When the Human Rights Campaign announced Alphonso David as its new president in June, he marked a number of firsts for the 40-year-old organization. He’s the first person of color and the first civil rights attorney to serve in the position. And in one of his first major moves, David is leading HRC in making justice for transgender people a centerpiece of its work.
In its quest to better serve the most marginalized, HRC is contending with a long-standing, troubled relationship with the trans community and communities of color. In the ‘90s, noted trans activist Sylvia Rivera leveled critiques at the organization for ignoring the death of Amanda Milan, a Black transgender woman, and the voices of the trans community at that time. Ten years later, the organization was denounced by community leaders and other nonprofits for its wavering support for trans inclusion in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). And just four years ago, Buzzfeed News broke a story on an internal report drafted by the organization naming steep problems with diversity on staff and tokenism of trans employees.
Despite these marks on the organization’s record, HRC has ramped up reporting on the epidemic of violence and discrimination affecting the transgender community in recent years. Since the onset of the Trump era, the organization has rallied behind the various attacks against the community, particularly trans students and trans service members. It has also bolstered support for transgender candidates for political office like Christine Halliquist, Danica Roem, and the organization’s national press secretary Sarah McBride, who is currently running for Delaware’s first Senate district. And with new leadership, the organization is aiming to make some major changes.
In a new framework, set to be announced at the organization's national dinner tomorrow, are several pillars targeting the high levels of disenfranchisement and violence plaguing the trans community. In regards to economic empowerment, HRC is partnering with Trans Can Work, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, to increase hiring opportunities for trans people and use its resources to train community members for the workforce.
Next Year, HRC is launching a fellowship called ACTIVATE, which will focus on enhancing the skills of promising nonprofit professionals interested in working to end anti-trans violence. This program would build on ELEVATE, a program launched this year that focuses on the professional and leadership development of trans people of color in public health fields. In working with community leaders, HRC will also pilot task forces that will liaise with public safety and government officials to end anti-trans violence.
Lastly, HRC is planning to increase public education by centering the stories of trans people of color. It plans to increase the conversation about the epidemic of violence through national media and its own platforms. This will work in tandem with programs engaging parents and faith communities of color.
HRC's new work will exist within an established ecosystem of national trans-led organizations like Transgender Law Center and the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), that have spearheaded organizing, legislative, and justice work since the early 2000s. And while national efforts increase, trans-led grassroots initiatives continue to expand according to recent reports by Borealis Philanthropy’s Fund for Trans Generations (FTG) and the Trans Justice Funding Project.
We spoke with David about how he’s settling into his new role at HRC, the importance of prioritizing justice for transgender people, and the recent launch of an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.
This is your second month in your new role, is that correct?
That's correct. I started August 7.
How's it going so far?
I'm very excited about the work that we're doing. I am looking forward to tackling some of the significant challenges that we face in our community. I listened to the community, talked to activists and advocates about what's important to them, and really got a chance to understand some of the challenges that we face in our various communities.
After starting this role, I had the opportunity to travel the country and I went to 10 different cities in a variety of states. I went to Richmond, VA; Cleveland, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas, Texas; Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Wilmington, DL. The challenges that the [LGBTQ+] community faces in New York are very different than what they face in Texas.
I want to make sure that we fully appreciate some of those challenges, so that we are in the best position to provide support, resources, and solutions for some of the challenges that we face.
Is there anything you've been confronted with already in your new role that you didn't expect before going into the position?
There's so many. I don't know where to start. I am very pleased to see the dedication and the commitment that the staff at HRC has to the work. We often don't talk about the people behind the scenes. They're working 24 hours a day to move forward a variety of initiatives that we hope will have the intended impact.
We have what I believe is a national crisis. It was made very clear to me, in my travels, that there are significant challenges that members of the trans community are facing, and we are morally required to come up with meaningful solutions. It requires urgent action and transformational change.
People often say there have been 18 murders in 2019 alone, and that is actually absolutely correct. We should be elevating that narrative, so that people understand that trans women, and specifically women of color, are living in a time where their lives are at risk.
But we also need to talk about the fact that 20 percent of Black trans people are unemployed. We need to talk the fact that close to half of Black trans people have attempted suicide in their lifetime. Those are real challenges that members of the trans community are facing.
Yes, we have organizations that are providing direct services on the ground, but I believe that is incredibly important for the Human Rights Campaign, as the largest [LGBTQ+] civil rights organization in the world, to come up with solutions and stand on the frontline to provide meaningful solutions for the transgender community.
For many, there was an understanding that [trans justice] wasn't a priority for HRC for a long time. One of the biggest questions that HRC will have to answer is why emphasize trans-led work, particularly that’s on the ground, now?
