It’s believed that longtime drag queen and LGBTQ activist Sylvia Rivera, one of the original co-founders of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and participant in the Gay Liberation Front that fought for gay and trans rights before and after Stonewall, once said in the 1990s: “One of our main goals now is to destroy the Human Rights Campaign.”
The reason Rivera allegedly felt that way was because she was “tired of sitting on the back of the bumper” on the metaphorical bus toward equality, which by the 1990s, largely focused on marriage equality and the right to serve openly in the military versus equality and respect for trans and queer people. So it’s somewhat fitting that now that LGBTQ people currently have both rights, people are also considering whether the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest LGBTQ organization, is capable of operating within our best interests.
HRC isn’t exactly being destroyed, but the organization’s image and reputation are unraveling — and it started from within the longtime advocacy group. Activists and a former HRC senior employee of color are speaking with LGBTQ Nation about the ongoing saga.
The organization’s president of the last two years, Alphonso David, has been fired, less than two months after David was named in a report by New York Attorney General Letitia James (D). The report detailed how then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) used his office and state resources to break the law and retaliate against those who accused him of sexual harassment.
David, Cuomo’s former employee, was not only named multiple times in James’s report, but he was also named as an active participant. He was one of several associates said to have “engaged in a flurry of communication” surrounding one of Cuomo’s alleged victims, Lindsey Boylan.
At this time, David was already the president of HRC and no longer worked for Cuomo.
David forwarded Boylan’s personnel files that were in his possession to the governor’s senior adviser, Richard Azzopardi. David has maintained that this was required as Cuomo’s former lawyer.
Azzopardi then allegedly sent the confidential files to multiple media outlets with a note that “there is simply no truth to [Boylan’s] claims.”
David was asked to sign a public letter organized by Cuomo’s allies that questioned Boylan’s motivations. David suggested edits to it but refused to sign himself, and the letter was never released.
A former HRC employee and senior staff member, who recently left the organization but still works in civil rights advocacy, tells LGBTQ Nation, “What Alphonso did was egregious. At a minimum, it was problematic.”
The staff member, who started at HRC under David’s leadership, expressed respect for David, but pointedly notes, “He is not a credible leader, and I have not seen him lead in quite some time.”
Time’s Up president Roberta Kaplan, also named in the report, left her position in civil rights leadership as have others. After Cuomo’s resignation, David remained one of the few people left standing.
Right after the report was published and David’s involvement became public knowledge, HRC announced that they were offering him a five-year contract extension. They expressed support for David and confidence in his abilities.
But once Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) tweeted that she wouldn’t take money from the organization if they didn’t address the issue, the tide changed.
— Dana Nessel (@dananessel) August 5, 2021
The board of HRC pledged an investigation and used a law firm already doing pro bono work for the org to investigate David and report back. That’s when the “writing was on the wall,” activist and writer Brian Gaither tells LGBTQ Nation.
“HRC built their infrastructure, 30 or 40 years ago, where the money came from white gays and lesbians, many closeted. They’ve sustained themselves by becoming an organization focusing on Beltway and national-level politics, aligning itself with the Democratic Party,” Gaither says.
In other words, David became a liability to his organization’s biggest supporters. Democrats.
David tried to defend his actions, claiming Cuomo and his staff “tried to use me, as they have used countless others.”
While David has said board members had assured him the investigation cleared him, the board chairs deny that. No report was actually issued.
Either way, the end result was David’s termination, with cause, for violating his contract, but David claims that HRC was going to fire him without cause anyway.
David is not letting that be the end of the story, and he’s made statements confirming that he plans to take further legal steps directed at his now-former employer. Beyond his undisclosed legal plans, David made an appearance on the Sunday Show with out host Jonathan Capehart, alluding to alleged proof he has against HRC and his belief that his treatment has been due to his race.
As HRC’s first president of color, it’s not unbelievable that David had to put together a significant resume to get the position held only by white leaders previously. He didn’t just fall into this job — he has significant accomplishments navigating difficult situations and a storied upbringing.
But less than two years later in the post-Trump age, the organization’s attempt to cast itself as a leader in the “resistance” became the bane of their existence. Now, while the Equality Act is halted and unlikely to become law this year, as a massive anti-LGBTQ movement emerges, HRC is in disarray.
Another activist familiar with the inner workings of HRC tells LGBTQ Nation, he can’t dismiss David’s allegations altogether, but he is sympathetic to how HRC has handled the dilemma.
