Hong Kong: the most LGBTQ+ – friendly city in East Asia or the stronghold of conservative gender issues?

While the greatest step in integrating LGBTQ+ community members into Hong Kong civil society by legalizing same-sex marriage is yet to be made, the city remains one of the most LGBTQ+ – friendly in East Asia and will even host the Gay Games in 2023. The veneer of a vibrant gay scene and Hong Kong’s reputation as a cosmopolitan city come together in dozens of bars, nightclubs, and LGBTQI-friendly spots that throw the most colorful parties and festivities in town. The gay bars like FML and Petticoat Lane attract not only locals, young and old but also expats and tourists who are willing to explore this part of Hong Kong culture feeling safe in the inclusive spaces, created by the owners.

The drag show performed in Petticoat Lane. Photo Credit: Anna Sizova

In comparison to other Asian countries such as Malaysia, where homosexuality is illegal and is punished by imprisonment, Hong Kong is a relatively safe space for the LGBTQ+ community.

The party in FML united people of different identified genders, ages, and sexual orientations. Photo Credit: Anna Sizova

However, when compared to other world cities like London, New York, and Amsterdam, the state of LGBTQ rights in Hong Kong is dismal. “Some people try to argue that Asian values are different from Western values,” says Peter Reading, legal counsel for the Equal Opportunities Commission, the city’s equality watchdog. Human rights obligations, he adds, do not differ by region, and Hong Kong is falling behind its neighbours: Thailand passed legislation to legalize same-sex civil partnerships, and Taiwan legalized gay marriage. Hong Kong continues to be relatively conservative on gender issues, and the LGBTQ+ community experiences various levels of stigmatization in all aspects of society.

For example, R (pseudonym), a young female living in Hong Kong, shared in the interview that even though she identifies as bisexual, she cannot openly communicate her sexual orientation with her close ones such as her parents who are Chinese:

They’re extremely strict. (…) They might be a bit homophobic at times, but I do understand because it’s coming from their background, it’s extremely difficult to understand this kind of stuff. (…) Until this day, I haven’t come out yet. I’m not planning to.

Homosexuality was decriminalized only in 1991, but incremental advances have been made in the following three decades. In 1998, the Rainbow of Hong Kong was founded to promote equal opportunities and sex education, to broaden the living perspectives of grass root communities, and to improve their quality of life. The next landmark event in Hong Kong LGBTQ+ history was the city’s first official—1,000-person-strong—Pride parade in 2008 which was followed by a high court decision granting transsexual woman the right to marry, in 2013. In recent years, same-sex partners have been granted equal parental rights over their children, permitted to claim as a “surviving spouse” and allowed to apply for public rental housing. Moreover, gay expatriates who come to the city to live and work are permitted to apply for dependent visas.

Nevertheless, significant progress has been made in many areas of LGBTQ+ citizens’ everyday life, this city’s community still lacks basic rights. Although the Legislative Council has debated legal protection against sexual orientation discrimination since the mid-1990s, and even though Hong Kong has four ordinances against discrimination based on sex, family status, race, and disability, there is no comprehensive protection against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. The government and public bodies are not permitted to discriminate based on sexual orientation under the Bill of Rights, but there is no comparable law in the private sector. The following notion implies that if an employer fires a member of the LGBTQ+ community because of their sexual orientation, the latest is not eligible for any compensation. The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau invites public and private sector organizations to pledge to adopt a code of practice prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in employment, but it is not enforceable by law. Every day, LGBTQ+ workers in Hong Kong face various forms of pressure, mockery of appearances, and even personal attacks at work. The interviews with members of the LGBTQ+ community, conducted by Professor Suen Yiu-tung, Founder and Director of the Chinese University’s Sexualities Research Programme, revealed that the workers had received hostile attitudes from their bosses and colleagues, with some even having their jobs denied and being told that coming out is “career suicide.”

On behalf of the LGBT+ rights organization Pink Alliance, the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute interviewed 2,120 residents aged 18 to 40 in August 2022. The results of the survey revealed that 86 percent of respondents agreed that LGBTQ+ people should be treated fairly and should not face discrimination. Furthermore, 63 percent believe Hong Kong should enact legislation to prohibit discrimination against the community, while 75 percent believe same-sex marriage should be permitted in the city. However, nearly half of those polled said they had witnessed, experienced, or heard of LGBTQ+ discrimination. Respondents reported that the witnessed acts of abuse were not only verbal but in 3 percent involved physical violence. Meanwhile, 39 percent of participants believed their employers or institutions had not handled these discrimination cases in a plausible way.

During the interview, R emphasized that even though she herself as a member of the LGBTQ+ community has not experienced explicit discrimination, however, gay friends did:

In Hong Kong, some of my gay friends, they are isolated by (…) male classmates, just because of their sexuality.

Other interviewees (E, J) shared that even though they themselves have never experienced discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation, they state that the government should legalize the same-sex marriage as the mentioned step will contribute to the end of stigmatisation of the LGBTQ+ community members.

As an attempt to improve the state of affairs, regarding this issue in Hong Kong, in 2020, the Faith in Love Foundation has recently launched the mobile app VoiceOut! The app allows the public to report incidents of discrimination directly on the platform and works with legal partners, social workers, and mediators to pursue further action if needed.

The achieved results were also threatened during the period of massive anti-government protests and the following implementation of the national security law, enforced in Hong Kong in June 2020 by the Beijing government. The imposed law made acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces punishable by life imprisonment forcing the suspension of the annual Pride marches and prompting human rights lawyers to leave the city. Even though getting out of the COVID-19 restrictions has had a positive impact on the state of affairs, in general, some are concerned about the consequences of a growing campaign of repression against LGBTQ rights and growing chauvinism in mainland China.

As can be recognized from the preceding discussion, the LGBTQ+ community rights status in Hong Kong has been significantly improved through a series of judicial challenges. However, it is important to note that many obstacles for same-sex couples remain in different spheres of their everyday lives.

Featured Image: Anna Sizova

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