Q&A: Masen Davis Joins Our Team as CEO and Looks Ahead to the Work to Win LGBTQ Non-Discrimination Nationwide

By Adam Polaski • November 22, 2017 • 2:34 pm

Masen Davis, CEO at Freedom for All AmericansThis month Masen Davis, longtime advocate for LGBTQ equality, came aboard the Freedom for All Americans team as Chief Executive Officer. After spending the last two decades working to advance LGBTQ equality – including in his leadership roles as Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center and Co-Director of Global Action for Trans* Equality – we’re thrilled to have Masen at the helm of the campaign to win LGBTQ non-discrimination protections nationwide.

For two years, Masen has served as a board member for the Freedom for All Americans Education Fund, advising the staff on projects, programs, and campaigns, and now we’re honored to have him leading as CEO.

During his first week on the job, we spoke with Masen about his background, his thoughts for the future, and why now is the moment we all must be doing everything we can to advance equal treatment for LGBTQ Americans. Take a look!

Welcome to the Freedom for All Americans team, Masen Davis! What makes you excited to join this campaign, especially at this particular moment in our movement?

I’m incredibly excited to be at Freedom for All Americans. We are in such an exciting and hard moment in the trajectory toward LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections and full equality. It’s a complicated time, but we’ve got the team that we need to be smart and strategic, to be thoughtful about short-term opportunities, and to pave the path to victory.

It’s not going to be quick or easy, but we have best-in-class staff with proven track records thinking everyday about how to win full equality for our community. And it is such an honor to be a part of this whip-smart team of folks who are 100% focused on getting us over the finish line.

Masen Davis, CEO at Freedom for All Americans

Why are you passionate about this fight, and what does the non-discrimination work mean to you?

Non-discrimination advocacy has been a constant thread throughout my life.

My first job, at 14 years of age in Kansas City, MO, was working at an ice cream shop. Early on, I was instructed how to accept applications for employment – my manager said something like, “When someone comes in and applies for a job, here’s the filing cabinet, here’s the folder, here’s where you put the application.” Then they paused and added, “Unless they’re black, and then you put them here,” and my manager held up the trash can and dropped a piece of paper in.

We are in such an exciting and hard moment in the trajectory toward LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections and full equality.

I wound up resigning from the job at 14, and I wrote a letter to the EEOC about employment discrimination. I’ve just always been incredibly conscious of the importance of nondiscrimination, in part because of that experience, which has really stuck with me.

Unfortunately, not everyone is treated fairly in this country. Our ability to walk through life, to take care of our family and ourselves, often has nothing to do with the ability to do our job. Sometimes employers’ biased perception of our sexual orientation, race, or gender identity plays a role, and that’s not right.

My job directly after college was advocating for gay and lesbian survivors of discrimination. Even with very few protections in the early 90s, I would sit with the gay employee and their manager to mediate allegations of discrimination and to recommend policies and practices to ensure everyone could be treated fairly and equally in the workplace, even with the very few legal protections we had.

That’s where I come from, and those are the sorts of experiences I bring to the FFAA work. In my time at the Transgender Law Center, we heard from thousands of people a year experiencing discrimination in the workplace – transgender people who just wanted to be treated fairly so they could take care of themselves and their families. FFAA’s work is so important because it brings people together to figure out how we can make non-discrimination and freedom real for all LGBTQ Americans.

Masen Davis, CEO at Freedom for All Americans

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in just a few days. At its heart, the case is about the importance of non-discrimination protections – what do you want people to know about it?

We could have a very big year at the Supreme Court. Masterpiece is going to be argued next month, and there are a few other big cases that have been petitioned to the Supreme Court, including cases asking the Court to recognize that anti-LGBTQ discrimination constitutes discrimination based on sex, which is prohibited at the federal level in employment, schools, and housing.

We have a lot at stake at the Supreme Court with the Masterpiece case, and we should all be paying attention.

On its face, it may seem like a relatively simple case – on one hand it’s about whether wedding cake service denial is allowed. While some people think, “Oh, it’s just a cake – just go next door to the next store,” that fails to acknowledge what’s really at stake here. First, we need to realize that many LGBTQ people live in rural areas, where having an LGBTQ supportive retailer cannot be taken for granted. And second, we need to ask ourselves as Americans, do we want signs up in retail shops detailing who can and cannot be served? This has historically not been our path.

As a country, we have generally believed public businesses should be serving the public, and a bad decision from SCOTUS around Masterpiece could open up the floodgates to discrimination targeting LGBTQ people. There’s no reason to think that this could not extend to opening the door to discrimination based on someone’s religion, race, or some other factor. We need to watch this case not just for our community but for the basic security of civil rights in this country for all populations.

In challenging political landscapes we tend to hone in on the negative and ignore bright spots – but as tough as 2017 has been, momentum is clearly building for equal treatment. What are you most optimistic about with the LGBTQ non-discrimination movement in the coming year?

We all know that the last year has been really challenging for many communities, including LGBTQ people, and I think we have an opportunity for people respond to and react to some of the really negative messaging and actions around LGBTQ folks. We can build on that in a way that brings more folks to us.

A great example of how this worked in practice was Trump’s anti-transgender military tweets and policy. Obviously that was a step backward and it was very challenging to see our president challenge active service members and veterans who have served our country. It was a very dark moment in many ways, but the reaction to Trump’s tweets was one of the most hopeful things we have seen in a long time. We saw Republicans like Orrin Hatch coming out very publicly in support of transgender Americans, and we saw people on both sides of the aisle asking good questions and making statements in support of transgender people. While we are living in a challenging time, I do believe we’re going to come out stronger in the end. It may not be fast and it may not be easy, but we’re getting more champions every day.

Masen Davis serving as US delegate at the High Level meeting on HIV at the United Nations in 2016

Masen Davis serving as US delegate at the High Level meeting on HIV at the United Nations in 2016

What are going to be the biggest challenges for the work to win LGBTQ non-discrimination in the months and years ahead?

I’m very concerned that we’re so polarized right now in the United States. While many of us are experiencing significant challenges, regardless of we are on the political spectrum, we aren’t always great at listening to each other.

It’s a challenge for our work, but it’s one reason FFAA’s role is so important – We are a bipartisan campaign committed to listening to people of all ideological backgrounds, working with a laser focus on finding a pathway forward to LGBTQ nondiscrimination.

That’s not easy in this moment – there’s more attention to attacks and hyperbole rather than listening and the creation of a shared vision for our community. It’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity.

I do believe we’re going to come out stronger in the end. It may not be fast and it may not be easy, but we’re getting more champions every day.

We have so much work to do: So many LGBTQ Americans are hurting deeply right now, targeted for discrimination without sufficient protections. In a majority of states, the lack of explicit non-discrimination protections leaves LGBTQ people vulnerable to discrimination, and sometimes the fear of that unequal treatment can be enough to derail someone’s entire life.

LGBTQ people have been hurting for far too long – that’s why we all need to come together, put aside our differences, and support each other by fighting for equal treatment at all levels of government.

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