“This was a lose-lose situation from the start,” they said.
The former HRC employee is not sympathetic.
“HRC’s co-chairs [Morgan Cox and Jodie Patterson] came out and justified it by saying he violated their values,” the former employee said, “but the leadership there also disregards them, and I saw it every single day I worked there.”
He says that HRC’s outcome was nothing but earned.
“Liberation begins in your own household. When you can’t even take care of your own house, this is the result.”
Where do we go from here?
Most LGBTQ activists and other organizations are either keeping mum on the controversy or largely condemning David and HRC alike. Whispers have emerged in these circles with speculation about who will take the job and some of the people in those same circles are gaming for the lucrative gig themselves.
One LGBTQ organization, GLAAD, has made a statement in light of the news.
“With news of a leadership change at HRC, one of the leading organizations in our movement, we cannot be deterred,” GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement realized after David’s firing. “Urgent action is needed on many fronts,” she emphasized. “There is so much on the line right now for our communities and that must be the priority and the focus.”
At a time when LGBTQ rights are being attacked at a relentless pace by anti-LGBTQ conservatives and hate groups, it’s not ideal that one of the most visible groups that advocate for LGBTQ people is busy playing out their problems in the realm of public relations. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has tried to use David’s actions as proof that the Equality Act, long-proposed civil rights legislation supported by HRC, should not be passed.
HRC has appointed Joni Madison as their interim president. While Madison acknowledged some of the failings of the organization, her first message was to shift the focus to “the challenges ahead.”
“Right now, LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. and around the world need us to stay in the fight,” Madison said to staff. “You all are not just our grassroots force for good — you are our visionaries, our steady hands, and our inspiration. We have gone through so much together, and you keep showing up — because you believe, like I do, in our mission of achieving full equality and liberation for LGBTQ+ people.”
“Of course I’ve talked to a lot of my old co-workers. I’ve talked to a group of people who are trying to get out,” the ex-staffer says. As for leadership at the organization, they said “with my experience with the VPs and directors there, they’re not planning to change anything.”
“HRC is seen as an organization of DC and national-level politics, aligned with like the Democratic Party. So it doesn’t really have a voice of its own,” Gaither added. That’s not a bad thing, but “it makes it hard to justify what they do.”
“They’re not going to fold, or really change much, because people who are in control at HRC are quite comfortable of what it does, and how it operates. That’s why they’re there,” Gaither concludes. “They don’t want to be on the board of a small non-profit, dealing with the local pettiness that comes with it.”
“I don’t doubt racism was involved. It’s pervasive,” Gaither tells LGBTQ Nation.
Accountability is key
But David has fallen from favor not solely because of his race, but his actions. The fact that David tried — and failed — to get away with what white men historically have, doesn’t make him innocent.
The former employee speaking to LGBTQ Nation said, “My hope is that Alphonso will take the time to analyze the ways in which he has failed, and try to recognize and rectify that. His campaign to make himself the victim is exceptionally disappointing.”
HRC is not innocent in the matter.
“Their firing of Alphonso, they justified because he violated their values, but they also disregard them,” says the former employee. “If you’re going to claim to be a human rights organization, as it’s in your name, [then] you should treat your workers with dignity and respect. Otherwise you have no credibility.”
Gaither similarly suggests, “I think that the organization should think very seriously about, you know, what its relevance is going forward. “Go out and find the person out there to help them shape and define that, and become more immediately relevant to the lives of people that you’re advocating for — in other ways than bumper stickers.”
Gaither, again, points to their origins as an organization founded in 1980, and their longtime focus on marriage equality and military service, those battles that Sylvia Rivera once scorned the organization over. Since both of those have been achieved, HRC hasn’t met the LGBTQ community’s needs effectively.
Gaither points to initiatives like Corporate Equality Index, a scorecard by HRC denoting how LGBTQ-friendly a corporation’s workplace is — and the Municipality Equality Index, a similar project ranking different metropolitan areas on their LGBTQ friendliness — as prime examples because these projects “aren’t holding people accountable.”
It’s the history of avoiding accountability or maintaining equity themselves that shrouds any hope that they can recover, which detractors would similarly state is the theme that has clouded other organizations.
The former HRC employee states, “I think if HRC wants to be a leader and continue to be, they need to lead with humility, meaning first they need to apologize and acknowledge their past.”
HRC seems to have escaped Sylvia Rivera’s death wish upon them from nearly 20 years ago. Maybe it’s safe to say it’s starting to catch up with them, though.