Alphonso David is both the first black man and the first openly gay man to serve as chief counsel to the governor of New York, a role he has held since 2015. But even before he made history as the third most powerful figure in New York state government, he spent his career leading the charge for marriage equality in various capacities.
As a staff attorney at Lambda Legal from 2004-2007, David worked on New York’s first marriage equality case, Hernandez v. Robles. They won at the trial court but lost on appeal, so when offered the chance to work in government on the issue, as the state’s first deputy secretary for civil rights, he jumped at the opportunity. In that role, he helped pave the way for the 2011 act that brought marriage equality to New York, four years before Obergefell v Hodges made it law nationwide. He oversaw last-minute negotiations on the bill, and was also responsible for the mundane-but-crucial tasks – updating official forms; briefing municipal officials – that allowed for a smooth rollout after its passage.
“There is a fundamental right to marry, and it is not limited by an individual’s sexual orientation,” David told law blogger Shauna C. Bryce in an interview. “To see that we were able to successfully advance that principle is amazing.”
Please describe how and when you first knew you were LGBT+:
I looked in the mirror (both literally and spiritually) and accepted myself.
How has coming out influenced your leadership approach and style?
When we are honest, nothing can cage us. There is no real fear to materialize and paralyze us.
Who are your role models?
My mother, my father, and my family.
If you could have any job other than the one you have now, it would be:
I am still exploring.
The most important thing I have learned from a boss is:
The most important thing I have learned from an employee is:
The importance of motivating employees and demonstrating empathy (as appropriate)
If I could tell someone who is graduating from college this year one thing I’ve learned, it would be:
Never forget your own capacity
A time a sponsor helped me take my next step:
By reminding me that often people arrive at conclusions with too little evidence and encouraged me to explore opportunities I had previously dismissed.
The best interview question I have ever heard is:
What is the one significant professional disappointment that you should recharacterize as a success?
My most important Ally is:
This person is my LGBT+ hero, because:
James Baldwin, who dared to dream big and beyond the limitations others placed on him.
My first job was:
A waiter in a restaurant while attending college.
The most tantalizing leadership opportunity I see in the world right now is:
Effectively instilling knowledge, awareness and empowerment to those who have been historically denied access/opportunities
The best piece of advice I ever received was:
Your life will shrink or expand proportional to your courage
My motto is:
The next big thing for the global LGBT+ community is:
Addressing and conquering internal bias within the LGBT+ community
If you were planning a dinner party and could invite any five people from history, who would they be, and why?
James Baldwin, Mahatmas Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Maya Angelou and Meryl Streep. They were/are unreasonably intelligent, gracious, insightful, and focused on the human condition and how we achieve the elusive but all too important dream of equality.
What would be the opening song in a movie about your life, and why?
“Feeling Good” by Nina Simone. It represents the lyricism, transcendence and the perpetual rebirth that I see life promising every day.
The six things I could never live without are:
Meaningful work, music, films, yoga, ethnic foods and sunshine.
My favorite vacation destination is:
The three books I would take to a deserted island are:
Conversations with James Baldwin, edited by Fred Standley and Louis Pratt
Yoga Mala, by K. Pattabhi Jois
Gore Vidal’s United States Essays 1952-1992