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Anthony D. Romero, a former public-interest attorney, is the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He is the ACLU's sixth executive director, and the first Latino and openly[…]

Anthony Romero charts his career as a rights activist.

Question: Why did you enter into a career as a civil libertarian and activist?

Anthony Romero: I think I was always bit of a rebel, and I finally found the right cause. I’ve always believed that a person has to determine his own future, and people say, “What are civil liberties are all about? What are human rights is all about?” It’s a right to live with dignity. No matter who you are, either gay or straight, citizen or an immigrant, woman or man, whether you’re a member of the NWCPO or the Nazi party; in America you’ve got rights no matter who you are. No matter how much you love someone or you hate someone. That is the beauty of our nation. These rights don’t attach to you because you’re one group or you’re wealthy or you’re popular.

It’s often the unpopular who have the greatest difficulty exercising their rights. I often tell people Mary Poppins isn’t coming to our office to tell us that she’s been tortured because they took away her umbrella. It’s some of the most difficult clients and defendants who have been tortured, and you might not like the clients, you might not like what they’re being accused of, but we can’t change what they did to us. We can change what we did to them, and it’s often by taking those very controversial cases and some of the most unappetizing clients, or the most unappetizing effects, that we protect the core values that protect everybody on the street.

For me, that’s been always the thing: I’ve always cared most about that it was a place where you can work on the rights of all people. You know, I’m gay but we care about gay rights, I’m Latino but I care about the rights of African-Americans, I’m a man but I care about women’s rights. And what’s remarkable is that this is an organization that’s dedicated to the protecting the rights of all people, and sometimes people turn their noses at us and say, “How could you defend that person? Why are you concerned with terrorists at one time, or why are you concerned with the Nazi party, or why are you concerned about the Ku-Klux Klan’a right to freedom of speech or freedom of association?”

If you could ever allow the government to begin to chop away those rights for individuals who are not popular, you will soon find that those rights are a lot less stable and secure in the lives of all Americans, and that’s the beauty of this organization. I mean what’s old is what’s new, and I think it will be always the challenge of this Democracy to confront government abuse and government trampling of individual rights.

When we first started in 1920, women didn’t have the right to vote, blacks were still being lynched and treated like 2nd class citizens, and gay people, forget it. There was no rights for gay people that time, and there was no Supreme Court case yet in 1920 that would uphold a person and his free speech rights. That almost came almost a decade later.

What’s remarkable now is that some of the things that we take for granted were the struggle of some of the early individuals who said, “I’m always going to countervailing force to government abuse.” That is our job. We will always be the watchdogs for people’s rights, and we are not an organization that’s ever going to go out of business, we can’t.

I say to America, for as long as you have individuals who use their power in abusive ways or discretionary and capricious ways, you’re going to need an ACLU to stand up against that government abuse, and so I think of us as a permanent fixture in the American political landscape. Just like we can never imagine America without Harvard, or Princeton, or some of these great research universities, we can never imagine America without the ACLU. These rights need someone who’s going to be the watchdog no matter what, and to speak truth to power. To take on popular presidents and to take on unpopular presidents and hold their feet to the fire in exactly the same way, because if we don’t then we’ll quickly find ourselves in not the country we think we belong in.

Question: Have incidents of personal discrimination influenced your outlook on civil rights?

Anthony Romero: Yeah. Actually, it was more in watching the lives of my parents. My parents came from Puerto Rico; my father didn’t speak English all that well when he got here. Spoke it okay, but not that great; when he died, he finished the fourth grade; my mother finished the 8th grade. My father worked for thirty-some odd years at a big hotel in New York. I remember when he was a houseman, which is a night work for a janitor at a hotel; I worked at the same hotel every Christmas and summer break all through college, that’s how I paid my bills to go to Princeton. I remember he wanted to go from being a janitor to being a waiter and he was told that his English wasn’t good enough, and he didn’t really buy it because he knew the waiters in the hotel; a lot of them had very thick accents—they just happened to be Italian or Greek, or German or Russian. One guy who was Greek—his English was worse than my father’s, and so he filed a grievance to his union and he got the job as a waiter.

In fact, he was a banquet waiter; he always had a great sense of humor. He said, “I don’t really need to speak English all that well because , in serving banquets, everybody gets chicken, everybody gets steak, you serve coffee or tea—it’s the only thing you have to ask people.” He certainly had the vocabulary for that. He got that job and our lives changed. We moved out of public housing—we were living in a public housing in the Bronx—and we got to a working class community in Jersey. Much nicer environment, we got our first car, I got my first stereo, my mother got her new living room set, and they stopped fighting over money.

We began to see new possibilities before us: we took our first and only family vacation to Walt Disney World. There was that kind of discrimination that would’ve kept my father as a janitor, not as a waiter, that made me understand the power of the law. There was no lawyer in my family for me to kind of use as a role model, and I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer, and I think that was the first personal event in my young life that made me think about injustice and the possibility of righting a wrong, and I still think that’s often what drives me today.

As a gay man, I know I don’t have the rights of straight people. I’m lucky enough that I’m a Princeton-Stanford graduate with some resources at my disposal. I can contract for my rights in my personal relationship that would otherwise be given as a matter of law if I were a heterosexual. But there are some rights that I won’t ever be able to get. If I die my partner, would not be able to receive my social security benefits; its not clear that if I picked up and moved anywhere in the country that I would be protected in the same way.

Even when you’re able to transact for some other ways in which you can protect a couple or protect two same type partners, the law provides you so much better protection than we’re able to contract for, and so in America, even though I feel fully empowered and I’m very lucky to have the privilege to lead this organization and make a difference in the world, in my life I still consider myself a second class citizen by law—not by fact, but by design, by public policy; until that changes that’s going to be the reality for many people across this country, and that’s not different from a lot of people who are of Hispanic or African-American or immigrant descent find a kind of discrimination everyday in their lives, often in much more aggressive ways than I confront in my life.

I’m fortunate in fact that I can dress up in a suit, and I walk down the street, and I’m not going to get profiled in the way that other people get profiled by law enforcement officials, but in America we’re still very far away from living up to the aspirations that we’ve set out for ourselves. The reality is that we’re very far away along from achieving that.

Recorded on: July 20, 2009