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Us Helping Us leader tells of 25 years in AIDS work

Longtime advocate Ron Simmons to retire in December

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Ron Simmons, Us Helping Us, gay news, Washington Blade

Ron Simmons of Us Helping Us plans to retire at the end of this year.(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Ron Simmons, executive director and CEO of the D.C. AIDS service organization Us Helping Us, People Into Living, was honored for his 25 years of service with the organization during its annual fundraising gala on Oct. 29.

Simmons has been credited with playing a key role in transforming Us Helping Us from a volunteer support group for black gay men with HIV in 1992 into a nationally recognized health and wellness center with 27 full-time employees and an annual budget of $2.5 million.

In August, Simmons, who holds a doctorate degree in communications from Howard University, announced he would retire at the end of December.

In an interview with the Washington Blade, Simmons told of how his lifelong quest for social justice, including culturally sensitive HIV prevention efforts for LGBT African Americans, had its roots in his years as a student activist in the 1970s.

While attending the State University of New York at Albany, Simmons said he immersed himself in the early gay rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements while working on his bachelor’s degree in Afro American Studies and separate master’s degrees in African History and Educational Communications.

“Well Stonewall was in ’69 and I was 19 in ’69,” Simmons said. “And I had just really come out in college. And then we had the student strike in 1970, which really changed me profoundly,” he said. “It opened my eyes as an activist. I was involved with the student strike.”

He was referring to the eruption of student protests following President Richard Nixon’s decision to escalate the Vietnam War by ordering U.S. troops to invade Cambodia. A short time later, National Guard troops shot and killed four students and wounded nine others during an anti-war protest at Kent State University in Ohio, triggering more student protests and strikes, or the boycotting of classes, at college campuses across the country.

Simmons moved to D.C. in 1980 to begin his doctorate studies at Howard. Five years later, unbeknownst to Simmons, the Rev. Rainy Cheeks and activist Prem Deben founded Us Helping Us as a support group for black gay men with HIV. Its founding came at a time often described as the dark days of the AIDS epidemic, when an HIV diagnosis was viewed as a death sentence because no effective medical treatment had been developed.

As a gay man with HIV, Simmons has said he joined and began attending the Us Helping Us support group in March 1991, a development he has called “life changing.” At the time he was an assistant professor at Howard and was being urged by friends to begin treatment with AZT, an early AIDS drug that had debilitating side effects that activists have said often hastened the death of AIDS patients.

“At the time basically no one, no black organization, was telling people with HIV that they could live,” said Simmons. “Everyone was saying you’re going to die. Us Helping Us was the only black agency that said you can live with this disease.”

Lacking an effective drug to treat people with HIV, Cheeks and Deben developed what they called a holistic regimen of nutrition, stress management, meditation, and exercise.

“I thought it was incredible,” said Simmons, who joined the group as a volunteer after completing a 12-week introduction to the regimen.

“It was a cultural based group,” he said. “Every week that they came they learned something else about how to preserve their health by looking at the body, the mind and the spirit,” he said. “And then for the last part we talked about the issues about the experience of self that we need to look at in order to live with HIV.”

He said he rejected the advice of friends to begin treatment with AZT, a decision that may have saved his life, Simmons said. He notes that he is among the people who became HIV positive in the early years who lived to benefit from the availability of life-saving AIDS drugs that emerged in the middle to late 1990s.

“I remember friends of mine dying every seven to 10 days,” he said. “Now that we’re down to a pill a day I think it’s incredible. And I am on these drugs. I started taking medications in 2003. So I swear by them.”

Simmons tells of how Cheeks persuaded him to become Us Helping Us’s first executive director in 1992 after Simmons lost his teaching job at Howard.

Simmons was honored Oct. 29, at the Us Helping Us annual event called A Passion for Living, A Celebratory Night of Giving at the University of the District of Columbia’s Student Center Ballroom.

Marvin Bowser, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s brother, read a proclamation at the event issued by Mayor Bowser declaring Oct. 29 Ron Simmons Day in the District of Columbia.

Simmons gives a first-hand account of his life’s journey before and after his tenure at Us Helping Us in his interview with the Blade, which follows.

Blade: Let’s start with where you are from and where you were born and raised. You’ve said before that you’re from Brooklyn, N.Y.?

Simmons: Yes, Brownsville.

Blade: Did you go to high school in Brooklyn?

Simmons: Yes, I went to Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School – FDR High School.

Blade: Your resume shows you went to the State University of New York at Albany for your undergraduate degree?

Simmons: Yes, I graduated in 1972 and I went back there in ’77 for my masters.

Blade: What year did you graduate from high school?

Simmons: I graduated from high school in 1968. I went to college. I graduated in 1972. Then I worked for the Newark, New Jersey Board of Education. I was the public relations man for the superintendent of schools.

Blade: So you went back to Albany for your masters?

Simmons: Yes, MA in history and an MS in educational communications

Blade: When did you move to Washington?

Simmons: 1980 – the summer of 1980 in August.

Blade: Was it a short time later that you went to Howard University for your Ph.D.?

Simmons: I came to D.C. to get my Ph.D. from Howard. So basically I came here in August and I was in class like the last week of August. So I did that. I was going for my doctorate and I was a teaching assistant. I taught like two classes a week. And then in 1986 they hired me full time. I hadn’t finished my doctorate yet. I finished my doctorate in ’87. And after I finished my doctorate they hired me as an assistant professor and I was in for another five years.

Blade: You said you became an activist during your student years in Albany?

Simmons: Yeah. In my senior year – I did my college yearbook. I was the editor in chief of the yearbook. And it was quite controversial. In fact someone told me it was denounced on the floor of the New York State Senate the day it came out.

Blade: Why was that?

Simmons: Because it was very controversial. It had a gay section. It had a section about the Vietnam War. The section on the Vietnam War had a surprise climax that a lot of people didn’t like.

Blade: Was the tone of it against the war?

Simmons: Oh yeah. It was very much against the war.  There was this picture taken of two Vietnamese soldiers holding up two severed heads. I don’t know if you ever saw that…And this guy, this solider was holding up two severed heads.

And so when I talked about the whole war section I put in this picture from a book called Vietnam Incorporated. So I had pictures of the soldiers with themselves relaxing. Then I had pictures of the horrors of the war. And it ended with that shot of the guy holding the severed head. And it said something like if this makes you uncomfortable you can imagine how they feel.

And then when you flip the page it’s the same guy with the two heads but you see it cropped. They were the same pictures three times on the page. By the time you get to the last one it’s cropped down to just a square of the severed head. Then when you flip it over the senior section starts with all the senior pictures and the severed head runs through the middle row. A lot of people were upset by that.

But a lot of people loved it. Kurt Vonnegut said that he thought it was really cool.

Blade: Were you active in other student activities?

Simmons: Yeah. Well frankly the yearbook pretty much consumed my senior year because it was a lot of work, a lot of writing. But I was involved with the gay group.

Blade: Wasn’t that in the early years for having student gay groups? Did it start right after Stonewall?

Simmons: Right. Well Stonewall was in ’69. And I was 19 in ’69. And I had just really come out in college. And then we had the student strike of 1970, which really changed me profoundly. That’s when I really became open minded. It opened my eyes as an activist. I was involved with the student strike.

Blade: That was against the Vietnam War, wasn’t it?

Simmons: Right, when Nixon invaded Cambodia all hell broke loose. And so campuses around the country were going out on strike.

