1Jul 15, 2011
In Hong Kong, a quiet advance for gay rights
By Kent Ewing
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 workplaceand 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.
Moreover, in 2009, after prolonged sessions of wrangling laced with
homophobic asides, Legco voted to include same-sex cohabiting couples in
landmark legislation aimed at preventing domestic violence.
While the city's gay community celebrated these recent victories, their
enthusiasm was tempered by larger legislative failures to protect their
rights. RTHK may feel free to air programs about gay life and battered gay
lovers can now take their abusive partners to court, but employers can still
fire workers because of their sexual orientation and gay relationships
remain a social taboo and a legal nonentity.
Unless you happen to be a gay expatriate with professional skills that
Hong Kong needs to keep its competitive edge. Even in this case, however,
recognition is limited and provisional.
As cities go, Hong Kong is very generous to heterosexual expatriates
and their spouses. The spouse, like his wife or her husband, is granted a
Hong Kong identity card and allowed to seek employment. After seven years in
the city, permanent residency is granted, meaning the couple may live here
as long as they like and enjoy all of the privileges of full citizenship -
such as public health care and voting rights - as long they maintain their
By contrast, the "relationship visa" now being granted to homosexual
couples offers none of these benefits; it is nothing more than an extended
tourist visa. Gay partners are not allowed to work, receive no ID card and
do not qualify for permanent residency. The only thing that distinguishes
their status from that of a run-of-the-mill tourist is that they are not
required to leave the city after three to six months, depending on their
home country, and then apply for re-entry. Instead, they are allowed to
apply for a visa extension in Hong Kong and, if their spouse is deemed
important enough, their applications are routinely accepted.
After 5% of the workforce at investment firm Goldman Sachs identified
themselves as gay, bisexual or transgender in a recent internal survey,
financial centers like Hong Kong were prompted to take notice. But the firm'
s head of diversity in Asia, Stephen Golden, says Hong Kong may need to
grant broader recognition and privileges to partners of gay high-flyers if
it wants to attract the best possible talent to work and live in the city.
"Hong Kong will need to consider these issues as it looks at ways to
strengthen its lead as a regional hub and global financial center," he
recently told the South China Morning Post, the city's leading English-
UBS's diversity chief Hayden Majajas added: "Our ability to hire the best
and brightest talent may be limited by the availability of different visa
Clearly, then, with gay marriage and civil unions on the rise in the
West, international corporate culture is becoming increasingly accommodating
to same-sex relationships. Talent is the bottom line, and sexual
orientation is irrelevant - unless, that is, the Asian financial hub in
which you are headquartered is unwelcoming to a gay lifestyle.
Hong Kong has taken the first step toward rolling out the welcome mat to
gay professionals, but so far that partial embrace does little more than
turn their partners into permanent tourists. The so-called "relationship
visa" feels more like a cagey concession than a true accommodation; those it
attracts are likely to stay for only a short period of time and, while they
are here, the double standard applied to homosexual and heterosexual
couples in the city is bound to be a source of irritation if not outright
discontent. More should and - due to corporate pressure - probably will be
done to make them feel at home.
Meanwhile, members of the local gay community can only hope that their
employers, taking a cue from Goldman Sachs, UBS and other corporate giants,
will start judging them by their talents rather than their sexual
preferences and that Hong Kong's legal system, prodded by its economic
interests, will finally grant them the same rights enjoyed by everyone else
in the city.