From bars to jobs to wedding studios, gays and lesbians battle ignorance

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 January, 2010, 12:00am

In 1980, the death of Inspector John MacLennan sparked a heated public debate in Hong Kong.

The 29-year-old Scot was found with five gunshots to the chest. He had known he was about to be interviewed by what was unofficially known as the 'gay-bashing' squad - the police squad in charge of examining homosexual offences.

His death awoke the public and the authorities to the need to overhaul the law. The government immediately appointed the Law Reform Commission to investigate if the law needed to be changed.

Homosexuality was eventually decriminalised in 1991.

But 20 years on, the city still does not have anti-discrimination legislation protecting sexual minorities.

Lesbian Nichole Tong Wing-shan, 25, knows all too well what that can mean.

Such discrimination is illegal under the Bill of Rights, but the provisions can only be used against the government and public authorities.

When Tong was 18 she was working as a waitress in a chain restaurant but was asked to leave - without being told why. What had happened was that her manager had seen her partner picking her up from work. When she asked her manager why she was fired, he said: 'I don't like abnormal people working here.' Tong said the manager had sacked five other employees in succession, all of whom looked androgynous.

Tong planned to enter into a civil partnership with her girlfriend, then in Northern Ireland, at the end of 2007. Since 2005, a civil partnership in the United Kingdom has conferred the same rights on same-sex partners as married couples, but the Hong Kong government refuses to allow British nationals to register for civil partnerships at the consulate in the city.

The couple visited a wedding photographer in Tsim Sha Tsui that summer.

The shop was offering a package for HK$18,000 which included rental of three gowns and two suits. When Tong said that both of them wanted to be in gowns, the shop assistant refused to serve them. Tong asked if photos of them both in gowns could just be taken as a joke, but the sales assistant then said the package would cost HK$30,000. 'I was very angry about it,' Tong said. 'The way they jacked the price up was basically forcing us to go elsewhere.'

They went to a different branch of the same company, in Kowloon Tong, but the staff said no to them straight away. Tong suspected that the first incident had led the company to clarify its policy to staff.

The couple later went to a studio in Shenzhen. The sales assistant was willing to do business with them, but on the condition that they sign an agreement promising they would not tell anyone where the photos were taken. Tong and her partner were unwilling to compromise.

They eventually found a studio in Hong Kong that would take photos, though it was not a wedding specialist. With the couple's consent, the company used their photos as samples. They would be shown to other lesbian couples, but on request, rather than being displayed in public.

Three months ago, Tong opened a cocktail bar for lesbians in a commercial building in Tsim Sha Tsui. Marketing so far has relied on word of mouth and social networking websites. 'I won't tell everyone it's a lesbian bar by distributing fliers. Now that bar owners upstairs and downstairs have started to realise, they won't even lend me a bucket of ice,' Tong said. She has to ask the building watchman to borrow things for her. 'Not being able to borrow things from my neighbours makes life difficult because the bar is small and I just can't fit that much stock.'

When the bar first opened, she kept the front door open. But since patrons from bars nearby started sticking their heads through the door out of curiosity, Tong has has kept the door locked.

Visitors have to ring the bell. That had gone some way towards preventing harassment of her customers, she said.

'I welcome men in my bar, but they have to be members' friends. They have to able to be friends with lesbians.' Tong adds that some heterosexual women regularly visit her bar, where they will not receive unwanted attention from men.

'Discrimination is everywhere,' said Connie Chan Man-wai, chairwoman of the Women Coalition. One of the biggest problems was that people were not taught that there was nothing wrong with homosexuality.

Boo Ng, 24, says a boy gave her a hard time when she was 15. When he found out that she was a lesbian, he said: 'I'll give you money for an operation to be a man.' He also spread rumours about her at school and on the internet, which forced her to come out to her parents and to some teachers. 'Because of this incident, I learned to protect myself, and I won't talk about my private life at work,' Ng said. She works as an administrator for a trading company.

Although local gay, lesbian and transgender groups have successfully held two 'pride parades' in the city, some people and businesses were unwilling to be associated with them.

In December 2008, hundreds of people marched in Causeway Bay in the first parade. Citybus refused to lease a double-decker bus to the organisers.

Last November, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing and Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Stephen Lam Sui-lung turned down invitations to attend the second parade.

The organiser had hoped to turn the parade, attended by 1,000 people, into a tourist attraction. But the Tourism Board did not respond to a request to advertise it on its website.

Because there is no law against discrimination by a private individual on the basis of sexual orientation, the Equal Opportunities Commission does not deal with such complaints. The commission received 18,493 inquiries in 2008, of which 23 were related to sexual orientation. In 2009, 18 out of the 20,852 concerned sexual orientation.

A spokeswoman for the commission said that some involved questions as to whether anti-discrimination legislation on the basis of sexual orientation existed.

The government set up the Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Unit in 2005, but it has only received 33 complaints so far. The unit has arranged a sexual minorities forum, in which NGOs have participated, but it has seen membership rows. In April 2007, sexual minority groups boycotted a meeting with the Home Affairs Bureau in protest against the attendance of a homosexual-treatment group. The protest followed the government's proposal to retain the membership of the New Creation Association - a Christian group that believes it can help 'correct' homosexuals' sexual orientation.

Groups have complained that meetings were halted because responsibility for the work switched to the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau on July 1, 2007. Only two meetings have been held since.

However, rights activists' efforts paid off when 20-year-old gay man William Roy Leung achieved a significant legal milestone in 2005, with High Court judge Mr Justice Michael Hartmann ruling in his favour on the age of consent.

Leung had sought a judicial review of a piece of legislation that discriminated against gay men because it prohibited homosexual sex until a man reached 21, as opposed to the age of consent of 16 for heterosexuals and lesbians. The court declared the relevant provisions of the Crimes Ordinance unconstitutional because they violated rights guaranteed by the Basic Law and the Bill of Rights.

Another step forward came when 300 gay activists marched to the Central Government Offices last May to mark International Day Against Homophobia. They called for anti-discrimination legislation and the inclusion of same-sex couples in the Domestic Violence Ordinance.

The latter was achieved on January 1, when the amendment came into force. However, the law's name was changed to the Domestic and Cohabitation Relationships Violence Ordinance because of conservative groups' fear that the original name would lead to legal recognition of gay marriages, which they say would interfere with the notion of family.

Cohabiting same-sex partners can now seek civil remedies for violent acts and apply for court injunctions to protect themselves. Yeo Wai-wai of the Women Coalition is not aware of any application by a lesbian or gay man, but points out that studies show that as few as 3.1 per cent of lesbians and gay men say that they would seek help from NGOs, just 0.6 per cent would go to the police and only 0.9 per cent the Social Welfare Department.

Lam, the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, told the Legislative Council panel on constitutional affairs this month that now was not the right time to put forward laws to protect homosexuals and transsexuals because there was not a consensus on them. But Roddy Shaw Kwok-wah, chairman of rights group Civil Rights for Sexual Diversities, argues that now is the right time because the amended domestic violence law has just come into force. The fact that the government is preparing Hong Kong's third report under the UN International Covenant on Economics, Social and Cultural Rights, and is inviting public comment on it, also makes it a good time to pursue this goal, Shaw says.