Blade: And then Kent State happened, right?

Simmons: Right. Yes, Kent State happened. All of that – the whole turbulent time – and it really forced you – well it forced me to grow up in a lot of ways because after we shut down the university we reopened it the next day after we got the faculty to agree to stop the semester, give everybody a pass-fail grade, right? That was maybe in April or so. We reopened the school and we had what we called liberation classes. There were classes about the Vietnam War.

That was when I really became an activist and began to appreciate what was involved in being an activist. It also made me a much better student.

And after the yearbook I wanted to outdo myself. And I started doing a column for the student newspaper that was written from the perspective of a black gay male. I think that was the first time in history that was ever done. That’s what someone told me. But anyway it was a column called Faggot Tales. It was a takeoff on fairytales.

Blade: Did you actually call it Faggot Tales?

Simmons: Yes, Faggot Tales. And needless to say it was really controversial. The gay students hated it. The black students hated it. But it was really a funny column.

It was very controversial. I guess the most controversial essay I wrote was a column on cruising campus tea rooms for gay sex.

Blade: Oh boy.

Simmons: Yes, it was really funny because I found this out of the way bathroom that I didn’t even know existed…Then I said next thing we’re going to talk about how to seduce the faculty or how to get As to replace their Bs.

So that was the article. The local newspaper in the city of Troy, the Troy Record – it was their lead editorial — they called it quote, and I love this, they called it the most vile and disgusting thing they ever read about homosexualism. Oh my God, homosexualism.

Blade: Did the college administration allow the columns to continue?

Simmons: They couldn’t stop us the same way they couldn’t stop the yearbook. The yearbook had a photo of a girl that looked like she was committing felatio. Now she was eating a hot dog, but I cropped it so it looked like she was doing felatio. And the publisher, or the printer, they wrote back and said I had to get faculty approval for them to do that.

But as part of the student strike of 1970 when all hell was breaking loose the compromise was that we would come back and be good but we would get rid of the faculty overseeing student activities. So the faculty person who normally would have overseen the yearbook to make sure it was good and clean, we got rid of them.

Blade: What was your reason and rationale for the highly controversial content in the college yearbook and your column in the student newspaper at Albany State?

Simmons: Part of it was my protesting of what I thought was an unjust system. The whole thing about the Vietnam section in the yearbook, which was around the time of the student strike, was that here we were at this beautiful campus going to school as if nothing was wrong and people were being killed through our taxpayer’s money and our brothers 6,000 miles away. So in essence it was bringing the war home so people could see there was a whole other reality going on.

So that was why I did it. Looking back I think I would probably do it again because I think I had to make that point. The yearbook was dedicated to what I called the silent majority, and I said that includes blacks, homosexuals, prisoners, and poor people. That’s where I was coming from.

Blade: What about the student newspaper column Faggot Tales?

Simmons: I thought of it as a clever take-off on fairytales. I thought it was hysterical. And of course the gay students just had a fit. And the fact that I was black the black kids had a fit too.

Blade: Could you have been way ahead of your time, with young LGBT people now insisting on using the term Queer to describe themselves?

Simmons: Well yes. But part of that was also part of the black cultural expression of taking back the term [N-word]. Back in the ‘60s the issue was whites call us that and so we can’t use it. And some would say no, take possession of it and define it for what it is. It’s the whole question of taking ownership of your term so you can define it. I’m not saying I think that way per se. But that’s how I thought at that time when I was like 23 years old.

Blade: Can you tell a little about what you did in D.C. after you moved here in 1980?

The first time I came to D.C. was for the first Third World Gay Conference that was held the same week as the gay march, and that was in 1979. And that was profound. And that also introduced me to D.C.

Blade: Was that held in conjunction with the 1979 gay march?

Simmons: Well it was held during the same time. The march did not organize it but – Billy Jones. You know Billy Jones.

Blade: Sure.

Simmons: Billy Jones and the D.C. Coalition of Black Gays and Lesbians – they said since people would be coming to D.C. from all over the country for that weekend, why don’t we have a third world gay conference. So they put on the conference. It was held at the Harambee House, the hotel near the Howard campus. About 400 people came from all over – black, Latino, Native American. People came from Mexico. Some came from Canada. It was maybe half men, half women. It was incredible because none of us had seen anything like that. It was the first time something like that had been done. It was historic.

So I got to know D.C. people. I got to know Sidney Brinkley, who was doing Black Light [magazine] – that publication way back then. I met Billy Jones and people with the coalition. And I also met Essex Hemphill. And that’s how he and I became friends. It was a black city where black people were in charge and the gay and lesbian community partied together.  And I was so impressed I said I’ve got to live here.   So I moved to D.C. a year later…

Blade: Your Ph.D. was in mass communications. What prompted you to focus on that?

Simmons: That’s because that’s what I wanted to learn. I wanted to become a TV producer and produce TV shows…It took me seven years to get my Ph.D. And that was because after I finished my class work in two and a half years and then I had to write my dissertation — what I wanted to do is become a TV producer. I didn’t want to write a dissertation.

So I got involved with the Howard TV station. At that time I was working as a teaching assistant, then eventually as an instructor in the Radio, TV and Film Department. So I was so busy having fun between teaching my classes and doing video production that I forgot about the dissertation…

Blade: You’ve said in the past that Us Helping Us founder, Rev. Rainy Cheeks, invited you to be the executive director in 1992.

Simmons: Yes, he wanted me to volunteer as the executive director. And I told him no because I was teaching at Howard and I was this big time Dr. Simmons. I had a very swollen head.

Blade: At that time you had your Ph.D.?

Simmons: Yes, I had my Ph.D. I had been teaching with my Ph.D. at Howard for five years. I had been teaching for a total of 12 years, the last five of which I had my Ph.D. I was HIV positive and I had gone to Rainey’s Us Helping Us support group that was meeting in Rainey’s apartment. And I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. I’ve talked about this in interviews in the past.

At the time basically no one, no black organization was telling people with HIV that they could live. Everyone was saying you’re going to die. Us Helping Us was the only black agency that said you can live with this disease.

I thought it was incredible. And we taught people how to live with this disease. So I was with the 12-week support group. It was a cultural based group. Every week that they came they learned something else about how to preserve their health by looking at the body, the mind and the spirit. There was everything in terms of the body – about food and nutrition and herbs and water and exercise.

Then for the mind we’d talk about how to meditate and how to visualize and how to deal with mind by dialogue and how to deal with stress management. And then for the last part we talked about the issues about the experience of self that we need to look at in order to live with HIV. It was incredible.

Blade: And when was that?

Simmons: I joined the group in ’91 and I became the head of it in ’92.

So Rainy asked me if I would serve as the volunteer ED and I said no. He said OK, I’ll pray on it. I said to myself you go pray all you want, honey, the answer is no, OK? Then a few months later Howard told me they were not going to renew my contract. After 12 years of teaching I was devastated.

Blade: Did Howard University give you a reason for not renewing your teaching contract?

Simmons: They said it was because I hadn’t published enough. I think that was their excuse. But I wasn’t going to contest it.

Blade: Your resume shows a lot of writings that you published.

Simmons: Yeah, I know. So basically they were upset that I was the official gay faculty person and the student newspaper had my picture on the front page as the first gay faculty. I heard they were talking about me in meetings among the faculty because, listen now, in the School of Communications there were faculty who were having Bible sessions in their offices when I’m showing videos of the gay march in my classroom. So it was just a matter of time.

