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Human Rights Campaign’s first Black leader sues over firing, alleging racial bias

The nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group said it fired Alphonso David for helping former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo respond to allegations of sexual misconduct.
Alphonso David
Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David speaks May 21 in Nashville, Tenn. John Amis / AP Images for The Human Rights Campaign

The former president of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, sued the organization in federal court on Thursday, alleging that he was underpaid and then terminated “because he is Black” and saying the HRC has a “deserved reputation for unequal treatment of  its non-white employees.”

Alphonso David, a Black civil rights lawyer who led the HRC for over two years, was fired in September after a report by New York Attorney General Letitia James described how he had helped “discredit” a sexual harassment accuser of former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. David, who was Cuomo’s chief counsel from 2015 to 2019, has denied any wrongdoing.

In his lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of New York, David contends that he was fired “because he is Black” and that the group “maintained discriminatory employment practices.”

David alleges that while discussing his contract renewal, HRC board members “acknowledged” that he was paid less than his white predecessor “because of his race.” He also says that he was repeatedly discouraged from discussing race in public. The board members did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment. 

In one instance, shortly after giving a speech on race, David alleges that a “prominent” white board member confronted him in front of other HRC staffers and said: “We all know you’re Black, why do you keep telling us that?” 

And following the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the suit says, a senior executive criticized David for issuing a statement on the HRC’s behalf in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. David alleges that the executive expressed concern about “alienating” white donors and specifically “white gay men.”

The suit alleges that the same executive asked David to remove the fact that he was the group’s first Black president from his bio on the group’s website and “expressed displeasure” about hiring a Black-owned consulting firm.

In one instance, David describes a scene in which the same executive criticized a Black staffer for attending a meeting with the firm without the presence of a white staffer.

The executive did not immediately return NBC News’ request for comment.

“I just know how it could be when Black people get together like that,” David alleges the executive said. “It will be just like all the Black people looking out for each other. I don’t want them to not perform because they think that just because you are Black you are going to bail them out.”

The HRC's interim president, Joni Madison, said in a statement that David's role in assisting Cuomo led to his termination and that the lawsuit is "riddled with untruths."

"Mr. David’s actions as detailed in the NY State Attorney General’s report were a painful revelation, particularly because so many members of the LGBTQ+ community are survivors of assault and harassment themselves," she said. "Moving forward, we will not be distracted and will remain focused on our critical work to bring full equality and liberation to LGBTQ+ people everywhere, especially for the most marginalized people in our community.” 

The lawsuit is the latest blow to the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, which has faced a chorus of criticism in the last decade for its alleged treatment of some of the LGBTQ community’s most vulnerable: people of color and transgender people.

“Today, I am filing a lawsuit for the millions of Black and Brown people who face discrimination every day but fear retaliation or lack the resources to challenge it,” David wrote on Twitter with a link sharing the lawsuit.

David was fired from the HRC several weeks after the attorney general’s report accused him of being involved in efforts to “disparage” a former Cuomo employee, Lindsey Boylan, who had accused the governor of “pervasive harassment.”

The report, which led to Cuomo’s resignation in August, corroborated allegations that Cuomo had sexually harassed multiple women, including Boylan. Cuomo has publicly apologized, but has repeatedly insisted that he had not intended to harass any of his accusers. The former governor has not been charged criminally for the allegations.

David helped draft a letter about the allegations in 2020, and some individuals who had access to the letter described it as “victim shaming,” according to the report. 

The letter wasn’t published, and David didn’t sign it, but the investigation found that he had agreed to circulate it to see whether others would sign it. The report also notes that David pledged that he would sign the letter “if needed.” Prior to the attorney general’s report, David denied that he had circulated the letter, and following his firing, David vowed to challenge his termination in court. 

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