Connect with us

Notables

The Washington Blade interviews first Out lesbian U.S. ambassador

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

Published

on

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

WASHINGTON – 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)
Continue Reading
Advertisement

Notables

First-ever Out doctor elected as new AMA president

The anesthesiologist & LGBTQ health expert will serve as the first openly gay AMA president when he steps into the position later this month

Published

on

Dr. Jesse M. Ehrenfeld has been named president-elect of the American Medical Association (Photo courtesy of AMA)

CHICAGO – Physicians and medical students have elected Wisconsin-based anesthesiologist Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld as the first openly gay president-elect of the American Medical Association (AMA). Ehrenfeld was elected June 14 at the AMA House of Delegates’ annual meeting.

“Well, it’s certainly just an amazing feeling to know that you’ve got the confidence of your colleagues from such a broad array of practice types of modalities and perspectives,” Ehrenfeld told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview. “The association is a very diverse and increasingly diverse organization, and that’s a good thing. It’s more representative of the country and to see such broad support for a vision to move forward was really sort of heartening for me.”

The anesthesiologist and LGBTQ health expert will serve as the first openly gay AMA president when he steps into the position later this month.

“When I joined the AMA 22 years ago, roughly, I didn’t think it was possible that a gay person could be the AMA president. And certainly 175 years ago, when the AMA was founded, that felt like something that wouldn’t have been possible,” Ehrenfeld said. “And so, to look at how the association, how medicine, health professional organizations have evolved, it’s pretty remarkable when you look at what that has looked like, and that’s a reflection of society in general. But certainly, you know, another pink ceiling has been shattered.”

Ehrenfeld previously served on the AMA’s Board of Trustee’s Executive Committee. He also worked on the AMA Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians; a long-term project that was unveiled at the annual meeting.

“A big component of that is helping physicians prepare the health system so that we can make sure that we can renew our commitment to achieving optimal health for all,” Ehrenfeld said. “To do that, we have to make sure that we prioritize the needs of physicians to improve patient care.”

Ehrenfeld is an associate dean and tenured professor of anesthesiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin and has advocated for issues affecting multiple marginalized communities, such as transgender representation in the military. He emphasized the importance of diversifying the medical field to ensure better service for patients.

“We need folks from every community but particularly marginalized communities to step forward and enter the profession. That’s how patients get better care,” Ehrenfeld said “There’s data that when we have a more diverse healthcare workforce, and when we’re a more diverse community, that those health disparities inequities, actually start to go away.”

Continue Reading

Notables

Clela Rorex, first U.S. county clerk to issue gay marriage licenses has died

“Clela was so far ahead of the country on this issue that it took the United States Supreme Court 40 years to catch up”

Published

on

Clela Rorex at the Longmont Colorado Pride 2019 (Photo courtesy of Out Boulder County)

LONGMONT, CO. – Out Boulder County and the family of Clela Rorex are saddened to announce the death of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer pioneering ally, Clela Rorex. On March 27,1975 Clela issued the first marriage license to a same-sex couple in the United States. Her decision that day changed her life and was a pivotal moment in the decades long struggle for marriage equality.

“The LGBTQ+ movement lost a pioneering ally, and I lost a dear friend. Although Clela Rorex did not intend to be champion for LGBTQ+ equality, she became one on March 27, 1975 when she issued the first marriage license in the United States to a gay couple. That act of courage changed the course of her life and the course of the lives of countless LGBTQ+ people. Clela was 40 years ahead of the country’s politics on marriage equality. It would be difficult to overstate how important her decision to issue that marriage license was on the movement for marriage equality,” Mardi Moore, Executive Director of Out Boulder County said in a statement.

Just as important as her historical significance is the profound impact Clela had on local members of the LGBTQ+ community, like myself, who had the opportunity to be her friend. Clela was a blessing to everyone who knew and loved her. I once told Clela that she was the ally I needed before I knew I needed one and I meant it. Her life made a huge difference, and she will be missed,” Moore added.

Clela Rorex, in March 1975, became the first County Clerk in the United States to knowingly issue same-sex marriage licenses to gay couples – sparking a backlash she could never have predicted, and, for one couple, a decades-long struggle for legal recognition of their marriage. 

