Gay rights in Hong Kong

Despite evidence showing that most Hong Kongers support increased legal rights for gay people, the city’s leaders continue to pander to the prejudices of social conservatives. 

Chris Wilkins
12 April 2014
Participants attend the most recent Hong Kong Pride in November 2013

Participants at 2013 Hong Kong Pride. Flickr/Doc Ban. Some rights reserved

When Hong Kong billionaire Cecil Chao Sze-tsung made a simple proposal to the men of the world – marry my lesbian daughter and receive a US$65 million ‘marriage bounty’ – he could not have expected such an overwhelming response. The story of the eccentric, womanising billionaire, portrayed in stark contrast with his intelligent, articulate gay daughter, was splashed across newspapers from London to Los Angeles, sparking talk of a movie starring British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

Despite its comic potential, there was a darker side to the story, as it revealed a set of deep prejudices common among traditional elements of Hong Kong society – namely, that homosexuality is not to be taken seriously, and that homosexual relationships are neither socially desirable nor equal in value to heterosexual ones. It did not seem to matter to Chao, for example, that his daughter Gigi had already entered into a civil partnership in France with her long-term partner.

The Chao saga should also have been a reminder that prejudice remains a reality for many gay Hong Kongers, not just the offspring of billionaires. A 2009 survey by the Boys & Girls Clubs Association of Hong Kong found that over 80 per cent of homosexual youths felt compelled to hide their sexual orientation, while many reported that they had experienced verbal bullying and in some cases physical abuse. A survey of over 1000 workers published by Community Business in May 2012 found that almost 80 per cent of respondents believed that LGBT people faced discrimination in the community and at work. Gigi Chao, who became a gay rights activist largely as a result of her father’s actions, is scathing about the current situation: “Hong Kong is horrible at accepting and welcoming diversity. There’s a lot of discrimination against people who are different, because [Hong Kong people] feel scared and uncomfortable.”

Day-to-day experiences of discrimination are made worse by the lack of legal protection for gay people. There is currently no broad-based law preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2006, in the case of Leung TC William Roy v Secretary for Justice, Hong Kong’s Court of Appeal did find that anti-discrimination provisions within the Bill of Rights Ordinance protect gay people by virtue of the ‘other status’ category – but the ordinance only binds the government and public authorities. In the private sector, various ordinances protect employees from discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or disability, but employers may discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without fear of legal consequences. The weakness of protections for gay people was highlighted recently by revelations that a local secondary school, the International Christian School, was requiring its teachers to sign a “morality contract” which banned same-sex relationships. Despite the ensuing public outcry, the school would have known perfectly well that their actions did not contravene any law.

While officials have acknowledged persistent demands from the gay community for a change in the law, the government continues to drag its feet on the issue. In January 2013, Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, announced in his annual policy address that the government had no plans to launch a public consultation on introducing legislation against discrimination based on sexual orientation, claiming that society is “deeply divided” and that “launching a consultation exercise may deal a blow to family, religion and education”. His policy address for 2014, delivered in January, failed to raise the issue at all.

In choosing not to act, Leung seems to have been influenced by the powerful anti-gay lobby, which includes groups such as the Society For Truth and Light, an extreme right-wing Christian organisation which advocates ‘gay cures’ and has even sought to link homosexuality with paedophilia. Hong Kong’s gay community is thus resigned to more waiting, not just for the appropriate laws to be enacted, but even for an official public consultation on what form such laws should take.

Leung’s position is consistent with the government’s long history of conservatism on gay rights issues. As part of the British Empire, Hong Kong was for many years subject to Victorian-era anti-sodomy laws whose retention in many former British colonies has made the persecution of gay men depressingly easy. While these laws were reformed in England and Wales in 1967, they were retained in Hong Kong until 1991, at which point consensual sex between adult males was decriminalised – as long as both men were over 21. This was in contrast to straight couples, where the age of consent is 16, and lesbian couples, whose relationships remain unacknowledged by the law.

It was the case of Leung TC William Roy, some fifteen years later, which finally brought an end to unequal ages of consent – but not without significant opposition from the government of then Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. The case was brought by a 20-year old gay man, who sought to challenge the higher age of consent for gay males on the grounds that it infringed upon his constitutional right to equal treatment before the law. In agreeing with his arguments, the court caused much consternation among social conservatives, including Tsang – himself a devout Catholic – who lamented the danger posed by the “privatisation of morals” which he believed were shared by the “entire society,” implying the existence of a moral consensus which was somehow offended every time two adult males had consensual homosexual relations in private.