Blade: So you went back to Rainey Cheeks?

Simmons: I needed someone to cry on. I called Rainey. Rainy said oh that’s horrible. He said maybe now you can be the ED at Us Helping Us. And that was how it started.

Now none of us had a background in business. I didn’t have an MBA. I didn’t know anything about business or organizations. But I had an instinct. So I said Rainey the fact that we’re telling people they can live with HIV at a time when doctors say no you cannot – that makes us look like quacks. So we really need a board of directors that will give us credibility. So we went to a bunch of people and said look we don’t want you to give us any money. We just want you to be on our board, come to board meetings, and let us use your name.

So they said fine we’ll do it. We had Robert Washington, the former commissioner of mental health for D.C. He was our board chair. We had Elizabeth Thompson, who was the director of the Mayor’s Commission on Food, Nutrition and Health. She was on our Board of Directors. We had a social worker on our board of directors. We had two doctors on our Board of Directors. We had a minister too.

Basically we had a Board of Directors that gave us credibility so you couldn’t just write us off. And since I had just done a dissertation I was good at writing grants. That was in ’92. In ’93 we got the board to agree to rent a two-bedroom house for our headquarters on L Street right around the corner from the Bachelor’s Mill.

Then in ’95 we got our first grant from the city, our first technical assistance grant. They asked me what do you want technical assistance in. Do you want board development, staff development, program development, or fiscal management? And I said I want fiscal management.

And that was when Barbara Prince came. Barbara Prince has been our comptroller since she came to us in ’96 or so. She really has taken care of our finances in ways that I could not appreciate.

Blade: Is she an accountant?

Simmons: Yes, she’s a CPA…So that was like 20 years ago that Barbara came to Us Helping Us. Between her keeping track of the money and my writing the grants grew Us Helping Us from a support group in Rainey’s living room to what I think we are the oldest and the largest black gay AIDS organization in the world.

Blade: Have you seen the AIDS epidemic change significantly since you started at Us Helping Us?

Simmons: Definitely. People were dying. Like every seven to 10 days someone was dying.

Blade: This was before the new drugs were available?

Simmons: Yeah. The only drug they had was AZT and then I think they got something called D4T. I had done my research on AZT. And so I knew I would never take that shit. That drug made no sense. As you researched that drug you realized that it was crazy. AZT was originally developed as a cancer drug. But it was killing people so they put it on the shelf. For some reason they said maybe this will work for HIV. And so they gave it to people with HIV. And they were saying it may give you two more years of life.

I was saying, two more years of life? I want 30 or 40 years more of life. I don’t want two years. So why would I take that shit? And as a cancer drug it stopped the body from reproducing cells because cancer cells were cells reproducing out of control. So it stopped the body from producing cells, but it stopped the entire body from producing cells. So my question was why would you give a drug like that to someone whose body can’t make T-cells? If your T-cells are dropping, why give you something that stops the body from making cells? It made no sense. So I said I’m not going to touch it.

Friends of mine said oh please Ron, take it. You’ll die if you don’t take it. And I was like, one, I don’t plan to die. And two, I don’t want just two years of life. I want more than two years of life. And I feel fine now so why should I take this drug? Everyone who I saw took it looked worse when they took it than before. I was like, no?

Blade: Were they asking people who were HIV positive but who were yet sick to start taking it?

Simmons: No, I think at the beginning they didn’t start asking you to take drugs until your T-cell count was below 200.

So anyway, now today we’re down to one pill a day. That to me is incredible. I remember seeing people walking down the street with Kaposi’s lesions all down their body. I remember friends of mine dying every seven to 10 days. Now that we’re down to a pill a day I think it’s incredible. And I am on these drugs. I started taking medications in 2003. So I swear by them.

So we stopped doing our holistic sick support group. Once they came out with protease inhibitors in ’96 and ’97 we felt conflicted because we knew the pills worked. And we knew the holistic approach didn’t always work. Or it worked for some people for like five or 10 years and then it would stop working. So the question became are we doing a disservice if we continued to teach people a holistic approach to HIV when we now have pills  that can extend life 20, 30, to 50 years? And so we stopped our holistic support group at that point. We still have a support group for HIV positive men but now we urge them to get linked to care and get on the medication…

History of acquiring current building

Simmons: At that point we were using a widow-less room in the ICAN office, which was the Inner City AIDS Network. And Andre Scott, who I think was the associate ED – he was one of the original incorporators of Us Helping Us. They let us use a window-less room for a dollar a year. That was my first office with Rainey. Rainey had an old computer, a Tandy 800. That was our first word processor.

Blade: Are you talking about the early ‘90s?

Simmons: Yes, the early ‘90s. The first computer we purchased was a used Commodore 260. Remember those? So we started writing grants. I finally talked the board of directors into renting the house on L Street that Herb owned. So we moved to L Street.

Blade: Where was the ICAN building at that time?

Simmons: The ICAN building at that point was at 3rd and K, N.W. So they folded. And we moved to the house on L Street.

Blade: Do you mean near the Bachelor’s Mill?

Simmons: Near the Bachelor’s Mill at 809 L St. And that was our home for maybe three years. And we were happy there – our HIV positive support group. Everything was fine.

Then in ’95 the Health Department came to me and said look, Ron, you’re one of the best agencies we have.

So they said we would love to give you more money but we can’t because you’re only dealing with positive men. We deal every day with negative men. Would you consider expanding your mission to positive and negative men and start doing prevention work rather than just support services and care?  They said as a positive support group the most we can give you is $30,000. If you also dealt with prevention we could give you $100,000.

And I thought about that. I also thought about that if you’re serious about reducing HIV among black gay men you can’t be behind the curve only dealing with those who are positive. You need to get in front of the curve and deal with the negative so they don’t become positive if you really want to deal with HIV. So to make a long story short, I went back to the board, we deliberated, we went back and forth and the board said ok let’s do it. So we changed the mission to include negative men.

Our main headquarters was at 811 L St., S.E. And then we had the building at 809 L and then as we grew bigger and started getting more grants we had case management across the street on the first floor. Mental health services were up the block. The transgender job center was two blocks away. It was crazy. At one point we had six locations in a four block radius.

And so my staff was saying Ron we’ve got to get a building. And of course we didn’t have any money for a building but I kept saying yes, fine…So I said you all go out and look for one and leave me alone.

They came back three days later and said we found it. I said you found it? They said we found it and you have to come and look at it. I said OK, OK. So the next day I looked at it. It was the building on Georgia Avenue.

It looked nothing like the way it looks now but I said this could work. It had a basement. It had offices in it…I looked at it and said you know this can really work. They wanted $475,000 for it. I went back to my board of directors and said I think we should look at buying this. That was one of the most cantankerous board meetings I ever had. One board member was like you’ve got to be crazy – buying a building when we don’t have the money.

We had a lawyer come and look at our books and look at can we buy this building? The lawyers said yes we can buy it and that’s the perfect spot to get it because they are going to redevelop Georgia Avenue. So you really should get it now…And they were right.

So we purchased the building. Remember how I said Barbara became instrumental? She came in and found the money for us to get the down payment.

Blade: You had enough revenue coming in the make the monthly mortgage payments?

Simmons: Yes, but that’s another story and the genius of Barbara.

After we purchased that building in 2001 we went to the Washington AIDS Partnership because they were our first real funder. They looked at us as their favorite child because they gave me money for my salary when we were just in Rainey’s living room. And they saw how we progressed.