Clela’s first day as Boulder County Clerk and Recorder on January 1, 1975 was her father’s last as County Clerk in Routt County, a position he had held for 30 years. A political neophyte, Clela had run an upstart campaign against an entrenched Republican Party that had held the clerkship in Colorado for decades.

Her platform was two-pronged – 1) making it easier for people, especially students, to vote and 2) expanding access to the services offered through the clerk’s office – vehicle licensing, voter registration, and the recording of documents, including marriage licenses. 

 Historically, the role of County Clerk is, sometimes paradoxically, both uncontroversial and deeply involved in the performance of government tasks that converge with personal aspects of the lives of its citizens.

Clela, keenly aware of the frustration that government officials and institutions can provoke, quickly instituted new practices. She expanded County Clerk office hours – including remaining open over the lunch hour and late one night of each week – ensuring convenient access.

She randomized the issuance of license plate numbers, ending the practice of assigning lower-numbered plates to political elites and powerbrokers. And, she flipped the script on voter registration – making it the responsibility of the Clerk, and not the public, to register voters.  

Clela passed away on June 19, 2022 in Longmont, Colorado.

Clela Rorex was born in Denver on July 23, 1943. Within days, she was adopted by Cecil and Ruby Rorex in Steamboat Springs – where she spent her childhood. She credits her father with teaching her the principles of fairness and respect and her mother, who taught dance out of their house, with giving her confidence. “Without either of them,” she recently told this writer, “I would never have run for office.”

As a young naval wife, in 1967, Clela moved to Guantanamo Bay. It is here that she reported first experiencing government-sanctioned segregation. “Everything was segregated. Everything” she later said. “It was humiliating. It had a very strong impact on me.” 

Clela and her son returned to Colorado in 1970 and attended the University of Colorado-Boulder, earning a BA before running for County Clerk and Recorder.

Clela Rorex in 1970’s (Screenshot of archival historic news footage/YouTube)

When two men from nearby Colorado Springs entered the Boulder County Clerk office on March 26, 1975, requesting a marriage license, Clela reached out to Assistant District Attorney Bill Wise, seeking clarification about any existing Colorado state law or code that would specifically prohibit her from issuing a marriage license to two people of the same sex.

Mr. Wise quickly responded that “there is no statutory law prohibiting the issuance of a license, probably because the situation was simply not contemplated in the past by our legislature.” Clela issued the license to the couple the following day, March 27, 1975.

“After having been so deeply involved in the women’s rights movements” Clela told this writer in 2016, “who was I to then deny a right to anyone else? It wasn’t my job to legislate morality.” 

Within days of issuing the first same-sex marriage license, local, and then national, news picked up on the story. Over the course of the next month, Clela would issue five more licenses to same-sex couples. As a result, Clela reported receiving hundreds of letters and calls to her office and her home condemning and threatening her. “My son would sometimes pick up the phone,” she told this writer in 2015, ”and I could always tell when it was someone calling about the licenses, because he would get this terrified look in his eyes. It changed our lives.” 

Clela Rorex courtesy of Out Boulder County

In late April of that year, Clela complied when Colorado State Attorney General J.D. MacFarlane directed her to stop issuing the licenses to same-sex couples. But, by that point, she had issued a license to Richard Adams and Anthony Sullivan, who had traveled from California after watching Johnny Carson mock the “wacky town” in Boulder on national television.

This license, and their marriage, would set the stage for a federal battle that would resolve only 40 years later after the United State Supreme Court issued its opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage nationwide. Mr. Adams, a U.S. citizen, and Mr. Sullivan, an Australian citizen, had been seeking to establish legal permanent residency for Mr. Sullivan through marriage, and the license they obtained from Clela would play a critical role.

In 1977, Clela resigned as Boulder County Clerk and Recorder, never to hold elective office again. She raised two sons, obtained two Masters degrees, and finished her career working as a legal administrator for the Native American Rights Fund. 

In 2015, Clela celebrated the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges on the steps of the Boulder County Courthouse where she had first issued the six licenses 40 years earlier, a location that has since been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Upon hearing of the decision, former District Attorney Bill Wise told this writer that “Clela was so far ahead of the country on this issue that it took the United States Supreme Court 40 years to catch up.”

