On Jan. 27, Carmen Vázquez, a beloved and outspoken member of the LGBTQ+ community and longtime social-justice activist, died of COVID-19 complications at age 72. Described by National LGBTQ Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey as “one of our movement’s most brilliant activists,” Vázquez was a writer—with essays published in several anthologies—organizer, intellectual, and presenter known for delivering powerful, thought-provoking speeches across the globe.
Among her many accomplishments, Vázquez was founding director of the Women’s Building in San Francisco and helped found the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center in San Francisco and the New York State LGBT Health and Human Services Network. Reflecting her pride in her identity, she is lovingly described by family, friends, and colleagues as a “fierce Puerto Rican butch known for wearing sharp suits and ties.”
To honor Vázquez and her life, Terri Wilder recently spoke with her former partner, Marcia M. Gallo, Ph.D., a prize-winning author and an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where she teaches courses on race, gender, and sexuality. Gallo is joined by Vázquez’s colleagues Kraig Pannell, the director of the Office of LGBTQ Services at the New York State Department of Health; Richard D. Burns, an activist, nonprofit management consultant, and the interim executive director of the Johnson Family Foundation (Burns was executive director of New York City’s LGBT Community Center for 22 years, from 1986 to 2009); and Terry Boggis, who was the director of Family Programs at New York City’s LGBT Community Center for 22 years.*
Carmen Vázquez’s Early Work Created a Welcoming Space for All Women
Terri Wilder: First, I just want to say that I’m sorry to hear about the death of Carmen. I’m sure that this is a very difficult time for people who worked with her and love her, and again, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. I’d really love to talk about when you all first met Carmen. Do you remember your first impression of her?
Marcia M. Gallo: We met in 1984, when we both were members of a women’s delegation to Nicaragua that had been organized by the activist group Somos Hermanas. One of my first memories of Carmen was at an organizing meeting with this small group of us—there were probably eight of us from San Francisco, and then there were other members who joined in on the actual delegation from different parts of the country.
I remember that I felt very much like a fish out of water. I didn’t know the women that I would be working with and traveling with. I didn’t really feel that I necessarily had the political activist cred. I was working for the ACLU at the time as an organizer. But the women in the group were much more left-of-center than the ACLU at that time. I also felt politically like I had a lot to learn.
Carmen was incredibly generous and very welcoming. She stands out in my memory as being someone who really made me feel like I belonged. And that just continued. We became lovers on that delegation and were together, in San Francisco and then briefly in New York, until 1996. So, we spanned a number of important years for both of us.
Wilder: I know that Carmen did an incredible amount of work in the San Francisco area. Can you talk about her work with the Women’s Building and the significance of it?
Gallo: One of the things that is important to add to Carmen’s legacy is the community-based organizing that she did with the Community United Against Violence (CUAV) in San Francisco. They were an incredible group of grassroots activists in the queer community who basically taught self-defense and self-help.
They created the whistles that we used to hand out and use whenever people felt threatened on the streets. She really was honing her leadership skills, not only with the Women’s Building, but also with this earlier work with the Community United Against Violence.
At the Women’s Building, she quickly stepped up to be a spokesperson. In addition to being an activist, she was very much one of the people, like Roma Guy and Diane Jones and Lucrecia Bermudez—who stepped forward and were really the human face as they were organizing the Women’s Building. It was not an easy lift.
The Building was created as a home for women’s organizations. And, as you can imagine (this is in the ’80s), the sort of tensions within this broad umbrella of women’s groups were not easy to navigate. Carmen often played the role, along with Roma and others—Tracy Gary was part of that group, as was Marya Grambs—of trying to navigate the different needs, the different ideologies, the different activist goals of a variety of different groups, and to truly make it a welcoming space for women.
She really devoted a huge amount of time to the Building and to making it be a place where all women—women of color, undocumented women, disabled women, women who really didn’t even necessarily always identify as feminist—would be able to come and learn and grow and have a home.
Carmen Vázquez’s Leadership at the New York City LGBT Community Center
Wilder: Let’s fly across the country to the East Coast. Can you talk about Carmen’s work at the LGBT Center in the Village and her contributions there?
Richard D. Burns: I served as the executive director at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center on West 13th Street from 1986 to 2009. So, just over 22 years. As part of our strategic planning process, we created the position of the director of public policy and wanted to engage more actively in our queer liberation work. Carmen applied, and we hired her.
I had known her just a little bit from Creating Change and from events around the OUT Fund and the Funding Exchange. During that application process is when we got to know each other. She and Marcie—I think you both left Berkeley and moved to New York. And Carmen really hit the ground running and galvanized our work in bringing together disparate parts of our movement, and building up—now it’s almost old-fashioned to use the word intersectionality. But in 1994, it wasn’t.
