Equality laws have passed us by, say HK gays
A married couple has been together for 20 years. The husband becomes sick and the wife visits him in hospital. She can stay longer than his other visitors because she is his legal spouse.
A same-sex couple has been together for 20 years. One of them becomes sick. The other is treated not as a blood relative or spouse at the hospital, but just as a friend. They cannot legally marry in Hong Kong so they have no spousal rights. The length of hospital visits depends on sympathetic nurses.
If a husband or wife is married to someone who needs an organ transplant, the spouse can offer to donate an organ and they go to the top of the donor list. A same-sex couple cannot.
Want a tax break as a couple? Make sure you're in a heterosexual relationship. Then there's inheritance. In a same-sex relationship you cannot leave your partner your pension.
Same-sex couples are also not permitted to apply for public housing.
These are all examples of discrimination, say Hong Kong's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities, which want an anti-discrimination bill to cover the workplace, education, and goods and services as well as to encourage society to be less prejudicial.
The LGBT community is estimated to be between 300,000 and 600,000. 'It's a fundamental part of your identity; yet you hide it. You can't tell your colleagues, friends and most definitely not your family, that you're gay,' says Reggie Ho, honorary chairman of the gay and lesbian group Horizons.
'If your long-term partner is in hospital, you have no special rights to see him or her, because legally you cannot get married and therefore are not designated as a relative. Within the workplace, you have no protection if a homophobic boss decides to pass you over for promotion.'
This month the controversial Race Discrimination Bill was passed by the Legislative Council despite disputes over language and government exemptions.
That means, said Roddy Shaw Kwok-wah, chairman of Civil Rights for Sexual Diversities, that the LGBT community - along with the elderly - is one of the only social groups not covered by anti-discrimination legislation.
'In 1996, there was consultation on the possibility of legislating against discrimination based on sexual orientation and the bill was defeated by a very narrow margin,' Mr Shaw says. 'At the time, there were more directly elected legislators. Now we don't have as many. Back then the government used public opinion to refuse to legislate against discrimination. And in 2005 they used the excuse that the public was not ready.'
It is a law that sets the example, says corporate social responsibility expert Richard Welford. The legislation would help identify Hong Kong as a sophisticated international city that cares for its citizens. This would also benefit it economically, because it sends a signal that Hong Kong is welcoming to people of all sexual orientations.
Two weeks ago Raymond Tang Yee-bong, chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, was quoted in the South China Morning Post as saying that discrimination based on sexual orientation was not comparable to gender, disability or racial prejudice. 'When you are talking about sexual orientation, you are going into another area,' he says. 'While [responding to people with] disabilities reflects societal values, sexual orientation touches on personal values, religious values and different community values. So it becomes more difficult.'
His comments left both Mr Shaw and Mr Welford unimpressed.
'The discussion about cultural values went out 10 years ago,' Mr Shaw says.
But EOC spokeswoman Mariana Law Po-chu says: 'Mr Tang was only extending other people's views on the issue. That was not his view. He raised the relevant issues which were under discussion in the community.' But, says Mr Shaw, the government is too reliant on surveys that show Hong Kong society's hesitation about anti-discrimination legislation and should lead by example.
Without proper legislation, says Mr Welford, who is one of the founders and chairman of the non-profit organisation, CSR Asia [Corporate Social Responsibility in Asia], it is difficult for people to prove they have been discriminated against. While a change in legislation is slow in Hong Kong, he praised the work of some multinationals which have recognised the benefits of diversity in the workplace and openly encouraged LGBT applicants.
Among those are Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers.
'There is a shortage of labour. If you want to attract the best people in your workforce, you want the best talent, then you're not going to get that unless you openly welcome them,' Mr Welford says.
Albert Wong, Cathay Pacific Airways personnel strategy and relations manager, says the firm's corporate policy is very clear: discrimination is not condoned. But Mr Wong concedes that Cathay's policies on LGBT staff members are not as far- reaching as, for example, those of by Cathay in Canada because they are not required to be under Hong Kong law.
But in addition to the lack of an anti-discrimination bill, says Mr Welford, Hong Kong is also losing out economically by not attracting the 'pink dollar' and flagging the city as welcoming people of different sexual orientations.
While London is estimated to have around 200 gay bars, Hong Kong has six or seven, says Mr Welford. Much of the gay community's socialising is done online.
Mr Ho says he is confused as to why more businesses in Hong Kong do not embrace the 'pink dollar'. In recent years companies - including those manufacturing cars, selling toiletry products or tourism - have recognised the LGBT community as one with a high disposable income.
'I've tried to talk to quite a lot of businesses,' says Mr Ho, but adds that he didn't get far. One of those he mentioned was the JW Marriott hotel. 'In Toronto, the hotel helped sponsor the gay and lesbian march, but I didn't get a response from them here,' he says.
Fiona Szeto Sin-man, director of communications for JW Marriott in Hong Kong, says the hotel has not been approached. 'We don't limit ourselves to certain types of charities,' says Ms Szeto, adding that this year the hotel's main focus was on a 'Going Green' programme.
'Overseas some of these international companies will have a policy for same-sex partners, but in Hong Kong they don't continue this policy,' Mr Ho says. 'I have been approaching companies about the power of the 'pink dollar', but it seems that no one here takes it seriously. In Hong Kong, there is still this scepticism, this attitude that it's not going to work.'
Mr Ho also says that ahead of the Legislative Council election in September, more parties should put the LGBT community firmly on their agenda. He says the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and the Civic Party have been supportive, as well as The Frontier legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing and former lawmaker Cyd Ho Sau-lan, but others need to step up to the plate.
Democratic Party legislator Yeung Sum says of the LGBT community: 'I think they should have equal rights in the community but I think the government would be very hesitant to table the bill.'
Dr Yeung says that earlier legislation on domestic violence has been limited to within marriages. Legislation should be expanded to cover same-sex relationships, he says.
'In the end the government accepted this but it hasn't been included in the bill on domestic violence.'
He hoped that same-sex relationships would be considered for the second tabling of the bill on domestic violence.
A spokesman for the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said there were no plans to introduce an anti-discrimination bill to protect the LGBT community.
'Given the divergent views of the community on legislation against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, the government has no plan to introduce such legislation at present. We shall continue to promote equal opportunities for persons of different sexual orientation through educational and publicity measures, and nurture a culture of greater acceptance and mutual respect.'