The Official Website Of Urvashi Vaid


Race and Sexuality in the 21st Century

“In order to both address racism, structural economic inequality and sexism and in order to  “include” sexuality in a racial justice movement at every level, people of color communities must be wiling to engage in a drastic re-consideration of the heterosexism, of patriarchy in our communities, of our notions of family:  for example, no inclusive, anti-homophobic Asian movement can emerge without such a re-visioning of Asian family and culture.”

These remarks were given on April 9, 1999 at the Michigan State University conference on Race in the 21st Century.  Copyright 1999 Urvashi Vaid.

I want to talk today about the limits of racial identity politics and the real challenge embedded in “including” sexuality. My talk uses examples from the immigrant Asian experience so bizarrely idealized and distorted last night by Dinesh D’Souza.

First, I believe that we are at a moment where the paradigm of ethnic and race based organizing needs to be examined and questioned – across the board, as does  the framework of identity based to question the meaningfulness and even the racial content of concepts like “South Asian” and “Asian Pacific American” identity.  Instead of a nationalist or ethnic based model, we need an economic model of organizing because that provides more fruitful opportunities to challenge racism and to start to connect in issues of gender, sexual orientation and the problem of challenging supremacy.  Certainly, I believe that racism is a serious reality and obstacle for Asian Pacific Americans and for the political movements we are building in the US, but I think that immigrant communities and even the movement for racial justice in this country deploy ethnicity as a device to build a false racial solidarity, which conveniently ignores the currents of gender, sexuality, and class differences that run underneath.  This deliberate strategic avoidance of anything but race was evident yesterday when Bill Wilson spoke about needing to stay away from issues that would divide the multi-racial coalition he proposed.

Second, the lessons of history teach us that on their own creating identity-based politics does not lead to liberationary outcomes. But this conclusion begs the question of what is the goal of an Asian Pacific American politics? Or a black-movement politics?  What are we trying to achieve by attempting POC movements?   Do we agree on our goals and will we ever agree?  Would the goals of ending economic and structural inequality be better served by organizing a movement that is not-identity based?

Third, I want to propose that in order to both address racism, structural economic inequality and sexism and in order to  “include” sexuality in a racial justice movement at every level, people of color communities must be wiling to engage in a drastic re-consideration of the heterosexism, of patriarchy in our communities, of our notions of family:  for example, no inclusive, anti-homophobic Asian movement can emerge without such a re-visioning of Asian family and culture.  And I am not at all confident that we are at a place where such questioning and revisioning and redefinition are possible or even taking place:

Overall what I want to argue is that while racial identity-based organizing and maintaining identity have been vital strategies that retain relevance, they are not on their own enough to end racism.  The inclusion of sexuality within the POC context will engender a willingness to accept some discomfort and has encountered stiff resistance.  The truth is — for those of you have been waging the effort in POC organizations and communities – in coalitions or in churches, or in APA organizations  – that seeking inclusion and awareness are the easy parts.  Transforming the institutions of family, relationships, gender and power dynamics in communities of color – which is what sexuality brings in the door still lie ahead of us.

As Dana Takagi has noted in her essay in the book Asian American Sexualities, the adding-on or adding-in of sexuality into the melange of Asian identities in America is on its own, not enough.  If sexuality is submerged into the pre-existing, hierarchical ethnic based narrative, we are not redefining very much and not in fact opening up very much space for queer Asians like me, nor are we making real social change.

The ethnic Model:  APA organizing
We live in a moment in which the effects of racism on people of color are visible everywhere, and yet we are urged to ignore them and re-interpret them from the lens of a libertarian ideology that argues that inequality is not a byproduct of the failure of an economic system, but the failure of an individual and the collapse of the “traditional” family structure that individual comes from.  racism in the disguise of “race-neutral” policies is dominant.

The goal of this resurgent racial bias is to re-impose white supremacy in the workplace, in the award of government contracts, in the allocation of public resources.  Conservatives want you and me to believe that by erasing race, by getting rid of affirmative action, people of color will be “freer” but this nonsense obscures the truth about how institutionalized and embedded racial prejudice is and how linked racism is to class.  Few of us are “free” to move up the ladder of success, business, and educational hierarchy on our merits alone -opportunity and freedom are conditioned by economic privilege.  Few are “free” to go to college without financial assistance; few of us are “free” to break out of the class-lines assigned us by our race and our class-of-birth.  Merit for POC in America is a cigarette, not the way the system works for us – the facts do not support the libertarian nonsense of people like D’Souza.

