Image: Chantele Wong.

Meet America’s first openly lesbian Ambassador of colour who is focused on paying it forward

“I always focus on paying it forward”: Meet Chantale Wong, America’s first openly lesbian Ambassador of colour who is changing the way things are done in diplomacy.

The first thing I chat to Ambassador Chantale Wong about is marching in Mardi Gras the week she arrived in Australia. “I had asked a friend [in Sydney], 'When is Mardi Gras?’ and she said, 'This weekend!'"

Luckily, Chantale's friend had a spare ticket, so she was able to march with Equality Australia - dressed in a "blue safety vest and a hard hat." Safe to say, we're off to a great start and by the end of the call, we decide that the next time Chantale's here, we need to grab a coffee.

To say that Chantale has an incredible life story is an understatement. The Ambassador fled China as a child in 1960, hiding in the bottom of a boat with her grandmother. She emphasises that her parents “made the ultimate sacrifice to allow me to escape.” Chantale and her grandmother arrived safely in Hong Kong, a British colony at the time, where she was baptised and given the name Chantale after St Jane Frances de Chantal, who Wong notes was the patron saint of “forgotten people.” 

Chantale acknowledges “I’m definitely one of the lucky ones. My parents made the decision to have me leave, around the time of the famine. It was one of Mao’s mistaken economic pushes and threw the country into great famine. They estimate 30-40 million people died because of that famine.”

She says the experience was formative and shaped her career, advocacy, and life’s work. “I always focus on paying it forward so that other little girls don't have to go through the challenges that I have," she says. "I have been so lucky. Being in the US, these opportunities don’t come in many countries we work in. But I’m able to move up and have opportunities.”

She then went on to become the first openly lesbian person of colour in the rank of US Ambassador, and is now the United States Director of the Asian Development Bank. Does being the first in so many spaces mean she feels a huge responsibility?

“Absolutely, I feel a huge responsibility on my shoulders. I've told folks that really helped me get to this place - it wasn’t one person, it was a whole community. There's the Asian-American community who helped propel me into this space. I told the LGBTQ community that I needed a lot of help. The job that I had as Ambassador was to ensure that the most vulnerable around this region - making sure that what we do doesn’t harm them.”

She has broken many barriers in her various roles within the US government - true to her life's mission of paying it forward, for those who will come up through the ranks after her. Chantale was the acting US executive director of the bank's board of directors when the Philippines' Foreign Affairs Department granted Chantale's wife a diplomatic visa. “For me 20 years ago, it was really precedent setting,” Chantale told the Washington Blade. “I was there with my partner.”

The Ambassador says that being the first openly lesbian ambassador in the US also makes her want to work harder to make change for her community in Asia, through her work with the Asian Development Bank. “Even in the Pacific islands, we’re facing challenges. We have 17 countries where it's still criminal [same-sex relationships]. Places where they seek out gay men and put them in jail. They're stigmatised against it. Even with vaccines, they don’t feel comfortable getting them in a state-run hospital. It’s also about lack of education, hospital access, stigma and discrimination. It’s a huge issue for that community.”

Throughout her career, Chantale has also strongly advocated for opportunities for those of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. She founded the Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership - a group that empowers members from these communities to enter public service. Chantale also famously wore a grey hoodie with the hashtag #StopAsianHate, during an interview and spoke publicly about the "rhetoric of the last administration" that fuelled the "fire of anti-Asian hate."

Chantale Wong (Photo by Kirth Bobb)

We touch on the importance of lived experience in roles like hers - particularly in policy-making. “Gosh, of course. Being a minority - certainly in the US - I wear a hoodie saying "Stop Asian Hate," and in some ways that's going to make my job harder. Being a woman, being Asian, being gay. Those are huge things that are stacked against me."

So then, what's her advice to people like her and women coming up? She's matter-of-fact: "You need to work harder, you have to be better, you have to be ready. "But" and here she smiles, "My role is to ensure that we provide pathways for people like me to come through." So don't think for a second you can't do this. You have me now."