So we drew it all up and we started a capital campaign.

Blade: Do you know how many square feet the building has?

Simmons: I think it’s 66,000 square feet.

Blade: What’s the address of your building?

Simmons: 3636 Georgia Ave., N.W. And it’s in Ward 1.

Blade: Was Jim Graham helpful in dealing with the building?

Simmons: Yes, when Jim Graham was a Councilman. After we got the building and renovated and moved in Jim Graham called me and said I think I can get you some money for your building. He got me a half million dollars.

Blade: Did he mean money from the city?

Simmons: Yeah, from the city…I want to say it came from the Health Department. He gave us $500,000; we used $400,000 for our construction and $100,000 for our programs. He really helped us out. So I’ve always been thankful to Jim Graham for that.

So he said to me – David Catania, who was on the Council then – he said Us Helping Us went to Jim Graham to get some money. And I was like I can’t believe he said that to me. So I said no, we didn’t go to Jim Graham. Jim Graham came to us, and that’s the difference. So I’ve always appreciated Jim Graham for that.

Blade: Can you tell a little about what Us Helping Us has been able to do with your clients and other things since moving into that building?

Simmons: So now we have like 10 different programs. We have a youth program for young men 18 to 29. That’s at our satellite site in Hyattsville. And that’s funded by the CDC. We’ve had that now for five years and the guys are doing tremendous stuff. We’re testing about 3,000 persons a year because we now have a mobile testing van. In fact, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation just gave us $15,000 to buy a new van because we had a big two unit van but it didn’t have running water. And we do HIV testing as well as STD screening. So we screen for everything from syphilis and gonorhea to chlamydia and hepatitis C.

But to do some of those screenings you need to have running water. So we had to get a van that had running water. And we needed $15,000 and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation helped us out. And they gave us $15,000. We are shopping for it as we speak – a brand new van with running water.

We now have a program for HIV-positive women that we’re really proud of and it’s doing great work. Historically, D.C. used us to do the early research on transgender people in 2000.

Jessica Xavier was lobbying the city to start doing research on the needs of transgender people and HIV. They said fine, we’ll do it but since you’re not in business we can’t give you the money. So they said we’re going to give the money to Us Helping Us and Us Helping Us will subcontract with you to do the study and that we’ll subcontract with Jessica.

Once she did that study and we gave it to the health department then they could say we need to fund an HIV prevention program for transgender people because clearly we have found a problem. We have evidence that there is a problem.

So they then gave us money to open the first transgender drop in center and Earline Budd was the head of our center. And we had that for like two years.

Then when the women at the center decided to form their own organization called Transgender Health Empowerment – remember them?

Blade: Yes.

Simmons: So we said OK, fine. So then the Health Department came to us and said OK, they want to start their own organization. We’re going to give you money to give them technical assistance. We want you to get them incorporated. We want you to give them board training and there was one other thing. We gave them board training. And they became their own organization.

So since we did that we didn’t want to compete with them for money so we purposely said we would not seek any transgender funding because we wanted it all to go to Transgender Health Empowerment. And that’s what happened. But as you probably know, a few years ago Transgender Health Empowerment collapsed.

Blade: Yes, they went bankrupt.

Simmons: Yes. So transgender people have been coming to us asking about when we are going to start doing something again. So we’re looking at it.

Our staff is now having a staff meeting for strategic planning. We’re looking at it. We’ve started to do some programming for transgender people again. We don’t have a drop in center but we’re definitely looking to do it because there is a need.

Blade: The write-up released by Us Helping Us about your retirement says the budget is now $2.4 million. Is that about right?

Simmons: It’s $2.5 million.

Blade: And we see that there might have been a little bit of a shortfall in 2014 based on the most recent 990 form?

Simmons: Yes, yes. The way it is we may be short but that’s common for a non-profit. There are years when we come in in the black and years when we come in in the red. I think last year – because we just got our 2015 audit – and we sent it to the bank and the bank said it looks really good. But the May 2016 doesn’t look as good. So in a non-profit business where we’re really grant dependent – and that’s one of the things about Us Helping Us.

And I will admit it. The biggest weakness for Us Helping Us is about 85 percent of our money is government funded, which is bad news because if Donald Trump wins we could go bankrupt overnight. So whoever comes to take my place – and both the board and I have told the search firm – we said whoever you bring in they’re going to need to know how to bring in unrestricted dollars.

Ideally you want to have 50 percent of your money coming in unrestricted and 50 percent coming from the government. We have very little unrestricted money. And that’s one of the reasons we end up often times – not always but often times – with having a shortfall because government money is highly restricted. It only pays for certain things. And you end up with other things that the government will not pay for and thus you have to find money to pay for it and if you don’t find it you end up with a shortfall.

I’m good at writing grants but I’m not good at asking people for money. Give me a 200 page grant that will make me a couple of million dollars and I’m in heaven. I like writing those kinds of grants — the bigger the better. A hundred seventy-five pages, 200 pages – no problem. But asking someone to give me 50 bucks – particularly if I don’t like the person’s politics – it’s really hard for me to do that.

And the new person to replace me is going to have to be really good at that.

Blade: At this point about how many clients does Us Helping Us have?

Simmons: We serve about 3,000 people a year. I think we have about 80 people in case management. For the youth group we have four paid staff over there plus we have volunteers.

Blade: The write-up announcing your retirement says Us Help Us currently has 27 full-time employees. Is that correct?

Simmons: Yes, 27 full-time and about six part-time. We have a couple of vacancies and we have my vacancy that’s coming up. But also our group manager of prevention – we are looking to fill that too. We’re taking resumes for that. I think that’s it that we’re hiring for.

Blade: Some people might want to know what’s next for you after retirement. Do you plan to stay in the D.C. area?

Simmons: Oh yeah. I’m going to stay in the D.C. area. I can’t afford to leave my house. I can’t afford to buy a house in D.C. So now I’ve got to hold onto what I’ve got.

So what do I plan to do? First thing I definitely want to write my book. I’ve wanted to write my memoir for many years now. I have so many stories to tell – about Us Helping Us, my early days in Washington, D.C., about hanging out with Essex Hemphill and Marlin Riggs and doing the film Tongues Untied and helping write the book Brother to Brother – all that stuff. So I definitely want to do a book.

There are two other things I want to do. One is I want to do an intervention, an HIV intervention for young black gay men 18 to 24 who are sexually naïve. And I’m working on that now.

The third thing is I plan to do more international work. I’ve been invited to be a part of the international steering committee for the International Conference on AIDS in Africa. Africa has its own AIDS conference. A lot of people don’t know this. And it’s sponsored by the Society of AIDS in Africa. I think they do it every two years.

I met them when I went to South Africa in July for the World AIDS Conference. And they asked me if I would be on the Steering Committee. And I said yes I would love to. So I’m going to Ketuvah in the end of November for the first meeting because their conference will be in December of 2017. So the first meeting of the steering committee is going to be Ketuvah, West Africa in the end of November. So I’m trying to get my Visas and my shots for that because I’m really excited about that.

So those are my three things – my memoir, developing this intervention, and beginning to do international work. And my life has been one where just fate will happen. So who knows what will come in my lap that I’ll also be doing.

Blade: Thanks so much, Ron.

Simmons: Thank you.

