Last month, the world lost a transformational giant in the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Urvashi Vaid was a pioneering social justice activist, attorney and award-winning author. She was also one of my great human rights teachers.
Urvashi was bold, unflinching, driven. She brought the question of race, nationality and ethnicity into the LGBT space in the early ‘90s when it was very much dominated by white gay men and white lesbians. Her passion for equality was evident every time she spoke — whether it was the two of us at the water cooler when we worked on the same floor (me at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, she at the Arcus Foundation) or before hundreds during a rally. In one impassioned speech at the National Equality March in 2009, she told the crowd, “There can be no lasting justice nor genuine equality for LGBT people until there is an end to the patriarchal way of thinking…”
More than a decade later, her words still ring true.
For years, it seemed that the U.S. was making meaningful progress on the road to “lasting justice” and “genuine equality.” Courts struck down anti-gay laws. LGBTQI+ people were granted the freedom to serve openly in the military. Same-sex couples won the right to marry (of which I took advantage). However, as we celebrate another Pride Month, our nation is backsliding, and our hard-won gains are in peril.
More and more, it seems the U.S. is moving toward a space where hate is permissible, where bigotry has become commonplace, where the tenets of our democracy around building bridges between cultures are fading away. Consider that in 30 states, legislators have taken up bills that would exclude transgender children from youth sports; in Texas, families seeking gender-affirming care for their trans children now could face charges of abuse; and in Florida, the new “Don’t Say Gay” law prohibits education on sexual orientation and gender identity for much of elementary school.
This frightening march toward inequality is a sobering reminder that oppression is a relentless adversary. Yet history has taught us that these battles can be won if we keep fighting. I see shining examples of that perseverance every day in the work AJWS’s partners do around the world.
I think of our grantee Love Pattaya, in Thailand, that holds trainings for educators on how to stop discrimination against LGBTQI+ students and works to raise awareness about issues of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.
I think of our grantee HT El Salvador, the nation’s only trans men-focused organization, that fights for equal access to education, job opportunities, comprehensive health care and inclusion in sports.
And I think of those moments when the battle is won and courageous people achieve true victory, like the story of Adheesh and Nidish,* a young lesbian couple in Tamil Nadu, India, who fled their homes to be together amidst their families’ disapproval. Their parents demanded their return. When that failed, they reported the two “missing.” After being tracked down, harassed and humiliated by police, Adheesh and Nidish fought back. With the help of AJWS grantees, the two filed harassment charges against the police in the Madras High Court.
Their case drew such widespread attention that the presiding judge sought out education about same-sex relationships from health professionals (including AJWS grantee, SAATHI) before making his ruling. Not only did Adheesh and Nidish win their case, but the judge ordered sweeping changes to tackle LGBTQI+ discrimination, including sensitivity training for police, the creation of gender-neutral bathrooms at schools and colleges, and separate housing for gender non-conforming and trans prisoners to protect against sexual assault, among other reforms. The ruling has been hailed as a major win for gay rights in India.
The dogged determination of our grantee-partners in the face of oppression fills me with equal parts hope and resolve. And it adds fuel to the resistance that is in my DNA as a South African who fled a dictatorship, as a gay man reared in a society that shunned homosexuality and as a Jewish person deeply connected to my heritage.
Like many of you, I am troubled by the ongoing erosion of our civil liberties in the U.S. Indeed, we are on the eve of what will most likely be a decision to overturn the fundamental rights of women in this country. Such fraught times call for us to lean on our values, like the Jewish value of hatmadah (to persevere). Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Ancestors) 2:21 teaches that “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” So let us not surrender to the bigotry that vilifies our differences. Let us instead be vigilant and keep up the fight.
And in the words of my teacher, Urvashi, let us build “…a bridge to a land where no one suffers prejudice because of their sex, their gender, their religion or their human difference.”
*Names changed to protect privacy.
A version of this essay recently appeared in the Forward.