It was building our intersectional work across queer liberation, sexual freedom, anti-racism, and economic justice work—all in a feminist context. And Carmen was a leader there.
She arrived right before the Stonewall 25 global celebration in New York. It was WorldPride. It was the Gay Games. It was the march on the United Nations. And so she came at a very exciting time. Actually, it was the week of Stonewall 25 that the National Congress was held at the New York Center to found CenterLink, formalizing this network of the National Association of LGBTQ Community Centers. Carmen was right there.
Some of the specific projects that she worked on during her almost 10 years at the Center was Promote the Vote, which started as a citywide queer voter-registration program. We enlisted lots and lots of the queer groups that met at the centers and organized around the country to actively register LGBT voters and build the electoral clout of our community. The Center had over 5,000 people a week coming through our doors, and many of them were not registered to vote. Carmen, and later Carmen and Carlie Steen, worked on that project together.
She also worked with Terry—and Terry can talk more about this—on a program called Causes in Common. Urvashi Vaid, who was at the Ford Foundation, and I conceived of a program at the Center that would work to bring together gay liberation and the reproductive justice movement. At the time, we called it the reproductive rights movement. It was so obvious to us that these two movements that should be closely allied were working in silos. The repro justice movement was full of lesbians, and yet they were not connected and working with and sharing social capital with lesbian and gay liberation activists.
And so, Causes in Common, with Urvashi funding us from the Ford Foundation, began. Carmen and Terry ran with it. We turned it into a national project, where we enlisted queer organizations, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Lambda Legal, National Center for Lesbian Rights, on and on—all in this national program to bring together these two movements.
The last thing that I’ll talk about that Carmen specifically worked on is, when Rudy Giuliani was first elected mayor of New York City, the major LGBT organizations all had city contracts to deliver social services to our vulnerable communities. We were worried that Giuliani, as a homophobe, would work to take away those contracts.
Frances Kunreuther, who was the executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute at the Harvey Milk High School, and I got together and decided we were going to create a fitting network of all the queer organizations with city contracts. We were going to organize to protect ourselves.
Giuliani was elected in ’93 to take office in January of ’94, about five months before Carmen arrived. Then, when Carmen arrived, she and Dr. Barbara Warren, who was a colleague of ours and our head of mental health services, stepped in to represent the Center and take a leadership role in what was then the New York City Lesbian and Gay Health and Human Services Network. It quickly evolved under their leadership into the New York State LGBT Health and Human Services Network, which then we worked to place at the Empire State Pride Agenda and receive state funding. It grew into a galvanizing, powerful force to organize all the queer social services provided across the state to demand more dollars and more cooperation and better policy at both the state and city levels.
Carmen had a leadership role in all of those things: Promote the Vote, Causes in Common, the Health and Human Services Network, as well as, she was an outspoken public intellectual around sexual freedom and liberation, very much aligned with the values and vision that we had for the Center.
“She Was More Than My Boss”
Wilder: Kraig, on Jan. 28 you posted on your Facebook page: “Today, along with countless others, I mourn the loss of Carmen Vázquez. To me she was more than my boss. She was a mentor, a friend, a confidante. She was my kin. I affectionately called her Papí and, in turn, she called me her ‘Number One.’”
Tell me about your relationship with Carmen and the work that you did at the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute.
Kraig Pannell: Wow. Carmen came into the AIDS Institute as the first director or coordinator of the LGBT Health and Human Services Initiative, which the network that Richard spoke about was instrumental in getting funding for. It went from about $2 million to $6 million. At that time, the state government didn’t have the infrastructure to handle the number of organizations for the AIDS Institute that then created the LGBT Health and Human Services unit in consultation with the network. You didn’t want LGBT and HIV to be synonymous, and the contracts underneath that initiative were with non-HIV-related health and human services for LGBT individuals and their families.
Carmen hired myself and my colleague, Sean Dwyer. We were the first three in the unit managing the contract.
Carmen was very instrumental in seeing the needs of the organization. Some of them were very grassroots. Some of them were very well-established and well-known organizations across New York State. We funded organizations from Long Island to Buffalo, and everywhere in between. She was very instrumental in recognizing their needs and being able to help us establish what the task force and the capacity-building needs were for them, so that way, they could be as successful as they possibly could.
