One of the most high-profile Liberians in the United States has lost his job after being caught up in the sexual harassment scandal that took down New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Alphonso David, 50, was the head of the Human Rights Campaign, the most powerful group lobbying for the rights of LGBTQ Americans, until last week when he was dismissed by the organization’s board. The move came after the board conducted an investigation into allegations David helped his former boss discredit women who were leveling accusations of sexual assault and harassment against the former governor.
David has vehemently denied the allegations against him and refused a board request that he resign. Cuomo also denied the allegations against him though he resigned last month.
HRC’s board co-chairs, Morgan Cox and Jodie Patterson, said in a statement that David was dismissed “effective immediately, for violations of his contract with the Human Rights Campaign.”
“This is a painful moment in our movement,” they said. “While the board’s decision is not the outcome we had ever envisioned or hoped for in terms of Mr. David’s tenure with H.R.C., his actions have put us in an untenable position by violating H.R.C.’s core values, policies, and mission.”
The first African and gay man of color to serve as head of the influential LGBTQ organization, David’s dismissal followed an investigative report from the New York State Attorney General, Letitia James, as well as the HRC’s internal investigation commissioned (the details of which have not been released to the public).
David’s name appears roughly three dozen times in James’ report, according to National Public Radio, “…which concluded that Cuomo had sexually harassed 11 women and prompted the governor’s resignation. While some of the references date to David’s work for the state, others refer to communications he had with the governor’s staff after he became HRC’s president.”
Though David could not be reached for comment on the matter, a close colleague who requested anonymity told FrontPage Africa and journalRAGE in an email that David’s involvement in the imbroglio was limited to a single personnel document he turned over as was required by the law.
“He had no choice in the matter,” the colleague said. “The report also makes it clear that David was asked to sign a letter pertaining to one of the survivors, and that he refused to sign it. Mr. David had no direct knowledge of any accusations against Gov. Cuomo, and when the report came out, he was sick to his stomach and immediately called on the former governor to resign.”
But the embattled former HRC head is fighting his dismissal. In a series of Tweets and Instagram posts, the Liberian native, who had earlier maintained that he “will not resign”, said the HRC board “didn’t offer a shred of evidence of any wrongdoing” as per the internal investigation conducted by the Sidley Austin law firm.
“The facts are that I was contacted by the board co-chairs late Friday night,” he stated. “They told me that the Sidley Austin review was complete but they could not provide the report to me or anyone. They gave me a deadline of 8 am the next morning to tell them whether I would resign.”
David’s 2019 selection for the high-profile job was historic and was widely welcomed in many circles that applauded greater representation for Black and non-white people. He won the post—which included hobnobbing with celebrities and rubbing shoulders with politicians in Washington—thanks to his track record as a civil rights LGBTQ lawyer with the Lambda Legal Defense and Educational Fund and as a member of Governor Cuomo’s cabinet. He worked on New York’s first same-sex marriage equality case which was won but lost on appeal.
As the first African to head the HRC, David traced his roots to Liberia in an HRC brief documentary when he was selected.
“As I kid I had everything I could want,” he says in the film. “But I learned at a young age how fragile equality and freedom can be.”
“I woke up to gunshots at the front door,” he recalls of the Samuel Doe coup in 1980. “My father threw my brothers and my sister and me out the window.”
His uncle was assassinated. His father was imprisoned. He recalled watching the television as Doe’s troops murdered 13 cabinet ministers on a beach, fearing his father was among them.
David, born in 1971 in the United States, hailed from the Americo-Liberian aristocracy which ruled Liberia since its founding in 1822. He returned to Liberia as a small child. David’s father once served as mayor of Monrovia and his uncle, William R. Tolbert, Jr. was Vice President for 19 years and President until Doe’s coup.
After 18 months under house arrest, David and his family sought political asylum in Baltimore in the US when he was 10.
David would go on to study law at Temple University, in the United States, clerking for a respected judge, fighting nationally for the LGBTQ community, and later found himself hobnobbing with top brass of the Democratic Party on Capitol Hill, including working in the cabinet of disgraced former New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo.
