Katie Couric: Earlier this month, Supreme Court heard arguments in three cases that will determine whether federal law prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. What’s at risk?
Alphonso David: What’s at stake are the lives and livelihood of millions of people in this country. For decades, federal courts have held that federal civil rights laws protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in the work place. It goes as far back as 30 years ago in PriceWaterhouseCoopers, when the Supreme Court held that sex stereotyping is protected under federal civil rights laws.
What is now presented to the court is whether sexual orientation and gender identity should continue to be protected under federal civil rights laws. If the court issues a ruling that concludes LGBTQ people are not protected, those members of our community will lose protections that they have today.
Compounding this problem, in 30 states in this country, LGBTQ people do not have any protections in their jobs — meaning there’s no state law protections. If there’s no federal protections and there’s no state law protections, employers would essentially have a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
And how are activists working to right this issue in individual states?
The HRC and other organizations have been working for years to advance what we call non-discrimination ordinances and statues in all states. We’ve been quite successful in many states — there are 20 or so that have protections for LGBTQ people. But those protections do not exist in 30 states. So we are working in those states to pass state law protections. But the reality is the federal law should also provide those protections. If the Supreme Court decides they do not, then we are creating a huge gaping hole in the law for LGBTQ people.
Alphonso, you are a celebrated civil rights lawyer and now the head of the Human Rights Campaign. Can you tell us how your career took you to the HRC?
I’ve practiced civil rights law and advocacy for more than 20 years. I ran a government contracting firm after college, and I started volunteering at the Whitman-Walker Health clinic in Washington. That clinic provides services to individuals with HIV and/or AIDS. I started doing that work in the mid-90s. I subsequently went to (and graduated from) law school, clerked in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and worked a major commercial litigation law firm. Eventually I had a significant shift in my professional life — into civil rights.
I was really driven in large part by a recognition that I needed to stop sitting on the sidelines. The Lawrence v. Texas decision was issued — that’s where the Supreme Court held that same sex intimate conduct was protected under the Constitution. I applied to Lambda Legal, a LGBTQ litigation organizaiton. Then I worked at the Attorney General’s office and the Governor’s office, where I had the privilege of writing the marriage equality law in New York. And now, I have been selected to serve as the president of the HRC. It’s certainly not something anyone could have planned, but I’m pleased to be in this position — and at this time.
We are living at a time where the federal administration is attacking LGBTQ people just simply because of who they are. It is more important than ever that we fight back, that we are strategic and representing and protecting the community, and that we get pro-equality candidates into the Senate as well as into the White House.
These Supreme Court cases we referenced earlier are being heard in October, which happens to be LGBTQ History Month. What are some things people might not know about the fight for LGBTQ rights in this country?
This year we are marking 50 years since activists like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson fought back against police oppression at the Stonewall Inn in New York. That took place in 1969, when LGBTQ people were treated as criminals in many parts of the country. Over the last two decades, we’ve had significant accomplishments.
In 2003, the Supreme Court struck down laws that criminalized same-sex relations; in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act; and in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality was a fundamental right that extended to all couples, including same sex couples. So we’ve had quite an interesting trajectory since Stonewall, and we’re commenorating that during LGBTQ History Month.
What are some of the most important initiatives that the HRC is working towards right now?
The most important campaign is working to get Donald Trump and Mike Pence out of office. That is our goal. We are also working to support pro-equality candidates, and work to get them into office because we know that they will be in a position to really defend our democracy and defend our Constitution as a document that is supposed to represent all of us.
We’re also working with Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight, which fights against voter suppression. We entered into a partnership with her to fight voter suppression practices and laws in the country. We are working with community-based activists on transgender justice issues and we’re also expanding our legal footprint across this country so we can better represent the interests of LGBTQ people in the court.
What are some ways we can all help in this fight for equal rights?
I would say a few things. 1) People can volunteer — we have many opportunities for people to volunteer with the organization. If anyone is interested in volunteering with HRC, I would ask them to go to our website. We are in the process right now of identifying volunteers throughout the country to help us with a variety of things, from helping to support pro-equality candidates to helping us stuff envelopes. 2) To the extent folks are interested, they can support the organization monetarily. 3) More important than almost anything, please, please make sure that folks are registered to vote, that they encourage everyone else to register to vote, and that come November of 2020 they exercise their right to vote.