I have two responses to that. One, all Americans, all [LGBTQ+] Americans, all trans people, are facing a national crisis, where the trans community has been under direct attack — whether we're talking in terms of economic opportunities, psychological support services, or public safety. I think, as the new president of the HRC, that we have an obligation to make sure that we are addressing some of those concerns that the transgender community faces.
To address the second point, I don't know that I would say that HRC didn't care, and I don't know that I would say that people who work in the organization didn't care. I think that the [LGBTQ+] community, writ large, or maybe the LGB, or maybe the institutional [LGBTQ+] groups in the past, have forgotten the transgender community. I don't think that we can pin it on one organization or individual. I think the movement as a whole, and you can look at the history, the movement as a whole did not prioritize transgender-related issues for a variety of different reasons. I don't know why people did it. There are a variety of reasons why people drew the conclusions that they did. Some would say fear, some would say indifference.
I'm not as interested in what didn't happen in the past, I'm more interested in what we need to do now, and what we need to do in the future. My commitment to the work and my leadership on this work is going to demonstrate to both the transgender community and the larger community that we are going to provide the support, the guidance, and the vision to address some of these concerns.
Are we going to be able to solve every single problem? No. But I do think that we have an obligation to come up with a framework, or a construct, that can be used and potentially replicated in other parts of the country, so that we are in a position to provide meaningful support to the transgender community.
Is it the opinion of HRC that it has adequately addressed concerns and critiques from the trans community from throughout the years?
As the president of the HRC, I would say the answer to your question is no. I don't think HRC sufficiently addressed the concerns of the transgender community in the past. I don't think any institutional [LGBTQ+] organization historically has done that. I think that if we're going to really come up with meaningful solutions for the transgender community, it's important to hold organizations independently accountable. But I think there's a larger concern about our community writ large, forgot about the transgender community. That's my larger point.
Why does HRC see elevating trans people of color in nonprofit leadership important?
We think that there is a meaningful role that transgender people should play in achieving liberation for the transgender community. The march towards justice for transgender people should include and be led by people who are transgender.
You have members of the transgender community that are running not-for-profit organizations, or they're in leadership positions for not-for-profit organizations, but they don't have the resources. They don't have the time. They don't have the technical expertise that they may need to excel in certain areas. That can range from development fundraising to technical skills that they may need in further developing their not-for-profits. Our objective is to identify people in leadership roles, provide them with resources and assistance training, so they can excel and grow their not-for-profits [and] so that they can provide even greater services to the transgender community.
As the first head of HRC that's of color, you have so many parts of your story that are strong, in terms of this call for more diversity and developing the leadership of people from different backgrounds. In your journey, what are the ways in which you've been challenged, particularly in the nonprofit sector?
It's important that I take those experiences and skills that I've acquired over time and use them to help others that are looking to succeed. Professionally, I've lived with many challenges walking into rooms that are largely white men. When I was the chief counsel to [New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo], I was the first Black man to have that position, making decisions that affected the state to the tune of $175 billion. Some of my decisions were challenged by others that were not in that position. In some cases, because of race.
I understand how important it is for us to fight to make sure that when we say we live in the land of the free, people are actually free. If a Black transgender woman is fearful of losing her life walking down the street, she's not free. If we are going to embrace this concept, we need to make sure that everyone feels free and is able to live their reality, live their truth, without being so fearful that if they walk down the street, they may not come back home.
My experience of losing my liberty is deeply rooted in my work and why I do the work. Because these documents that we point to often, whether they be the Constitution, statutes or regulations, they're nice words on a piece of paper. But if they mean nothing when you're walking down the street, then they're hollow. I want to make sure that they actually mean something when people are walking down the street.
HRC has been very much critical of the actions of the Trump administration. What is the organization’s opinion on the impeachment inquiry, and what's happening with the current president?
I've been crystal clear — and the organization has been crystal clear — that Donald Trump has repeatedly broken the law. He's repeatedly tried to strip away protections that [LGBTQ+] people have. He's repeatedly sought to interpret the law in such a way that removes us from protections, and we think that he needs to be defeated in 2020.
We think what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did this week was courageous. We are certainly supportive of an investigation to make sure that appropriate steps are taken. It's going to be a long process, but we are not supportive of this president on any level, which is why we are working to make sure that we defeat him in 2020. We are investing time and resources to make sure that we are in a position to really succeed next year, because we cannot afford to have Donald Trump in this role for the next four years.
We have seen such a broad and a radical recession of our communities and our culture over the past two and a half years. We cannot afford that for the next four. We're going to be fighting to make sure he's removed from office, and that we have someone who is pro-equality and who is going to support the Equality Act and sign it. Someone who is going to respect and provide dignity to the lives of [LGBTQ+] people. This president certainly doesn't do that.