Chu advocated for LGBT rights from the late 1980s through to 2001 when she was on the Monterey Park City Council, serving three times as mayor. It was not often a popular position in the city that was the first in the continental US with an Asian-descent majority population - mostly from Taiwan, China, and Vietnam, according to the 1990 census.
Chu, an educator and psychologist (a discipline in which she holds a Ph.D) with a taste for math, brought her passion for fairness and equality to the State Assembly representing the San Gabriel Valley for three terms, before being elected to the California Board of Equalization. Her husband, Mike Eng, was elected to her seat in the Assembly.
While in the Assembly, Chu authored a controversial landmark tax amnesty bill that was originally estimated to bring in $300 million in revenues - but actually brought in $4.8 billion into the state coffers. She also worked hard on hate crimes and immigration issues.
Firestorm over the Foster Care Bill
But it was the Foster Youth Anti-Discrimination Act, sponsored by Equality California, that brought her so much attention - an outpouring of gratitude from the LGBT community and venom from the right wing.
The August 2002 bill (AB 2651)- which outlawed discrimination against foster youth and their caregivers based on real or perceived sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status - was killed the first time around. David Limbaugh, in his book Persecution, said the bill "would have allowed a teenage boy to report his foster parents for a civil-rights violation if they refused to let him dress like a girl....It is no secret that openly Christian foster parents in California have already been complaining about being blacklisted for their support of spanking and their moral opposition to homosexuality."
Opponents to the bill also complained that foster parents would be pressured into "sensitivity training" around LGBT issues and would also "recruit" LGBT people to be foster parents. "Parents seeking to raise children in accordance with a bibilical model could clearly have been precluded from doing so under this bill," Limbaugh wrote. "the bill's own author, Assemblywoman Judy Chu, virtually conceded that the measure was values-oriented when she said, 'Foster youth should not be...told that they are wrong for being who they are.'"
"Little did I expect the firestorm of reaction," Chu told the EQCA audience.
Chu told of a floor battle during with the rapidly antigay Republican Dennis Mountjoy boomed his displeasure: "This bill says it's OK to be homosexual and it's NOT OK to be homosexual."
The next day, Chu remembered, Assemblymembers returned to the chamber sporting buttons that said: "Better Gay than Mountjoy."
Chu lost that first battle when Gov. Gray Davis, in a tight reelection race, vetoed the bill. But Chu came back the next year with an even stronger bill that Davis signed. "Now all foster children are protected," Chu said Saturday.
Chu supports marriage equality
Chu is an ardent supporter of marriage equality. When she was chair of the Appropriations Committee where then-Assemblymember Mark Leno's marriage bill first landed, Chu said she was swamped with 3,000 emails organized by EQCA while the opposition's tactic was a last minute deluge of phone calls. They were "so annoying, we pulled out the phone lines," Chu said.
"We stand at a great turning point in history, Chu said, noting that marriage laws are "made by humans" and thus unjust laws can be undone by humans. "We will see the day when marriage equality is restored in California."
Chu said that when she's been asked why she supports LGBT rights, she notes the discrimination faced by Chinese immigrants.
"I cannot fight for the civil rights of one group without fighting for the civil rights of another group," she said. "I will not tolerate making anyone in America a second class citizen."
Equality California stands up for equality, she said, and "I am living proof" that standing up for equality and justice is a winning position.
"Not only have I thrived on the state level, I have just won a seat as a US Congress representative. It shows that doing the right thing matters. And I will continue to speak out and work on behalf of the LGBT community until we can all stand side by side as truly equal Americans."
Evan Wolfson used Chu as an example in his report on how incumbents and candidates can stand for marriage equality and win elections:
"Supporters of the Freedom to Marry Defeated Anti-Marriage Opponents in the 2006 California Primary Election. In the only two races in the June 2006 primary where candidates who voted for AB 849, the bill to allow same-sex couples to marry in California, ran against candidates who did not vote for the bill, both pro-marriage candidates won.
• In the District 4 Board of Equalization race, pro-marriage stalwart Judy Chu prevailed against Jerome Horton who consistently did not support legislation protecting the LGBT community, including AB 849, while he was in the Assembly. Judy Chu's support for marriage helped her in her campaign as the Equality California Political Action Committee engaged tens of thousands of voters in her district promoting her pro-marriage vote and her leadership."
Straight ally Victor Hwang, managing attorney of Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, also referenced Chu in a piece posted by the Williams Institute.
"API same-sex couples and their children make up part of the LGBT community harmed by marriage discrimination. A new UCLA study found that California has the largest population of API same-sex couples in the nation. One in 10 same-sex couples in California include at least one API individual and 55 percent of API same-sex couples are raising children who deserve the protections that civil marriage protections would afford for their families.
