September 25, 2019 at 9:20 am EST | by Chris Johnson
HRC president: Trump responsible for anti-trans violence
Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Alphonso David, the new president of the Human Rights Campaign, doesn’t hold back when talking about the harm he says President Trump is inflicting on the LGBT community.

In fact, David said Trump is responsible for the ongoing problem of violence against transgender people. Just this year, as David noted, 18 transgender people have been reported killed, 17 of whom were people of color.

“President Trump is not only responsible, but he is the gasoline that is responsible for many fires around this country,” David said.

David said Trump is “spewing hate and division and bigotry” and is responsible for discrimination and violence against many minority communities, including transgender people.

“There is a connection between what we’re seeing with transgender violence, with racial injustice, with immigrant bias throughout this country because of Donald Trump,” David said.

David made the remarks in an interview with the Washington Blade in his office on Tuesday days before the first-ever National Transgender March on Washington and the 23rd annual Human Rights Campaign National Dinner in Washington, D.C.

Asked about his message to participants in the transgender march, David issued a call for solidarity with transgender people.

“We have to be supportive of the transgender community, and we have to not only be there for this march, we have to be there after the march, we have to be there in two weeks, we have to be there in six months, we have to create systems that will support the transgender community,” David said.

David kept his cards close to the vest about the upcoming National Dinner, but said big news is in store for the night.

“And, you know, certainly I’ll be focused on transgender rights,” David said. “I think it’s something that we need to focus on, but the details of that, you’ll have to wait until Saturday.”

Read the full interview here:

Washington Blade: I guess my first question for you is you’ve been on the job now for about a month Has anything about being in this job in that time period surprised you?

Alphonso David: Yes.

There have been a number of things that surprised me. The dedication, the commitment, the passion that HRC staff members and supporters bring to this work. We often talk about the Human Rights Campaign being the largest LGBTQ civil rights organization in the world. But we never really talked about the dedication and the sheer grit that people exhibit in doing this work. And so, that has been a surprise. What has also been surprising to me as I travel the country, talking to advocates, and activists, supporters about the election, and they are incredibly energized. They’re ready to get involved. They’re ready to make sure that their voices are heard. And they appreciate the true impact that this election could have on this country.

Blade: As you were coming on board, did you have any conversations with Chad Griffin at all during the transition?

David: [Laughs] Yes.

I’ve known Chad for a long time. I met Chad when he first thought about bringing a lawsuit challenging Proposition 8, which was a ballot initiative in California that ended up going all the way up to the Supreme Court. And we had been colleagues and friends for a long time. So before taking this job, I had a conversation with him — actually several conversations with him — about the organization about the challenges that we face in the movement, and about the opportunities that I see that we can take advantage of.

Blade: In your introduction, one thing that’s really notable about your biography is your background and growing up in Liberia, with all the challenges that country faced when you were growing up, and you had to flee violence there. How does that experience inform your approach to the LGBT movement?

David: There are so many takeaways from my experience in Liberia that are applicable to my adult life, and they’re also applicable to my advocacy. I think most important for me is making sure people understand how fragile democracy can be. I grew up in a country that was — had a democratically elected president and a democratically elected, you know, state — our equivalent would be state elected officials. And in the span of a few hours, that all shifted, and my uncle was assassinated, and my father was put in prison, and we were living under a dictatorship.

So that experience for me is very real. It continues to be very real, and I take that and learn from it to make sure that other people fully appreciate how important it is for us to engage in our democracy. And it’s not only as it relates to LGBTQ issues, right? It’s anything that you care about, it could be the climate, or it could be on race issues, or it could be on economic issues. We have to make sure that people are informed and actively engaged in our democracy, and I bring that to this work.

I also bring to this work the fact that we are living under a significant amount of daily — I would say a barrage of daily attacks — from the Trump administration, and it’s gotten to the point that people have become numb to it. When the Trump administration says we’re filing an amicus brief, and in that amicus brief, we’re saying LGBT people can be fired from their jobs because they’re gay. We’re saying that transgender people can lose their housing because they’re transgender. We’re saying that under the Affordable Care Act, transgender people shouldn’t be protected. We’re saying transgender people can be thrown out of the military. When you see that drumbeat of attack after attack after attack, my fear is that people become numb to it, or they think that it doesn’t have the impact that it actually does. And part of my role is making sure that we remind people, remind people that we’re living under a climate where LGBT people live under attack, and we have to make sure that we engage, we have to make sure we get him out of office, Donald Trump specifically. And we elect pro-equality candidates that represent all of us, not just simply some of us.

