Carmen Vázquez, a Force on L.G.B.T.Q. Issues, Dies at 72

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

It was 1996, and President Bill Clinton was running for a second term against Bob Dole, the Republican candidate. In the gay/lesbian/bi/trans world, there was talk of boycotting the election to show displeasure with the center-right politics of compromise that characterized Mr. Clinton’s first term. But Carmen Vázquez was having none of it.

“To those who say Bill Clinton is Bob Dole,” she wrote in an essay in Gay Community News that September, “I say good luck trying to stave off radical right policies under a Republican administration over the next four years.”

The essay, classic Vázquez, was forceful in its argument for staying engaged and doing a better job of articulating an agenda and pushing it forward.

“As a ‘rights’ movement,” she wrote, “we have always mistaken access for accountability, happy for a place at the table even if the table we get to has just had the dessert dishes cleared out.”

Ms. Vázquez, a longtime force in the world of L.G.B.T.Q. rights and issues, first in San Francisco, then in New York, died on Jan. 27 in Brooklyn. She was 72. The cause was complications of Covid-19, said her longtime friends Carlie Steen and Erica Pelletreau.

The National L.G.B.T.Q. Task Force was one of several organizations to post news of her death. Its executive director, Rea Carey, called Ms. Vázquez “one of our movement’s most brilliant activists.”

Ms. Vázquez was a board member of that organization in the 1990s (when it was the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force), and she was involved with countless other organizations focused on L.G.B.T.Q. issues, particularly health. Her self-description? “A Puerto Rican, a butch lesbian and a socialist.”

Carmen Vázquez was born on Jan. 13, 1949, in Puerto Rico to Jorge and Carmen Maria Vázquez.

When she was young the family moved to Harlem. In a 2005 interview for the Voices of Feminism Oral History Project at Smith College, Ms. Vázquez said her earliest memories of New York included her first encounter with ice cream and a fascination with baseball; the Yankees became her passion.

But her childhood was also filled with challenges, including some that resulted from exploring her sexual orientation. Her friends said she was thrown out of one high school for kissing a girl. She graduated from Cathedral High School in Manhattan and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in American literature and a master’s degree in education at the City University of New York.

She moved to San Francisco in 1975 and became director of the Women’s Building, a community hub focused on women’s issues, and later helped found the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center and the L.G.B.T. Health and Human Services Network. As coordinator of the city’s Office of Lesbian and Gay Health Services in 1993, a time when AIDS among gay men was dominating health discussions, she initiated a survey on lesbian health needs and sexual practices.

In the oral history, Ms. Vázquez reflected on the rise of lesbian influence, especially by lesbians of color, among San Francisco’s gay activists during her two decades in the city, a change she helped bring about.

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    “We went from underground to most definitely front and center in the political spectrum of San Francisco,” she said.

    Resettling in New York, Ms. Vázquez became the first director of public policy for the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. In 2003 she became deputy director of the lobbying group Empire State Pride Agenda. In 2020 she received a SAGE Award for her leadership on aging issues related to the L.G.B.T.Q. population.

    “Change is never about one person alone,” she said in accepting the award. “There are countless others who paved the way for my activism, and countless others who will follow me and build a bridge to the future.”

    Ms. Vázquez is survived by her siblings Ida Molloy and Nancy, Migdalia, Jorge and José Vázquez, and by Ms. Steen and Ms. Pelletreau, who with their two children were like family to her.

    In talks throughout her career, Ms. Vázquez emphasized coalition building, telling audiences that justice for the L.G.B.T.Q. world was linked to reproductive rights, fair housing, racial equality and other causes. And she had a vision of who was best positioned to advance the L.G.B.T.Q. cause in the future.

    “It will succeed because of the involvement and leadership of people of color, not because we’re smarter or cuter — although sometimes that’s true — but because of the lived experience,” she said in the oral history, “and because of the bridge-building and alliance-building that this movement requires if it is to move past the stage of ‘just me’ and truly be about justice and about the shared struggles of different oppressed people.”

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