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Influencers with Andy Serwer: Alphonso David

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In this episode of Influencers, Andy speaks with Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David about the ongoing fight for LGBTQ protections, celebrating Pride in 2021 and the road to creating a more equitable America for all.

Video Transcript

ANDY SERWER: What does "pride" mean to you? For Alphonso David, "pride" represents more than just a word. It's a community, the fight for equality, and much, much more. A civil rights attorney and president of the Human Rights Campaign, Alphonso is one of the leading voices for LGBTQ advocacy in the United States.

He's worked as deputy secretary for civil rights under New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, fought against sexual and racial discrimination, and now he's pushing Congress to pass a landmark bill called the Equality Act. In this episode of "Influencers," Alphonso David joins me as we discuss pride in 2021 and the road to creating a more equitable America for all.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. And welcome to our guest Alphonso David, who is president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBTQ advocacy group. Alphonso, nice to see you.

ALPHONSO DAVID: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: So why don't we start off by letting people know what the Human Rights Campaign is and what the organization has been focused on recently.

ALPHONSO DAVID: Sure. So the Human Rights Campaign is the largest LGBTQ civil rights organization in the United States and around the globe. We focused on ensuring that LGBTQ people are treated with equity and equality. And ultimately, we're looking to achieve liberation.

We work in the electoral space by supporting candidates for political office. We work in the litigation and legislative space by working on legislation, opposing legislation, filing lawsuits when appropriate. We also operate 11 different programs around the country to support LGBTQ people.

And then, finally, we do a fair amount of education and outreach. I characterize the work that we do as the business of culture change. And so, so much of that is education and outreach to people who may not know LGBTQ people or know about the work that we do.

ANDY SERWER: So you talked about a lot of different mandates and facets, grassroots advocacy, legal action, political lobbying. How do all these endeavors complement each other?

ALPHONSO DAVID: Well, I know. It can sound somewhat complicated. But ultimately, we need to secure political power in order to achieve equality. And so the political work, the advocacy that we do in the electoral space to help elect pro-equality candidates supports the programmatic work that we have to do as well to ensure that LGBTQ people are treated with equality.

Now, we also work in the judicial space as well, as I mentioned before, to make sure that our rights are indeed being respected vis-a-vis the Constitution and statutes. So you have all of these different levers that we use in order to ultimately advance the rights of LGBTQ people. And they all complement each other. Without the political power, it becomes that much more difficult to secure rights for LGBTQ people, although we sometimes use the courts to ensure that we-- our rights are indeed protected.

ANDY SERWER: You just wrote an op-ed piece in "The New York Times," Alphonso, which noted that a record number of anti-LGBTQ laws have been introduced in statehouses nationwide this year. What's going on? Why now?

ALPHONSO DAVID: I've been asking myself the same question. I mean, you think about this. 2021, we've had more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in state legislatures across the country. And why now? Why are we seeing such a deluge of anti-LGBTQ legislation?

I believe it's because anti-equality forces are losing. They know they're losing. They lost the fight for marriage equality. They lost the bathroom bill narrative. They lost seeking to ban LGBTQ people from serving as public school teachers. They lost the argument that our lives should be criminalized.

And now what they're focused on are LGBTQ young people and specifically transgender young people because, and this is the kicker, they believe that it will help them mobilize their base. There's an organization called the Americans Principles Project. And they told "The New York Times" in 2019 that they were shifting from focusing on the "bathroom bills," as they called them, because they didn't succeed, and the sky didn't fall, and they were instead going to focus on transgender youth in sports.

And they thought that by doing that, they could help mobilize their base. Because the narrative is "us versus them." And if you allow "them" to participate in sports, you lose something. And that's a broken narrative but nevertheless a narrative that I think anti-equality forces have used for years, and they're now using it on transgender young people in order to score political points.

ANDY SERWER: Leaving aside the moral argument here, doesn't it just not make sense from a numerical standpoint for Republicans-- which may be why perhaps they ended up accepting and acquiescing when it came to marital equality, for instance. But in other words, does it really make sense for Republicans to use this as an issue?

ALPHONSO DAVID: It doesn't. It doesn't make sense for several reasons. More than 70% of the American public support equality. They support nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. Also, more than 2/3 oppose, again oppose, these anti-LGBTQ bills that are being introduced in states around the country.

And from a practical perspective, we're talking about very few transgender people who are actually affected. Right. So you would think, why is it that Republicans in these states are targeting transgender people? I believe it's because they think they can segment the LGBTQ community.