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Eastern Europe

Former Ambassador Daniel Baer explains it all on Ukraine crisis

Expert downplays strategic thinking behind Putin’s move

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Daniel Baer, United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, gay news, Washington Blade
Daniel Baer served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Daniel Baer, who worked on LGBTQ human rights and transatlantic issues as one of several openly gay U.S. ambassadors during the Obama administration, answered questions from the Washington Blade on Ukraine as the international crisis continues to unfold.

Topics during the interview, which took place weeks ago on Jan. 27, included Putin’s motivation for Russian incursions, the risk of outright war, predictions for Russia after Putin and how the crisis would affect LGBTQ people in Ukraine.

Baer was deputy assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and U.S. ambassador to the Organization of Security & Cooperation in Europe.

The full interview follows:

Washington Blade: What’s your level of engagement with this affair? Are you doing any consulting work? Is the administration reaching out to you at all?

Daniel Baer: I actually think the White House is doing a pretty good job of recognizing that they need to not only have press conferences, but also talk to other people who are trying to figure out how to be constructive critics, idea generators from the outside.

Blade: OK, so you’re being solicited and engaging on this issue. My next question for you is why do you think Putin is doing this at this time?

Baer: So, I guess taking a step back from the whole thing, one of the things about a problem like this is that everybody is searching for the right answer assuming that there is a like comfortable or compelling or intellectually accurate answer, and I actually think we’re just in a really hard moment.

I don’t know why he’s doing it now. And in fact, I think that one of the puzzles that we haven’t solved yet is that all the things that he says are the reasons that he’s doing it — that he feels encirclement by NATO, … or that the situation in Ukraine is untenable — none of those things have changed. Setting aside the fact that they’re spurious, it’s not like there’s been some new move in the last 12 months that has precipitated [a reaction] on any of those fronts that you can say, “Oh, well, he’s responding to the recent meeting where Ukraine was offered membership in NATO, or he’s responding to a change in government in Ukraine that it’s clearly anti-Russia, or any other move that we’ve done.” The explanation just doesn’t hold water, and so I think we need to look for alternative ones.

The best I can come up with is actually just a broad — it doesn’t actually explain this particular moment, but I think you could look at the timing of his life. He has, I don’t know, 10 years left. And during those 10 years, it’s unlikely that Russia is going to grow more powerful; it’s much more likely that it’s going to become at least relatively and probably nominally less powerful. And so, if you’re unhappy with the status quo, and you feel like you’re a declining power, and you don’t have endless time, there’s no time like the present. And you’ll make up whatever reasons you need to in order to justify it.

I also think there’s a tendency on our part to attribute far more “strategery” to Putin than there necessarily is. I mean, he’s a bully and a thug. I think the whole Putin’s playing chess and we’re playing checkers is actually completely inverted. We’re in our own heads that there’s some kind of nuanced position that would mollify him. He’s just a gangster and he’s taking a punch because he has one. And I don’t think it gets much more complicated than that. And so, I guess the answer to why he’s doing this now, because the international conditions are such that he feels like the United States is focused domestically, the Ukrainians are not moving forward with succeeding to build — they’re kind of in stasis on building a European state— and he has, you know, he has the space to take a punch, so he’s contemplating doing it, or he’s already decided to do it. And he’s just extracting as much as possible before he takes it.

Blade: That leads me to my next question: What is your judgement of the risk of out and out war?

Baer: I don’t know because I have two hypotheses that cut both ways. One is that I think Putin is vastly underestimating the degree of resistance. On the other hand, I think that nothing short of domination is satisfactory. And so, I don’t know. I guess I think there’s a 90 percent chance that he does something, and I think there’s a 75 percent chance that what he does is not an all out invasion or ground invasion, at least not at first, but rather something that is aimed at confusing us. So some sort of hybrid or staged or false flag kind of attack in tandem with a political coup in Kiev, where he works to install a more Russia-loyal leader.

The thing with the ground invasion is that Russian soldiers’ moms are one of the only, like, powerful political forces in civil society in Russia. I just don’t see any way that a ground invasion doesn’t involve massive Russian casualties, even if they will be dominant. The people who are going to impose the consequences on him will be the Ukrainians, not the rest of us, and he should not invade, and if he does, we should, frankly, work hard to make it as painful and difficult for him as possible.

Blade: What will that look like?

Baer: I think we should at that point continue — we shouldn’t pause, we should continue to send the defensive equipment and backfill as much as possible their ability from an equipment basis to resist.

Blade: So if we were to look at a model for past U.S. engagements. I’m thinking Greece under President Truman, which was so successful that nobody really knows about it, I don’t think. Is there any model we should be looking toward, or not looking toward?

Baer: No, I guess. I’m not sure there’s any good historical model because obviously, any of them you can pick apart. I do think that one thing that has gotten lost in a lot of the analysis — and this goes back to Putin being a gangster thug, and not being such a genius — is there’s a moral difference between us. The reason why Putin gets to control the dialogue is because he’s willing to do things that we aren’t willing to do — as gangsters are, as hostage-takers are — and so yes, they get to set the terms of what we discussed, because we’re not holding hostages. We’re trying to get hostages released. And the hostage-taker has an upper hand and asymmetry because they are willing to do something that is wrong.

We shouldn’t lose the kind of moral difference there. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that Ukraine is being menaced. And I’m not saying it’s our obligation [to intervene militarily], certainly not our obligation. They aren’t a treaty ally. We have neither a political obligation nor a moral one to necessarily risk our own lives, our own soldiers in defense of Ukraine. But if Ukraine wants to defend themselves, there’s a strong moral case to be made that anything, short of risking our own lives, is something that is morally good. We generally believe that self-defense from lethal threat is a reasonable moral cause and assisting others in defending themselves is too — I think there’s a lot of back and forth that get glossed over whether that’s a provocation or whatever, and I want to say to people stand back, look at this: we’ve got one party that is attacking another. And the question is, does the other have a right to defend itself? Yes. And if they have a right to defend themselves, and they also have a right to have whatever assistance people will offer them in defending themselves.

That doesn’t mean that they get to demand that we show up and fight in the trenches with them, of course, and I don’t think there’s any serious people who are recommending that but it’s a good thing to help them. It’s not like a technical thing. It’s a good thing to help

Blade: Getting into that moral background, one thing I want to ask you was about the significance of what would happen in this concept of democracy versus autocracy. First of all, how much is Ukraine a functional democracy, in the sense that if we’re defending Ukraine, we are defending a democracy, and what signal do you think it would send if that Ukrainian government fell to Russian autocracy?

Baer: I think the institutions of government that the Ukrainian people have are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment …

They are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment to the idea of democratic institutions. So the answer is today’s Ukrainian government is a mixed bag and it’s very hard to build, on the rot of a Russian fiefdom, a functioning democracy, so I think it’s a mixed bag. I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing [the changes], or that they’ve completely bungled an easy project. It was always going to be a hard project, and it was never going to be linear.

But I think that what we’ve seen from the Ukrainian people — by which I mean not Ukrainian people, but people of Ukraine — is that there is a broad part of society that a) does not want to live under a Russian thumb and b) sees its future in kind of European style democracy. And so I think that if there was, there’s no question that the Russian attack would be in part about subjugating the people of Ukraine and forcing them to live under some sort of new Russian satellite. And I think that there’s little space for serious argument that that’s something that the people of the country wish to have.

Blade: But I’m just kind of getting at — you’re kind of minimizing that this is a strategic move by Putin, but if he were to successfully dominant Ukraine it becomes a Russian satellite isn’t that saying like, “Well, ha ha West, you thought the Cold War was over and there’s going to be just be a unipolar world in the future but no, we’re gonna we have this we’re back and we’re gonna create a multipolar world for the future.”

