Same-sex marriages a distant prospect
It may take 20 years for Hong Kong to recognise gay marriages - because of religious opposition - says the Equal Opportunities Commission chief.
In what some see as an effort to open up debate on the topic, Lam Woon-kwong said he hoped such unions would be allowed within that time, but strong opposition from conservative community and religious groups had to be overcome first.
He raised the issue in an interview with Hong Kong Lawyer, published this month, in which he said there would be 'technicalities to overcome' and it would be difficult to drum up a big political movement as the gay community in the city was in the minority.
'It will be a minority movement and it will require a lot of goodwill and initiative by the government of the day to make it happen,' he was quoted as saying.
Lam told the South China Morning Post that what he had meant was that he hoped the legalisation of same-sex marriages would happen within his lifetime. 'I said 'within', so it does not necessarily mean it would have to take 20 years,' he said.
Lam said one of the 'technicalities to overcome' was the strong opposition by religious groups, but the city could learn from other countries on how to deal with this.
Christian organisation the Society for Truth and Light said that the government should not legalise same-sex marriages 'as the majority of Hong Kong people do not accept a same-sex sexual relationship'.
'Not only do religious groups not agree with same-sex marriage, but also the majority of society holds the same view. The silent majority may lack the opportunity to express their opinion in public,' said assistant general secretary Helen Fu Dan-mui.
The Catholic Diocese refused to comment.
Human rights lawyer Michael Vidler said Hong Kong would be 'ugly' if same-sex couples in the city had to wait so long before they could enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexuals.
Vidler said it was difficult to estimate how long it would take for Hong Kong to recognise same-sex relationships, but he could see the city was moving forward on the issue with more court cases soon to push the government to make the city more gay-friendly.
Like Lam, Vidler said the major barrier came from churches and also middle-aged people who were mostly more conservative about sexual orientation. 'I really don't think the computer, Facebook generation gives a damn whether their friends are gay,' he said.
'Lam has been very supportive of the gay movement here. He probably just wanted to introduce the issue, so people could think about it with a reference point,' he said.
Nigel Collet, a secretary for the gay group Tongzhi Community Joint Meeting, agreed it was difficult to get Hongkongers to talk about the issue.
He said it would be sad if Hong Kong took as long as 20 years to recognise gay marriages. He was more optimistic than Lam, saying it would take half that time. '[Lam] is trying to be realistic, but it's depressing if we have to wait that long.'
Paul Thomson of Tongzhi said: 'Many countries have cultural barriers to same-sex partnerships and marriages - in particular Catholic countries - but we have seen Spain, Ireland and other predominantly Catholic countries take huge steps despite these cultural barriers, once the drive comes from the government. We also feel that there is too much focus on the term 'marriage'.'
Quoting British research, Community Business, an organisation promoting corporate social responsibility in Hong Kong, said employees' efficiency at work could be undermined by up to 30 per cent if they concealed their sexual orientation.
'When we consider 5 to 10 per cent of any population is estimated to belong to the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community, the potential loss of productivity could be significant,' it said.
In August, 2005 the High Court ruled that various sections of the Crimes Ordinance had unfairly discriminated against homosexual men by outlawing and recommending a life sentence for buggery by or on men under 21. The ruling was on a judicial review filed by William Roy Leung, a gay man who challenged the ordinance for violating the Basic Law, the Hong Kong Bill of Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.
Under the Crimes Ordinance, acts of buggery between two men under 21 carried a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, while gross indecency could lead to two years' jail. But for heterosexuals and lesbians, the age was 16. Changes to the ordinance are still being reviewed.
Last October, a transexual woman who wanted to marry her boyfriend lost a landmark challenge against the law which prohibits such bonds.
Although Mr Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung dismissed the case, he urged the government to consult the public on the broader issue of transexual rights.