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The Loss of an LGBTQ+ Hero; The Death of Carmen Vazquez

Photo by Diogo Fagundes on Unsplash

The 27th of January saw the tragic passing of longtime LGBTQ+ and social justice activist Carmen Vasquez; she sadly passed from medical complications brought about from Covid-19 according to the National LGBTQ Task Force. 

Born in Puerto Rico in 1949, she was the eldest of seven sisters. Her and her family moved to the USA when she was young, and she spent most of her childhood in Harlem, New York. After attending the City University of New York and earning a Bachelors in English and a Master in Education, Vazquez moved to San Francisco in the 1970s and started to create major impacts. 

In San Francisco Vazquez became a prominent Bay Area activist. She became the founding director of The Women’s Building, a women-led, open community space with the objective of furthering gender equality and social justice that opened in 1971. She continued her work in San Francisco and helped establish other organisations like Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center. Furthemore, she then became the director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the coordinator of LGBTQ services for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. So within San Francisco alone, she made a huge impact despite facing systemic prejudice and push back. 

Vazquez carried on her activism and dedication wherever she went and always got results. In the 1990s, she returned to New York where she became the Director of Public Policy at the LGBT Community Center from 1994 to 2003. Afterwards, she went on to help found the New York State Health and Health Services Network, which has grown significantly to consist of a coalition of over 70 non-profit organisation that advoactor for queer New Yorkers. 

Boasting an impressive array of historic action, creating vital services and groups to help the LGBTQ+ community, her work continued into the modern day. Vazquez co-chaired the boards of directors of the Woodhull Freedom Foundation and as the coordinator of the New York State Department of Health LGBT Health and Human Services Unit. Both roles allow for the further advocacy of sexual freedom and health. 

Recently, in 2020, Vazquez received praise for her work. SAGE, an advocacy group for elderly LGBTQ+, presented her with the SAGE advocacy Award for Excellence on Aging Issues. Micheal Adams- CEO of SAGE- upon hearing of Vazquez’s death, said it was “one of his proudest moments” presenting her with the award. On her death, Micheal Adams said “unimaginable that Carmen has passed” but that her fierce spirit should “inspire us all”. SAGE has also announced its intentions to change the name of the “Excellence on Aging Issues Award” after Vazquez, in honor of her work. 

Across the USA, many other people have voiced their condolences. Alan van Capelle, former executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, said: “The advancement of LGBTQ liberation was made faster because of her efforts, and countless lives are fuller and more protected because of her”. The Human Rights Campaign tweeted that “Carmen was a true trailblazer for LGBTQ equality and was a hero to so many, particularly Latinx LGBTQ folks”.

Vazquez will be remembered for her tireless activism on a variety of issues. She fought for not just LGBTQ+ issues, but also immigrant rights, and will always stand as a beacon of hope, for not just the New York but the whole queer community. Her words will always be immortalised and remain a guide in times of hardship. 

Upon accepting her award from SAGE, she said: “There were countless others who paved the way for my activism and countless others who will follow me and build the bridge to the future. Equality is not enough, justice and liberation are where our hearts and minds should lead us.”

Written by Owen Buchan