The idea of an Asian Pacific American political movement is rooted in the particular experiences of prejudice faced by Asians and immigrants in the US, and it borrows heavily from the model of ethnic based organizing that has characterized the civil rights struggle in the US. Ethnic or race based organizing has been an effective strategy in American politics to assert political power, to secure public policy solutions that meet the needs of the particular constituencies that are organizing and perhaps most importantly to develop a stronger sense of self and self-worth in a context that whitens all difference.  Organizing as racial or ethnic based groups has been useful  and it is this reason that many Asians are adapting the race based model of organizing today. There are very good reasons we are organized around and by ethnicity or nationality.  But I remain skeptical of this strategy as a panacea or even the best model.  My skepticism about ethnicity or nationality as the basis for organizing is best elaborated through the Asian Pacific American political movement that I see emerging around me.

The challenge  I see about organizing as APAs comes in three forms. For one, economics as much as race conditions the experience of racism of APs in America.  Our APA movement thus far has had little to say about economic justice.  Second, the irony of the framework of APA is that American defines and unites us far more than ‘Asian’ or ‘Pacific’. And third, the model of race-based or ethnic-based or even identity based organizing is very valuable in terms of definition, individual empowerment and community organizing.  But it is of limited value as a transformational device.

My parents, like many Asian and South Asian and Pacific people came to America for  “economic opportunity”  — we came by choice but others came as economic slaves (laborers) building up American railways and infrastructure at the turn of the century and serving the households of immigrant families as indentured slaves today.  Asians in this country have by and large completely bought into capitalism.  This despite the fact that capitalism is now strip mining the economies of many of our countries of origin, has not provided relief to the millions in the world who are poor and living at subsistence levels; has created enormous disparities in freedom, opportunity and power between rich, middle class, working class and poor.

We are model minorities in our acquiescence to the system staying the same. So in this country, the same immigrants who are suffering from the racism immigration policies of the Republican right staunchly oppose health care reform or a social safety net.  Indians in the US – at least of my parents’ generation — are quite conservative and more often than not republican (although being democrat these days offers little solace to those of us who are progressive).

Many people I know believe that if you work hard, anyone can get ahead; that people who are poor and on welfare are shiftless; that economic security and property are the ultimate goals of life (all framed in the guise of providing for your family, but at its core no different from the insatiable greed that motivates all capitalists). Ironically, the condition of Asians and Pacific people in America is more linked to economic forces and the ups and downs of capitalism than they are to the deep well of racism that is a part of the American psyche.  American labor is already resentful of immigrant labor.  Pat Buchanan’s message resonated well with many people in this country.  If jobs tighten up in the US, the visas will dry up for immigrants.  The boom in hi tech jobs which has created great opportunities for Asian engineers and programmers hinges on the success of speculative and volatile markets which have inflated the value of internet and computer stocks, creating a wealth that cannot last for most and will benefit only a very few. I do not see a progressive Asian Pacific American movement dealing with these and other economic contradictions and tensions.

A second reason I am skeptical of the term Asian Pacific American is that it means so little.  We are more tied together by our shared experiences or marginalization in white America than we are by our Asian American-ness, or our links nationally, historically, linguistically or culturally.  Most of us do not know a thing about each other’s countries of origin or histories. For second and third generation Asians in America, it’s enough of a challenge to learn about our own ethnic and cultural heritage.  To forge a sense of common solidarity with each other has thus been difficult. I do not believe that the large numbers of Indians in America feel a sense of kinship with Japanese Americans or with Chinese Americans or with Filipinos. Instead, they feel kinship along the tradition bound lines we have always followed: family, caste, state or origin, language-the conventional links.  Given this truth are we in fact trying to force on to our wildly diverse immigrant cultures a commonality that will never be shared?  Is the commonality more about expediency in American politics – the need to be counted, to be able to marshal votes etc – than it is about reality: will we ever be able to deliver a voting bloc as Asians given our radical diversity?

And this brings me to a final point for us to consider as we think about the racial identity formulation from the perspective of the Asian experience in America today: does identity politics work?  The answer is it depends on your goal in using it.  For what does it work and for what does it fail?  I think it works to create self-esteem, empowerment, and visibility in the American political system, and it works for community building and organizing.  But it fails as a vehicle to revamp the social service system in this country. Ideology based movements are more valuable than identity based ones.

Lessons from the queer context

The queer movement is facing an analogous cross roads in its reliance on identity as the principle means of organizing.  Structural heterosexism, or institutionalized racism explains why we have single-issue movements dedicated to the eradication of these forms of prejudice. Pervasive prejudice, violence and discrimination are why we have a GLBT movement.   But the GLBT movement today confronts two dilemmas:  on one hand is its profoundly radical challenge to the most basic and intimate forms of human life – desire and family.  How do we make our selves appealing when we are indeed really unsettling to the order of heterosexism.  On the other hand we confront the same limits of organizing along the ethnic-model of organizing – without an ideological unity, without an economic policy agenda, with only our sexual orientation to connect us to each other, we never seem to really get to the heart of the structural problems we encounter.  Let me elaborate for one minute.

