Alphonso David is used to being the first. While working for the governor of New York, he became the first openly gay Black man to serve as chief counsel and the first deputy secretary for civil rights that the state had ever had. Now, in his new role as president of the Human Rights Campaign, he’s making history once again as the first person of color to helm the nearly 40-year old organization. The recently installed leader spoke with ESSENCE about what it means to wield power in such an important space.
ESSENCE: What does your new role as president of the Human Rights Campaign entail?
ALPHONSO DAVID: I oversee a very large civil rights organization. The Human Rights Campaign does a variety of things. We work to make sure we elect candidates to office who support dignity and the equality of all people. We also back and draft legislation in all 50 states to make sure that we’re protected under law. In addition to that, we work with communities all over the country to implement programs to make sure that people have resources and access to services that we provide.
ESSENCE: What would you say is the best part of your job?
DAVID: I am in a role that is specifically tailored to achieve the North Star. My job is to make sure that we achieve equality for all people. Every day I wake up and I think about how I can get to that place. How do we get to a point where I’m treated equally regardless of my race? I’m treated equally regardless of the fact that I’m gay. I’m treated equally regardless of being African. Working to that point where we’re all treated equally no matter who we are—that’s the best part of my job.
ESSENCE: What are some of the challenges you face on a daily basis?
DAVID: We’re living in a country with a federal administration that is trying to erase us—a federal administration that is seeking to make it so that I don’t have any protections, meaning that a dry cleaner can discriminate against me because I’m gay; an employer can fire me because I’m gay; I can be thrown out of my apartment because I’m transgender; or I can be denied services at a restaurant because I’m lesbian. That reality is the most challenging aspect of my job.
We have to make sure we’re not only fighting for what affects us directly, but also for what affects human dignity.
ESSENCE: You are African. You are an immigrant. And you are gay. How has that combination presented obstacles for you throughout your life?
DAVID: In our communities, we are forced to choose which identity is most important, which identity has more value. I reject that concept. I am African, I am an immigrant, I am gay, I am a civil rights lawyer. All of those identities have value, and I need to make sure that all of those identities are respected. There are days when I can’t get a cab in New York City if I’m not in a suit because of my race. There are days where I’m denied services simply because I believe the person believes that I’m gay. I’m also treated differently in some cases because people realize that I’m an immigrant.
ESSENCE: How can people who aren’t in the LGBTQ+ community help to advocate for those who are?
DAVID: I would first encourage people here and around the world to get involved in the electoral process and understand the importance of your vote in maintaining our democracy. We are fighting for the soul of our country. Second, I would encourage people of all races, all creeds, all colors to see beyond themselves. We have to make sure we’re not only fighting for what affects us directly but also what affects human dignity.
The Trump administration is scapegoating different identities to try to separate us, and we have to make sure that we reject that philosophy. This is about equality, so we have to work to get pro-equality candidates elected in the 50 states. Lastly, people can contact our office and volunteer. We have a program at historically Black colleges and universities in which we identify future LGBT leaders—young Black and Brown men and women who can embrace their sexuality and their gender identity and see value in themselves, who can then go out in the world and mobilize. Help us to expand our programs.