Staying in the closet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2007, 12:00am

Hong Kong may brand itself as Asia's world city, on an equal footing with London and New York, but scratch the surface a bit deeper and you will soon find a chasm of difference in the attitude towards gays and lesbians.

Although there is now greater awareness and tolerance of homosexuality, thanks to increased education, more publicity and legislation of same-sex marriages in countries such as Canada, the Netherlands and South Africa, most of the gay community in Hong Kong still live in the shadows.

Many homosexuals here believe research carried out by American professor Alfred Kinsey about 40 years ago, concluding that roughly 10 per cent of any population are either gay or have gay inclinations, remains fairly accurate. But it is virtually impossible to tally the population in Hong Kong because the great majority have chosen to stay in the closet.

Gays and lesbians have an entrenched fear of ending up as social pariahs even among friends and family. Angel, a lesbian in her mid-thirties, says discrimination has been an everyday issue ever since she first came out to her friends - with one close friend deciding to terminate their friendship soon after.

Things weren't much better at work, either. Her boss one day called her in for a meeting to discuss her sexual orientation. 'He kept asking me whether I was a lesbian. Of course, I flat out denied it. I was so afraid of losing my job,' she says. Even buying a flat with her girlfriend proved to be an ordeal with the seller adamant on finding out the nature of their relationship before the sale.

The absence of any legislation to protect people of different sexual orientation from discrimination further fuels ignorance in society and paves the way for more prejudice, explains Sam Winter, associate professor specialising in sexual and gender minorities at Hong Kong University's Faculty of Education.

'The community will be educated when more people are prepared to come out; sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, grandsons and granddaughters,' he says.

A sexual orientation discrimination survey on lesbians and bisexual women conducted by the Women Coalition last year found 39 per cent of those surveyed had experienced some form of violence or harassment.

Few cases are ever reported to the police, however, for fear that families and friends will find out about the individual's homosexuality. The situation is made trickier in a society that holds traditional Chinese values dear, with many of the elderly subscribing to misperceptions of gays and lesbians.

'People still fear gays. They associate gay men with being unstable, a freak, a sex fiend,' says 28-year-old Kevin, an insurance agent who only came out to his father in a letter sent two years ago. 'The stereotypes are so ingrained in our culture,' Kevin says. His father ignored the letter and has not even discussed the subject with him.

Roddy Shaw, chairman of Civil Rights for Sexual Diversities, an NGO that helps victims of sexual discrimination, says their caseload has increased in recent years.

In 2005, the total number of sexual orientation discrimination cases was up in the hundreds, exceeding the number of discrimination cases filed based on family status and race, he says.

'Discrimination is everywhere; in all forms and walks of life. Each month, we receive cases from people who have been discriminated against in areas of education, employment and socially,' says Shaw. 'Gays and lesbians have been refused entry into clubs and restaurants; boys and girls are bullied and harassed in schools and gay teachers are expelled from schools. These examples are by no means unusual.'

It is perhaps K.C. who best reflects the struggle of being a gay man in Hong Kong today. Despite being acquitted earlier this year for sodomy in a public place, a landmark case widely hailed as a victory for gay rights, he has decided to stay firmly in the closet.

'Even though society has become more concerned about equal rights and political correctness, I still think few people actually accept homosexuality deep down. I would rather not have the hassle of living as a gay man,' he says. And with his boss making jibes at an effeminate client, and classmates on his part-time psychology course openly discussing their inability to accept homosexuality, K.C. says there's evidence enough on which to base his decision. 'My parents are now in their 70s and 80s. I don't want to give them any grief. They are traditional and I know they wouldn't understand.'

Coming out, says Anthony Man Ho-fung, who founded Over the Rainbow to offer help to the families of gays and lesbians, is far from mandatory. 'You really have to see if your family and friends can deal with it.' Although living a double life can take its toll, it does provide for many some measure of a safe haven and a way of protecting their loved ones from a potential calamity. 'Those who have not come out have chosen to carry the burden on their own so their family won't be put in a difficult position,' says Alfred, a 40-year-old gay man who struggled for many years before coming out.