What turns us on to social movements? Is it the same intoxicating energy that draws us to our romantic partners? How do people in politics learn to laugh and what do we need to do to see meaningful change in our lifetimes?
Those are just some of the questions I got a chance to ask long time partners, political humorist Kate Clinton and author and activist Urvashi Vaid on GRITtv this month. It’s only the second time, they say, that they’ve done an interview together, and it’s an enormous treat. In the run up to Pride, two women full of passion – for change, for justice, for the future and for each other – discuss the LGBTQ movement, the personal as political, and changing the world for the better.
“I think it’s a critical belief for everybody involved in revolution or revolutionary work; you have to believe that you can change history,” says Clinton. “If enough people that you are working with also believe that, there is the possibility of a quantum leap forward.” Clinton’s is kicking off her annual comedy show in Provincetown this month; find out more on her website or follow #KateClinton2014.
“When I came into the LGBT movement, as a young activist, late ’70s, reproductive rights, women’s rights, violence against women was a central part of what LGBT political activists fought for, fought against, fought to change as we also fought for our own freedom and dignity,” Vaid tells Flanders. “What I want to know, is why did the gay movement walk away from this set of issues which affect 50 percent of its population?” Urvashi Vaid’s most recent book, Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race and Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics is now available for purchase.
Laura Flanders: Hi, I’m Laura Flanders. Today, two very special guests, dear friends of mine, Kate Clinton and Urvashi Vaid. Kate is without a doubt, my favorite faith-based, funny-as-heck political humorist, her repertoire of commentaries, comedy shows, books and appearances is legion, and she is kicking off her I-don’t-know-how-manyth season in Provincetown this month. Urvashi Vaid, her long-time partner, is a community organizer, an attorney who has been a leader in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans movement for 30 years. Former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, she has worked in philanthropy and now in a think tank. She started at Columbia University; she is a veteran, you could say, of the push for change, in the streets and in the suites and on the pages. Her recent book is Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race and Class in the Assumptions of LGBT Politics. It is not often enough that the two agree to give interviews together. I consider this an enormous treat. What do I want to talk about? Everything, but among the questions these two provoke, the obvious one is revolution and revolutionaries: what makes them irresistible. Let’s talk about that and the delicious, difficult work of making change and making family and community, three things these two are great at. Kate Clinton and Urvashi Vaid, welcome.
Kate Clinton: Wow!
I do want to talk about everything, so where to begin! First, I guess, thanks for doing this.
Clinton: You’re welcome.
Why are you so reluctant to do interviews together?
Clinton: We don’t want to jinx it.
What, the interview?
Clinton: Years ago, couples were coming out and proudly saying they were together and then two weeks later they’d be broken up; so we thought, eh, let’s not do that.
I don’t think you are…
Urvashi Vaid: We have always acknowledged our relationship to each other, but we just didn’t do the couple thing. It just wasn’t our public; it didn’t appeal to me, publicly.
To heck with all of that, it’s all going to change.
Clinton: Here we are!
Clinton: Do you feel like breaking up?
Vaid: If you leave me, I’m coming too.
At a certain point in the relationship, that’s the rule. It’s like, okay honey, do what you want, but I’ll be right here.
Clinton: And it will make your life a living hell. Go ahead! Is that too much information?
I learned quite a lot about you two from your book, Urv. Including that when you first came out to your father, he was relieved.
Vaid: Well, truly, I think that he knew that I was politically a lefty and a radical, and he feared that I had gotten involved in like, the Weather Underground, or something, so he was quite relieved that it was just merely the gay movement.
What drew you into it? What inspired you to get involved in politics? At that point it was, cultural politics; you were involved very much in the women’s music scene and other things.
Vaid: Well I think I got involved in the ’70s because, because as a child in the ’60s, I was 12 in 1970, and the context was so alive, and social movements were everywhere you looked if you were paying attention to the news, as I was. I was always interested in politics, so I paid attention and I read the paper. I was a little nerd. I really was. I was a little nerd; I read the paper with thick, coke-bottle glasses and long Indian hair, and I was drawn to those who were in the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, but of course I was too young to be a part of anything in this upstate New York town where I was growing up. But at school, at college, I got involved in the antiapartheid movement and as part of that student wave of activism that was working on divestment, and I really feel like that and exposure to the women’s liberation movement on campus and in books, and in pamphlets in the bookstores just really changed my life. It made me want to change the world; it made me have an outlet for the sense of outrage that I think I always had.
