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U.S. continues to push for Asian Development Bank LGBTQ, intersex safeguard

Chantale Wong says Biden administration continues ‘to press our position’

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Ambassador Chantale Wong is the U.S. director of the Asian Development Bank. (Photo by Kirth Bobb)

The U.S. director of the Asian Development Bank last month said the Biden administration continues to push for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity to the institution’s safeguards.

“We continue to press our position, the U.S. government position,” Amb. Chantale Wong told the Washington Blade on Oct. 15 during a telephone interview.

The ADB, which is based in the Philippines, seeks to promote economic and social development through the Asia-Pacific Region. Wong, who is the first openly lesbian U.S. ambassador, spoke with the Blade while she was in D.C. to attend the annual World Bank Fall Meetings.

The Treasury Department has endorsed the safeguard. Wong said Assistant Secretary for International Trade and Development Alexia Latortue, who headed the U.S. delegation to the ADB’s annual meeting that took place at its Manila headquarters in late September, raised the safeguard throughout the gathering.

“Alexia would bring up the safeguards and what the U.S. government’s proposal is and we were urging them to adopt that,” said Wong. “That was very powerful.”

The ADB board is expected to vote on the proposed safeguard in late 2023.

Wong recently met with activists in Bhutan, Palau

President Joe Biden in 2021 issued a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of his administration’s overall foreign policy. Wong is one of seven American ambassadors who are openly gay or lesbian.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during an Aug. 1 speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore spoke in support of LGBTQ and intersex rights.

Wong was among those who attended the speech, which coincided with a Congressional delegation to Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan that Pelosi led. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Aug. 21 announced his country will decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations. 

“I was really pleased to see and hear the speaker bring up LGBTQ issues and how they’re (LGBTQ and intersex people) productive members of society and that criminal laws have no place in modern society to hamper a whole group of people of who they love, who they are,” said Wong. “It was incredible for me to be witness to the speaker’s message there.”

Wong early last month traveled to Bhutan to attend the Subregional Conference on ADB Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Framework in South Asia.

Lawmakers in the small kingdom in the Himalayas that borders India and China in 2020 voted to amend portions of the country’s Penal Code that had been used to criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations. 

Wong said she met with government officials, LGBTQ and intersex activists and representatives of other civil society organizations from Bhutan and five other countries — India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives — while at the conference. Wong noted Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck told her that his wife, Queen Jetsun Pema, publicly supported the decriminalization of homosexuality in the country.

Ambassador Chantale Wong, the U.S. director of the Asian Development Bank, front row, fourth from left, meets with LGBTQ and intersex activists in Bhutan. (Photo courtesy of Chantale Wong)

Wong in September met with members of Living All Inclusive in Belau, an LGBTQ and intersex rights group in Palau, an island country in the Western Pacific.

She told the Blade that Palauan Finance Minister Kaleb Udui during their meeting initially said there is no discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in his country because there are no discriminatory laws in place.

“When I spoke with the LGBTQ activists in Palau, they said yes, there is prejudice going on and it has an impact on their ability to get services and there’s consequences from those prejudice areas,” said Wong. “I was able to take their feedback and actually give it back to the minister. He was like, ‘oh, I didn’t know that and that’s good to know.”

Ambassador Chantale Wong, the U.S. director of the Asian Development Bank, third from left, meets with members of Living All Inclusive in Belau, an LGBTQ and intersex rights group in Palau, in September 2022. (Photo courtesy of Chantale Wong)

Wong said she tries to meet with LGBTQ and intersex activists in the countries she visits and raises their concerns with government officials.

“I try to meet with the local LGBTQ activists in various places just to understand what their particular situation is and their plight and what their particular challenges are,” said Wong. “I try not to promise what ADB can do or not do, but certainly if there is anything that ADB is doing that’s harmful, I want to know that.”

