A stubborn denial of homosexuals' human rights
The sky darkened for human rights activists when the Broadcasting Authority ruled in January that an RTHK television programme on gay lovers was 'unfair, partial and biased towards homosexuality'. The ruling was considered to be the authority's most high-profile blow to the freedom of expression of sexual minorities since the handover.
But six months since the ruling, thousands of people have flocked to the RTHK website to view Hong Kong Connection - Gay Lovers, turning it into one of the station's highest-rated shows. 'My classmate's father watched the programme. He told his daughter he could not find anything in it that was so controversial as to warrant a censure,' Joseph Cho Man-kit said.
Mr Cho, 26, was interviewed on the programme about the discrimination he faced as a gay man in the city. He said he felt humiliated by the authority's ruling because the show was an authentic documentary about his life. It was not meant to influence people's sexuality or promote gay marriage, he added.
He thinks most people share the opinion of his classmate's father. In a Legislative Council meeting in March, lawmakers unanimously passed a motion demanding the authority withdraw its ruling. The censure was an infringement of editorial independence and the rights of sexual minorities, they said.
In the past decade, the public has warmed to the idea that people should be treated equally regardless of their sexual orientation. But opponents, who say homosexuality is immoral and sinful, are getting more organised and influential. Some church-based groups like the Society for Truth and Light are spearheading the anti-gay campaign.
But minorities find the government increasingly reluctant to stand up for them, even at the risk of censure by international bodies such as the United Nations. 'There are definitely more channels for us to express our views compared to 10 years back,' Mr Cho said. 'But every time we voiced our views - even when it was just a trivial comment - groups like the Society for Truth and Light would mobilise all their resources to attack us. The government just kept quiet.'
For years, sexual minorities have pushed for policy reform in three areas: equalising the age-of-consent laws governing same-sex and opposite-sex sexual relations; establishing an ordinance to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation; and establishing means to recognise same-sex partnerships.
But little progress has been made in the three areas since the handover. The Legislative Council's subcommittee to study discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation has failed in its attempts to push for anti-discrimination legislation. The government's answer to the problem is a limited degree of education and non-enforceable recommendations against such forms of discrimination.
Even before formal consultations started in 2005, the Home Affairs Bureau and the Equal Opportunities Commission received more than 50,000 unsolicited submissions from mainly church-based groups opposing laws to protect homosexuals from discrimination.
In 2001, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights criticised the city, saying 'the failure of the HKSAR to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation' is a 'principal subject of concern'. The committee repeated its criticism in May 2005. With no legal redress against discrimination, minorities had to turn to the courts to challenge unjust and unfair practices.
Mr Cho and his lawyers are contemplating an application for a judicial review of the Broadcasting Authority ruling.
In 2004, William Leung, 20, sought a judicial review of four provisions of the Crimes Ordinance, including one prescribing a maximum sentence of life in jail for buggery involving people under 21. Mr Leung found the laws discriminatory against homosexuals, as the age of consent for vaginal intercourse is 16.
The government appealed after Mr Leung won his case. But last year the Court of Appeal upheld a High Court judge's decision that the laws under challenge had breached the Basic Law and the Bill of Rights. Mr Leung found it shocking that the government fought against his case 'every single way possible', and said he was disappointed the government did not amend the law. He knows of gay couples who left Hong Kong after learning that their rights as a couple were not recognised in the city.
The Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor says the city is out of line with its Asian peers, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia, which have the same age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual couples.
Law Yuk-kai, the group's director, said it was worrying to see the government going back to 'the orthodox position' in recent years. 'In the run-up to the handover, Hong Kong's goal was to fight for equality and freedom,' he said. 'But now the goal is to get the approval of Beijing. Rights issues are way down the line.'
Looking ahead, Mr Law said a platform was needed to improve communications between sexual minority groups and their opponents. 'At the moment, the minorities are not organised enough,' he said. 'They should work together on campaigns. We hope to have more empowerment for these groups so that they can come out as a collective effort in their fight for equality and rights.'