Even though she oversaw a certain number of contracts and the entire initiative, everybody had a personal relationship with Carmen. Carmen never made any provider feel like she was out of touch, like they couldn’t reach her. She had a personal relationship, not only with the executive directors and program directors, but even the direct-service staff at those organizations. She was very attentive to their needs, making sure that we met them and gave them the tools that they needed in order to be successful.
I think she affectionately called me her “Number One” because of the type of relationship. She was like, “Make it so,” you know, from—I think it’s from Star Trek or something? She would always say, “Make it so, Number One. Make it so.” And I was like, “OK. I’ll make the magic happen,” and go and do whatever.
Carmen was always a visionary. She’d say, “OK. Here’s the details. Here’s what we need to do in order to achieve this grand goal for you.”
In 2015, we did a two-day symposium, one day specifically on transgender health. And then another day, we did specifically on LGBT. She was also instrumental in creating the Transgender Leadership Collective. There was a group of transgender individuals who came and said, “We need some space for us, as transgender individuals and as transgender leaders, to talk about our needs and to build our skill sets.” And Carmen was instrumental in making that happen. That’s something that continues to this day, through the initiative and through the AIDS Institute.
So there’s much groundbreaking work that she did at the New York State Department of Health that still carries on. She was just so visionary and reachable. And people had an individualized relationship with her.
Wilder: Terry, I know that you also worked with Carmen at the Center. Can you share your memories of Carmen and your relationship and the work that you did together?
Terry Boggis: Sure. I met her in ’94. I was a little daunted by her approach to the Center because her reputation very much preceded her. I was admiring before I even met her. And then, I was also meeting my new boss.
In part, because we shared the tiniest office ever—I mean, the Center was huge, but community meeting space was very much prioritized for that space, so that offices were tiny. Our office was maybe 7 feet by 7 feet? It included two standard-sized desks and a file cabinet. We would have to plan who was going to push their chair back before the other one. It was very intimate.
So, we quickly moved from I was her subordinate to we were colleagues and comrades, and then friends—at warp speed. In part, because of the generosity of her nature. She was not a hierarchical person at all, with her staff or her mentees. But also because we shared this tiny space.
She was very, very generous as a supervisor. She always trusted my instincts. And Kraig, certainly you could say the same.
Boggis: Carmen came in and talked about queer liberation in a way that allowed me—and I was directing family programs—to take that work. It freed me to take that work in a very expansive and wide direction, around policy things, around marriage advocacy, and domestic partnership advocacy, but also thinking beyond marriage. Literally, there was an initiative called Beyond Marriage, about thinking about family relationships more broadly, and incarceration and child custody work, international human rights, queer rights work at the U.N., comprehensive sex education, and school safety.
All of that was allowed because of her generous vision for what family advocacy could look like in a queer context. She was trusting of her staff and respectful in a way that isn’t always so commonplace among people in supervisory roles. Honestly, it was a way for her to leverage her own impact beyond her own specific deliverables. She deployed her people out to do all kinds of work that was bigger than any one individual could do.
And you saw that mentorship impact all over the place. Young people loved her. Carmen facilitated on several occasions butch/femme conversations at Creating Change—the butch/femme caucus. It was an ideal she really cherished in her life, and the young women in that room, there were dozens and dozens and dozens of them, just worshipped her. She was such a leader, such an inspiration, for so many young queers coming up.
“There Was Space for Everybody in the Movement”
Wilder: I found Carmen’s oral history from the Voices of Feminism Oral History Project associated with Smith College. It was done in collaboration with Kelly Anderson, an oral historian and dear friend of Carmen’s. From reading it, it feels like collective liberation is something that Carmen was very dedicated to. Just to give context, collective liberation—meaning, recognizing that all of our struggles are intimately connected and that we have to work together to create the kind of world that we know is possible.
I want to read a quote from the oral history by Carmen that I think ties in a lot of things that have been said today and, in particular, how the younger people gravitated to her. She said:
“I would say that there was a refusal, if not reluctance, on the part of my generation of queers to be absolutely fierce in the articulation of the connections between race and class in gender and sexuality. That has really been to our detriment. That has made it very hard for us to, you know, to make those alliances. And so, that is something that this generation does have to do over and over and over again—be really clear and articulate about what those connections are, and take every opportunity, not just to make it intellectually clear, but to act on them so that change will be possible.”
I’d love to hear folks’ thoughts about Carmen’s fight for liberation, queer liberation, collective liberation, and kind of thinking about what those words mean to you, in terms of your memories of Carmen.
Pannell: In my work with Carmen and in my personal conversations with her, Carmen was always about inclusion in whatever we were planning, making sure that all folks were represented—queer individuals and the trans communities. You know, race, ethnicity, gender identity, politics, all of that. There was this sense of inclusivity because, in order to move forward, you had to have those voices—even if you had to respectfully disagree.