Wong acknowledged anti-LGBTQ and anti-intersex laws remain on the books in many countries in the Asia-Pacific Region. Wong also said it will be a “huge challenge in implementing” the ADB safeguards.

“We fully recognize that,” she said. “But because of criminal laws, members of the community are very much the most vulnerable of the vulnerable … an institution like ADB needs to step up to provide and protect those that are most vulnerable.”  

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Members of Congress meet with transgender activist in Japan

California Congressman Mark Takano among trip participants

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Fumino Sugiyama (Photo courtesy of Congressman Maxwell Alejandro Frost's Twitter page)

A group of U.S. lawmakers last month met with a prominent transgender activist in Japan while they were in the country.

U.S. Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and French Hill (R-Ark.) met with Fumino Sugiyama, a former member of Japan’s female fencing team who is now fighting for legal recognition of trans people in Japan. The D.C.-based Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, which organized the congressional delegation that also included a trip to South Korea, arranged the meeting.

“Members of the delegation were very, very impressed with Fumino,” Takano told the Washington Blade last week during a telephone interview.

Frost, who is the first Gen Z’er elected to Congress, on Feb. 24 in a series of tweets praised Fumino and his advocacy efforts.

“One of my favorite meetings in Tokyo was meeting with trans organizer and activist, Fumino Sugiyama,” tweeted Frost. “Japan is still working through passing real anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBTQ+ folks and I felt incredibly inspired by Fumino and his fight.”

“He laid out the struggle and how the community is battling both legal and cultural roadblocks to even be recognized,” said Frost. “I spoke with him about the current fight in Florida and how Gov. DeSantis is targeting LGBTQ+ kids.”

Frost also said he is “working on setting up a virtual meeting between Fumino and a student activists in Florida.”

“I think his story can provide some inspiration for the struggle here,” he said.

The trip began on Feb. 20 and ended on Feb. 26.

Takano arrived in Japan before the trip began.

The openly gay man of Japanese descent visited Pride House Tokyo, the country’s first permanent LGBTQ and intersex community center that opened ahead of the 2021 Summer Olympics that took place in Tokyo. 

Takano participated in a “fireside chat” with LGBTQ and intersex Japanese people and expatriots, and met with a Goldman Sachs executive who he said is one of the few prominent people in the country who is out.

“Japan is still, pretty much I would say a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ society, but unlike the United States, Japan as a whole does not have violent homophobia where people are beat up or gay bashed or that kind of thing,” said Takano. “There is harassment and bullying in the schools. People face discomfort in the workplace and … until now it’s not like a coming out kind of society, but it’s not a place where (homosexuality is) criminalized and people suffer violence.”

From left: U.S. Reps. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.); Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yasutoshi Nishimura; U.S. Reps. French Hill (R-Ark.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) (Photo courtesy of Mark Takano’s office)

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel also invited Takano to attend a reception with members of the Japanese Diet (legislature)’s LGBT Caucus. (Takano noted to the Blade that none of them are openly LGBTQ or intersex.)

“I got a great sense of where things were, the state of play of this question of nondiscrimination language,” said Takano.

The trip began less than a month after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s top aide, Masayoshi Arai, told reporters that he would “not want to live next door” to a same-sex couple and he does “not even want to look at them.” Arai also said marriage equality in Japan would “change the way society is” and “quite a few people would abandon this country.”

Kishida fired Arai.

The prime minister on Feb. 17 apologized for Arai’s comments during a meeting with Pride House Tokyo President Gon Matsunaka and other LGBTQ and intersex activists. Kishida on Feb. 28 nevertheless said he does not feel the lack of marriage rights for same-sex couples in Japan is discriminatory.

Members of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party this week introduced a marriage equality bill in the Diet lower house. 

Takano noted 20 members of the “hardline” Abe faction of Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe led before his 2022 assassination remain the main stumbling block to marriage equality and efforts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Takano stressed, however, the activists with whom he spoke in Japan welcome the increased attention around these issues.