Your experience was a little different, Kate. You were going to college in a Jesuit college in upstate New York thinking you were going to go into a lifetime career of teaching.
You did teach for a long time.
Clinton: I did, I taught for eight years. High School English. I am a triumph; I am the product of the women’s movement. I came from a very, very middle class, middle class values; you didn’t make waves and very Catholic, fundamentalist Catholic, and I got the news. I got the news about feminism. That was the religion I wanted and had longed for. So I really feel like I came from a very conservative background and just thought, “Oh my god, this is for me.”
Vaid: You were a Republican, right? At one point.
Oh god, we’re really coming out.
Clinton: I know, I know, really. I mean, my mom, I remember her as a Republican. She was so disappointed that Richard Nixon had done that. I remember her in the summers, ironing shirts in the basement and listening to the Watergate hearings and just being like, “Oh my, stop!” My father would go to work; I remember watching him go out to work, and he would have these brown triangles where my mother’s iron had stopped because she just couldn’t believe that Richard Nixon had done that.
Vaid: Those hearings were mesmerizing!
So he didn’t just erase tapes, he also left marks on your mom’s shirts. I have a theory, but tell me if it plays out. That the personal really is political, and there are certain things that draw us to one another that are not so different from the things that draw us to the movements in the work that we do. So to try to prove my theory, right, let me ask you, starting with you, Kate. What was it that drew you to Urv in the first place? Was it something that she said? Or was it just how hot she looked?
Clinton: Well of course, it was all of that. And still. I had gone to a conference. I had been talked into going to a conference. I flew all night to get there. I’d done a show in Denver, flew all night, got to this conference, and I thought, oh my god, it was just awful, I thought I’d made a horrible mistake. It was just like, hot air. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t do well in crowds. Finally someone said, “I would just like to make three points,” and I thought “Oh my god, that’s great.” and I looked, and it was her. And she did have three points.
Clinton: Just brilliant. And exciting.
What about you, Urv?
Vaid: I thought she was really hot. And I just was drawn to her immediately. I found out she had a really brilliant mind, too!
So is this proving my theory or not, I’m not sure.
Vaid: I don’t know if it is proving your theory. I knew of Kate, reputationally, but I didn’t know her work, and I didn’t really know her. So it was through getting to know each other, after falling in bed with each other. Which is how the gay world used to work.
I think that’s how the whole world used to work.
Vaid: That’s how we really got to know each other. I think the values that draw us to each other, and allow us to continue to be excited about being in a relationship with each other are connected to the political values that each of us has and shares. I think you’re right in terms of friendships, and what attracts me to people – it’s similar to what attracts me to movements. But, I don’t think you can make a perfect comparison because lust is a very different patina than politics.
Well, you’re right. Let’s seize on that word “excitement” maybe. I do think there is a common thread of excitement: Something excites you in a person and something excites you in a movement. Sometimes what excites you is the vision. So let me ask you about that. Kate, you said you were, score one for the women’s movement. What was it about that movement that excited you? What did you think it was that you were part of?
Clinton: I really felt that I was a part of history. Immediately. I felt that what we were doing had the possibility of changing the world. I really believed that. I think it’s a critical belief for everybody involved in revolution, or revolutionary work; you have to believe that you can change history. If enough people that you are working with also believe that, there is a possibility of a sort of quantum move forward. I absolutely believed it. I came up through before Title IX, before any kind of women’s studies. I did my master’s thesis on “Invisible Man,” but I didn’t really read any women, because there weren’t any women to read. So, I really felt like what I read was very exciting to me, and filled out what I thought . . . What’s with the whale? I thought I was reading Moby Dick all the time! It was just amazing to read women. That just completely turned me on. And then to meet other women who were writing that stuff or thinking that stuff was so exciting. It was personal is political, but it was also intellectually so exciting.
Urv, at the end of your extraordinary book that I recommend to everybody, Irresistible Revolution, you’ve told a lot of stories by the time you get to the end, but at the very end, we see our work as building common ground or cultivating soil. Very different from identity politics. Although, [the] LGBT movement is often held up as classic identity politics, isn’t it?
