Human Rights Campaign president focused on policy and cultural change

Exclusive: Alphonso David tells theGrio he believes timelines on progress are often assigned without fully appreciating the landscape

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Alphonso David is enshrined as the first civil rights lawyer and person of color to lead the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, in its 40-year history. He’s a trailblazer determined to pave a better way forward.

David belted “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at HRC’s LGBTQ Inaugural Event on Jan. 20.

In an exclusive interview with theGrio, David responds as to when those powerful lyrics of liberation will apply to all.

Read More: Human Rights Campaign appoints its first African American president

“I have not put a timeline on it,” David says. “Instead, I have, with all of my thoughts and my mind, decided to invest in getting to that place as quickly as possible. The reason I’m doing that is because I think all too often, we end up assigning deadlines to ourselves without fully appreciating the full landscape.”

David, who is openly gay, cites the election of President Barack Obama and the subsequent white backlash to him ascending to the highest office in the land.

Alphonso David Human Rights Campaign
Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David is photographed on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 in Washington. (Kevin Wolf/AP Images for Human Rights Campaign)

“We have to be very careful, as you think about how we evaluate success and when we can evaluate success to make sure that we get to that place and that place ensures sustainable progress so that we’re not going backward,” he opines.

“Many people have been shocked at the regression, the regressive policies that have been implemented by the federal government, and how regressive we have been over the past four years. And I’m not surprised because we always knew that it was the underbelly of this country, that we had racist, homophobic, transphobic people that were manipulating the process to hold on to power.”

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Alphonso David Human Rights Campaign
Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David is photographed with the art installation outside the HRC headquarters on Friday, August 28, 2020 in Washington. (Kevin Wolf/AP Images for the Human Rights Campaign)

David, who began serving in his post in 2019, recognizes his efforts are a “tall order” and there is no factory reset from the past four years. He is focused on policy and cultural change.

He was pleased that President Joe Biden signed executive orders that offer protection to the LGBTQ community, two of which were recommended by the HRC.

“I plan on continuing to work with the administration in advancing affirmative policy to protect the lives of LGBT people and specifically to your point, highlighting that people of color, unfortunately, in many cases are disproportionately impacted by discrimination,” he shares.

While society has progressed in terms of recognizing the humanity of those who identity as LGBTQ, there’s still much work to be done.

“We have 74 million people who voted for a racist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic president [Donald Trump]. That’s the reality. Our job is to make sure that we engage in the hard work of cultural change, to make sure that we change hearts and minds. Those people still exist, even though Joe Biden was inaugurated,” David says.

David adds that the job is to show the humanity of their fellow people who pay taxes and contribute to society.

“We have work to do because our communities have been living under attack, living under the threat of violence,” he says.

David notes that attitudes change once people in marginalized groups are no longer seen through a prism of being an “other.”

“We’ve seen this over and over again where people treat us as the other until they meet us and once they meet us, it’s too difficult to treat us as the other. We have to continue engaging in this work to make sure that people not only see us, meet us, understand us, but also understand the role that we have played in history.”

Alphonso David Human Rights Campaign
Huan …Sunday, June 30, 2019 in New York. (Jeff Zelevansky/AP Images for Human Rights Campaign)

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Notably, the contributions of civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who was gay, have often been downplayed despite being pivotal in the Civil Rights movement.

“We would not have the March on Washington without Bayard Rustin,” David says. “People are not being taught that reality is a part of our job in the work of cultural change.”

The death of George Floyd, while in the custody of Minneapolis police, rejuvenated the Black Lives Matter moment and led to a reckoning. In contrast, the deaths of gay and trans people did not receive similar coverage and moments of reflection.

In 2020, there were 44 transgender or gender non-conforming violent deaths. Most were Black or Hispanic.

“It’s not a coincidence that it was not splattered on the front pages of the newspapers. The value that we assign to certain members of our society doesn’t translate to all members of our society and that’s what we have to change. “

David’s background suggests that he’s not afraid to jump in with both feet and lead that change and is a natural-born leader. The Temple University Law graduate was appointed as Counsel to the Governor by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2015, and became the first Black and openly gay man to serve in this role.

Alphonso David Human Rights Campaign
Alphonso David, newly-installed president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), smiles during a news conference to announce HRC’s historic endorsement of 27 pro-equality candidates across Virginia on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019 in Richmond, Va. (Steve Ruark/AP Images for HRC)

He and Katherine Grainger were the co-authors of the 2011 New York Marriage Equality Act that removed restrictions from allowing same-sex partners from marrying. It led to a ripple effort nationally. The Obergefell v Hodges ruling four years later by the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land.

He’s had his pulse on history more than once and wants to honor the past during this Black History Month.

“We will be using this opportunity to educate people about our history, because I think that often we don’t learn from our history,” David declares.

“We don’t know our history. As a result, we end up having history repeat itself. We can’t afford that to happen, especially for marginalized groups.”

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