They can say, you're lesbian, gay, bisexual over here, and you're transgender over here. Because they think by demonizing the trans community, they can help mobilize their base but also potentially separate the LGBTQ movement. And they're wrong.

Again, we have the majority of Americans that support LGBTQ equality. And we have a very strong community that is going to continue supporting the trans community. So this approach that they've adopted doesn't make any sense to me, but I know why they're doing it is because they're hoping to mobilize a base that is uninformed and operating with misinformation.

ANDY SERWER: And your organization recently announced it's suing the state of Florida over a law that bans transgender girls from participating in school sports. Do you plan to do this in other states that would enact those kinds of laws?

ALPHONSO DAVID: Yes. So we are working with our partners all over the country to not only challenge these laws in court but also to hold the elected officials accountable, these elected officials who have advanced these bills. In Florida, we will be challenging the state of Florida and Governor DeSantis for advancing this bill that's really not based on science, and there's no reason for it. Most, if not all, of the legitimate medical associations in this country oppose anti-LGBTQ bills that are being introduced.

And you ask yourself a basic question. Why in 2021 are you looking to ban transgender girls from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity? There is no crisis in Florida. There's no problem the elected officials are seeking to solve, nothing more than mobilizing their base on the backs of really vulnerable people.

ANDY SERWER: Right. Could this particular case or a case like it end up in the Supreme Court, Alphonso?

ALPHONSO DAVID: It's certainly possible. What we've seen, Andy, over the past few decades is anti-equality forces that will advance bills they know facially is unconstitutional, certainly may violate federal law. And they advance these bills in order to create a full culture war and advance some of these issues to the US Supreme Court. We've certainly seen it as it relates to women's rights for decades, and we've seen it for LGBTQ rights where they try to identify what they believe could be a wedge issue or an issue that may need clarity from the Supreme Court.

We saw that recently with the Bostock versus Clayton County decision. You had three employers basically say they had the right under federal law to fire LGBTQ people without any significant consequences or no consequences at all. And that case ultimately went up to-- those three cases went up to the US Supreme Court. I envision they're seeking to do the same thing here.

ANDY SERWER: And how do you assess their chances then?

ALPHONSO DAVID: They will lose. Federal law expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of LGBTQ status in the areas that they're seeking to legislate. We, of course, still need the Equality Act because we don't have comprehensive legal protections under federal law, but we certainly do in certain areas. And what they're seeking to do actually doesn't make any sense.

It would be one thing if you had the medical professionals saying, we agree with you. But they don't. And you also have the legal practitioners that are saying, we are missing the underlying rationale for these bills in the first place.

ANDY SERWER: And even with the new conservative majority at the Supreme Court, you believe they would lose.

ALPHONSO DAVID: Well, you know, when I think about Supreme Court decisions or legal decisions writ large, I often go through a schizophrenic exercise where I understand intellectually where the decision should end up, but I also have an emotional response to it.

So emotionally, of course, I'm always concerned. Because as a community, we have not received comprehensive protections. And in some case, the Court has decided against marginalized communities. But intellectually, I look at the Court decisions. I look at federal law. I look at our Constitution. And it would be intellectually dishonest to say in these cases that transgender people should not be protected under law.

ANDY SERWER: Got it. Let me switch over and ask you about the role that corporate America plays here because this is a business news platform that we're on. How would you assess the corporate response to these anti-LGBTQ bills?

ALPHONSO DAVID: It's an ongoing exercise. I can say that-- let me answer the question this way. Corporate America writ large has been incredibly supportive of the LGBTQ community. I think back to the 1980s when the president of the United States refused to say HIV or AIDS. And we had the business community, the corporate community rise up and support organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and others to support a community that needed support at that time, and we still do.

And over the years, we had the corporate community support us through marriage equality and all of our other fights. Right now, we have more than 110 businesses that have signed up in support of our statement against anti-LGBTQ legislation. Having said that, we have more than 20,000 businesses with more than 500 employees, so we certainly need more engagement.

We do have engagement on the Equality Act. I believe more than 400 businesses have now signed up to support the Equality Act. So it's an ongoing exercise where we're trying to get more and more businesses engaged. And I'm optimistic about the recent numbers of businesses that are supporting our initiatives.

ANDY SERWER: And let me ask you a little bit more about that ongoing exercise, Alphonso, because you said that corporations need to go far beyond internal corporate policies or a freshly worded press release and involve all levers of power that businesses have today. What sort of concrete steps are you talking about, boycotts or what?