LGBTQ community in Liberia
Until his involvement in Cuomo’s case, David’s powerful personality has been relatively unknown to the underground gay community in his home country. Acquaintances say he felt unsafe to travel to Liberia as an openly gay man because of the hostility to LGBTQ people in the country. David had spent most of his adult life in America’s North East where LGBTQ rights including marriage are well protected and gay people are widely accepted.
David’s colleague said David was very supportive of the progress for rights by his LGBTQ brothers and sisters in his homeland. But that support had not been felt in Liberia.
Maxwell Monboe, The Coordinator of the Liberia Initiative for the Promotion of Rights, Identity, Diversity and Equality (LIPRIDE) said the group is heartbroken over the news of David’s dismissal.
“This is sad news for us.”
In an email prior to David’s dismissal, Monboe had expressed hope that the former HRC boss would use his position to advocate vociferously against laws that discriminate and stigmatize sexual minorities in Liberia.
“We’re hoping that with his position, he can be able put in word for the LGBTIQ community in Liberia that those laws that tends to discrimination and stigmatized us will be repealed so that the LGBTIQ community members can no longer live in fear and can be able to achieve their goals in a friendly environment,” Monboe wrote.
LGBTQ Liberians continue to face widespread threats, assault, harassment, and hate speech, according to the 2020 U.S. State Department Human Rights report.
Raham Johnson (name changed to protect identity), an activist and hero in the Liberian gay community, also expressed disappointment with David’s stint at the leadership of Human Rights Campaign.
“His two years in leadership at HRC didn’t bring any help to the LGBT community in Liberia,” he says. “Of course I wish he could have used his platform to bring to light issues affecting the LGBTQ community here.”
There is no indication that any leaders in the LGBTQ community in Liberia reached out to David before his dismissal. It appears his Liberian connection was unknown to any of them.
By email, David in a statement to FrontPage Africa and journalRAGE stated the fight for equality is a global effort and he is proud it has taken roots in faraway places like his homeland.
“Given my roots in Liberia, I am especially grateful to see vigilant advocacy for LGBTQ rights in Liberia and other parts of the continent. There is a tremendous amount of work ahead to ensure true equality in our laws and hearts.”
LGBTQ Liberians have faced an uptick in harassment and attacks in the last year.
Johnson played a pivotal role in the arrest of Cheeseman Cole, an ex-soldier who allegedly brutalized 27 men suspected of being gay. Last October, ex-personnel of the Armed Forces of Liberia, Cheeseman Cole, was arrested, for reportedly “catfishing” over 27 men on social media and brutalizing them when they showed up at his residence. He claimed it was a divine mission ordained by God to cleanse Liberia of its LGBTQ population.
Two men—Dominic Renner and Winston Toe— remain missing from Cole’s attacks. The Liberia National Police has given no update on the status of the investigation.
Though Cole was investigated, forwarded to the court, and detained for a brief period at the Monrovia Central Prison, he is currently free on bail awaiting prosecution by the Ministry of Justice.
The spokesperson of the Ministry of Justice, Maude Somah, said her boss, Solicitor General Syrenius Cephus, is following up with the county attorney on the status of the prosecution.
Recently, a student of the Trinity United Methodist School was expelled for crossdressing when a viral video on Facebook showed him in a playful but fiery exchange with a female street preacher who had sought to preach damnation upon him.
Liberian law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults. Article 14.74, 14.79, and 50.7 [of the Penal Code of 1976] consider voluntary sodomy as a first-degree misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to one year imprisonment.
Though the country has not defined its stance on the protection of the rights of its LGBTQ population, Attorney General, F. Musah Dean, during the launch of the UN SOGIE report in November 2020 at a private resort said the Liberian constitution guarantees protection for all.
The election of U.S. President Joe Biden with a promise of protection of LGBTQ communities worldwide ignited a glimmer of hope for the Liberian gay community.
This story was a collaboration with journalRAGE and New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.