The Andrew Cuomo sexual harassment scandal continues to have consequences for a variety of people and organizations -- including accusations of racism against the nation's most prominent LGBTQ+ rights group.
The Human Rights Campaign fired its first Black president, Alphonso David, after it emerged that he helped Cuomo, then New York's governor, respond to sexual harassment allegations in 2020. David was Cuomo's in-house counsel before joining HRC. But in a federal lawsuit filed in February, David says racial discrimination, not his work for Cuomo, was behind his termination.
Since David was let go last September, some other former HRC employees have also contended there is a culture of racism at the organization. That's something that HRC's current leaders deny, along with denying David's charges.
In David's suit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York, he says he was paid less than his white predecessor, Chad Griffin, despite performing the same duties and performing them well, and that HRC acknowledged that in offering him a large raise a few months before his dismissal. He says he "was forced to navigate a racially hostile culture at HRC," with some board members and staffers objecting when David spoke publicly about the need for racial justice in the U.S., among other hostile actions.
He says he did nothing wrong in his work for Cuomo, which included providing documents he says he was legally obligated to provide as the governor's former lawyer, and that HRC could not articulate what he did wrong. When he was fired, though, the board chairs for HRC and its foundation said he violated the organization's policy against conflicts of interest and did "material damage" to its reputation.
David, a civil rights lawyer, tells The Advocate he could have moved on after his firing, but "I could not look the other way when injustice, unfairness, and hypocrisy showed up at my doorstep."
"The work of equality and justice is too important to back away or be underserved by an organization that can't or won't live up to its own lofty goal of fighting for equality for all," he adds. "It's been said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and I think it's time to let some sunlight in."
HRC filed a legal response to David's suit early in March, saying he was fired after an internal investigation concluded that his work for Cuomo constituted a "conflict of interest between his personal interest and the interests of HRC and [was] inconsistent with the mission of the Organization." It "damaged his reputation significantly enough to impair his ability to effectively serve as the public face and voice of HRC" and the HRC Foundation, its educational arm, the legal filing states.
Also, in a statement issued when the lawsuit was filed, HRC's interim president, Joni Madison, said the suit was "riddled with untruths" and that "some of the individuals he accuses of discriminatory behavior are people of color and champions of racial equity and inclusion."
"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," she added.
While that process has yet to play out, both David's firing and his lawsuit have spurred talk about whether racism is pervasive at HRC, which since its founding in 1980 has often been perceived as an organization for wealthy white men. A report commissioned by the group and performed by an outside firm in 2015, during Griffin's tenure, concluded that HRC's culture favored gay white males.
There has been a renewed call, especially in the past couple of years, for all segments of American society to evaluate their racial attitudes and fight racism wherever it exists. Some say HRC's efforts along these lines came up wanting.
Richard Brookshire, who is Black, resigned as deputy director of communications for politics last November after 90 days in the position. He says he lacked mentorship in the job and experienced what he calls "passive racism" at HRC. He didn't encounter it from everyone he dealt with, but while there was acknowledgment of the need to combat racism, follow-through was lacking, he tells The Advocate. For one thing, Black voters were regarded as a monolith, and nuances within this population ignored.
"You can have diversity by name but not by practice," he says. He does praise some individuals at HRC, including Madison.
Another former HRC staffer, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, says employees of color were treated differently than white employees. David's hiring seemed to herald a new day, and he initially had the support of other HRC leaders, but donors did not like his focus on marginalized communities, this former employee says. He asserts that David would not have been fired if he'd been white.
But yet another former HRC employee, also speaking anonymously, says the group was committed to addressing racism. "Every organization has work to do...but I would venture to guess that HRC is doing more of that work than other organizations around the country," he says.
In an email to HRC staff obtained by The Advocate, issued a few weeks after her initial response to the lawsuit, Madison said the allegations of "one of our former leaders...are inaccurate" and highlighted the work done by the organization around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
HRC took the findings of the 2015 report seriously and, among other things, has implemented trainings and set goals to fight bias, she wrote. To say otherwise is a "disservice" to HRC staffers working on these initiatives, she said.
"We have continued to deepen our work around the intersections of LGTBQ+ rights and racial justice, internally provide resources and support for our BIPOC staff, and advise non-BIPOC staff about how to engage in allyship and action on these issues -- and in our workplace," she continued.
"We have made tremendous progress, yet there is still work to do," she added. HRC leaders are committed to that work, she said. "We take concerns and issues around bias and discrimination seriously, and are committed to addressing them," Madison concluded.
As of press time, no permanent successor to David had been announced.
This story is part of The Advocate's 2022 Entertainment Issue, which is out on newsstands April 2, 2022. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.