It was important to Carmen to make sure that people were as in tune and informed as possible, but then, also, working to find that common ground to move the work forward. She was very clear that this is not about one person or one cause.
I remember her saying quite often, “This isn’t a moment, it’s a movement.” And also that there was space for everybody in the movement. So, when I hear that quote, I think of just her inclusive nature in all of the work that we did.
Burns: One thing that we haven’t talked about very much is the fact that a lot of Carmen’s influence was the result of her being a writer and a public speaker. So, a lot of the ideas and vision that she had and promulgated would come out in essays she published or speeches that she gave at Creating Change, or at other conferences, or at the Center, or at rallies. I don’t want us to miss that aspect.
The other aspect that I don’t want us to miss is that a lot of her focus professionally was in the context of electoral politics. That was part of her job at the Center, to work with elected officials. When she left the Center in 2003 to become the deputy director at the Empire State Pride Agenda, where Alan van Capelle was the executive director, the Empire State Pride Agenda was New York State’s statewide political queer organization, working for full LGBT equality. Carmen became even more deeply involved in electoral politics, and pushed a vision in that context. Which is a context that is full of compromise and frustration, as we all know.
And so, I don’t want to lose that—that that was a big part of her professional work.
Gallo: I want to underscore what both Kraig and Richard have just explained. Carmen’s intersectionality was professional, but it was also very personal. In the work that we did together as activists in San Francisco, but also in the ways in which she constructed family, there was always room. There was always a recognition that we are stronger when we reach out and are part of a broader, more rich group of folks with different backgrounds.
One of the things she often would remind us of was that she was an immigrant and that, as such, it brought a different perspective to how she saw both her personal relationships and the political realities of the United States of America. Traveling internationally, which we did also, broadened her perspective on how significant it was to incorporate different experiences, different people, different realities, into not just her rhetoric, but also into her lived experience.
And then, finally, she really learned from people. Audre Lorde has been flashing into my mind as we’ve all been talking. I know that that is someone who Carmen looked to as a solid, singular example of a poet, a writer, an activist, a leader, and a person who inspired us all, and still does. She also had a very keen eye toward people who could help her develop her innate leadership abilities and perspectives.
Boggis: I agree with that, and everything everyone else has said, for that matter. She sort of epitomized that Southern phrase (I think it’s a Southern phrase) that’s sometimes meant in a critical way, but in Carmen’s case, no. It’s something about, “Don’t rise above your raising,” meaning, don’t get too big for your britches.
But she rose above her raising. I mean, her beginnings were quite humble. Like you said, Marcie, around coming from Puerto Rico or not having a lot of money and tough circumstances at home and in the neighborhood—she strode so far past those origins. And I think you’re right, Richard: A lot of that had to do with her vision, her visionary nature, and her ability to write. That’s really what she wanted to do all the time. Sharing an office with her, she wanted to be at that word processor, writing, and doing public speaking. I always think of her as the big thinker. She was an orator. She was someone who galvanized at the barricades.
She had that power and that gift to do that kind of thing.
Her latest chapter professionally—at least, her passion project, maybe I should say—was her sex liberation work that she did through the Woodhull Freedom Foundation. They cherished her there, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, Terri, from the commentary online since she died. That was a deeply held passion for her. That’s really what queer liberation is rooted in—sex liberation. That was the last great, great work that she did.
She gave a great plenary speech there, in recent years, which is online in its complete form. That’s important. And it was important to her, so I want to make sure that sex liberation is mentioned in this conversation.
Burns: The other thing I want to make sure we don’t lose is that we all had lots of fights with Carmen. We were all intense people, and Carmen was super smart. On our senior team meetings, which would go on for hours at the Center, people would be arguing, less about ideology than about allocation of resources. At the end of the day, we all marched in the same direction. But there was a lot of ferment, and in a way that was good. Marcie and Terry, I’m sure you all had your own battles. It makes me laugh now when I think about mine.
I also want to say that Carmen was a lot of fun. I can picture her in the bar at the hotel at Creating Change and just hanging out, talking, meeting new people, making friends, and really connecting with people. I loved being her colleague and having that ferment, and a healthy struggle that helped us all grow.
Boggis: I remember her dragging me out on the dance floor, and it was a nightmare for me. She was doing this salsa dancing, and I had no clue. But she was in her glory, in her element, picking up girls on the sidelines and dragging them out to the dance floor. She just loved to do that. She was very flirtatious, actually. She was a lot of fun.