Blade: We’ve talked a lot about some initiatives you want to pursue, including getting Trump out of office, but what is your No. 1 priority for the Human Rights Campaign? That might be it.

David: [Laughs] I have many priorities, I would say one of the most important priorities is making sure that we have a president that represents our interests, and we have elected officials across the board from congressional members to state elected officials that represent the interests of all Americans and all residents as opposed to just some, so that is a huge priority.

But I’m also going to be outlining a variety of other priorities this week. We have our national dinner that’s scheduled for Saturday. I hope you’re coming. [To Blade photographer Michael Key:] And I hope you’re coming. And I will be unveiling all of those priorities, the things that I think we need to focus on as we go into the election season and as we go into next year.

Blade: Well, can you talk a little bit about what your strategy is going to be for 2020, both for the White House and for Congress?

David: Sure. So we are with respect to the White House, making sure that people are registered to vote, making sure that they’re engaged in the electoral process. And what that means is not only going to make sure that you’re registered, but also connecting with everyone else that you know, to make sure they’re also registered. That’s step one. 

Step two is, of course, making sure that people understand the issues and are engaged on the issues. Unfortunately, in some cases, people don’t vote because they’re not informed. Or if they do vote, they’re not really that informed about what they’re voting on. So we want to make sure that we provide as much information as possible. So they’re fully educated about the options that they have. And so when they exercise their right to vote, we hope that they’re exercising their right to vote in support of pro-equality candidates. So that’ll be my focus as it relates to Donald Trump.

And again, highlighting everything that he’s done, because many people, I think we’ve gotten to the point where some people have tuned it out. They’re not really listening anymore. So they don’t know in some cases, what this administration is doing to attack gay people, or LGBTQ people, you know, in terms of all of us. 

With respect to the Senate races, and races in the House of Representatives, we’re going to be applying the same strategy, we’re going into certain key districts where we think we have an ability to actually win. And we’ll have people on the ground in some cases, we do now, to make sure that we can transform those communities — so they support pro-equality candidates. 

And finally, with respect to state elected races, we have offices now in Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas. We identified those three states, as states where we think we have an ability to actually transform the electoral landscape, and elect more pro-equality candidates. So we’re working at all three levels, presidency, congressional races, and state  races to make sure we support pro-equality candidates.

Blade: Let’s talk a little bit more about President Trump. Does the Human Rights Campaign support his impeachment?

David: Good question. 

I think at this point, we are looking at that issue. We are having conversations with various elected officials and our coalition partners to make sure that if we do pull that lever, and we seek impeachment of the president, we know what that actually means. There are variety of arguments that certainly support impeachment. And I think some would say there are some legal arguments that certainly support impeachment, but some are also concerned about the collateral consequences of doing that. And so we’re weighing all of those options, and we’ll make a final determination in the next few days to the extent it’s something that’s germane.

[Editor’s Note: The Blade conducted this interview with David shortly before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she’d open up a formal impeachment inquiry against Trump.]

Blade: One other piece of news with President Trump is his U.N. speech not too long ago, just today. He brought up a global initiative to decriminalize homosexuality and says that he stands in support of LGBTQ people who are facing persecution overseas. Did you happen to see those remarks?

David: I did not see those remarks. But I read about those remarks. Are you asking me my opinion?

Blade: Yes. 

David: It’s all noise. It’s all noise, and we should reject it outright. It doesn’t mean anything. Donald Trump standing up on a stage saying that he supports decriminalization internationally means nothing, and the only place you have to look is right at home. If Donald Trump wants to support LGBTQ people, allow transgender people to serve in the military. If Donald Trump supports LGBTQ people, allow us to get health care. If he supports LGBTQ people, actually put money behind ending AIDS. He doesn’t do that. 