The queer movement is one whose full acceptance will require deep changes in society’s treatment of sex, desire, gender, human relationship and family.  It is a movement that raises the most extreme kinds of psychological reactions in people – because they can in some sense see themselves affected by desire, touched by it and it makes them uncomfortable.  It is a movement condemned by some of the most powerful texts and contexts in America – religion.  And in order for GLBT people to be fully accepted in America it will require what theologian Bob Goss calls the sexual reformation of the church.  In short the GLBT movement is not a safe or easy or simple movement.

On the other hand, the queer movement, like the emerging APA movement has reached the same dilemma that confronts each civil rights movement today.  We begin to approach the point of partial fulfillment, where the system accommodates somewhat to admit us, to change some laws, to open up a little bit, but the underlying prejudice and structural barriers to full equality remain in place.  We create zones of freedom inside a fundamentally intransigent system – family, marriage, state and economic order.  In terms of public policy, we end up working piecemeal on small solutions that benefit particular communities in the short run while not making systematic changes that could benefit society in the long run.

And that is because we do not have an ideological basis for our social justice movements.

We find ourselves at a crossroads as a gay and lesbian movement, and while both roads are legitimate, one leads farther than the other.  Down one road lies the direction we have been pursuing — of working solely or exclusively within the lesbian, gay, bi, transgender context, on so-called gay rights issues working solely on issues that affect “us” as queers. Down the other road lies the project of not just trying to fit in, but trying to change the world and institutions we encounter. If we walk down this second road, we quickly realize that our fight to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation intersects with women’s effort to overturn our second class status, with the struggle for racial justice and equality, and with the quest for a fairer economy and a cleaner environment.   What we attempt in walking down the second road is the project of building a kind of political and social change movement than the civil rights movements we have built thus far — we must build a movement that is all about economic change and through that we will create massive social change.

Let me stress, neither choice — single-issue politics, nor multi-issue politics — is right or wrong: they are however quite different.  Let me also stress that I am not arguing that we must abandon all the single-issue or identity based work we are doing – just that we have got to supplement it with new organizing that we are not doing. I want a movement that is not just focused on identity but that is engaged in defining what the kind of society we want to move into as we move into the 21st century.

Is this possible? I don’t know. Is this necessary?  Yes. Why?  It is necessary to create this common movement because we face a totalizing right/opposition that is not capable of being defeated by anything but a systematic counter mobilization. Right wing ideas about public policy and the ordering of cultural life are not merely cyclical swings in the historic pendulum of policy ideas.  They represent a serious effort to restore the very values and hierarchies that social justice movements have struggled to transform, and to construct something that has not before existed in America — a theocratic state.  In place of gender equality, the right advocates male supremacy.  In place of remedies aimed at addressing centuries of racial discrimination against

African Americans, the right proposes policies blind to the impact race plays on economic opportunity.  In place of a social welfare role for the state, the right proposes either the elimination or privatization of all government service programs.  These ideas are antithetical to the policies and values of social democrats and to social justice movements.

How are we organized to deal with these huge and complex changes?  IF we are to be honest with ourselves, we must answer that we are not well organized and not handling these changed circumstances very well.  Why? If we look at our work historically, we can understand that we have not paid attention to the most basic kinds of lessons: to thrive, every movement must have a strong and motivated base.  And the organizing and motivation of such a base is not something that just happens by osmosis or on its own, or through a media campaign.  It happens through systematic and creative grassroots community organizing – something that too few of our civil rights organizations do even to this day.

The problem that exists lies squarely in the realm of constituency support for these ideas.  Because of the way we are structured — issue by issue, or identity by identity — social justice movements cannot boast the kind of ideological or political unity that is found on the conservative right. Because we have invested less time and skill to organizing, social justice movements seem to have less clout to deliver on our goals (as setbacks at the ballot box on affirmative action, immigration, gay rights suggest).

This is precisely the gap at which racial justice and civil rights movements of the 21st century must take aim.  We can and we must rebuild a constituency for social justice.   Tremendous and creative work can be done to expand the capacity of social justice movements in various fields to defend their policies and to increase their reach.  New ways to forge constituency among social justice organizations working on discrete issues can be attempted. We can and must make a new structure out of the way we now operate to succeed nationally and locally.  We can and we must have the courage of our values to take the risk of joint action and new cooperation.  We can and we must take the leap of faith in order to build the trust that common purpose requires.

