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Meet America’s first out lesbian ambassador

Chantale Wong on groundbreaking role as U.S. director of Asian Development Bank

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Chantale Wong, the U.S. director of the Asian Development Bank, talked to the Washington Blade this week. (Photo by Kirth Bobb)

The first openly lesbian U.S. ambassador on Wednesday discussed her historic ambassadorship with the Washington Blade during an exclusive interview in D.C.

“It is a milestone for the United States,” said Chantale Wong, the U.S. director of the Asian Development Bank. “I’m hoping that it’s not too soon that I will be joined by others.”

Wong, whom the U.S. Senate confirmed in February by a bipartisan 66-31 vote margin, represents the U.S. at the Asian Development Bank, which seeks to promote economic and social development throughout the Asia-Pacific Region. Wong is also the first openly LGBTQ person of color to serve as a U.S. ambassador.

Interim Human Rights Campaign President Joni Madison said Wong’s confirmation “is one step closer to achieving a future where all members of the LGBTQ+ community can see themselves reflected at the highest levels of government.” Wong told the Blade that she feels “a huge weight of responsibility.”

“It’s a huge responsibility I carry with me because it is the hopes and dreams of those that want to be in my position, but also the issues that I will carry forward in terms of providing inclusive growth for our community in many of these countries where the community is really criminalized and targeted, and so that is going to be my burden and my responsibility to bring forth a better livelihood for these communities.”

Brunei and Singapore are among the bank’s member countries that continue to criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations. The bank itself is based in the Philippines, a country in which dozens of LGBTQ rights groups operate.

Wong between 1999-2002 was the acting U.S. executive director of the bank’s board of directors. Wong noted the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Department granted her wife a diplomatic visa after the bank recognized their Vermont marriage.

“For me 20 years ago, it was really precedent setting,” said Wong. “I was there with my partner.”

Wong spoke with the Blade less than two weeks after a group of Democratic lawmakers in a letter they sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the State Department to do more to ensure countries recognize the same-sex partners of American diplomats. The interview also took place against the backdrop of efforts to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Asian Development Bank’s safeguards.

“In all the institutions, we come up with ensuring that any of our projects and our policies do no harm and maybe even improve the lives of the beneficiaries we try to serve,” said Wong. “Ultimately, it’s about economic development for these countries … we’ve always had labor standards, environmental standards, other social standards, social safeguards. You don’t go in and harm the people you’re trying to help.” 

Wong further noted LGBTQ people “are the vulnerable of the vulnerable because of many of the laws in these countries are specifically targeting LGBTQ people.”

“We want to really advance that issue, that you’re also looking at that community to ensure that we do no harm, but also we talk about inclusive growth, that the economies of these countries cannot fully grow if you leave out any segments of the community. So that’s the push on the SOGIE (sexual orientation and gender identity and gender expression) safeguards.”

Wong said she expects the bank’s board in 2023 will decide whether to accept the proposed LGBTQ-specific safeguard. Wong told the Blade she expects the U.S. government will endorse it, noting the Biden administration’s executive order that bans discrimination against federal employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity and its commitment to promote LGBTQ rights abroad as part of U.S. foreign policy.

“The president is very clear,” said Wong. “The question how to go about making sure that this safeguard is protective of the community. That’s the discussion that’s going on.”

Ambassador fled China as a child

Wong was born in Shanghai in 1954. Mao Tse-tung in 1958 launched the Great Leap Forward that sought to transform China into an industrial economy. Wong said the famine that resulted from the campaign killed upwards of 55 million people. 

Wong told the Blade her parents in 1960 “made the ultimate sacrifice to allow me to escape” China in the bottom of a boat that brought her and her grandmother to Hong Kong, which at the time was a British colony. Wong lived in Hong Kong with her aunt and uncle. They enrolled her in a Catholic boarding school in Macau, which at the time was a Portuguese territory.

She was baptized and given the name Chantale after St. Jane Frances de Chantal, who Wong noted is the patron saint of “forgotten people.” Wong said the first English word she learned to say and write was her name, which she practiced while taking the ferry between Hong Kong and Macau.

Wong, her aunt and uncle moved to the Japanese island of Okinawa in the mid-1960s.

