February 28, 2019 at 12:45 pm PST | by Karen Ocamb
Civil rights leader Vanita Gupta on fighting the Trump administration

Vanita Gupta (photo by Jon Viscott for the City of West Hollywood)

NYU Magazine dubbed Vanita Gupta “A Head with Heart” in a 2015 profile on the alum’s new job as acting head of the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division two months after the uproar over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. At West Hollywood’s Human Rights Speakers Series discussion entitled “Defending Civil Rights in the Trump Era” on Feb. 27, Gupta said she was surprised President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder offered her the job, considering how often she had sued the federal government over civil rights issues.

Gupta’s former boss, openly gay Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, was not surprised. “Vanita knows where true north is, how to navigate choppy water, and keeps her hands firmly on the tiller,” he told the magazine. He credits Gupta, who was Deputy Legal Director, for pioneering the ACLU’s National Campaign to End Mass Incarceration.

Gupta, who has a lesbian sister, is perhaps best known to the LGBT community for spearheading the DOJ’s lawsuit against the state of North Carolina over the infamous HB2 in 2016. 

“H.B. 2 violates the laws that govern our nation and the values that define us as a people,” Gupta, then Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said in a May 9, 2016 press release. “Transgender men are men – they live, work and study as men.  Transgender women are women – they live, work and study as women. America protects the rights of all people to be who they are, to express their true selves and to live with dignity.”

Today, Gupta is helping steer the Resistance movement against the Trump administration as President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization founded in 1950. Gay Bayard Rustin and Dr. Dorothy Height served as board chairs as the organization lobbied Congress to pass historic civil rights legislation.

Discussion host Karin Wang, Executive Director of the David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy at the UCLA School of Law, asked Gupta a series of questions about herself, key issues of concern and what people can do to protect the ideals and institutions of democracy.

An American-born daughter of Indian immigrants, Gupta says she first experienced discrimination at age four when she and her grandmother were harassed and menaced by skinheads in a McDonalds in London. “Mortified” and “embarrassed,” she turned that frightening humiliation into a lifetime of seeking justice and holding authorities accountable, especially law enforcement and the corrupt criminal justice system that uses race to railroad poor African Americans into jail.

After Trump’s election, Attorney General Jeff Sessions “started to undo almost everything we did” at the DOJ, she said. That’s why work at the state and local level “matters” to keep civil rights protections in place.

Under Trump, “there has been a systematic erosion of civil rights,” she said, and offices have been “weaponized” for partisan gain. Fortunately, Gupta noted, states attorney generals and non-profits have been “stepping into the breach” and actively organizing against anti-civil rights efforts.

Gupta expressed alarm about how the progressive community has been “asleep at the switch” regarding judicial nominees, noting that 25 percent of federal appellate judges are now Trump extremist conservatives.

She called for presidential candidates to be grilled about their views on the prison reform, voting rights and the courts. 

“This is no time to sit on the sidelines,” Gupta said, urging grassroots activists to visit members of Congress in their state offices. “It matters when people show up.”

Gupta also stressed that the upcoming US Census is “deeply at risk,” with the great potential of leaving many uncounted out of fear of giving the government any information. This is exactly what Republican activists hope for to maintain political power. On the other hand, Gupta found hope seeing DREAMers out door-knocking during the 2016 election.

The Census, which begins on April 1, 2020, informs congressional reapportionment and redistricting and is considered in appropriating $800 billion annually for necessary services such as first responders, medical facilities, and education.

In an interview with Gupta after the event, the Los Angeles Blade noted that there is no way for the Census to count LGBT individuals, other than perhaps a question about same-sex relationships.

“We had been really close actually at the end of the Obama administration to adding that question on the Census,” Gupta said. “There had been a lot of really important advocacy by LGBTQ groups to get that question added and unfortunately, it wasn’t.”

LGBT questions have been included in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which goes out to a smaller sampling of families, households and individuals. This is largely thanks to the hard advocacy work done by gay demographic expert Dr. Gary Gates and colleagues in conjunction with the Williams Institute. “But it is still really, really important for us to understand the economic picture, the broad ways LGBTQ people and their families are actually living and experiencing our economy,” Gupta said.

The Los Angeles Blade also asked if The Leadership Conference, with its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations, might take on the project of getting a question about sexual orientation and gender identity included as a standard demographic question in political polling. It is hard to identify the impact of LGBT voters without the numbers.

“It’s a great question that we should focus on,” Gupta said. “I don’t know. I appreciate the question because it’s something I’d like to look into now.”

For more on The Leadership Conference, go to www.civilrights.org.

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