So to suggest he’s interested in decriminalizing homosexuality, as he calls it, in other parts of the world is noise. It is a distraction from what he should actually be doing, which is making sure that LGBTQ people actually have protections in our own country. 

He claims to be a nationalist, right? Right? He’s not interested in making sure that immigrants are actually provided an opportunity to seek asylum in this country. He thinks that we should close the border. If you’re such a nationalist, why do you focus on international policy when you’re not focused on your own domestic policy as it as it relates to LGBTQ people. That would be my question to him.

Blade: One thing you brought up is the HIV initiative. And you said that he’s not put enough funding to back up that initiative by the Department of Health & Human Services to get new infections down by 90% by 2030. Can you talk a little bit about why he’s not putting his money where his mouth is on that?

Again, all we have to do is look at the record. Donald Trump essentially debunked or deconstructed an HIV council that was in place with the express mission of trying to end HIV and develop policies and procedures to do that. He ended up decommissioning that council. Now, — 

Blade: But he restocked it though, right?

David: I’m not sure if he actually restocked it. I know that he’s claiming he’s going to do that. But that commission was actually in place. Now, even if you were to accept on face value, that he’s interested in ending HIV by 2030, the amount of money that he’s actually put up to invest in that is insufficient. So I have no faith that Donald Trump is actually interested in ending HIV by 2030, because he’s shown us time and time again, that he’s not to be trusted, and this is simply placating to our community. Now to the extent money is provided, great. But at this point, it has not been provided. To this point, we cannot trust him. In fact, we should be afraid of what he will do to the LGBTQ community. That’s why I have no investment in what he claims to be a mission of ending HIV by 2030.

Blade: I think LGBT — or gay Republicans — would point to the decriminalization initiative, the HIV initiative as well as appointments like Ric Grenell and a recent appointment to the court, Patrick Bumatay, as evidence that Trump is not as anti-LGBTQ as you say. What would be your response to them?

David: Tick-tock is my response to them. The election is in November of 2020. Is it a coincidence that he’s doing all of those things now? That would be my response to them. It’s noise. Donald Trump is not supportive of the LGBT community. If he is, allow transgender people to serve in the military. If he is, roll back the regulations that remove transgender people from protections under the ACA. If he is, he should tell the solicitor general to retract the amicus brief that he filed, or the briefs, plural. The amicis that he filed in the Supreme Court that say LGBT people shouldn’t have protections in employment. They should be — an employee should be able to fire them. Or better yet, he should retract the regulations that essentially allow federal contractors to discriminate against LGBTQ people. We can’t have it both ways. So Donald Trump is essentially placating to certain members of the community to say, “See me over here. I support you. Ignore everything else that I’ve done.” Not only is it noise, but it’s offensive for anyone to suggest that he actually supports the community.

Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Blade: Let’s go to the Title VII cases, your background, you have a legal background. And so I’m eager to get your take on those. Do you think the LGBT side will win in those Title VII cases?

David: Look, I am hopeful that we will win. I understand the current composition of the court. I understand the arguments against us. I am concerned that there is a possibility that the court will rule against us. I am — I’m hopeful that they will appreciate that there are decades of cases that clearly say that LGBTQ people are protected under Title VII. They may ignore that. I’m hoping that they don’t. I’m hoping that we can appeal to their better angels, and that they will be intellectually honest about the case law and about what it will do to effectively say LGBT people are no longer protected. 

I mean, you think about that, we will essentially throw out of the window, excuse me, decades of case law that people have been relying on, that employers have been relying on. I’m hopeful that the court can look at the amicus brief that was signed by 160 — we have to get you the right number — businesses that signed on, that said we support Title VII being inclusive to protect LGBTQ people.

Having said all of that, I’m a realist, and I also appreciate that there’s a chance that we may lose. So I don’t know the answer to that question. We’re pushing to make sure that they respect the rule of law, that they respect stare decisis, that they see lower courts have issued rulings for years, appellate courts as well as district court rulings, and I hope they respect that, you know, that trajectory that we’ve been relying on for so long. I just — it’s difficult to predict at this point. I’m just hopeful that we get the right ruling.

Blade: In what ways is the Human Rights Campaign working with the legal team in those cases?