Vaid: I came to see through the work that the image I’m more drawn to, people always talk about silos and the silos of identity. We’ve got race, gender and sexuality, and class. I realize it’s more like soil. In the soil of our identities, all of these identities are churned up in that soil together. They are kind of inextricable. My gender from my sexuality from my being an Indian from my class, which changes, some of them can change and mutate and grow out of the soil, but I think that if we look at the movement as fertile soil out of which all kinds of possibilities can emerge and ideas and futures can emerge, I think that is more productive. I have never appreciated or liked the critique of identity politics. I think that it’s just another way of saying “Shut up.” And, it often comes from people who are steeped in a white identity, a Christian identity movement . . .
Not to mention a male identity movement.
Vaid: Yeah, and those identities are non-identities, but our identities are the problematic identities, so it’s a ridiculous construct.
And yet at the same time, your book is very much a critique. I came away from it with a very clear sense that you thought you were part of a movement that was going to perhaps cultivate more than this, more than where we’re at.
Vaid: The book is a critique of the mainstream LGBT movement. It’s ironic because it’s being made in a moment when the mainstream LGBT movement is very successful by certain measures. We have more political power. We certainly have more visibility. We have more allies. We have more cachet, culturally, than queers have ever had. And I would still make the argument that I make in the book that, if that movement fails to address the lived reality, the lived experience of all parts of the LGBT community, it’s a failure. That’s a different take on success than “Did we win marriage in Iowa?” I’m proud of the victories. I helped build many of the institutions and funding strategies that are really key at this moment. I contributed to them. But while I was working on those, I – along with many others – were arguing that we are progressive. We are about social justice, not just gay rights. I’m still making that argument.
The same argument, in a sense, takes place in the cultural world, where a lot of people will say, “You have gay characters in everything! You have Ellen DeGeneres; you have Kate Clinton,” you have a gay component to almost every successful show on TV, including the most successful . . . so, aren’t you there? Isn’t your revolution realized?
Clinton: Not yet. Which is great, because that’s what I’m working on, and I want a job for a long time. Just to go back a little bit, what I have always believed about feminism, which is contrary to what’s coming up now, is that it is inclusive of all of those things. The incredible inclusivity of feminism is what I believed in. To see it so narrowed down now is just infuriating.
Elaborate for those who only know feminism of the last 10 years or so.
Clinton: It has nothing to do with the fact that if women’s lives were better, it would automatically make men’s lives better. It is so silo’ed. It’s only about women. They really want to be alone. They just want to take care of themselves. It is not that at all. It is the fact that improving the lives of women improves the economy. It improves housing. It does all of those things. I don’t feel that that is the understanding of what feminism is. It’s like, I don’t know, high heels? I don’t know what it is now. I believed it was huge. I still do. I think we’ve made certainly progress with gay characters, but a lot of times I don’t feel that the characters are representing the values that I’d really like represented. So we have the success of them being there, but it’s what they say and what they are representing. Like, I love “Modern Family;” it makes me howl, and I think there are some subtle changes that they are really working in that show. So a show like that I think is great.
Talk a bit about the decisions that you make as you put your shows together. Because you are one of the few on the stand-up circuit that really keeps both your identity – I mean, all of your identities on the stage. Meaning, the gay part, but also the political part. If you go to a Kate Clinton show, you don’t just hear a lot of gay jokes, or lesbian jokes, at all. You hear a lot of take down of Bushes and others.
Clinton: I think the nice part is that there are enough lesbian comedians that I can specialize. I can do political stuff. I think it is because of my relationship with my dear partner, who at the end of almost every show says to me, “Well that was too long! But you’ve got to do more politics.” You’ve said that to me forever. So it’s always been a challenge. We’re like the marriage of comedy and tragedy. I won’t say which is which, because it varies day to day, but I really feel like being with Urvashi has given me that political substance that I wanted, that allowed me not to go into just, “I can’t get a girlfriend” jokes, that kind of thing.
Vaid: But you have this unique quality, I think, that makes your humor. The way you juxtapose things that no one else would put together, and I think that makes, it’s just a quality of surprise; it’s about connections and a deep understanding that is not obvious to people. That’s the underlying narrative thread in the show. I don’t know, I think there’s a tremendous amount of art that goes into Kate’s routines. It’s amazing. . . and it’s made me appreciate comedy at a whole new level.
I was going to say, fair is fair. If she needs more politics, does she tell you you need more humor? Surely our movements need more humor!
Vaid: Absolutely! Yes. I have a great sense of the absurd, which my whole family has, so it has made it easy to be with a comedian. I love to laugh. But Kate has taught me to laugh more at the things that I often take far too seriously. Especially people who are powerful. If you laugh at the powerful, you actually undermine their authority. Laughter is wonderful . . .