Baer: Yeah, I mean, my answer to the Russians who always raise the multipolar world to me is, “Fine, it’s going to be a multipolar world. What makes you think that Russia is one of the poles?” Poles by definition draw people to them, they are compelling and a pole attracts, magnetically or otherwise, and there is nothing attractive about the model that Russia is pursuing. And if the only way that you can be a pole is by subjugating, to force your neighbors, you are proving that you are not one.

I think the benefits for Russia are far smaller than Putin thinks and I think the consequences for the rest of the world of allowing a violation of international order to go forward are much larger than many people recognize.

Blade: But that was their approach when they were the Soviet Union. They were subjugating the Eastern Bloc through Russian force. They did have, in theory, the concept of their worldview of you know, of socialism, or whatever you want to put it charitably, was going to be the right way to go. Is there really that much of a difference?

Baer: Yeah, however disingenuous it was, they did have an ideology . So you’re right, that was a key distinction. The other thing is that the Soviet Union in relative size — its economy and population etc. — was much larger than Russia is today. And Russia is shrinking, and its economy is less diverse than the Communist one was. I think it’s a delusion to think that they’re going to kind of rebuild an empire, even if yes, because of their willingness to do awful things, they could potentially for a time politically control through violence, their neighbors. I just don’t — in a multipolar world, I don’t see Russia being one of the poles, at least not on its current path.

Blade: How would you evaluate the U.S. diplomatic approach to this issue?

Baer: There’s been very clear over-the-top effort to include the Europeans at every step — meetings with them before each meeting and after each meeting, to force conversations into fora that are more inclusive and stuff like that. And I think that Secretary Blinken is rightly recognizing the need to kind of play a role of kind of keeping everybody on the side while we test whether diplomacy whether there’s anything to do, whether there’s any promise with diplomacy.

I think there’s kind of, sometimes kind of, two camps in U.S. foreign policy circles. One is like: We should give the Russians what they want because it just doesn’t matter that much. War is much worse than anything that we would give them. And another is that we can’t give them an inch and we have to punch them in the face whenever we can. And I think both of those are kind of knee-jerk positions that have become a bit religious for people and neither of them is paying attention to the practical challenge that’s in front of the administration, which is like this guy’s threatening to invade and we need to identify whether there’s any opportunity for a functional off ramp, and that doesn’t mean we do that in a vacuum and ignore the long-term consequences, but our problem is not a religious one, it’s a practical one. And I think they’re doing a pretty good job of threading the needle on that and being not too far forward and not too far back.

Blade: Do you see any significant daylight between the United States and Europe?

Baer: No, I mean, no more than the minimum that is possible. There’s a lot of talk about Germany these days. Look, I think some of the things they say are not particularly helpful, but I don’t actually think that in the long run, if Putin invaded, I don’t think that they would hold up sanctions or anything like that. So I think they’re on our side, even if they’re talking out of both sides, in some cases.

Blade: I am wise to the fact that this is a nuclear power. It might be a little old school, but could escalation get that far?

Baer: There can’t be war. There can’t be war between NATO and Russia. It should be avoided. Obviously, there can be, but it should be avoided.

Blade: How committed do you think President Biden is to protecting Ukraine?

Baer: Reasonably so. I think he’s enough of an old school trans-Atlantist that he understands that this isn’t just about Ukraine.

Blade: I was wondering because he had those comments from his press conference about “minor incursion” and I’m just wondering if you’re reading anything into that or not.

Baer: No, I think that was that was a — I think broadly speaking, everything he says is in line with the kind of view that you would expect. And of course, one sentence can catch [attention]. That wasn’t what he meant. What he meant was that he didn’t want to draw a “red line” that would prejudge policy in response to something short of the most extreme scenario.

I think it is a good caution to not obsess over a single sentence and to look at the broad considered policy statements.

Blade: What do you think if you were looking for developments, like what would you be looking out for is significant in terms of where we are going to be going in the near future? This is one thing to keep an eye out for but is there anything else that you are kind of looking out for in terms of the near future?

Baer: I guess I would look out for whether or not the United States joins meetings of the so-called Normandy Format, which is the France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia grouping, which has so far been unsuccessful, but I think can only be successful as the United States joins it, but the Russians, I think have misgivings with the idea of our joining it.

Blade: I’m not at all familiar with that. What makes this forum particularly so —

Baer: So it was started in the summer in like June of 2015, on the margins of some meeting between Merkel and Hollande. The French and the Germans are very committed to the idea that they might be able to mediate peace between Ukraine and Russia. It was supposed to implement the Minsk Agreement, and it just hasn’t been productive so far. I don’t think that the Russians will do anything — I don’t think the Ukrainians feel comfortable negotiating anything without the Americans at the table. And I don’t think the Russians feel like anything is guaranteed without the Americans at the table. So I just, I’m fine with France and Germany taking the lead, but I think the U.S. has to be there.

And there was a meeting of this group in Paris yesterday, and which the U.S. was supportive of, and so I’m watching to see whether or not the United States gets added in some ad hoc way, whether there are future meetings. I guess the reason I would watch it, if the U.S. were to join future meetings that would signal to me that it’s actually there’s some diplomacy happening there.

That’s meant to be focusing mainly on the existing Russian invasion, the occupation of the Donbas, so that’s not about the threat of the new invasion, but it would be interesting to me if there was forward movement on other parts of Ukraine. The announcement of the American ambassador is one. I think that last week movement of troops into Belarus was a game changer for the U.S., because there are all kinds of new implications if you’re using a third country as your launchpad for war, and so it complicates things and it also looks more serious if you’re starting to deploy to third countries and stuff like that. So I think that was that last week, you noticed a difference in the U.S. tone and tenor in response to that.

So things like that. But in general, like what I would do and I don’t think people always catch this is because there’s a boiling frog aspect to it. There are statements coming out from the White House or State Department. Almost every day on stuff related to this and like last week, there was a noticeable change in the tenor as the U.S. became less, I think more pessimistic about the prospects of diplomacy and those I don’t have anything better to look for in those statements as tea leaves, in terms of what the U.S. assessment is of the prospects of the escalation are, so it’s bad.

Blade: Right. That’s very sobering.

There’s a lot of talk, and I’ve just been seeing some like about in terms of, there’s like comparisons to Afghanistan and making sure that all Americans are able to get out of Ukraine. Is that comparing apples to oranges?

Baer: Yes.

Blade: And could you unpack that a little bit? I mean, I can kind of guess the reasons why. How is that apples to oranges?

Blade: Well, the level of development in Ukraine in terms of infrastructure and transport and stuff like that is not comparable to Afghanistan. I think it would be– if there were a Russian invasion–you would definitely want to, obviously, for safety reasons, it’s not safe to be in a war zone, so you would want people to be able to evacuate and you’d have to plan for that.

A major concern [in Afghanistan] was also that there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of locals who had worked for the Americans. The Americans that are in Ukraine are not a departing occupying power. There’s just not the same footprint there — the Americans are in Ukraine or there as business people or young [people working on] democracy assistance or whatever. And it’s just it’s a different context.

Blade: Why do you think the Russians put up with Putin? I mean, this is a country that was a world power and I would think has some economic potential just given its sheer size, first of all, and they do have oil to offer people. So why aren’t the Russians like angry at him for obstructing their participation in the global order as opposed to just putting up with him for years and years and years.