President Nixon in 1972 traveled to China, and Japan the same year established diplomatic relations with the country. Wong, her aunt and uncle received Taiwanese passports that allowed them to travel to Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific Ocean. 

Wong attended an all-girls Catholic high school in Guam. The island’s governor later endorsed her for a scholarship that allowed her to enroll at the University of Hawaii. Wong later studied at the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Wong in 1982 returned to Shanghai, where she reunited with her parents who she had not seen in 21 years. Wong also met her brother whom she had never met.

Wong’s brother left China five years later and now lives in the U.S. with his family. Their parents arrived in the U.S. in 1990, a year after the Chinese government massacred pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Wong pointed out her parents were in their 60s when they left China.

“Those are the models I adhere to,” she said.

Wong further added her “journey is not unlike many of the people that we’re trying to help and nurture and economically develop.”

“I’m very mindful of my journey and what we’re trying to help,” she said.

Trump ‘fueled the fire of anti-Asian hate’

Wong throughout her career has worked to expand opportunities for people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.

She founded the Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership, a group that seeks to “empower” members of those communities to enter public service, in 1990. New York Congresswoman Grace Meng is among the organization’s alumni.

Wong also documented the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) during the final years of his life.

Ambassador Chantale Wong, right, with the late-Georgia Congressman John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in March 2019. (Photo by Pam Crist)

Wong during the interview wore a gray hoodie with the hashtag #StopAsianHate.

She noted the Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1882 law that prohibited Chinese people from entering the U.S., and Japanese internment camps during World War II. Wong also referenced Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who two white autoworkers in Detroit murdered in 1982.

Wong added “the rhetoric of the last administration fueled the fire of anti-Asian hate” during the pandemic.

“It’s a huge issue for the community,” she said. “There’s also hate against gays and lesbians.”

Chantale Wong (Photo by Kirth Bobb)
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European Union

Activists demand EU sanction Uganda over Anti-Homosexuality Act

Yoweri Museveni signed law on May 29, 2023

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Hillary Innocent Taylor Seguya, an LGBTQ rights activist, speaks at a protest in front of the European Union Delegation to the United States’s offices in D.C. on April 18, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

More than a dozen activists who protested in front of the European Union Delegation to the United States in D.C. on Thursday demanded the EU to sanction Uganda over the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act.

Hillary Innocent Taylor Seguya, a Ugandan LGBTQ activist, and Global Black Gay Men Connect Executive Director Micheal Ighodaro are among those who spoke at the protest. Health GAP Executive Director Asia Russell also participated in the event that her organization organized along with GBGMC and Convening for Equality Uganda, a Ugandan LGBTQ rights group.

(Washington blade video by michael k. lavers)

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni last May signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act that, among other things, contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

The country’s Constitutional Court on April 3 refused to “nullify the Anti-Homosexuality Act in its totality.” A group of Ugandan LGBTQ activists have appealed the ruling.

A press release that Health GAP issued ahead of Thursday’s protest notes EU Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen on March 6 announced more than €200 million ($212.87 million) for Uganda in support of “small business owners, young female entrepreneurs, agribusinesses as well as vital digital infrastructure projects in full Team Europe format with the European Investment Bank (EIB) and several member states.”

“These concrete initiatives will make a difference to aspiring entrepreneurs, Ugandan businesses and create jobs in multiple sectors,” said Urpilainen in a press release that announced the funds. “This is a perfect example of how Global Gateway can make a tangible difference for citizens and businesses and unlock the full potential of a partner country by working together.”

Convening for Equality Uganda on Tuesday in a letter they sent to Urpilainen asked the EU to review all funding to Uganda and “pause or reprogram any funds that go via government entities.” The protesters on Thursday also demanded European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen “to hold Ugandan President Museveni’s government accountable for this attack on human rights.”

Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, in a statement he released after Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act said the law “is contrary to international human rights law and to Uganda’s obligations under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, including commitments on dignity and nondiscrimination, and the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.”

“The Ugandan government has an obligation to protect all of its citizens and uphold their basic rights,” said Borrell. “Failure to do so will undermine relationships with international partners.”

“The European Union will continue to engage with the Ugandan authorities and civil society to ensure that all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity, are treated equally, with dignity and respect,” he added.

