Nothing to fear from outlawing sexual orientation discrimination

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 3:48am

Once again, the government and lawmakers have joined hands to block a law against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. This is hardly a surprise given our society remains conservative. But it is disappointing that even a proposal to hold a public consultation on the matter is deemed too provocative, having been rejected after heated Legislative Council debate. The outcome does not live up to our claim to be a city of tolerance and equality.

Those who insist the community is split on the subject have cause to rethink. According to a survey by the public opinion programme of the University of Hong Kong, 76 per cent of respondents felt there was discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation. More than 60 per cent backed legislation to outlaw this. Compared with 2005, when a government survey found just 28.7 per cent support for such a measure, the public campaign for equal rights and opportunities for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people has come a long way. The high turnout for the Pride Parade march this month was yet another milestone.

Unfortunately, the government is still dragging its feet. Although constitutional affairs chief Raymond Tam Chi-yuen admits discrimination exists in the workplace, he argues that a consultation would be seen by many as the first step to legislating. He warns that revisiting the issue may provoke the public and thus be counterproductive. This sits oddly with his claim to be a partner, not an enemy, in the fight against discrimination.

The rights of sexual minorities is a complex issue involving religion and public morals. But that does not mean we should steer clear of the subject indefinitely. Consensus building takes time. This is why the government is expected to take the lead. If officials continue to dodge the question, talk of equal opportunity risks becoming empty. Outlawing discrimination will afford victims protection and redress. Even if one opposes gay marriage, one should not turn a blind eye to the unfair treatment of sexual minorities.

The passage of laws against discrimination on grounds of sex, family status, disability and race has not resulted in a surge in law breakers. There is nothing to fear from legislating. A consultation will send the message that the subject is no longer taboo, and that we are ready to discuss whether we need such a law and what behaviour it should and should not cover.