There are many more reasons, of course, for Hong Kong to care. It can start by moving towards equal marriage rights for all, and proper healthcare and legal protection for LGBTQ people
There has been a lot of talk over how Hong Kong can reboot itself after the past few difficult years.
There are many issues to fix – and repairing Hong Kong’s reputation and standing in the eyes of the international community takes action and time. An area relatively overlooked, where meaningful change can come from the top down, is the rights of gender and sexual minorities.
There exist many reasons for which we should care for genuine gender and sexuality equality: reasons to do with compassion, with Hong Kong being a secular society, with the urgent need for protection and recognition among LGBTQ individuals, especially teenagers bullied for who they are.
But I want to focus on a particular line of argument. If Hong Kong truly is to attract talent, to show the world it is “back”, our public and private sectors alike must pursue a more progressive policy on same-sex marriage, the enshrinement of healthcare rights and anti-discrimination clauses, and the promotion of a better understanding of LGBTQ rights.
First, Hong Kong must pursue a more progressive policy on same-sex couples. A Gallup survey last year found that 5.6 per cent of American adults identify as LGBTQ. The past 10 years have seen large numbers of the community come out across Southeast Asia, as growing awareness aided the normalisation of openness.
Extensive research suggests that workplace inclusivity matters as a critical determinant of work preference. Individuals are more likely to feel comfortable in a society where their intimate experiences and self-identification are respected, not brushed aside or stigmatised by the law.
LGBTQ activists and supporters rejoice after the initial passing of the
Marriage Equality Bill outside parliament in Bangkok on June 15.
Neither same-sex marriages nor civil unions are recognised in Hong Kong – although those in same-sex marriages can claim taxation, inheritance rights and civil service benefits. Elsewhere, a set of bills in favour of same-sex unions have passed their first readings in the Thai parliament. Tokyo has begun to issue long-awaited same-sex partnership certificates.
Our city, meanwhile, remains bogged down in protracted disputes over whether the state ought to recognise marriage (it does for heterosexuals), or, indeed, if homosexuality is legitimate. If we want to attract talent, it is high time to revisit the shoring up of protections for same-sex spouses, advancing civil unions with the aim of eventually securing equal marriage rights for all.
Second, serious institutional reforms should take place to address the healthcare needs of trans and non-binary individuals, as well as granting them genuine legal protection at the workplace and in domestic settings. While discrimination based on sexual orientation is unconstitutional, according to Article 25 of the Basic Law, there is no comprehensive anti-discrimination ordinance on the matter.
Hong Kong has made huge strides in its anti-discrimination legislation on other fronts – for example in prohibiting discrimination against breast-feeding. This is testament to the city’s enduring status as an internationally recognised legal hub within China, under “one country, two systems”.
There are few better ways of showing that the formula remains intact than through Hong Kong pursuing legal provisions that may be less readily implementable on the mainland.
Many multinationals and local corporations are eager to advance a more egalitarian social agenda. Government institutions and non-governmental organisations should work in tandem with corporations to hold to account actors – including themselves – for their track records in LGBTQ rights, whether in strengthening mental health provisions, moving diversity training beyond the tokenistic, or tackling the denial of healthcare provision owing to institutional misgendering.
Third, all concerned stakeholders in Hong Kong – not just the Equal Opportunities Commission – must take on the responsibility of promoting a value-neutral, fact-based attitude towards LGBTQ rights.
Hong Kong has long been a beacon for LGBTQ culture in Asia, whether it be through the pubs and bars of Lan Kwai Fong and Mong Kok, radically transformative stage theatre and performance arts, or the marrying of pop music and artistry with subtle undertones of sexual liberation. For all the talk of rebranding Hong Kong as a tourist hub, why not turn towards these as attractions and sources of inspiration worthy of preservation?
There is the perennial worry that advancing sexual and gender equality in Hong Kong would be antithetical to the city’s “traditional values”. But values change. Values also adapt to circumstances.
In 2022, it should not be controversial to say that individuals of different sexual orientations and gender identities deserve to be treated with equal respect – as individuals with agency and dignity.
British consul general Brian Davidson aptly noted that the better safeguarding of the rights of same-sex couples could serve the city well as it seeks to out-compete its regional rivals. Indeed, for decades Hong Kong has been touted as the most liberal, progressive city in Asia – one where Western and Eastern values can peacefully coexist.
Some say Hong Kong has since lost out to cities such as Taipei and Seoul. I beg to differ: our home still has what it takes to regain its swagger, if only its government and private sector were willing to recognise that the world has moved on, and it is high time for Hong Kong, as an international city, to stand up for what is right – as opposed to living hopelessly in the past.