ALPHONSO DAVID: So what we're asking corporate leaders to do is, first, take a step back and look at your corporate values. Most businesses, if not all businesses, will say, we have corporate values. And sometimes it's reflected in an administrative manual. In some cases, it's posted on a website.

And we're asking corporate leaders to say, well, you support corporate-- your corporate values certainly support LGBTQ equality in most cases. If that is the case, then we're asking you to not expand your operations in those states that are anti-LGBTQ. We're asking you not to sponsor events in those states that are enacting anti-LGBTQ legislation.

We're asking you to engage with us in talking to elected officials to make sure they understand the significant negative collateral consequences that these bills are having on their employees, on their employees' families, on their consumers. Because in so many cases, the anti-LGBTQ bills are being advanced by national groups, and they're not being created in these states.

They're being created by national anti-LGBT groups and forwarded to these elected officials, and they're operating with a lot of misinformation. So in our efforts to educate the elected officials, corporations can really be helpful to us, and many have, working behind the scenes and engaging with us to educate elected officials as to the harm of these bills.

ANDY SERWER: Same kind of question only with a global perspective, Alphonso. Are US corporations cognizant enough of human rights violations in foreign countries where they do business, like a China, for instance?

ALPHONSO DAVID: Some are, but many are not. And I say it that way because some corporations really view their responsibilities through very different, in some cases myopic lenses. So I'll give you an example. We are going to advance our value structure based on what the laws are in certain countries.

Now, I certainly understand that philosophy, but we also have to think about what the impact is on the workforce. So if I work for a multinational Company A, and there is an employment opportunity or promotional opportunity in another country, I may not apply for that promotional opportunity because I know that I may lose protections by transferring to another country.

And our message to corporations is, make sure that your value structure translates to all of your satellite offices. And when you think about expanding beyond the United States into certain countries, you have a lot of power in influencing the public policy in those countries. And think about how you can use your business might, if you will, in order to change the landscape for the employees that arguably are one of your most important constituents.

So but I don't think most companies do that. When I say "most," because we have hundreds of thousands of companies around the world, more than 20,000 that have more than 500 employees, so we want more companies thinking about the corporate value structure that you've created and making sure that that translates outside of the office in New York, or California, or Texas.

ANDY SERWER: What about the White House? How would you assess the Biden administration so far on LGBTQ issues? And also, are you in conversations with them?

ALPHONSO DAVID: So on the first question, yes-- or the second question, yes. We are in touch with the Biden administration on a variety of issues ranging from policy to personnel, and we have been engaged with the Biden administration since the transition team, in fact, talking to them about issues of LGBTQ equality and what's important.

And I can say that I'm pleased with how the administration has been approaching issues that affect the LGBTQ community. When we spoke with the transition team about the importance of some of these issues, we memorialized our thoughts in a blueprint that we transmitted to the transition team as well as we made public. And it has more than 85 policy recommendations.

And I'm happy to report that the Biden administration on day one issued one of the most important policy recommendations, which is making sure that the Bostock Supreme Court decision was uniformly implemented across all federal agencies.

And just to put a final point on why that's important, the Supreme Court said that where there's federal law and that law then-- those laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, those laws should also be interpreted to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

So think about all of the federal laws that are out there that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex and how those laws should be-- through their respective federal agencies, be interpreted to protect LGBTQ people. And Joe Biden did that on day one, coming into office, issuing an executive order.

And he's issued many others, from removing the ban on transgender troops serving in the US military to issuing an executive order, really thinking about how we implement this concept of equity across the board, making sure that we are included in surveys. Federal surveys historically have never included LGBTQ people, so it is as if we don't exist when the federal government is thinking about resources. And so they are looking at all of those issues, and we're pleased with the steps that the Biden administration has taken in the first six months.

ANDY SERWER: Speaking of laws, and you've mentioned the Equality Act, which, of course, your organization has been focused on passing, and that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Where does that stand right now, Alphonso? And can that pass without getting rid of the filibuster?

ALPHONSO DAVID: [LAUGHS]

Great question. I confront this question all the time. I'll say this. The Equality Act as-- well, let me just give a little bit of background. The Equality Act is federal legislation that would provide comprehensive legal protections to LGBTQ people. So I just referenced that we are protected in some areas, but there are others where we're not protected.

