Carmen Vasquez, a Puerto Rican lesbian and one of the founders of the San Francisco Women’s Building died of COVID-19 related complications on January 27 in New York City. She was 72.
Carmen was born in Puerto Rico in 1949. Her family moved to New York when she was a child. She had relationships with women as a young butch (and for the rest of her life) and attended City College of New York, where she participated in the movement against the Vietnam War and to create Black and Puerto Rican studies departments. She graduated with a master’s degree in education and moved to San Francisco in 1975. She became involved with the San Francisco Women’s Centers which had formed in 1971 and worked out of an office on Brady Street. The group worked to purchase Dovre Hall on 18th Street, which became the San Francisco Women’s Building, in 1979. Carmen was involved in a number of lesbian of color and women of color organizations including the Third World Women’s Alliance. She participated in the Somos Hermanas delegation to Nicaragua. In 1985 she joined a delegation to the international women’s conference in Nairobi.
Carmen participated in the Marxist-Leninist Education Project which was associated with Line of March, a communist party organization, but she said the party dissolved before she formally joined. She was part of the early 1980s transition and split when the Third World Women’s Alliance, with the leadership of some of the women of color in Line of March, decided to include white women and become the Alliance Against Women’s Oppression. In a 2005 oral history interview [link for online: https://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/vof/transcripts/Vazquez.pdf] , Carmen credited her experiences with Line of March, the Third World Women’s Alliance, and the experience in Nairobi with her developing a deeper analysis. “And so, there came into my analysis an international and very rich, I think, class perspective that has informed my thinking ever since, really. I mean, my formal political training, truly, was begun at the Women’s Building and with the Alliance Against Women’s Oppression, who then also invited me to participate in the World Women’s Conference in Nairobi in 1985. And that — I mean, that was huge, because then I got to meet feminists from all over the world and take that thinking into account…
“Over the years, you know, I really think that the people that have most deeply impacted me have been lesbians of color. There’s no question about that. You know, Barbara Smith and Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe [Moraga] have really been the people that fed my thinking about feminism in a way that I could understand, could live with, could take in.”
In 1986 Carmen was hired by Community United Against Violence, which was her first formal involvement in LGBT organizations. She helped to start the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center (LYRIC) and the LGBT Health & Human Services Network. In 1988 she became the coordinator of Lesbian/Gay Health Services for the SF Department of Public Health.
Carmen moved back to New York in 1994, where she became the director of policy for the city’s LGBT Community Center and helped found the New York State LGBT Health & Human Services Network. She was a founder and principal author of Causes in Common (a national coalition of Reproductive Justice and LGBT Liberation activists). She was on the board of directors of the National LGBTQ Task Force, which honored her with the SAGE award for leadership in aging issues at the Creating Change conference in 2020.
Carmen was a totally out Puerto Rican butch, a lesbian who in the Bay Area was often engaged in tough decisions and debates. She was a strong advocate for queer people of color, for oppressed people everywhere, and for radical change. Her death is a great loss.