Urpilainen last September in a letter to the European Parliament said the EU would not suspend aid to Uganda over the law.

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India

Indian political parties for the first time include LGBTQ rights in election platforms

Voters will begin to cast ballots on April 19

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(Photo by Rahul Sapra via Bigstock)

The world’s largest democratic exercise will begin in India on April 19 as citizens begin to cast their votes in the country’s election.

This year’s election is different because national level political parties for the first time are promising to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples as part of their election platforms. 

The Indian National Congress, one of India’s oldest political parties, promised after wide consultation that it would introduce a bill that would recognize civil unions between couples who are part of the LGBTQ community. The party, which has governed India for the majority of the period since independence from the U.K. in 1947, has refrained from taking a stance on laws that include Section 377, which criminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations.

Then-Health Minister Gulam Nabi Azad in 2011 when the INC was in power said homosexuality is a disease. He made the controversial comment while speaking at an HIV/AIDS conference in New Delhi, the Indian capital.

“Unfortunately, this disease has come to our country too,” said Azad. “Where a man has sex with another man, which is completely unnatural and should not happen but does.”

When the Delhi High Court was hearing the Naz Foundation case, the Home Affairs Ministry opposed the striking down of Section 377 based on its belief that homosexuality cannot be morally condoned. The INC never struck down Section 377, which criminalized homosexuality, in parliament.

A 5-judge panel on the Supreme Court on Sept. 6, 2018, decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) on April 4 unveiled its platform with a range of socialist commitments, including support for LGBTQ rights. Among these pledges is to amend the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 to address community concerns and ensure legal recognition and protection for same-sex couples akin to marriage. 

The platform also outlined plans to introduce a bill similar to the Special Marriage Act of 1954, which allows partners to be listed as dependents and facilitating like inheritance, alimony in the event of divorce and other issues. The party further pledged to enact a comprehensive anti-discriminatory bill that would include LGBTQ people, ensure quotas in educational institutions and implement horizontal reservations in employment. 

Addressing the issue of crimes against LGBTQ people, the platform promised to treat such offenses on par with crimes against heterosexuals. The platform also calls for tackling bullying, violence and harassment of gender non-conforming and LGBTQ people in educational settings, enforcing anti-hazing policies and combating hazing based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

The platform further touched issues related to transition and informed consent.

The Special Marriage Act of 1954 is a law that provides for civil unions among Indians and Indian nationals who live abroad, regardless of the religion or faith followed by either party. This law enables people from two different religious backgrounds to enter into marriage. Parliament in 2019 passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act that extended rights to trans people.

Brinda Karat, a former member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament, and leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), spoke with the Washington Blade and said the current government has homophobic ideas that are not acceptable to the party.

The ruling government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is striving to secure more than 400 parliament seats in the upcoming election, aiming for a substantial majority. 

Various polls conducted by Indian news organizations indicate a probable victory for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. In response to the BJP’s dominance, Congress and several national and regional parties have joined forces as the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance. 

This alliance comprises 26 opposition political parties. Despite its formation, however, there is no clear coalition strategy in place and only two parties have included LGBTQ-specific policies in their election platforms. 

The Blade reached out to Congress’ spokesperson for comment, but has not received a response. The BJP also did not respond to a request for comment.

The party has yet to release its election platform. 

Ankush Kumar is a reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion. 

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Africa

Ugandan activists appeal ruling that upheld Anti-Homosexuality Act

Country’s Constitutional Court refused to ‘nullify’ law

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(Image by rarrarorro/Bigstock)

Twenty-two LGBTQ activists in Uganda have appealed this month’s ruling that upheld the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act.

The Constitutional Court on April 3 refused to “nullify the Anti-Homosexuality Act in its totality.”

President Yoweri Museveni last May signed the law, which contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

The U.S. subsequently imposed visa restrictions on Ugandan officials and removed the country from a program that allows sub-Saharan African countries to trade duty-free with the U.S. The World Bank Group also announced the suspension of new loans to Uganda.

Media reports indicate Sexual Minorities Uganda Executive Director Frank Mugisha and Jacqueline Kasha Nabagesara are among the activists who filed the appeal.

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