In the book, to come back to it for just a bit, you have a wonderful section, Urvashi, where you talk about your lessons from the lesbian community. Lessons from lesbian feminist organizing. And you make the point that “The L Word,” the TV show and the lesbian lifestyle is not feminism. You also talk about how the LGBT movement has moved away from feminism; it’s moved away from fighting misogyny for women’s equality, for not good reasons. But to emphasize the positive, because that’s just the mood I’m in, take us back for a minute about what you really think we learned from a movement that in many ways is made fun of. The very things you say we need to learn from are ridiculed. Process, for example, endless meetings.
Vaid: Well, feminism’s revolutionary idea was that women and men are equal, if different. That is the simplest . . . that is a proposition that is still up for debate for many people. They can’t accept equal and different at the same time. I think feminism was trying to empower women and men who wanted to have a different kind of relationship with each other, wanted to have a different relationship with the world, and yet here we are – these many decades after feminisms around the world – we still have gender inequality in every institution. In the leadership of every institution. Whether it is educational, business, cultural, political, we don’t have gender equality. Certainly not in the United States. I think other countries have legislated and produced some forced equality, if you will, but you also have economic inequality that disproportionately affects women when they earn less than men for the same jobs. You have violence against women which is so pervasive. I think we all know this, but what baffled me, and what I try to think about in this book, is why did the gay movement walk away from this set of issues which affect 50 percent of its population? When I came into the LGBT movement, as a young activist, late ’70s, reproductive rights, women’s rights, violence against women, was a central part of what LGBT political activists fought for, fought against, fought to change, as we also fought for our own freedom and dignity. Over time, in the ’80s and in the ’90s, the agenda of the LGBT mainstream movement shrank. So now, we’re at the point where the largest LGBT/gay rights organization will make alliances with antichoice politicians. Because it’s strategic. It’s actually not strategic; it’s tactical. And the strategic thing to do would be to make an alliance with the women’s movement to overthrow those idiots. But that’s not what we’re doing. We’re tactically making an alliance to win short-term victories on marriage, and it’s working.
Clinton: All that she has said, I can put into one line. I’ll do a joke. I’ll go behind the curtain with my little – in the shopping bag.
I thought you were going to give us the joke!
Vaid: I can give you an example of a great, brilliant Kate joke. So there is this extensive critique in the feminist side of the LGBT movement about marriage. We wanted to destroy the patriarchy, not become it. So Kate’s joke was “the gay community has caught mad vow disease.”
Vaid: With three words, “mad vow disease,” she crystalized these pages and pages of argument of a feminist critique. I thought that was genius!
Clinton: She also gives me very good set ups! It’s a contact sport to read The New York Times in the morning at our house. It was during the Clinton administration, and she is going, “They backed up on everything; they backed up on this; they backed up on that . . .
Vaid: And then she said . . .
Clinton: Their theme song outta be “Brp, brp, brp”
Vaid: So we do write jokes together!
You also share my irritation, and let’s just share it here, about how so many things come now with the sort of imprimatur of a think tank or a consultant or an adviser or years of research and a congressional investigation that the women’s movement and the lesbian feminist movement figured out 30 years ago. I’m thinking about things like actually: Politics works better when you talk to people face to face. Actually we need networks, not just television networks. We need the social, not just the social media. We had webs before they did.
Clinton: We had consciousness raising. We did incredible potlucks. Potlucks were huge.
Vaid: Community building was a priority. We had democratic process that was paid attention to in a profound way. We critiqued top-down decision making; we were building alternative families. And we had flannel. We had flannel before Seattle.
Clinton: We also valued culture. We got a lot of messages out through women culture. We taught women how to produce shows; we had roving bands of troubadours. It’s still important!
Those roving bands of troubadours were not so different always from the roving band of activists that did organizing. There was a big cross over. I think the serious question is: Do you think we could create the same kind of loving community, beloved community that Dr. King talked about in this age of social media. You do it around your dinner table, both of you. You do it at your shows. The idea of media now is you are kind of watching it in your own room, all alone.
Clinton: I know what you mean, but I am also impressed that we have the good fortune of being with young people. I can’t keep the hours that they do, but they really are seeing each other, they are getting together. They are making culture. I find it very exciting.
Please tell me they are making out also.
Clinton: Oh yes.
OK good, just checking.
