There is something reminiscent of black gay author James Baldwin in Alphonso David’s intense bearing, though the new president of the Human Rights Campaign is considerably more down-to-earth and welcoming than the defiant intellect who scorched racist America in “The Fire Next Time.”
For David, it is the fire this time that is fueling his drive for full equality and his fight against the dark amoral forces demolishing democracy through the rapacious black hole that is President Donald Trump.
David may be uniquely qualified to meet the LGBTQ leadership challenge of this historic moment.
Born in Silver Spring, Md., in 1970, he was one year old when his family moved to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia founded in 1822 by freed Black American slaves. David’s great uncle was the country’s president and his father was elected the city’s mayor in 1977 while his mother worked in the Liberian Department of Finance.
In 1980, David’s world was violently overturned as a military coup assassinated his uncle, imprisoned his father and kept the family under house arrest for 18 months. When his father was released a few years later, he applied for political asylum in the U.S., which was granted because Alphonso had been born in Maryland.
“My interest in the law is fairly self-evident,” David told The New Amsterdam News in 2014, “in part because of the war and understanding democracy and understanding how things work.”
After graduating from Temple University Law School, David clerked for Clifford Scott Green, the African-American District Court judge who found that there was, indeed, racial discrimination in the Philadelphia Police Department. David then joined a Philadelphia law firm before moving to Los Angeles for work as a litigation associate at Blank Rome LLP to help pay off “substantial” student debt. He also got heavily involved in pro bono work, such as helping victims of domestic violence.
David was in LA when the Supreme Court issued its watershed ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, decriminalizing homosexuality. That was an inflection point, motivating him to give up private practice to join Lambda Legal in 2004.
In 2007, David took a job as Special Counselor at the New York State Division of Human Rights, which led to Special Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights under Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and eventually, in 2015, his historic appointment as the first black man and first openly gay man to serve as Chief Counsel to Gov. Cuomo. He was dubbed the third most powerful person in New York state government.
So why HRC?
“We are living in very complex, perilous times,” David tells the Los Angeles Blade in a brief interview at a Hollywood coffee shop. “I have worked in government for 12 years, but I thought, at this moment in time, it was more important for me to serve in this capacity as the head of the Human Rights Campaign to push for change on the national level, to educate people about the challenges that marginalized communities face, and affect change.”
David started Aug. 9 and is now on a 10-city/state swing to introduce himself to HRC activists and equality allies. But he quickly acts when action is required. Moments after the interview concluded, David was on Twitter producing a thread that excoriated Trump for his inane statement that he has the support of the LGBTQ community, citing the recent reelection endorsement by Log Cabin Republicans.
“Every credible LGBTQ organization is mobilizing to defeat Trump, Pence & their anti-LGBTQ extremist allies in 2020,” David tweeted. “Those who claim this administration is pro-LGBTQ are out of touch with facts and reality.”
David promises new plan rollouts soon but spoke to a few top priorities.
“First, we have to elect pro-equality candidates on every single level. We’re not only focused on the presidency, we’re focused on Congress. We’re focused on state elections, both Senate and House,” he says, and local elections if HRC should weigh in.
“We want to make sure that we are creating environments for people to be realized in the way that they should be realized, that their identities are being respected by government and by the law,” David says. “The electoral work is very, very important.”
Second, HRC is focused on making sure that “legislative priorities are being advanced at every single level,” with special attention on the Equality Act “that would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, ranging from employment to credit.” Third is programmatic work that deserves more awareness and possible expansion such as the All Children, All Families program helping LGBTQ kids in the foster care system.
Another program deserving elevation focuses on historically Black colleges. “When we say ‘LGBTQ,’ I want to make sure that people are not looking at a white male face—that they see the spectrum of our community reflected and they understand that the Human Rights Campaign is representing all interests, not just some,” David says.
