaigned against corruption and moral failings teach us the perils of settling for a partial and provisional simulation of equality.   At Isaiah 10:1-3, it states:
Woe to those who make unjust laws
To those who issue oppressive decrees
To deprive the poor of their rights
And withhold justice from the oppressed of my people
What will you do on the day of reckoning
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches? (New International Version)

I have long believed that what made the LGBT movement “irresistible” and successful was its honesty. Truth may be unpleasant, unpopular, and sometimes unbearable to speak, but its power is undeniable. The LGBT movement changed attitudes, laws, cultural possibilities, sexual ideas, and family forms in revolutionary ways by telling truths about desire and gender, by showing the power of intimacy beyond reproduction, and by being able to bridge—with difficulty it is true, but also with success—across a wide range of social fissures: ideological, racial, gendered, and economic.
Telling the truth about desire was and still remains revolutionary in a world built upon its control and repression.

But, lately, I have come to a more cynical conclusion about our success: perhaps it is our cooptation that has made queer progress possible and so irresistible to the non-gay establishment. The LGBT movement has been coopted by the very institutions it once sought to transform. The power it once derived from the queer experience of otherness has long been replaced by the pleasure it takes in a queering of belonging.

We have invested heavily in making sure that the heterosexist world sees us as no threat to its norms and traditions. Instead of showing the broader society how we can help it to heal itself from the damage of sexual abuse, lies, sexual shame, and deadening gender roles which constrain too many lives, we insist to that broader world that we are no different from it in any way, that no fundamental change will be required if we are allowed into existing structures of family, economy and governance.

Imitating heterosexuality, the nuclear family, the monogamous couple-form are our new normal. A movement that once fought to expand definitions of family, to extend health benefits to all, to widen legal protection and recognition for forms of families not defined by marital status or parental status, now fights primarily for inclusion into existing regimes of intimacy, work, community, and governance that are riddled with inequality, and the violence of exclusion.

Lost long ago in the military fight against the anti-gay “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was a decades-old critique of the military itself. It has been replaced by our acceptance of the inevitability, and the class and race politics, of war.

Women’s reproductive freedom and choice, once core values of LGBT liberation, are now absent from the mainstream gay rights movement. We do not incorporate racial justice as a goal central to the mission of LGBT liberation, despite four decades of calls for such leadership.

An agenda that addresses poverty is still absent from the mainstream movement’s priorities, while an uncritical embrace of corporations and corporate values is touted as a positive norm.

The movement today has also been coopted by its admission into the hallowed halls where decisions are made – political access for some has meant their abandonment of political freedom for others. In place of courageous policy leadership and innovation, with a handful of notable exceptions, LGBT mainstream organizations have become a passive society of spectators, following the lead of incrementalist politicians, the self-interest of donors and the trends identified by pollsters. We are more invested in protecting our access and our status, than we are in advocating on behalf of sectors of this community that are unpopular or not economically powerful.

How much time does the HRC, and other national movement organizations, spend to advance transgender equality or to defend the social safety net upon which so many queer youth, seniors, and HIV positive people depend? How much time do our mainstream LGBT organizations spend to change how prisons, jails and police treat gay men, lesbians, transgender men and women, and gender nonconforming? How central and important is the fight for immigration reform to the mainstream of this movement? Where is the movement in prioritizing passage of the Violence Against Women Act or insuring reproductive freedom for all women?

In his historic address in April of 1967 against the war in Vietnam, titled A Time to Break Silence, Dr. King echoed Isaiah as he called for a shift in the focus of the civil rights movement from racial justice alone to a broader focus on economic, social and global justice. His moral argument against the war was grounded in a call for “a revolution of values” needed to fight poverty. He said, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “A Time To Break Silence,” April 4, 1967, accessed at

The silence we must break in the LGBT movement is that of our inattention to the “triplets” that Dr. King identified, especially our commitment to ending structural racism and persistent economic inequality.

A justice seeking LGBT movement would not allow racial justice and gender issues to drop out of the LGBT political and policy agenda. This new social justice-based movement would foreground race and advocate for all parts of our communities. It would foreground issues like: disparate sentencing and disproportionate policing and incarceration; disparities in health care access and care; HIV/AIDS and access to treatment; the ways that the educational system targets and stigmatizes youth of color. It would fight a campaign to end homelessness. It would be in the lead on how we deal with our elderly. It would fight the over-policing and the criminalization of immigrants. It would work for the creation of more jobs and defend the rights of working people to organizes and unionize. It would challenge the shrinking of social safety net programs at the very moment that more people need them.

