In Hong Kong, a quiet advance for gay rights

Published: July 15, 2011

HONG KONG – While gay activists in this conservative city of 7.1 million people have for years struggled, mostly in vain, to win equal rights and legal protections for homosexuals, immigration officials have been quietly handing out special "relationship visas" for partners of gay professionals coming from overseas.

The stark contradiction has, of course, met with protests of a double standard among the local gay community. In the end, however, rights granted now on the sly to only a relative few high-flying gay executives will inevitably trickle down to their local counterparts. As with trickle-down economics, however, those waiting for tangible improvement in their lives are, understandably, growing impatient.

Anti-discrimination legislation protecting gays in the workplace and in public life, now commonplace in much of the West, is still a long way off here, and recognition of gay marriage even farther away. But, thanks to Hong Kong’s relentless pursuit of its economic interests – which includes attracting the best foreign talent to the city, no matter the color, creed or sexual orientation of that talent – the agenda of the city’s increasingly vocal gay community is on the advance, albeit slowly.

Although city officials only begrudgingly accept it, Hong Kong hosts an annual gay-pride parade, but that usually features campy displays of homosexuality, often garbed in provocative pink, that mostly serve to reinforce local stereotypes and prejudices. And gay-rights organizations such as Horizons and the Hong Kong Ten Percent Club have been up and running for more than 20 years. In all that time, however, victories – both legal and attitudinal – have been few and far between.

It wasn’t until 1991 that Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (Legco), then under British rule, acted to decriminalize consensual sex between men, although the legislation set the age of consent at 21 (while it remained 16 for heterosexuals) and ignored lesbianism altogether. In 2005, Hong Kong’s High Court ruled the higher age of consent for gay men unconstitutional, and a government appeal of that ruling – spearheaded by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, a devout Catholic – failed in 2006. So the age for consensual sex for both heterosexuals and gay men in Hong Kong is now 16, but the legal invisibility of lesbianism continues.

Legco has also enacted equal opportunity legislation. Despite the increasingly visible presence of gay life in the city – in the form of gay nightclubs, gay beaches, gay pride parades and even a gay film festival – sexual orientation is not covered by these laws.

In 2006, RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong) – an independent public broadcaster modeled on the BBC – aired a controversial documentary called Gay Lovers, which prompted a stream of complaints from viewers who felt that it encouraged a homosexual lifestyle. Acting on those complaints, the Broadcasting Authority censured RTHK for showing a program that was "unfair, partial and biased towards homosexuality" and that had the effect of "promoting the acceptance of homosexual marriage".

Two years later, however, after one of the gay men featured in the documentary launched a legal challenge, the High Court overturned the authority’s ruling, saying that it was not necessary to include anti-gay views in the program in order to honor broadcasting guidelines of equal time and fair play.

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