Urvashi Vaid and the origins of WITNESS

Remembering Urvashi Vaid at WITNESS event

Fabrice Houdart, Board President, Witness to Mass Incarceration

One of New York’s largest organized network of formerly incarcerated small service and business owners, Witness to Mass Incarceration (WITNESS) was hosting a live public event “Suitcase Sunday” for hundreds of formerly incarcerated women and men at Baisley Pond Park on Sunday, July 17, 2022. Given Urvashi Vaid’s role in the origins of the organization, WITNESS remembered Urvashi in the following speech.

This past May, the New Yorker published an article by Masha Gessen following the premature passing of beloved lesbian activist Urvashi Vaid [1958–2022] titled “The Prolific Activism of Urvashi Vaid”. It recounts her role in the origins of the organization that brings us together on this beautiful “Suitcase Sunday”, WITNESS.

I would like to share this extract because it explains why we mourn our friend Urvashi today, why her life is so relevant to WITNESS’ goals and what we can learn from her activism:

“Evie Litwok first met Vaid in the nineteen-seventies [..]. They lost touch in the mid-nineties, and didn’t see each other again until 2016, when Litwok came to a service at […] the L.G.B.T.Q. synagogue in Manhattan, where Vaid was speaking. Litwok approached Vaid after the service. “I don’t know if you remember me,” Litwok said. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Vaid responded. “Where have you been?” Litwok had been in prison. She had served time […], and when she was released, in 2014, at the age of sixty-four, she could not get a job. She was living in a city shelter. Vaid “insisted on taking me out to dinner almost every other night, feeding me and trying to figure out how to settle me,” Litwok recalled. Vaid found Litwok a reduced-rent apartment, but even she could not find a job for an older, formerly incarcerated woman. “Finally, she said, ‘I know you are prideful, but here is what we are going to do.’ ” Litwok had been wanting to start a nonprofit. Vaid would help her with that and also give her a thousand dollars a month for a year, to supplement Social Security payments. Litwok’s group is called Witness to Mass Incarceration. “I consider Urv to have saved my life,” Litwok said. “She was family in the way family isn’t always.”

Urvashi Vaid was an influential and respected activist for LGBTQ+ rights who was a former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Arcus Foundation. She truly cared about criminal justice reform, the which unites us today, and formerly worked with the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, where she initiated the organization’s work on HIV/AIDS in prisons. She is particularly remembered for articulating some of the toughest issues we are dealing with within society: racism, social injustice, elite capture and how we define communities. As Evie mentions in her interview with Marsha Gessen, she was above all a beloved colleague, friend and partner and to many, she felt like family.

As part of the LGBT Federal Criminal Justice Working Group, she contributed to efforts in drafting policies, litigating cases, building coalitions and advocating on the Hill to tackle the horrendous experiences of LGBTQ people and people living with HIV in the prison system.

“The true test of a [our] character is what [we do] when no one is watching” and the extent to which Urvashi helped hundreds of people came to light after her passing. Everybody had a story about Urvashi. Tributes poured in during Pride this year. She truly cared about her life mission: standing up for the most marginalized. She did not see social justice as a lofty goal, she looked at it through the loving lens of individuals, such as Evie, and their potential. Beyond her public persona, in private she was a rock of support to many individuals who had been hit by life, circumstances but also those who despaired that our economic and social systems can better themselves.

Until the end as she was dying of cancer, Urvashi was still tirelessly advocating on behalf of LGBTQ+ people. In early March, I reached out to activists to co-sign a letter I was sending to Disney asking the company to take a stance against the abhorrent “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida. Almost immediately, she responded to all on copy “I am happy to sign this letter. Thank you for organizing and asking” triggering the signature of many others.

To honor Urvashi’s legacy, we will have a minute of silence for all those in this country and abroad who suffer from the brutality of our social and economic systems.

[minute of silence]

To conclude this tribute to Urvashi, I will quote my friend Julie Dorf, who in her own piece marking Urvashi’s passing, wrote “may her memory be a revolution”. Let us continue to be inspired by Urvashi’s lifetime of questioning the status quo but also live in our daily existence the principles we fight for: generosity, giving each other a break and finding opportunities to be of service.

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Fabrice Houdart

Fabrice Houdart

Fabrice is on the Board of Outright Action International. Previously he was an officer at the UN Human Rights Office and World Bank