A movement focused on justice would engage the underlying systems of coercive gender conformity, gender binarism, it would fight for equal pay for women – who still earn 22% less for the same job.

A movement focused on justice would elevate and prioritize the religious disenfranchisement of LGBT people and aggressively support faith based activism for gender and sexual justice.

A more ambitious movement focused on justice would fight for economic justice alongside legal rights, operating from a new truth: a commitment to the principle of “No Queer Left Behind.”

If it could reform itself, a social justice–focused movement would understand the lesson of history from the experience of our sister social movements: that equal rights represent the starting line of our struggle, not the end point.

After the passage of the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, the civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph observed that the movement suffered from the “curse of victory” in which equal rights had been achieved but “blacks still were not equal in fact.” Formal equal rights were a crucial first step; next had to come the struggle for black empowerment, freedom, and respect.

The same is true for LGBT liberation – rights must be extended in all parts of our country to change the lived experience and affect the life chances of LGBT people who come from different backgrounds. But freedom for all LGBT people will not be possible until those in powerful positions within our queer movement’s leadership stand up and insist and fight for equal justice for the poor and least advantaged in our midst.

I want to conclude with my own reading of Exodus, an interpretation that aligns the story with the verse from Isaiah.  I read the story of Exodus as a story about power and responsibility as much as a story of freedom.

First and foremost, Exodus is a story of God’s power – to lend hope and salvation to the enslaved, to punish the disbelievers, to settle scores on behalf of the oppressed, to instruct the faithful in proper observance. Let me leave to the learned Rabbi the adjudication of the troubling ethical questions this story raises — about God’s apparent ruthlessness, his willingness to “harden the heart” of Pharaoh in order to demonstrate his own power. Leaving that aside, Exodus is a story of the powerful imperative of freedom and justice.

Exodus also teaches us about the power of the state — embodied in Pharaoh. The state and its agents have the capacity to act either righteously or unjustly, to be honest or duplicitous, to lead with integrity or corruption.

A third kind of power inherent in the story of Exodus is the power of the intermediary – Moses and Aaron in this instance. The intermediary is the entity or person who serves as the messenger, the interlocutor, the advocate, between God and the hegemon of Pharaoh, between justice and its fulfillment by those in power.

A final lesson in power from Exodus teaches us that the demand for justice can transform the powerlessness of ordinary people into an irresistible force. In Exodus, the powerless move the most obstinate of political leaders, with the spiritual force of justice and God’s might, on their side.
Perhaps Exodus is the first example of the old revolutionary adage that power yields nothing without a demand, it never has and it never will. For the powerless to achieve liberation and justice, their demand must be backed up by a powerful imperative, an incontrovertible, menacing power that is potent enough to shake the status quo.

The LGBT movement is the embodiment of all of these forms of power. We have the power to liberate millions of people; the power to choose to act justly when presented with options; the power to advocate for those who are less able; and the power of collective action as a people to move toward justice for all.

Isaiah and Exodus challenge us to answer — what is the responsibility of those with power when confronted with a demand for justice? For whom do we fight when we say we are fighting for justice? Will we commit to racial justice here and abroad? Do we dare stand up to militarism and its incessant destruction? Are we willing to enact a “revolution of values” and become a movement that prioritizes economic justice as urgently as it seeks nondiscrimination?

It is time for the LGBT movement to put the lamb’s blood of salvation on the door of every ordinary person who seeks freedom, justice, security and opportunity for themselves and for their families.

It is time for us to use the privilege and gains we have earned to challenge and reconstitute the status quo at its deepest roots.

The choice to be radically inclusive in our vision, and the decision to challenge the giant triplets of which Dr. King spoke, will ultimately protect LGBT people the most. Let the words of Isaiah 10:1-3 be our guide:
Woe to those who make unjust laws
To those who issue oppressive decrees
To deprive the poor of their rights
And withhold justice from the oppressed of my people
What will you do on the day of reckoning
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?

Thank you!

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