David: We are — we’ve signed on to an amicus brief with other organizations. And we’ve also been instrumental in helping to identify businesses to sign on to the business brief as well. Those are just two examples, but there are many others where we’re coordinating very closely with the ACLU, we’re coordinating very closely with other organizations such as the [National LGBTQ] Task Force to make sure that we identify partners in the movement that will support a positive ruling, but also partners that are not a part of the movement that appreciate, you know, what this would mean, this meaning what a negative ruling will mean, to LGBTQ people across this country. 

If I know today that I can go into my office, and my employer cannot fire me simply because I’m transgender, or my prospective employer cannot deny me a job simply because I’m gay, and then the next day, that employer or those employers could do that, it’s a sea change, it would change everything. And it would make it even more important for us to pass the Equality Act, but in the interim, I think it would be a sea change for people throughout this country.

Blade: This weekend is going to be a big weekend for LGBT rights. First of all, we have the transgender march. What’s your message to the people who are taking part in that demonstration? 

David: Well, I think the transgender community has been underserved for decades, and we are now living in a state of crisis, I see it as a state of emergency where primarily black transgender women are being killed on our streets, and we have to do something, we have to stand up. We have to be supportive of the transgender community, and we have to not only be there for this march, we have to be there after the march, we have to be there in two weeks, we have to be there in six months, we have to create systems that will support the transgender community.

So my message this weekend is that the Human Rights Campaign is going to be there. The Human Rights Campaign will stand up with members of the transgender community on Saturday, and moving forward to make sure that we can do everything possible to provide support to the transgender community.

Blade: You mentioned the continuing problem of anti-trans violence. Is President Trump responsible?

David: President Trump is not only responsible, but he is the gasoline that is responsible for many fires around this country. So President Trump is spewing hate and division and bigotry, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves. When someone does that — if I poured gasoline on, you know, newspapers, and lit a match, a few feet away, at some point, it will find his way to that — to those newspapers. And that’s what he’s done.

There is a connection between what we’re seeing with transgender violence, with racial injustice, with immigrant bias throughout this country because of Donald Trump. It’s what he’s spewing. He’s basically telling people it’s OK to show your face if you’re a bigot, and there are significant collateral consequences when you do that. 

But also, I think, within the LGBTQ community, we have a lot of work to do to make sure that the transgender community is respected and honored and celebrated. So we don’t know all of the facts in these cases. At this point, we have 18 cases where transgender people have been murdered, 17 involving black transgender women. We don’t have all the facts. But they’re not divorced, certainly not divorced from Donald Trump’s bigotry. It’s not divorced from his rhetoric. But we don’t know all of the facts yet. So I don’t want to suggest in each and every case, we know what happened, but it’s all been fueled by bias — by transphobia.

Blade: Also, this weekend is the dinner. What can you preview about what you’re doing on stage?

David: I will tell you on Saturday. You will hear — This is my first major address. As the HRC president, I have spoken twice before in Cleveland, and in St. Louis. But this is the first major address, and is an opportunity to really outline the vision, my vision for the organization moving forward. And you will hear, what I think we should be doing and how we should be approaching the work. And, you know, certainly I’ll be focused on transgender rights. I think it’s something that we need to focus on, but the details of that, you’ll have to wait until Saturday. And there’ll be other things that I’ll be I’ll be announcing as well.

Washington Blade reporter Chris Johnson interviews Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Blade: Very exciting. I want to talk a little bit about the Democratic candidates. We had the LGBT forum in Iowa last week who do you think won the forum?

David: Ooh, I’m not doing that. [Laughs] No, no, no. I have — I have my personal views, which are personal, and as the president of HRC, I have a responsibility to make sure that before I opine on any presidential candidate, we’ve done our due diligence, so we’re going through the process right now of reviewing each candidate reviewing their records, and we will make a determination at some point in the near future. 

As you may know, on Oct. 10, we have a town hall that’s going to be televised live on CNN, where we will hear from all of the candidates that qualify about LGBT issues and their visions for addressing some of the significant issues we face within our community. So we have a little bit more work to do before we get to the point that we can take an official position on any of the candidates.