The struggle for equal marriage rights is nothing new to Asian Americans. In her eloquent speech in favor of marriage equality on floor of the California Assembly last week, Assemblymember Judy Chu outlined the terrible history of discrimination against Asian Americans seeking to marry the person of their choice regardless of race. Assemblymember Chu explained how the California Legislature in 1880 voted to prohibit Chinese Americans from marrying whites in 'an hysterical backlash' against Chinese-American workers. Chu quoted John F. Miller, who later became a U.S. Senator: 'Were the Chinese to amalgamate at all with our people ... the result of that amalgamation would be ... a mongrel of the most detestable that has ever afflicted the earth.' Chu said: 'I do not want that same kind of marriage hysteria to be leveled against other human beings in the state of California.'"
Chu's diplomatic skills
The Los Angeles Times has a good piece on Chu that includes quotes from Monterey Park City Council colleague Betty Couch, a Republican, who talked about how Chu worked to find common ground. "She does her homework, she listens, and she really cares about people," Couch told The Times. "She found a way to get me to support something I was philosophically opposed to."
Chu is going to need that power of persuasion in this Congress, given the Republicans and the "Blue Dog Democrats" creeping success in making healthcare reform a litmus test on the Obama Administration and the orchestrated fananiticsm of the Southern-state-based "birthers" who claim Barack Obama is not a US citizen and therefore not lawfully President of the United States.
In an interview with Chu at the EQCA dinner, I asked her if she was prepared to deal with some of these congressmembers who might be worse than Mountjoy. She laughed heartily.
"Well, it was pretty bad in the Assembly at that time. But I guess it could be pretty similar.
We have to have more voices for equality and I'm proud to be one of them. But I have to say, there is a strong group of congressmembers that is very much for progressive values and I was really delight to go there and find that."
LGBT Issues in Congress
Chu said she's not sure which LGBT issue she wants to tackle first.
"I'd love to work on striking Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But there are so many issues that have been pointed out by the Human Rights Campaign - there are some things that we take for granted here like the inclusion of the LGBT community in hate crimes laws - which is not on a federal level. And it's really shocking.
Or the inclusion of LGBT in employment non-discrimination laws. So it's shocking that that's not naturally included - and I think it's going to be a fight on each one of those issues to do that.
Actually I have asked to be on the Judiciary Committee and I would love to work on issues like this. You get to be on two committees and I'm on Education and Labor - so I have a second committee coming and I understand many of the LGBT issues will be coming there and it's really great because many key civil rights issues come to Judiciary."
In her remarks at the EQCA dinner, Chu noted that her first vote was on the healthcare reform bill, which included a provision that no one could be excluded from insurance coverage because of a pre-existing condition such as HIV/AIDS. I asked her if healthcare might also be a priority.
"I would love to work on that. I still need to find my way, to find which of the issues would be do-able. I've seen the list of issues that are there on the federal level and I want to see what we can tackle so I'm feeling my way around first."
I asked what Obama said when he called her after her special election win.
"He congratulated me - and he must have had a memo on the race because he said, 'Oh, you really beat the odds and congratulations on being the first Chinese-American woman. You proved the nay-sayers wrong, the pundits wrong.' So I knew they had to write up something for him because how would he know so much?
I started with Hillary but then when Obama got the nomination, I threw my heart into that. I want to do whatever I can to make him successful."
Chu on the Blue Dog Dems: "Disgusting"
I mentioned that the Blue Dog Democrats seemed to be making success harder for Obama to achieve. Chu said:
"It's actually really disgusting because if they really bring down healthcare reform, then it'll bring Obama down. And if Obama's brought down, we're all brought down. I mean, our whole country is riding on this. Right now we're going in a progressive direction. But if he's brought down, the fate of many of us will just go out the window.
Right now we can do so many great things - and just thinking about how this healthcare reform can revolutionize this whole country. Healthcare has a lot to do with how the economy is doing. But right now there's this artificial suppression of the economy because too much money is going to the insurance companies.
This month you're going to see an enormous amount of pressure brought on by the insurance companies because they know they're the ones who stand to lose the most on this. They don't want a public option. They don't want anything that is a reasonably priced plan - and that's what the public option is. That's already what the Blue Dogs were working on, in terms of loosening the rates that would be paid under the public option so that the insurance companies could get more."
Chu on 2010 or 2012
Chu was a visibly strong opponent of Prop 8 but is unsure when the LGBT community should return to the ballot box to repeal the antigay constitutional amendment - in 2010 or 2012.
"I don't know. I've heard the debates on both sides. I would hope that if you do go in 2010 that you'll be ready - and that's what I'm a little concerned about because it's just next year. There really has to be so much going on - plus you have your governor's race - so I don't know. I'm not sure if all those pieces of the puzzle are in place - and if you go for it, you need to go for it big time so that it's a real win."
But Chu tells the LGBT community: keep fighting.
"Keep the passion up. Keep organizing. Keep on reaching out to all the sectors of society because people are hearing the message. I am just so happy to see attitudes change about marriage equality. I think there's been a drastic change for the better."
Equality California has posted a brief clip of Chu's speech on their blog California Ripple Effect. They intend to post full transcripts of the speeches as well as some videos as soon as they become available.