Baer: Successful instrumentalisation of cynicism. The lack of a belief in an alternative will keep you from fighting for it.

Blade: That’s pretty succinct.

Baer: I mean, I don’t think there’s any question that the people of Russia could be better off or different in terms of kitchen table issues, and ease of navigating the world, prospects for their future for their children’s future. The amount of money that Putin has invested into military modernization that Russia can ill afford, while he’s cut pensions and social services and health care. It’s just it’s objectively true that the average Russian person would be better served by a different leader. But he’s done a very good job of effectively selling off the country for profit and persuading people through repression and propaganda that there is no alternative.

Blade: And Putin won’t be around forever. Once he finally goes, is an alternative going to emerge, or will it be the next guy in Putin’s mold?

Baer: I think it’s far from clear that what comes after Putin isn’t worse and bloody. Regimes like this don’t reliably have stable transitions.

Blade: Wow, okay.

Baer: Yeah, we shouldn’t… we should be careful about wishing… wishing for his demise.

Blade: That’s good to know. It’s kind of a frightful note for me to end my questions. But actually before I sign off, there’s one more thing too because I do kind of want to talk about the intersection about your old job in democracy and human rights and then a Venn diagram of that with your experience in Eastern Europe in particular. Do you have a sense of what’s at stake for LGBTQ people in Ukraine or if they’re in more danger right now than they would be otherwise?

Baer: That’s a good question. I mean, my knee jerk reaction is yes. That — as mixed of a picture as Ukraine has been in the last seven years, or eight years — there have been meaningful steps forward, and certainly, in terms of visibility.

I guess, in the sense that Ukraine is better than Russia today, if you’re gay, if Russia is going to occupy or control Ukraine we can expect that it will get worse because it will become more like Russia.

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Trump ribbed Pence for thinking ‘it’s a crime to be gay,’ new book says

Former president openly wanted gay Fox News analyst for Supreme Court

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Donald Trump (left) ribbed former Vice President Mike Pence (center) in a meeting with Andrew Napolitano for thinking "it's a crime to be gay." (Blade photos of Donald Trump and Mike Pence by Michael Key; screen capture of Andrew Napolitano via Fox News YouTube)

Donald Trump, in the days before he took office after the 2016 election, openly contemplated naming an openly gay Fox News contributor to the U.S. Supreme Court amid concerns from social conservatives about his potential choices and ribbed former Vice President Mike Pence for thinking “it’s a crime to be gay,” according to the new book “Insurgency” detailing the former president’s path to the White House.

The key moment between Trump, Judge Andrew Napolitano and Pence took place during the transition period after the 2016 election when Trump invited the other two for a meeting at Trump Tower.  That’s when Trump reportedly took the jab at Pence.

“During their meeting, for part of which Mike Pence was present, Trump ribbed Pence for his anti-gay rights views,” the book says. “Addressing Napolitano, Trump gestured toward the archconservative vice-president-elect and said, ‘You’d better be careful because this guy thinks it’s a crime to be gay. Right, Mike?’ When Pence didn’t answer, Trump repeated himself, ‘Right, Mike?’ Pence remained silent.”

The potential choice of Andrew Napolitano, who was fired last year from Fox News amid recently dropped allegations of sexual harassment from male co-workers, as well as other TV personalities Trump floated for the Supreme Court, as detailed in the book, were among the many reasons conservatives feared he wouldn’t be reliable upon taking the presidency. Ironically, Trump would have been responsible for making a historic choice for diversity if he chose a gay man like Napolitano for the Supreme Court, beating President Biden to the punch as the nation awaits his selection of the first-ever Black woman for the bench.

The new book — fully titled “Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted” and written by New York Times political reporter Jeremy Peters, who is also gay — identifies Trump’s potential picks for the judiciary as a source of significant concern for conservatives as the “Never Trump” movement was beginning to form and expectations were the next president would be able to name as many as four choices for the Supreme Court. Among the wide ranges of possible choices he floated during the campaign were often “not lawyers or judges he admired for their legal philosophies or interpretations of the Constitution,” but personalities he saw on TV.

Among this group of TV personalities, the books says, were people like Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, whom Trump “regularly watched and occasionally planned his flight schedule around, directing his personal pilot to adjust the route accordingly so the satellite signal wouldn’t fade.” Trump told friends Pirro “would make a fine justice,” the books says.

Trump potentially making good of his talk about naming Napolitano as one of his choices for the Supreme Court “would have been doubly unacceptable to many on the religious right,” the book says. Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge, was friendly with Maryanne Trump Barry, Trump’s sister and a federal judge with a reputation for liberal views, such as a ruling in favor of partial-birth abortion, and is also gay, both of which are identified in the book as potential concerns by the religious right.

Napolitano and Trump were close, the book claims. Napolitano, as the book describes, had a habit of telling a story to friends about Trump confiding to him the future president’s knowledge of the law was based on Napolitano’s TV appearances. Trump told Napolitano: “Everything I know about the Constitution I learned from you on Fox & Friends,” the book says.

The book says the meeting with Trump, Pence and Napolitano when the former president took a jab at Pence in and of itself suggested Trump “was indeed serious about giving the judge some kind of position in the government.” Napolitano, known for making outlandish claims as a Fox News contributor —such as the British government wiretapped Trump Tower — never took a post in the Trump administration.

The new book isn’t the only record of Trump ribbing Pence for his anti-LGBTQ reputation. A New Yorker profile in 2017 depicted a similar infamous meeting with Trump and Pence in which the former president joked about his No. 2’s conservative views. Per the New Yorker article: “When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, ‘Don’t ask that guy— he wants to hang them all!'”The incident described in “Insurgency” was similar to the meeting detailed in the New Yorker profile.

Trump ended up making a list of names he pledged he’d limit himself to in the event he was in the position to make a selection to the Supreme Court and made good on that promise based on his selection. By the end of his presidency, Trump made three picks to the bench who were each confirmed by the U.S. Senate: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. 

But Trump limiting his options to the list of potential plans was not a fool proof plan for conservatives. To the surprise of many, Gorsuch ended up in 2020 writing the majority opinion in the case of Bostock v. Clayton County, a major LGBTQ rights decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which determined anti-LGBTQ discrimination is a form of sex discrimination and illegal under federal civil rights law.

The Washington Blade has placed a request in with Trump’s office seeking comment on the meeting with Pence and Napolitano as described in “Insurgency.” Napolitano couldn’t be reached for comment.

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Human Rights Campaign’s ex-president sues over termination, alleges racial discrimination

Alphonso David alleges he was terminated unfitly

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Alphonso David, the former president of the Human Rights Campaign terminated by the board after he was ensnared in the Gov. Andrew Cuomo scandal, sued the nation’s leading LGBTQ group on Thursday, arguing he was fired as a result of racial discrimination “amid a deserved reputation for unequal treatment of its non-white employees” and was explicitly told he was paid less because he’s Black.

David, speaking with the Washington Blade on Thursday during a phone interview, said he came to the decision to file the lawsuit after practicing civil rights law for 20 years and “never thought that I would be a plaintiff.”

“But I’m in this chair, I was put in this position,” David said. “And as a civil rights lawyer, I couldn’t look the other way. It would be anathema to who I am and it would undermine my integrity and purpose for the work that I do. And so I have to go through and make a very, very difficult personal decision to file this lawsuit.”