Vaid: The thing is, Laura, is there is a vibrant community-building cultural movement? It’s the hip-hop scene; it’s slam poetry; there’s music that’s political, still. And it’s still not picked up by the mainstream. The mainstream business side has changed so radically from even the old mainstream. Now the current artists have an even harder time breaking through. Because distribution channels have shrunk.
Clinton: I also think different things are valorized because kids don’t have money. What is valorized is “I got 2,000 hits on that.” Like, OK. If you don’t have money, you have to do it some way else. I am very excited what they are doing.
Vaid: And the new media is wonderful because it does enable lots of people to be producers of other people’s work and their own work. They put it out there. The problem is, great work is there, but very few people get to see it because the control of the capitalist distribution system is very narrow even in the new media.
Well I’m the first person to praise the possibilities of the new media. Let me end by asking each of you, I don’t want to get too boring about it, but if there was one thing that you think would make a major difference either to our movements or to our society right now, that we could actually accomplish in our lifetimes, do you have one like that; if there was one priority you were urging to work on or a shift you think would really make a difference?
Vaid: I think criminal justice issues are a priority that are really important in the United States, but I think around the world too. Every country has its own version of it. We over-criminalize people here. We criminalize situations that shouldn’t be. For example, HIV positive people are burdened with unnecessary criminal laws in, I think it’s now, 36 states. They criminalize things like spit. Or nondisclosure of one’s HIV status. That is a misreading of how the virus is transmitted, and it has the effect of damaging a set of people who are merely walking around with a virus. So criminal justice policy issues. De-carcerating people. I’m not an abolitionist, but a lot of my friends are. I’m open to that critique because it makes me think, who do we need to imprison? Why do we use imprisonment? The anti-death penalty movement is growing, that’s critical, so there are a lot of things in the criminal justice space that could be done that would be very valuable. The second thing that I would love to see in my lifetime is very nerdy: it’s a shift in business schools and here is why. We are left with, at this moment, one of the differences between me as a 20-year-old and me as a 55-year-old is that I now believe that the only thing we can work for is social and responsible capitalism; back then, I wanted to abolish capitalism and replace it with socialism. Now I believe that socially responsible capitalism is the name, contradictory though it may be, that I give to the concept of what we need. The double bottom line, the triple bottom line, of valuing – can we do good and make a profit? Can we do things that are good and beneficial for the environment, good for people who are workers, and enable whoever is the owner of the means of production to make their profits? Well, we can, but not under the current system. Not under a system that allows uncontrolled accumulation and consolidation of wealth and power. So business schools are producing waves upon waves of young people who are going into these paths who are going into workforces and businesses, and we have to teach them a different set of values. Those young people often have these values, but they get them drummed out of them. Well that’s not the way the real world works! You can’t do that there! Why not? And that’s what we’ve gotta ask. If we could change the economic value system that is being taught to people who run businesses and who work in these big businesses, yeah, I think it could really make a difference.
The way the real world works is not so great right now.
Vaid: The way the real world works is outrageous and horrible.
Clinton: I think, I have always felt that what we need to do, and everybody should feel comfortable doing, is we have the right to laugh. When you are listening to someone tell you the biggest pile of poopie you have ever heard, that you listen very carefully and then laugh. I think they will never say those lines again, with any degree of confidence, and I’m all about taking it down, in my own way. I think it’s a very . . . revolutionary thing to do.
I love you both. People can see the commentaries, the vlogs, the Kate Clinton vlogs and KateClinton.com and find out more about your show “#KateClinton2014” starting in Provincetown, Cape Cod, this summer. And Urv, you quote the wonderful poet, Audre Lorde, “Our childhood wars have aged us, but it is the absence of change that will destroy us.” I mean, we have seen change, right?
Vaid: We have, but I think a lot of the book is about the changes we haven’t seen around addressing racism and sexism within the LGBT movement and economic inequality. So I think Audre Lorde said it so beautifully, decades ago. She was talking about these same things. I’m just the next person saying the things that many of these leaders and activists have said before.
One of the things you’ve initiated, Kate, that I love, is shallow day. For people who haven’t partaken?
Clinton: It will help! Every Friday is shallow day. We started it years ago, a friend and I, and you only talk about shallow things. You talk about hair care products, spot removal systems. If someone starts maybe talking about their mom, you say “No.”
Vaid: Too deep
Clinton: Too deep. Because we believe that every other day is Sartre day.
Kate Clinton, Urvashi Vaid. Thanks so much for coming in.