So in the area of jury service, if I was selected to serve on the jury, I could be removed from serving on the jury because I'm gay, and I would have no recourse under federal law. I could walk into a department store to purchase a new shirt and face discrimination either as a Black man or as a gay man, and I would have no recourse under federal law. Same if I were to get into an Uber or into a Lyft to go to work or visit a family member and face discrimination. I would have no recourse under federal law.

The Equality Act would change that, and that piece of legislation has passed the House of Representatives. It is now pending in the US Senate. We need 10 Republican votes to pass this bill absent a change in the filibuster structure. And I believe it is possible.

Now, every single day, the narrative changes, and the landscape changes. But I believe it's possible because the majority of Americans support the Equality Act. The majority of people are saying, LGBTQ people should be protected from discrimination.

The delta that we're dealing with, the demarcation line as, if you will, is, how do we make sure we get those voices to the elected officials that are supposed to be representing their interests? And it's addressing the myths, addressing the misinformation, working with Republican senators to make sure they understand what the bill actually does.

And that is really our challenge. And if we're not able to get the 10 Republican votes, then we will explore other options as well. But ultimately, I think we are working currently to see if we can get sufficient votes to pass the bill.

ANDY SERWER: It's Pride Month, and I'm wondering what your organization does to celebrate that.

ALPHONSO DAVID: We are looking this year specifically to make sure that we're leaning into our activism. Some people may not know the origins of Pride. So Pride started in large part because of protests. LGBTQ advocates, largely Black and brown transgender women, were challenging police brutality in California and in New York. And that was the birthing of the LGBTQ civil rights movement as we know it.

What we're looking to do this Pride is amplify the importance of our advocacy and make sure that people learn from our history, that we have been fighting oppressive systems for decades. And we have won many of those battles, and we have many battles ahead of us, unfortunately, and using Pride as a tool to amplify the importance of individual as well as collective advocacy.

Each and every one of us in our individual capacities have the ability to affect change. And we want to make sure that as people think about celebrating Pride this month that they're thinking about the individual ways that they can affect change, whether it be in the corporate boardroom or protesting in the streets.

ANDY SERWER: And there's so many facets and decisions that have to be made in this kind of-- when thinking about these kinds of ways of celebrating or commemorating these issues. For instance-- I'll get to it-- police, my understanding is, are banned from New York City's Pride Parade. What do you think about that, Alphonso? Does that make sense?

ALPHONSO DAVID: Well, I think I'll start with we have to first acknowledge that the LGBTQ community has faced oppressive practices or has engaged with police enough in a complicated way. I mentioned Stonewall. I mentioned Compton's Cafeteria where we were fighting against police brutality. So at the outset, we have to acknowledge that.

Second, we have to also acknowledge that there are many LGBTQ people who are serving as police officers, police officers who fought against discrimination for decades, who are fighting to make sure that they can be recognized as openly LGBTQ serving in whatever police department they serve in.

So as we think about engaging with our advocacy and respecting our history, I also hope that we are able to recognize LGBTQ people. Although they are police officers, they are not necessarily taking on the entire institution, nor should they be directly responsible for the history of policing. So I'm hoping there's a way for us to reconcile those two concepts where we have inclusive pride, and we also engage in activism.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, interesting needle to thread there or just decisions to make. I want to talk or ask you about you a little bit, Alphonso, because your background is just so singular. You were born in Maryland but spent your early years in Liberia where your uncle served as president of that nation but was assassinated. How did you process that at the time? And how does that inform your work today?

ALPHONSO DAVID: So I was 10 years old. And military guards came to my parent's house, and they were shooting at the door and trying to get in. And my parents had to throw us out of bathroom windows, and we escaped, running in the bushes with our pajamas and no shoes.

And they ultimately got in and started shooting in our beds because they thought we were still there. My father was subsequently arrested because he was the mayor of Monrovia, and my uncle was assassinated, as you said. And we lived under house arrest for several years.

For me, processing it, the most important takeaway was how important freedom is in democracy. So few of us have our freedom threatened. And mine, I had my freedom taken away, and I had to live under house arrest for a long time.

And so as a 10-year-old, 11-year-old, 12-year-old child really thinking about and grappling with really complex concepts of democracy and freedom, for a child it becomes very simple, which is can I-- am I free or not? And that really informs my work.

Because we think, in this country at least, we live in a democracy. But the reality is some of us don't. Because if you are a Black transgender woman and you are afraid of walking home at night because of who you are, you're not really free. And so that goes to the core of why I do what I do.