Shortly thereafter, the United States government issued a green card to Anthony Sullivan, officially recognizing the marriage license that Clela had issued in 1975 as sufficient supporting documentation for the application submitted by Mr. Sullivan and his husband, Richard Adams (who had died in 2012).

Thomas Miller, the creator and producer of a documentary chronicling this story, Limited Partnership, said that, “it was Clela’s keen sense of social justice and strong moral fortitude that make her one of the true pioneers in LGBTQ equality in America. She will always be treasured in the hearts of all who knew her.”

To this day, none of the marriage licenses that Clela Rorex issued to same-sex marriage couples have been revoked or invalidated.

Clela dedicated the last years of her life to LGBTQ+ ally-ship and advocacy, volunteering with Out Boulder County, an organization dedicated to facilitating connection, education, and programming for LGBTQ+ individuals in and around Boulder County.

She will be greatly missed, including by her sons, Scott and Aron and countless LGBTQ+ individuals around the world who embrace her and her story as beacons of hope and inspiration.

Clela’s celebration of life will be held on what would have been her 79th birthday, July 23, 2022. Details are forthcoming. At Clela’s request, in lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Clela’s name to Out Boulder County at https://outboulder.app.neoncrm.com/forms/in-memory-of-clela-rorex

Continue Reading

Notables

Chicago’s Black transgender icon Gloria Allen has died at age 76

She pioneered a charm school for young transgender people at Chicago’s Center on Halsted, offering lessons on love, makeup and manners

Published

on

Chicago’s Black transgender icon Gloria Allen (Screenshot/YouTube film trailer)

CHICAGO – Chicago transgender icon and activist Gloria Allen, who founded and ran a charm school for homeless trans youth and was the subject of the award-winning documentary “Mama Gloria” and the critically acclaimed play “Charm,” has died at the age of 76. 

Allen was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on October 6, 1945. She grew up in Chicago amid the legendary drag balls on the city’s South Side and transitioned before Stonewall with the love and support of her mother Alma, a showgirl and former Jet magazine centerfold, and her grandmother Mildred, a seamstress for crossdressers and strippers.  

Allen overcame traumatic violence in high school to become an out and proud leader in her community. She earned a LPN and worked at the University of Chicago Hospital and in private homes as a nurse’s aide. In her later years, she pioneered a charm school for young transgender people at Chicago’s Center on Halsted, offering lessons on love, makeup and manners that she received from her mother and grandmother. The young people affectionately nicknamed her “Mama Gloria.” 

Her life and activism were featured in the Chicago Tribune and served as inspiration for the hit play “Charm,” written by Philip Dawkins. The play premiered at Steppenwolf Garage Theater in Chicago before traveling to Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and New York.

For her work with the charm school, Allen was awarded the Living Legend Award by Janet Mock and Precious Brady-Davis at the 2014 Trans 100 Awards. She famously appeared on the cover of the book, “To Survive on This Shore,” with photographs and interviews of trans and non-binary elders by Jess T. Dugan.

In 2020, she became the subject of the acclaimed documentary feature “Mama Gloria,” directed by Luchina Fisher. The film was broadcast on “Afropop: the Ultimate Cultural Exchange” on World channel and PBS and was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award. The documentary brought Allen new audiences and new fame. Her story was featured in People magazine, the 19th News, the BBC and NowThisNews. In 2021, she received SAGE’s Advocacy Award for Excellence in Leadership on Aging Issues at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual Creating Change Conference.

Allen’s body was discovered Monday morning in her apartment at the LGBTQ-friendly senior residence Town Hall Apartments in Chicago. She is believed to have died peacefully in her sleep. She is survived by several siblings and numerous nieces and nephews, as well as her chosen family.

“I hit walls that were up against me, but I pressed through the walls and made myself known to everybody because I’m not ashamed, and I want people to know that,” she told The 19th News.

ChiFilmFest 2020 | Mama Gloria – Official Trailer:

Meet Mama Gloria. Chicago’s Black transgender icon Gloria Allen emerged from the South Side’s drag ball culture in the 1960s to trailblaze a path for transgender youth to follow. With positivity and polish, she overcame prejudice and traumatic violence to become a proud leader in her community.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us @LosAngelesBlade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts

Popular