Blade: But do you expect the Human Rights Campaign will endorse in the Democratic presidential primary before the nominee is known?

David: The Human Rights Campaign has done it both ways. There have been opportunities where we’ve endorsed before the primary and where we endorsed after, I think it’s too soon to tell. And I want to make sure that we think about all of the options, and we make the best decision for the community and for ourselves at the appropriate time. So it’s too soon to tell.

Blade: The candidate right now, who is generally seen as the front runner is Joseph Biden. And he enjoys considerable support, in particular from black Americans, according to the polls. But there’s one thing about his record: His vote for the crime bill in 1994. Do you think that he’s getting a pass on that issue?

David: I don’t know if it’s appropriate for me to comment on that specifically. And I don’t know that you could say that he’s getting a pass. I don’t think we know enough. You know, we now live in a cycle, a news cycle, that’s 24 hours a day, where certain news outlets and periodicals have access to pools of people, and they do polls, and they do their assessments as to what what people think. At this point, I don’t think we know enough as to whether or not people are that concerned about the crime bill. I certainly know based on some feedback that some voters don’t think is that significant. They’re looking at the larger, you know, his larger philosophy. But I don’t think we know enough yet to really draw a concrete conclusion.

Blade: In contrast, Pete Buttigieg the openly gay candidate, is not doing as well in the polls relative to the front runners. Given his position right now, do you think America is ready for a gay president?

David: It’s also very good question. I hope so. I hope that we are at the point in our culture that we can see beyond sexual orientation and focus on merit. But I also know, based on the increase in hate crimes across this country, based on homophobia and transphobia, that we have a lot of work to do. So I think Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy is historic. I think it’s incredible. I think it’s it’s fantastic that he’s running, and that he has generated so much support across this country. Whether the support is sufficient at this point to land him the Democratic nomination is too soon to tell. And I think to answer your question directly, I’m hopeful that we’re at the point that we can see merit and not focus on identity to the exclusion of merit. But I don’t know that we’re there yet. I’m hopeful that we are and and if he can get there, I think it will be fantastic.

Blade: I don’t know if you saw this, there’s a recent article in Politico that quoted some lesbian activists saying that Buttigeig isn’t their candidate because they want to have a woman candidate because they prefer to have a woman elected as president first before a gay man is elected. Do you agree with that?

David: People are free to have their opinions. I understand why someone would say that. I think it’s a complicated issue.

Women have been fighting to have a woman serve as the commander in chief for a very long time, most recently in the last election, and I understand that people would like to see a woman serve in that role. But I also think, from my vantage point as the head of the Human Rights Campaign, that we have to support the candidate who will potentially get the nomination and who supports a slew of issues that we care about, including women’s rights. So I can’t say I criticize them for having that opinion. I think it’s their opinion to have. In my role, I have a different responsibility to make sure that our endorsement is reflective of a larger community. And that’s what I’m planning on doing.

Blade: Well, that seems to suggest the endorsement is leaning toward Buttigieg at this point. Is that correct?

David: Oh, no, no. Identity politics is a fascinating construct, but I don’t think we can live in that world. For a variety of different reasons, I think we have to be focused on facts, we have to be focused on merits. And we don’t know who the ultimate presidential Democratic nominee will be. And as I said before, we have a lot of work to do internally, to do our due diligence. We have a forum in two weeks, where we will hear from all of the candidates as to what they think about LGBTQ issues, but more importantly, what they will do. What will you do to address the issues that our young people are facing? Are you supportive of banning conversion therapy, or how will you address some of the significant concerns facing the transgender community? Do you support the modification of 1556*, which is the Affordable Care Act, which would strip out transgender members from health care, and do you agree that we should make certain modifications to state law? We don’t know the answers to most of those questions. We do know that almost all of the candidates support, quote, support LGBTQ issues. That’s great. Now the question is how are you going to do that? And once we have that information, once we do our due diligence, we’ll then end up as being a position to endorse a candidate but we’re not there yet.

[Editor’s Note: David makes a reference to 1556, but the portion of the Affordable Care Act that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex is Section 1557. The Obama administration interpreted it to prohibit discrimination against transgender people in health care settings, but the Trump administration has proposed rescinding that regulation.]

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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