“The fact that he’s having to comment on marriage equality is indicative of the Japanese media focusing attention on LGBT issues,” he said, referring to Kishida. “The sense among Japanese queer activists is that keeping the LGBT issue, or LGBT issues on the front page is very much something that works to their advantage.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) speaks with Japanese reporters at Pride House Tokyo (Photo courtesy of Takano’s office)

Takano further acknowledged Arai’s comments and reaction to them has sparked a renewed debate about LGBTQ and intersex rights in the country.

“He (Arai) really hasn’t suffered a huge consequence for those remarks,” said Takano, noting Arai remains in his post with the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. “The question in Japan right now is will they just enact a law that is symbolic and checks the box, or will they advance substantive LGBT nondiscrimination protections.”

Takano referenced a Kyodo News poll that indicates 65 percent of people in Japan support legal protections for LGBTQ and intersex people. This figure increases to 80 percent among young people.

“It’s no wonder the activists are saying keep this in the news,” he said.

Takano was with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) when she led a congressional delegation to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore last summer. Takano led a congressional delegation to Japan in November 2021.

“Japan plays such a key role in the Indo-Pacific as America’s most vital ally,” he said. “Japan moving forward in this area of LGBT rights and equality, I believe, will be highly consequential to progress in Asia as a whole.” 

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India’s Odisha state launches program to empower transgender people

Upwards of 300 trans people have received jobs through Sweekruti

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View over Ananta Basudeva Temple by Bindu Sagara Lake in Bhubaneswar, India, on Feb. 4, 2020. (Photo by Arvid Norberg/Bigstock)

Despite being celebrated as iconic characters in ancient texts; dancing at a wedding for someone else; clapping and dancing while blessing a newborn baby at any home; transgender Indians are still ostracized and not able to get a job, get married or live a decent life. 

Such was the consequence of 200 years of British colonial suppression in India, but things are changing for trans people in India. Several states began to introduce measures to help the trans community after the Indian Supreme Court‘s 2014 ruling that recognized a trans person as a “third gender,” and the passage of the Transgender Person (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 in the Indian Parliament. Odisha, a state in eastern India, is working to make trans people part of mainstream society through its Sweekruti “acceptance” program.

The program provides critical health care, scholarships, counseling, legal aid, a certificate and skill training. According to a recent report, about 300 trans people have received jobs through Sweekruti.

“It will help create an ecosystem of equal opportunities, social justice, protection of transgender rights and full participation in society. It is opening various avenues of employment and self-employment for the community,” said Anushree Dash, a social reformer and human rights activist who founded the website ADiBha She Vision. “(The) focus is mostly on skill development and low paying jobs instead of higher education and high paying (so-called respectable) jobs. There is no trans inclusion in social sector and government sector jobs. The government’s research and scheme need to be applauded, but it needs more and more public participation. I believe there is a scope for strengthening the existing implementation machinery.”

The 2011 Census notes there are 20,322 trans people in Odisha, but 14.5 percent of respondents who participated in an online survey the state’s Social Security and Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities Department conducted in 2017 reported no income and were living in poverty.

The Odisha government in 2020 tried to improve the social and economic conditions of the trans community by introducing a monthly pension program for elderly and differently-abled trans people, but the Sweekruti program has been hailed as a successful initiative because it directly provides low-paying jobs to trans people and helps trans youth gain acceptance.

“First of all, I want to appreciate our chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, because he designed this project to empower the transgender community. This scheme mainstreams the transgender community by providing skills and jobs. So, this is a very good initiative,” said Meera Parida, a trans woman who is a State Advisor for Urban and Housing Development under the MUKTA (Mukhyamantri Karma Tatpara Abhiyan Yojana) program. “On many areas under the scheme, the work is already underway. Although it is not sufficient that it can provide everything, it is a good project for any transgender woman or man thinking about startups or wanting to get skills so they can improve their life.”