Because we have to make sure that the fundamental pillars of our democracy are actually real for everyone that lives in our democracy. And when we say "equality," we should all have a vested interest in advancing equality. It shouldn't be threatening to anyone that we're all treated equally, at least under law, and then in practice as well. So that experience certainly fuels my philosophy on the law, on public policy, and how I live my life, and how I'm hoping to advance significant cultural change here in this country.

ANDY SERWER: I want to ask you one more question about growing up because you came back to America as a young teenager. What was that like?

ALPHONSO DAVID: [LAUGHS]

Not fun. When I came back, I was 14. And for any of you that can remember when you were 14, it is a very complicated age where, you know, it's-- at least I was ostracized for being African. Certainly, I was not out as LGBTQ, but this was in the early '80s when being African was certainly not something that was cool.

So in some cases, I would go to the restroom, and kids would pull down my pants and ask me where my tail was because I was from Africa and did not have a tail. And I went through those experiences for several years, recognizing the lack of information and awareness that people had. At that point in time, and maybe in some parts of the country still, when you say "Africa," people had a very limited view of what that meant. And they thought it was a country as opposed to an entire continent.

So I had a difficult time acclimating and assimilating into US culture when I first came. And the only thing that kept me going was recognizing and appreciating my true capacity, that the definition of myself is really so important, that no one else really defines who Alphonso David is but Alphonso David. And learning that lesson very early on in life was really instrumental in helping me overcome many of the obstacles that I faced in life.

ANDY SERWER: From your perspective as an openly gay, Black immigrant who made his way through these difficult times to a position of success today, what do institutions need to do, the lead institutions, to make it easier for people like yourself to climb the ladder, Alphonso?

ALPHONSO DAVID: I would say for every single person in positions of power, see beyond yourself. It is that simple. When you're thinking about implementing policy, when you're thinking about hiring, when you're thinking about promotion, when you're thinking about the issues that you confront in your respective spheres, see beyond yourself, and see yourself in something, someone who looks nothing like you.

Because in most cases, that is the main barrier. We're unable to see beyond ourselves, or we see others as being "the other." And so if we can implement policies and practices and engage in a way where we see beyond ourselves, then I believe, frankly, that we may be able to realize the true promise of what we call our democracy.

Because as it stands now, we have so many different experiences. I as a Black man, as a gay man, as an immigrant, I have those three identities. And the experiences that I confront because of those identities, it may be difficult-- as my lived experience, it may be difficult for you to understand and appreciate my lived experience. But if you're in a position of power, understanding my lived experience is going to be key to creating what we call "diversity and inclusion," creating those platforms where everyone can come to the table and be valued and also be in an environment where they can actually thrive.

ANDY SERWER: And what about yourself in terms of what you hope to achieve, Alphonso? What sort of things would you like to get done both at the HRC, and then maybe even beyond that?

ALPHONSO DAVID: Well, the overarching principle for me is liberation. I would like to get to a place where we are liberated, all of us, but specifically LGBTQ people. There's a difference between equality and liberation.

And what I mean by "liberation" is being able to walk into a room and not be treated differently because of how I present, where I'm from, or who I love. Sounds lofty, I know. But that really is the core principle of what we're talking about when we say "equality" and we say "democracy." But I want it to be fully realized, which is why I hold on to the concept of liberation.

And in the short-term, there are so many things that I would like to do. We need to stem the tide of violence that is plaguing the transgender and non-binary community. More than 44 transgender people and at least 27 or 28 have been killed so far this year, 44 last year and at least 27 or 28 this year. So the reality for most transgender people is they're living in a state of fear. How do we change that?

I also want to see how we can advance the Equality Act, which we talked about. I want to make sure that we advance more pro-equality candidates for office, for political office, people who can see life through an intersectional prism. Those are three of many priorities that I have.

ANDY SERWER: What about running for office? Would you ever consider doing that?

ALPHONSO DAVID: I wouldn't exclude it. It's not something that I'm considering. I started doing something a very long time ago where I focus on the immediate. I focus on my objectives.

The reason why is because you end up not seeing the doors that open up along the way to help you seek or help you achieve your goals because you're so focused on the end goal that you may miss the opportunities that present themselves to help you create that platform or that runway to actually achieve the goals that you have immediately. So I don't have a laundry list of potential positions that I want in the future. I'm really focused on this one and trying to achieve as much as I can while I'm in this position.

ANDY SERWER: Fascinating, fascinating stuff. Alphonso David, president of Human Rights Campaign, thank you so much for your time.

ALPHONSO DAVID: Thank you so much for having me.

ANDY SERWER: You've been watching "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. We'll see you next time.