Hong Kong behind the times on gay rights

Even though Hong Kong likes to promote itself as a modern, diverse city, the government has been accused of being behind the times when it comes to rights for sexual minorities.

'Many people are afraid still of coming out,' says activist

Openly gay lawmaker Raymond Chan (middle, white shirt) and others partake in Hong Kong's gay pride parade on Nov. 12, 2012. The government recently rejected consultations on a law to protect sexual minorities from discrimination. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

When Hong Konger Henry Lam arrived in Vancouver in 2011, his first time in Canada, he said he breathed the "air of freedom."

The reason for his visit was to marry his husband, Guy Ho, and the couple now jokes that they should get a commission from Tourism B.C. because of how many people they’ve advised on tying the knot on the other side of the Pacific.

Ho, 51, moved to Canada with his parents as a teenager. He went to university in Calgary and later lived in Montreal before moving back to Hong Kong shortly before same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada in 2005. He found Canada to be an open and accepting society even before that historic event.

"Now that I'm back here it's almost like I have to go back in the closet," Ho said. "It’s kind of ridiculous."

Ho and Lam say in general most Hong Kongers, especially the younger generation, are tolerant if not accepting of gays, lesbians and other sexual orientations, but that the government is behind the times.

Their marriage isn't legally recognized in Hong Kong and that prospect seems a long way off – particularly after what happened on Jan.16.

Guy Ho and Henry Lam show a photo from their wedding, held in Vancouver in June 2011. Their marriage is not legally recognized in Hong Kong. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC)

Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, delivered his policy address, a speech where the government's policy proposals for its five-year term are laid out, and it contained a major setback for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Leung announced that the government would not hold public consultations on bringing sexual orientation under the existing anti-discrimination legislation. The leader said it was a highly controversial issue that must be tackled cautiously. The government will continue to listen to different views, but has no intention of holding consultations, he said.

No legal recourse for discrimination based on sexual orientation

That means someone can be fired for being gay or denied an apartment, a job, or service, and there is no legal recourse.

Leung's announcement was met with disappointment from some, like human rights lawyer Michael Vidler, who pins the blame on pressure from religious groups. He says they are increasingly influencing the government, and misrepresenting the issue.

"They're shouting gay marriage when it's a consultation on an anti-discrimination law," he said.

CBC in Hong Kong

Meagan Fitzpatrick has been posted to Hong Kong to bolster CBC's coverage of a dynamic region of the world.

Hong Kong is known as an international financial centre, but there is much more to it than that, and it has close connections to Canada. The city of seven million hosts nearly 300,000 Canadians, and about 500,000 people of Hong Kong descent make their home in Canada. Meagan is a senior online writer who covers national news and federal politics in CBC's Ottawa bureau.

Hong Kong's constitution is supposed to provide all citizens with equality before the law and the United Nations human rights committee has repeatedly called on Hong Kong to protect sexual minorities but the government has ignored its obligations, said Vidler.

The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau provided a statement to CBC News that elaborated on what Leung said in his policy address.

"The society is deeply divided over this issue. While some are in support from the perspective of equal opportunity, others worry that launching a consultation exercise may cause undesirable impact on family, religion and education," it said. The department says it will do more anti-discrimination awareness campaigns and support community organizations.

The government funds a body called the Equal Opportunities Commission that is responsible for promoting equality and implementing the existing anti-discrimination law which covers gender, disability, race and marital status. It wants sexual orientation included in the law.

The EOC’s head, Lam Woon-kwong, was not available for an interview but provided a statement saying Hong Kong needs to have a "serious and open dialogue on this topic."

Vidler, a Briton, is known for his representation of Billy Leung in a landmark 2005 case that overturned the age of consent for homosexuals in Hong Kong. The lawyer, who says public education campaigns have been a failure, successfully argued in court that it was discriminatory for the age of consent to be 21 when it was 16 for heterosexuals.

Canadian diversity 'beautiful'

Leung, now 28 years old, said he launched the case simply because he wanted to be treated equally. He said he's lucky he has a supportive family and wants to help make it easier for others to come out.

"In Hong Kong, despite its cosmopolitan outlook, many people are afraid still of coming out, because we do not have any laws protecting homosexuals," Leung said.

Billy Leung has been fighting for equal rights for sexual minorities since 2005 when he launched a landmark legal battle over the age of consent for homosexuals. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC)

Leung, Vidler, and others say Hong Kong likes to promote itself as a modern, diverse city, yet it is failing to advance when it comes to rights for sexual minorities.

When the issue was last debated in Hong Kong's legislature in November, those in favour of consultations argued that Hong Kong wasn't living up to its claim as an advanced, open society. But those opposed said Hong Kong society and its cultural heritage are deeply rooted in traditional values, especially when it comes to family and marriage.

A Hong Kong real estate magnate offered millions of dollars last year to any man who could woo his lesbian daughter away from her partner, whom she married in Paris.

Even though Hong Kong's government isn't moving forward on anti-discrimination legislation, Guy Ho and Henry Lam are optimistic they will one day be protected by law and enjoy the same benefits, tax and otherwise, that heterosexual couples get.

"There is still hope," said Ho.


Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multiplatform reporter with CBC News in Toronto. She joined the CBC in 2011 and previously worked in the Parliament Hill and Washington bureaus. She has also reported for the CBC from Hong Kong. Meagan started her career as a print reporter in Ottawa.