David is keenly aware that LA is mindful about intersectionality but understands that there are different LGBTQ communities living in silos. “Gay,” for instance, equates with rich, white, straight men in West Hollywood. A similar impression of HRC has followed suit.
“That’s part of the challenge,” says David, to change the old perception of HRC as catering only to one segment of the community. “I think we can make that change. With my appointment as the [first Black] president of Human Rights Campaign, I hope that people will see that the organization is really focused on all members of the community.”
Alphonso David pauses before having a James Baldwin moment. “I’m not going to put my reputation at risk to run an organization that will not put its money where its mouth is,” he says, believably. “So I’m going to make sure that people understand that when we are pushing the electoral work or the legislative work or litigation—you pick the category—we are representing the interests of the community, and our interests are very different, as a matter of fact. The lesbian community may have very different concerns than the transgender community and we need to make sure that all of those concerns are being represented equally.”
David is a data man, very familiar with Brad Sears and the Williams Institute. He intends to use some of their work to inform his own. He is also plugged into the “progressive web of organizations” his predecessor Chad Griffin cultivated, whose leaders he knows well.
“How we talk about issues is so important,” David says. “When we say there’s a problem in our community and we use a statistic to highlight that problem and we fail to identify certain communities or classify our language in a way that elevates that issue for a specific community, we’re not presenting a comprehensive picture.”
Alphonso David with Sepi Shyne, Sue LaVaccare and others at the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood (Photo courtesy Sepi Shyne)
He wants to make sure that “we’re able to elevate the plight of the LGBTQ community in the various sectors, utilizing our various relationships, making sure that we are communicating in a very smart, strategic way because it’s not enough to say LGBT kids are homeless. We need to really talk about what actually is informing the homelessness. Why are they homeless? What are the resources that are being provided?”
Trump talking about ending AIDS is only a talking point, he notes as an example. The money he’s identified is insufficient and hasn’t been secured. Meanwhile, Trump wants to end the Affordable Care Act that protects pre-existing conditions like HIV/AIDS, among other disastrous rollbacks. “To now suggest that he’s interested in ending AIDS is laughable, and the Log Cabin Republicans are really divorced from reality, so I don’t want to even give them any additional time or attention.”
David intends to navigate the waters of political purity “with due diligence,” he says. “We should be focused on winning in 2020, making sure we have a sound, viable candidate who can beat Donald Trump,” as well as winning candidates down ballot. HRC will not automatically endorse an incumbent.
David also intends on strategizing HRC’s relationship with big corporations. Griffin effectively marshaled Hollywood corporations to threaten boycotts in Georgia and North Carolina when governors threatened to sign anti-trans bathroom bills. But an anti-big corporation sentiment resulted in a second Stonewall 50th anniversary march and presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are successfully bashing corporations as corrupt.
David thinks differently. “HRC’s Corporate Equality Index is a really important tool to change work environments,” policies and practices, he says. “They’re a lot more inclusive than they were before. So we’re going to be trying to get more corporations, more companies enlisted in the CEI because that benefits the bottom line for people that are working in companies across this country. I want to use it as a tool to make sure we improve workspaces.”
Additionally, “I want to enlist corporations directly in our fight for equality. I was privileged enough to write the marriage equality law in New York and I can tell you that we were able to successfully enlist corporate leaders [in their coalition] to change the perspectives of Republican senators in New York,” David says. “We need to do the same thing here. Private companies actually could have a very meaningful and positive role in helping us advance equality.”
But the new HRC leader needs a larger army to demonstrate LGBTQ power. “The Human Rights Campaign exists as an infrastructure to actually affect change and I want people to join us because we need every single person,” David says. “We need boots on the ground to make sure that we can affect change on the local level, at the state level and at the federal level. I need everyone to get involved.”
Perhaps Alphonso David might cite James Baldwin as he recruits new volunteers to the LGBTQ cause. “The point,” Baldwin once said, “is to get your work done, and your work is to change the world.”