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The Unexpected Question

By Chloe Schwenke, Ph.D., President, Center for Values in International Development, Washington, DC

In the West Wing of the White House, the Roosevelt Room is just across the corridor from the Oval Office. I had never harbored any expectations that I would find myself so close to the heart of governance, especially to the distinguished national leadership that had inspired my public service as one of the first three openly transgender political appointees in the federal government, under President Obama.

Being in that room on the 22nd of March, 2014 was even more of a surprise, since by then I was no longer a political appointee. After more than two years of service at USAID, I had left the federal government to become a vice president at Freedom House, among the oldest and most respected of human rights organizations. Yet there I sat at that polished hardwood table, together with six leading international human rights defenders, waiting for Vice President Joe Biden.

We really did not know what to expect. Each of my colleagues represented a different non-profit organization. They had come from Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Each was committed to advocating for and defending the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. Some years before, Freedom House had forged and led an international consortium known then — and now — as Dignity for All. By 2014, we enjoyed the financial support of many governments and some independent foundations, as we worked day and night to provide emergency assistance, security training, advocacy, legal support, medical assistance, and other forms of rapid responsiveness to the urgent needs of stalwart local defenders of the human rights of LGBTI persons in some of the most homophobic, transphobic countries in the world.

While senior leadership in the Obama-Biden Administration and similarly enlightened leaders among many other countries recognized and embraced our humanity and our dignity, autocratic leaders in poorly governed countries found targeting the LGBTI community to be an politically advantageous. After all, we were — and to a large extent we remain — “the other” in nearly every society. Blaming a nation’s malaise on our existence has always been easy in societies where we were and are cursed as “abominations” and reviled as immoral “aberrations”. The pejoratives abound, but some other vocabulary is warranted: we are “resilient”, “determined”, and “courageous”. It all comes with the fight for our dignity.

And we don’t go away.

Still, not going away doesn’t automatically equate to being invited to the West Wing. My colleagues were all civil society leaders from all corners of the world, gathered in Washington for our annual Dignity for All consortium meeting. We had each earned our positions the hard way, in the beleaguered trenches of the ongoing struggle for universal human dignity. Most of my consortium team distrusted government of any description, with many having personally borne terrible abuse and violence from their own governments simply for being who they are, and loving who they love. They were wary of professed solidarity from men in suits. In short, it felt exceptionally odd to be seated at that table engaging in substantive discussion with “Government”, even if these were senior administration officials of America’s first openly LGBTI-supportive government.

We’d been briefed beforehand. The Vice President would do a short walk-through, shake hands, exchange some pleasantries and words of support, and be gone. Being pragmatic, we had expected little from that walk-through and instead we focused our attention on Stephen Pomper (then Special Assistant to President Obama and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the National Security Council) and his two NSC colleagues. They listened intently as we sought their support for our shortlist of priorities: more opportunities for South-South exchanges between LGBTI leaders in developing countries, investing political capital in global public awareness strengthening about our quest not for “special rights” but just for the same human rights that everyone should enjoy, and a number of carefully selected appropriate actions that would facilitate an effective push-back to the growing threats to the human rights and safety of LGBTI persons around the world.

Deep in our discussion, a door opened. Vice President Joe Biden suddenly entered with a broad smile of welcome, with an instant informality that implied a reunion with old friends. He walked around the table, asked each of us our names as he looked into our eyes and shook our hands, and commended us for our work in the defense of universal human rights. It was pleasant, and it was caring. His warmth was more than we had expected, and we were very surprised when instead of leaving, he turned and sat down. He folded his hands on the table, and he looked around the room.

“What can we do for you?”

It was not a question we had expected from the Vice President of the United States of America. From the poignant silence that ensued, it was obvious that I wasn’t the only one who had to remember to take the next breath. This was not a question that senior government leaders ever asked us. The Vice President smiled and turned to me. “While your colleagues think about that, Chloe, please fill me in on the latest work of Dignity for All”.

I found my voice!

The discussion soon moved from my narration of the essential — and often life-saving — work of the Dignity for All program to the disturbing and growing threats faced by LGBTI people around the world. My colleagues rallied in short order, and the discussion was rich and full. Vice President Biden clearly presided; he came well prepared and he asked us many questions. Still, the message never varied from his remarkable opening: “what can we do for you?”. Each of us answered that question in our own way, each with the warm faces and often harrowing stories of dear LGBTI friends — living and passed — in our hearts and minds. The “short walk-through” lasted more than 30 minutes, and every one of us later commented on how deeply we each had felt listened to and valued.

We had found a leader who cared.

Now, more than six years later and with all the damage our community has endured during the past four years, the prospect of Joe Biden soon becoming our next President could not be more heartening. LGBTI people like me today look forward eagerly and hopefully to a return to political leadership of caring concern and robust engagement; we will not let this precious opportunity slip by.

We look forward to a much brighter New Year, distinguished by caring competence, understanding, commitment, and vision once again in the White House under President Biden and Vice President Harris.



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Chloe Schwenke

Chloe Schwenke

Dr. Chloe Schwenke is an international development ethicist, practitioner, human rights activist, researcher and educator.