While talking with the Washington Blade, Parida said the trans community started to feel respect after the 2014 Supreme Court ruling and the passage of the 2019 law. She said it is more about dignity.

“People and government have started to talk about us and started to respect and include us in different government schemes,” said Parida. “It recognizes our presence.”

The Odisha High Court in May 2022 ordered the state government to release the family pension of a dead government employee to a trans person who was dependent on a pensioner. The Odisha government amended the pension rules nine months later. According to the new rule, a single trans child of a government employee or pensioner who died on or after Jan. 10, 2020, will be treated as an unmarried daughter for the family pension.

“Sweekruti is a good initiative, and works well in Odisha, but sometimes it is not as efficient as it should be. So, the government should fix the issue,” said Ashisha Behera, a trans activist who works with the Center for Advocacy and Research. “The initiative requires identification which is important, and it’s happening also, but sometimes the beneficiary belongs to a rural background, and many of them do not have idea about Sweekruti scheme, so government should spread awareness about it.”

While talking with the Blade, Biswa Bhusan Pattanayak, assistant director of the Bhubaneswar office of SAATHII, an LGBTQ and intersex rights group, said that one of the key components of the Sweekruti program is to facilitate access to social protection, livelihood and mainstream measures. This has been instrumental in addressing the livelihood needs of some trans people. Pattanayak, however, said mainstreaming initiatives need much larger efforts, in terms of expanding the scale and reach of livelihood initiatives.

Pattanayak added the government also simultaneously needs to address the root causes, such as discrimination and exclusion, that lead to trans and gender non-conforming children dropping out of educational institutions and being deprived of mainstream employment.

“The formulation of schemes is not enough. We need to see the issues around transgender persons from a development perspective,” said Pattanayak. “The development approach to the transgender community needs to converge initiatives and stakeholders from all sectors. We need to stop seeing transgender persons as just beneficiaries of governmental largesse; rather; recognize them as equal stakeholders in development actions.”

Ankush Kumar is a freelance 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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South Korean court rules same-sex couples are eligible for health insurance

So Seong-wook filed lawsuit in 2022

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(Bigstock photo)

A South Korean high court ruled this past week that partners in a same-sex relationship are eligible for national health insurance coverage overturning a ruling last year by a lower court that denied the benefits. 

The Korea Herald reported the Seoul High Court’s ruling is the first that recognizes the status of a same-sex partner as a dependent eligible for national health insurance, but noted that this did not mean that it recognizes the “legal status” of a same-sex marriage.

The lower court had ruled that “the union of a man and woman is still considered the fundamental element of marriage, according to civil law, precedents of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court and the general perception of society.”

The lower court had also added: “Under the current legal system, it is difficult to evaluate the relationship between two people of the same sex as a common-law relationship.”

The case was brought about by a lawsuit, filed last year by So Seong-wook, which challenged South Korea’s National Health Insurance Service after it took away his ability to receive spousal benefits from the employer of his partner Kim Yong-min.

According to the Korea Herald, the NHIS allowed Kim to register So as his dependent in early 2020 — later reversing the decision citing their same-sex marriage. It was believed to be the first such case in the country. 

In the lawsuit, So claimed he and his partner were discriminated against because the NHIS grants spousal coverage to common-law partners, often used by opposite-sex couples who are not married. 

In this week’s ruling by the high court it stated “The plaintiff and his partner are both male, but they agreed to recognize each other as loving partners who take care of each other. One financially relies on the other. They declared their partnership before their families and friends. This makes their relationship no different in essence from that of a married couple.”

Attorney Park Han-hee, a legal representative of the couple, told the Korea Herald that this landmark court decision could set a precedent to prevent discrimination against sexual minorities.

“This court ruling is not just about individuals fighting over insurance payments. Instead, I hope the ruling can set a precedent that discourages the state from hindering same-sex couples’ rights,” said Park, who identifies as transgender.

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