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, accuses the Human Rights Campaign of violating new state and federal laws for terminating David, who was the organization’s first person of color and Black person to helm the LGBTQ group in its 40-year history. The lawsuit also contends the Human Rights Campaign contravened equal pay law in New York by paying David less than his predecessor, Chad Griffin.

After a public dispute with the board in September amid an independent investigation of his role in the Cuomo affair, the Human Rights Campaign boards unceremoniously fired David and shortly afterward announced a still ongoing search for a new president. David was named nearly a dozen times in the damning report by New York Attorney General Letitia James, suggesting David assisted in efforts by Cuomo’s staff to discredit a woman alleging sexual misconduct in Cuomo’s office. David has consistently denied wrongdoing.

But the lawsuit is broader than the termination and describes an environment at the Human Rights Campaign, which has faced criticism over the years for being geared toward white gay men, as a workplace where “non-white staffers were marginalized, tokenized, and denied advancement to high-level positions.” After a speech David gave on issues of race and indifference in the context of HRC’s mission, the lawsuit claims a board member complained about him referring too much to being Black, but faced no penalty from the organization.

Specifically named in the report is Chris Speron, Senior Vice President of Development, who expressed concern about “alienating” white donors and specifically “white gay men” after David issued a statement on the importance of Black Lives Matter after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. The lawsuit claims Speron pushed David to “stop mentioning in his public statements and remove from his bio the fact that he was HRC’s first Black President in its history.” Speron also was critical of hiring a Black-owned consulting firm and “criticized a Black staff member for attending a meeting with the consulting firm without a white person present,” the lawsuit claims. Speron couldn’t immediately be reached for comment to respond to the allegations.

In terms of equal pay, the lawsuit says HRC’s co-chairs informed David he was underpaid compared to his predecessor because he’s Black. But the lawsuit also acknowledges in 2021, just before news broke about the Cuomo report, the Human Rights Campaign in recognition of David’s work renewed his contract for five additional years and gave him a 30 percent raise.

David, speaking with the Blade, said he was in “shock” upon experiencing these alleged incidents of racism, maintaining he had kept quiet at the time out of concern for the greater good of the aims of the Human Rights Campaign.

Asked whether as president he considered implementing racial sensitivity trainings for his subordinates, David said “yes,” but added many trainings aren’t effective and said the power in organizations like the Human Rights Campaign is often spread out.

“There are people within the organization that have a fair amount of board support because they bring in the money because they are responsible for overseeing the money,” David added.

Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement after the lawsuit was filed the organization is “disappointed that Alphonso David has chosen to take retaliatory action against the Human Rights Campaign for his termination which resulted from his own actions.”

“Mr. David’s complaint is riddled with untruths,” Madison said. “We are confident through the legal process that it will be apparent that Mr. David’s termination was based on clear violations of his contract and HRC’s mission, and as president of HRC, he was treated fairly and equally.”

Madison adds the individuals accused of racism in the lawsuit “are people of color and champions of racial equity and inclusion who provided support and guidance as Mr. David led the organization,” without naming any specific individual. The boards for the Human Rights Campaign and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation who made the decision to terminate David, were comprised of seven independent directors, five of whom were Black.

The racist environment, the lawsuit says, culminated for David in September 2021 amid an independent investigation of his role in the Cuomo affair conducted by the law firm Sidley Austin LLP at the behest of the organization. According to the lawsuit, the board co-chairs contacted David late at night before Labor Day weekend to tell him to resign by 8 a.m. the next morning or be terminated for cause. When David asked whether the Sidley Austin investigation had made any findings against him, or if a report would be issued explaining what he was accused of doing wrong, the board co-chairs refused to say, the lawsuit says.

As is publicly known, David declined to resign and took to Twitter to complain about the board, which subsequently issued a statement disputing his claims. He was then fired “for cause” under his contract.

The termination, the lawsuit says, signified differential treatment of David because he is Black, taking note the Human Rights Campaign under his predecessor had “endured repeated, serious, scandals — many of which involved HRC’s mistreatment of Black and other marginalized individuals,” but Chad Griffin was never terminated “for cause.”

Both the Human Rights Campaign Foundation board and the Human Rights Campaign board voted to terminate David. A source familiar with the vote said no one voted “no” in either case. The campaign board vote was unanimous and there were two abstentions in the foundation board vote, the source said.

The source familiar with the vote said David never told the Human Rights Campaign he was helping Cuomo during his time as HRC president nor did he disclose he was talking to the New York attorney general. The first board members heard about it was when it hit the press, the source said.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit says David “performed extremely well as HRC president, by any measure,” navigating the organization through the coronavirus epidemic and boosting fundraising by 60 percent. (The Blade has not yet verified this claim.) It should be noted the Human Rights Campaign cited coronavirus as the reason it laid off 22 employees, as reported at the time by the Blade.

David, asked by the Blade how he sees the alleged racist culture at Human Rights Campaign infused in his termination, said “Black and Brown people are treated differently and have been for years in this organization,” citing a “Pipeline Report” leaked to the press in 2015 documenting an environment in which employees of color were unable to thrive.

“And so, the fact that I’m being treated differently now, in the fact that a different standard is being applied to me is just simply consistent with what they’ve always done,” David said. “You know, we go back to the Pipeline Report: Imagine if I was leading the organization at the time, and there was a report that was issued, that said that anti-Semitic remarks were being made within the organization, and that women were being discriminated against within the organization or some other marginalized group and that one of the senior vice presidents used a derogatory remark. Do you think I would still be at the organization or would they have fired me?”

David concluded: “There’s a different standard and a double standard that they’ve applied for decades, and I’ve just now been one casualty — another in a long series of casualties based on their systemic bias and discrimination.”

Among the requests in the prayer for relief in the complaint is a declaration the Human Rights Campaign’s actions violated the law; restoration of David to his position as president; an award of the compensation he would have received were he still on the job as well as punitive damages. Asked by the Blade whether any settlement talks have taken place, David said that wasn’t the case and pointed out the lawsuit was recently filed.

Legal experts who spoke to the Blade have doubted the validity of a review by Sidley Austin on the basis it was among the legal firms agreeing in 2019 to help with the Human Rights Campaign entering into litigation to advance LGBTQ rights, an agreement David spearheaded upon taking the helm of the organization.

David, in response to a question from the Blade, said the independent investigation into his role in the Cuomo affair “is a sham and I believe it was a sham,” citing the lack of transparency of findings.

“One of the first instances that caused me concern,” David said, “is I suggested to the organization that we conduct an independent review, and they came back to me and said, ‘Here’s our press release history,’ and the press release never mentioned that I actually suggested that they do this review. And when I challenged them on that, they told me that they thought it would be better for the press to review a complaint or receive a statement that showed that they were bringing this investigation as opposed to I’m recommending and push back even more. And then they said ‘Well, we will put in the statement that you are cooperating.’ So from the very beginning, they were not honest about what they were actually doing.”

Representing David in the lawsuit is the Chicago-based employment law firm Stowell & Friedman, Ltd. and and Chicago-based attorney Matt Singer. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Eric Vitaliano, a George W. Bush appointee, an informed source familiar with the case said.

The lawsuit was filed in New York as opposed to D.C. because David is a New York resident and much of the discriminatory behavior took place in New York, the source said. The pay disparity alleged in the lawsuit is expressed in percentages as oppose to hard numbers pursuant to rules for the judiciary in New York, the source added.

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