And constituency building to oppose the right requires us to not be limited to a movement built around racial identity, ethnic identity or gender or sexual orientation alone.  My point is this, we cannot build a common movement unless we look honestly at both the good things and the bad things we get by organizing issue by issue, color by color, identity by identity.

Queering APA organizing

This conference is to be commended for acknowledging that the only sexuality in Asian and Pacific communities is not heterosexual.  This is a truth denied in most Asian contexts.  All too often, one still hears the canard that homosexuality is a western thing or a corruption of truly Asian values.  The histories of Asian sexualities in each of our countries of origin remain to be discovered and uncovered by scholars of your generation in the years ahead.  The truth that I know is that of course there is a rich tradition of same-sex love and experience in every culture and continent of the world.  Whether it understands itself as “gay” or “lesbian” or “transgender” or bisexual” is debatable but the existence of same-sex behavior and same-sex love the world over ought not to be obscure to any one.  It is not just a western or white thing, never was.

Certainly you all know that queers in America face tremendous barriers to fully living our lives: discrimination, violence and prejudice is the pervasive and is the norm.  Whether the context is employment discrimination, family recognition, criminal law, immigration, health care, HIV, military issues, hate violence – GLBT people face a lot of problems and challenges.  I am quite able to detail the specific forms and statistics that document this and to cite you to volumes that will help you understand these realities.  But I do not want to take my time to that right now.

The point I want make is two fold: (1) yes, indeed, a progressive racial justice movement ought to take up the challenge of being allies to the GLBT movement.  We need to recognize that ending prejudice based on sexual orientation is a progressive stand and one that is integral to movements based on the values of justice.  The unpopularity of homophobia does not justify anyone’s silence. As you see embodied in me and the other panelists, for queers like us, a multi-issue movement is essential.  This first level of inclusion is where we find ourselves today – still arguing for the most basic kind of recognition from communities of color.  The specifics of the fight vary race and ethnicity by race – the level of visibility of queer poc varies in each community of color – for example South Asian GLBT people have only emerged in our communities in the past 9 years, while an organized African American GLBT movement has existed for arguably over 20 years.

The deeper challenge that queerness poses to POC communities, and to the society at large, it is similar to the challenge that feminism poses: and this is a challenge I am not so sure our people – even progressives are willing to take up.  The challenge is to the notions of family that we are raised with and to their unyielding patriarchal, hetero-sexist and authoritarian terms.

If any of you read the New Yorker in mid February of 1999,  you would have read a wonderful example of what I am talking about in the Asian context in the story of the 20-year-old Indian woman from Queens. Her struggle to determine a life for herself and to please her parents and fulfill their expectations for her is heartbreakingly familiar to each of us who are Asian in this room.  She is expected to be married, to accept that without question, to settle on the person her father selects, to produce children, to be the good and obedient daughter, to be the subject of statements like this one from her father “When you are married, my life will be complete”.  This story is typical and it is contemporary.  The Indian family exerts this kind of pressure and control inside it, and is coded with enormous heterosexist expectations.  The Latino, Black and other family structures would have their own gender and heterosexist codes and norms.

What does it mean that we are all raised in families where compulsory marriage and compulsory heterosexuality ( as Adrienne Rich named it so eloquently) is the unquestioned norm?  Where to stand against that is to be ostracized by all family, community, and in some instances to be killed by ones own father for disobedience?  Why do we tolerate and accept the blatant double standard in Asian families for girls and boys?  Why do young Asians in America feel they must go along with this and that they have no recourse – short of radical rebellion and acting out?  What does it mean that the dominant critique of family in black community that is not feminist, but comes out of right wing or liberal think tanks?  How can gay, lesbian bisexual or transgender person be accepted into this old conception of family?

We need to create ways to organize around the so-called private family issues – to publicize what has been privatized. questioning and take it as disrespect instead of frank interrogation and disagreement.  But this to me is the undone work of “internalizing” the meaning of movements for women’s liberation and sexual freedom into the APA (or any other context).  There can be no more than token integration of these issues unless we are willing to examine the gender biases of the families and communities we come from.


Gandhi wrote that morality consists of doing what we ought to do.  He argued that mere observance of custom and usage was not morality.  That moral actions are those guided by justice and respect for the divine will. That moral acts involve no coercion and are not motivated by self-interest. If I help my neighbor because he is suffering, I commit a moral act.  If I help my neighbor because I want credit for helping him through his suffering, my action may still be a good deed, but in Gandhi’s argument it is not moral.

Merely by pursuing our own liberation and freedom we are not engaged in a moral course.  If we place our liberation movement in the service of building a more just society then we will be a movement that is unstoppable because our course will be spiritually and politically just. Additionally, merely by adding sexual orientation as a category to the line-up of things racial or ethnic, we will not actually change a great deal at all.


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