Darren Cheung visits Taiwan often. A gay man in his late 30s, a native of Hong Kong, who has travelled extensively throughout the region, says he likes Taiwan’s progressive attitude towards the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. He cannot help comparing the abundance of gay and lesbian characters in Taiwan’s popular culture to their scarcity in Hong Kong’s media. He says he feels that Taiwan is more accepting of sexual minorities and has a more progressive attitude towards their rights.
Hong Kong gays and lesbians may soon have even more reasons to envy their Taiwanese counterparts. On October 25, 2013 the Taiwanese legislature accepted for review a “marriage equality” bill introduced by members of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. The bill still faces many legislative and political hurdles, but if passed in its entirety, the sweeping set of changes to Taiwan’s Civil Code would legalise same-sex marriages with all their benefits and obligations. This would make Taiwan the first country in Asia to take that step.
As same-sex partnerships gain recognition in many jurisdictions around the world, members of Hong Kong’s LGBT community feel that their city lags behind. While many, like Cheung, are disenchanted by the perceived ineffectiveness of the political process and choose to stay away from activism, a new generation of young activists is pushing for recognition of marriage equality as part of a broader struggle for equal rights and against discrimination.
The US organisation “Freedom to Marry” lists 15 countries (the Netherlands was the first) and 14 states in U.S.A. where same-sex marriages are legal. A further 20 countries and six U.S. states offer various degrees of recognition of domestic partnerships for same-sex couples.
Billy Leung doesn’t believe in the idea of marriage. “An institution of marriage doesn’t concern me personally”, says the 29-year-old Hong Kong activist. Leung believes, however, in the idea of equality. He has been called a poster boy for young activists in the LGBT rights movement. When still 20 years old, he successfully challenged the section of Hong Kong’s Crime Ordinance, which prohibited men under 21 from engaging in gay sex. A 2005 court ruling in his case effectively equalised the age of consent for gay and straight couples.
Even though he supports the right for gays and lesbians to marry, Leung says that same-sex marriage is not currently the top priority of Hong Kong LGBT activists. The Pink Alliance – a network of LGBT organisations in Hong Kong that Leung represents – has decided to focus on the push for anti-discrimination legislation and a gender recognition ordinance instead.
The right of same-sex couples to marry has recently found its unlikely champion inside the Hong Kong government. Dr York Chow Yat-ngok, the head of the Equal Opportunities Commission, expressed his support for marriage equality in an interview with the South China Morning Post on October 22nd. LGBT activists welcomed Dr. Chow’s support, but many do not believe that it makes a difference in practice.
“The only way to drag Hong Kong government forward is through the courts”, says Michael Vidler, a Hong Kong human rights lawyer. Called a human rights hero by the South China Morning Post, Vidler fought a number of high profile cases affecting the rights of the LGBT community, including Billy Leung’s.
Vidler doesn’t believe that progress can be made with the current Legislative Council. He points out a disproportional influence that conservative Christian organisations, like The Society for Truth and Light, have on legislators, despite Christians being a small minority in Hong Kong. Vidler says that only a democratic reform and universal suffrage can break the impasse.
While workplace discrimination remains the most pressing issue that Vidler encounters in his work, he believes that it’s time to push for recognition of same-sex partnerships. He notes that Hong Kong has been a leader in recognition of human rights in the past, but he admits that this is not the case today. “If we don’t keep up”, he says, “we fall behind in the eyes of people who look to Hong Kong as being at the forefront of protecting rights”.
The path to marriage equality will be gradual. Vidler says he is working on a legal challenge that might bring about recognition of same-sex partnerships and marriages from jurisdictions that allow them. “It’s likely to be in relation to recognition of dependent visas”, he says. If successful, it would ensure that foreign same-sex partners of Hong Kong residents are entitled to the benefits that spouses enjoy today: ability to work and to accrue time towards permanent residency. We might see a challenge before the court within the next six months, he says.
Vidler points out another source of support for recognition of same-sex partnerships: global corporations, in particular banks and big law firms. “If you have a limited talent pool and you want people to come to Hong Kong, you’re going to find resistance among certain portion of LGBT members”, he says. Hong Kong may have to compete with London, New York or Frankfurt for the best employees. There, unlike in Hong Kong, same-sex spouses of employees are not treated like second-class citizens, he says. “The banks are becoming increasingly vocal about supporting LGBT rights”, says Vidler, “because this is affecting their bottom line”.
Vidler sees today’s youth as the motor of change. With many of their icons – artists, sportsmen, even politicians – coming out, homosexuality is becoming a non-issue. While societal and cultural pressures might force people to keep quiet about their sexual orientation, every pop idol or politician coming out gives them courage to speak out, he says. “Once they realise that they have rights, they get angry that they are being deprived of them”, Vidler says, “and they get more active.”