Gallo: One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is the number of children that Carmen influenced in a wonderful, positive way. I remember one of my nephews, when he was very, very young, turned to her and said, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
She said, “Well, what do you think?” And he’s like 2½ or 3 years old. And they had this whole conversation about gender identity. To this day, he credits her with helping him start to think a little bit more broadly than he might have.
So, that goes with the other thing that I think we talked about earlier, but I just want to underscore again. Right now, we’re all correctly remembering her amazing contributions to our various worlds. But she also really prized family. She created family at work. She created family at play. I consider it a real blessing that I am part of her family.
Pannell: I agree with you on that. That’s part of why I made my post on Facebook about Carmen. Carmen was a lot of things—a mentor, a supervisor, and boss. But I had to end that sentence with: “Carmen was my kin.”
Carmen and I shared a kinship. She was family to me. There were so many things, private conversations, that we’ve shared. There were individual life struggles that each of us had that we did talk to each other about and supported each other through. It wasn’t just a work relationship. There was a genuine care and concern about you as an individual, as a person. Like I said, I affectionately called her Papí, and she called me Number One. She was the only one that was allowed to do that.
You’d see the ties to family and the conversations that she would have when she would call, I believe it was her sister Ida, and they would watch the Yankee games together. And the times when she would vacation and go and visit her family, wherever they lived. When she retired, she wanted to spend more time with her siblings and their children and her extended family, and her family of choice. That’s what she valued.
As Richard mentioned, we can’t forget that Carmen was an essayist and an orator. That’s how I was introduced to Carmen. Early on—it was maybe in the early to mid-’90s—it was through her essays and opinion pieces and things of that nature that I saw in different gay magazines or newspapers, and her position around the intersectionality of the movement, and it not being a moment, and that there’s space for everyone at the table.
As a young Black gay man, I never saw myself necessarily represented in the LGBTQ community. And to know that there was someone out there fighting for inclusion, and that there was a space for me—there’s a lot of things that Carmen wrote about and spoke about that I truly could stand behind and believe in.
So years later, when I had the opportunity to meet her, there was this reverence that she already had. Because she had spoken to me through her work.
Then, from that, to see someone like Carmen doing trainings—and I happened to be at a training she did—it was just masterful. I have never been in a two-day diversity and inclusion training where everyone was heard. Everybody. There was no issue that wasn’t talked about. If there was something that was brought up for someone and was triggered, Carmen took the time to help process that with them, whether it was privately or amongst the group.
Carmen and I always had conversations about your authentic self, and bringing your authentic self into the room, and bringing the totality of you into that space. And where are those spaces? Creating those spaces for people to be authentic in, for people to be able to bring their entire selves into that space. Because oftentimes, you have to leave whatever your lived experience was out of whatever room or table you’re sitting in. But we always talked about being able to bring your authentic self in that space and having your lived experience inform that work because your lived experience is just as valuable as any book knowledge or formalized education that anybody else at that table has.
Wilder: In closing, can I ask each of you to share one or two sentences about your thoughts on how you would like Carmen to be remembered?
Gallo: Passionate. And powerful.
Burns: Visionary and radical, but very, very much generous of heart and spirit.
Boggis: Well, another element of Carmen that I don’t want to forget, so I’ll say it now in response to your question, is all of the above, but also sweet. Carmen was a sweet person. Yes, she was feisty. Yes, she was a warrior for sure. She was so principled and so committed to her principles and values. But she was also an enormously sweet person, and utterly accessible.
I saw a T-shirt recently. And you must have seen it too if you were looking at the Sophia Smith Collection [of oral histories]. They had the T-shirt that’s available for purchase that has one of her quotations on it from one of her speeches. And there’s this line in it I thought was so important. She said, “We will return until we are free.” I feel like Carmen’s spirit will always return until we’re free.
Pannell: I agree with everything my other friends have said. She described herself as a fierce Puerto Rican butch.
As well as all of the things that everyone else on this call has said, her compassion, her seeking of knowledge and understanding, her caring and cultivating of family, and creating space for people to be exactly who they are. She had a way of making people feel heard, welcome, affirmed.
Carmen was an amazing force with so many qualities—all of the ones that are commendable—and then, we all had our struggles or arguments or fights. But I think that made us stronger. That made us be able to hold our positions better and made us understand Carmen’s positions better.
But there was never any malice. We never walked away feeling like something was left undone, unsaid, or the work wasn’t going to continue.
Kraig Pannell participated in this interview to share his personal experiences and knowledge and not in the official capacity of his role with the New York State Department of Health.