When the Court of Appeal threw out the government’s appeal and affirmed the lower court’s decision, Tsang had little choice but to accept defeat, giving gay people cause to celebrate another small step towards equality before the law. The gay community can take heart, also, from the Court of Final Appeal’s landmark 2013 ruling in the case of W v Registrar of Marriages, which affirmed the right of a transgender woman to marry her boyfriend – an encouraging sign that Hong Kong’s highest court remains willing to hand down bold judgments on rights issues with potentially broad social implications.

Leung, like Tsang before him, seems to believe that he is acting in the interests of society by dismissing the demands of the gay community for greater legal recognition and protection. Despite the prevalence of traditional attitudes, however, a number of opinion surveys have revealed a much greater level of tolerance among the Hong Kong public than government officials seem prepared to accept. In 2005, a government-commissioned study of over 2000 randomly selected respondents found that only 38.9 per cent considered homosexuality in contradiction with the morals of the community. Despite negative responses where family was concerned (only 40.0 per cent were willing to accept a gay family member), respondents displayed significantly greater tolerance of homosexuality in the wider community, with 79.9 per cent willing to accept homosexuals as colleagues and 76.1 per cent as friends.

There have been further signs of acceptance in recent years, despite the government’s anxious intransigence and the handwringing of social conservatives. In 2012, two leading Cantopop stars – Anthony Wong Yiu-ming and Denise Ho Wan-sze – emulated the late Leslie Cheung in coming out as gay, with neither hesitating to take prominent roles at the fourth annual Pride Parade, calling on the government to introduce legislation banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. “I feel that I have a duty, a responsibility, to step forward in this fight for love,” Ho announced to the crowd. “I would like to loudly and proudly say to everyone: I am tongzhi!” (Chinese for ‘comrade’ and common slang for gay people). Having chosen previously to keep her sexuality private, Ho showed more awareness of the trends of popular opinion than the city’s political masters. Her decision should in turn promote further acceptance, particularly among the young.

Even in this climate of growing tolerance, the emergence of broad-based support for equality in the law remains countered by an attachment to traditional family values. A recent survey commissioned by the Centre for Comparative and Public Law (CCPL) at the University of Hong Kong found that 74 per cent of respondents agreed that gay couples should be afforded all or some of the same rights as heterosexual couples, but only 27 per cent supported same-sex marriage. While the right to marry remains the ultimate symbol of equality for many gay rights campaigners, public attitudes suggest that gaining acceptance of same-sex marriage remains a distant goal. Nevertheless, the results of the CCPL study have put paid to the notion that the government, in resisting less radical steps towards equality, is somehow protecting broadly held social values from the efforts of a minority to initiate unwanted change.

Occasionally the government has shown itself receptive to public opinion as expressed through the vehicle of mass protest, and the gay community should continue in its efforts to seek acceptance through visible, evocative and collaborative efforts. The fifth annual Pride Parade, held on 10 November 2013, attracted several thousand people on a march from the city’s iconic Victoria Park to the government headquarters at Tamar. Marches in support of political issues such as universal suffrage still attract significantly greater numbers, but attendance at the Pride Parade has grown each year, suggesting that the movement for gay equality is gathering momentum. Within government itself there are also some positive signs: at the head of the parade, among the swirling rainbow flags, marched Dr York Chow Yat-ngok, chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission and an increasingly vocal supporter of LGBT rights.

In the absence of a fully representative democratic system, the leadership has an even greater responsibility to accurately gauge the public mood, or risk undermining its own legitimacy through failing to act in accordance with the best interests of society. Unfortunately, on gay rights, Hong Kong’s notoriously reactive and cautious government has fallen victim to old prejudices and powerful lobbyists, who would have the city believe that traditional notions of family are sacrosanct and religion should play a role in policymaking.

However traditional society may be, it would be hard to argue that such values are more important than Hong Kong’s other cherished values – tolerance, fairness, and a desire to look always to the future, rather than the past. In continuing to deny gay people basic statutory protection against discrimination, let alone further rights and legal recognition, Hong Kong has consigned itself to a shamefully regressive category of territories and states, far from representing its self-professed status as ‘Asia's World City’.

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