Time to begin the debate on gay rights

Kerry Kennedy says that if Hong Kong accepts the principle of equal rights for all, it cannot continue to suppress an honest debate on our society's treatment of its sexual minorities

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2012, 3:18am

Human rights legislation is an all-or-nothing business. Its purpose is to protect all of society's vulnerable groups - women, people with disabilities, racial minorities, sexual minorities and more. While Hong Kong has made progress on the first three of these, there has been a marked reluctance to place the issue of sexual minorities on the agenda. Yet the recent election to the Legislative Council of Raymond Chan Chi-chuen, an openly gay politician, has changed the momentum. Chan has an agenda for change that would see legislation not just for anti-discrimination but also for same-sex marriage. How likely is he to succeed?

Early this month, Legco, or at least those members who were present, set a bad example by refusing to endorse a motion that simply asked the government to consult the community on anti-discrimination legislation for sexual minorities. The government's response was to urge caution and wait for "the right time". This was similar to early government responses to similar legislation for ethnic minorities - wait and see! Pragmatism always wins over principle in Hong Kong.

Yet human rights are about principles - principles of care, concern and protection for vulnerable individuals and groups. Sadly, it has ever been the case that there are people who may accept the principle for groups such as women and people with disabilities, but stop when it comes to sexual minorities. Whether it was the Inquisition during the Middle Ages in Europe, the Nazis in more recent times or those countries where homosexuality is still punishable by death (for example, Sudan and Saudi Arabia), sexual minorities have too often been demonised. Attempts to protect them must run the test of prejudice and warped thinking that is deep in the psyche of many people.

Gays, of course, challenge traditional values in important ways. Same-sex rather than heterosexual attractions are offensive to many conservative religions that see the latter as normal and the former as abnormal. This categorisation means that widespread domestic violence and child abuse are rarely seen to be reasons for questioning the sanctity of heterosexual relationships - just minor aberrations. Soaring divorce rates are treated similarly - not signs of some fundamental problem with the nature of heterosexual contracts, just blips in paradise.

Failed heterosexual relationships are not necessarily an argument for same-sex relationships. Yet, where two people of the same sex can establish and maintain a long-term loving relationship, why should they not have access to the same privileges and securities as heterosexual partners? Simple issues such as inheritance, insurance, property and the like become immensely complicated for same-sex couples at times of grief and loss. It is cruel and unnecessary discrimination.

When we look across at Taiwan, we get a different picture of acceptance of sexual minorities. Same-sex marriage legislation has been on the political agenda since 2003, although no legislation has been enacted. In the same year, Ma Ying-jeou, then mayor of Taipei and now Taiwan's president, expressed unequivocal support for gay rights. As recently as last month, Su Tseng-chang, Taiwan's current opposition leader, endorsed same-sex unions. Issues of gender discrimination are addressed directly by the Gender Equity Education Act (2004), while the Employment Services Act (2007) prohibits discrimination against sexual minorities in employment-related matters. In an open society, these initiatives are seen as natural and obvious. Yet Hong Kong's legislators will not even allow debate on the simple issue of launching community consultation about the need for anti-discrimination legislation for sexual minorities.

If Taiwan's support for gay rights is the normal expectation of an open society, then the announcement by the communist government of Vietnam in July that it would launch a consultation on same-sex marriage was completely unexpected. Vietnam is not known for its support of human rights in general, but its apparent support for this particular right would make it the first country in Asia to move in this direction. There is a long way to go before this announcement by the Justice Ministry becomes part of new marriage laws, but at least the issue is on the public agenda rather than suppressed and withheld from public discussion.

Can Hong Kong legislators, and other like-minded members of the community, put away prejudice, ignorance and ideology to embrace the diversity and difference that characterise modern society? The president of the United States, himself a devout Christian, has publicly supported gay rights, including same-sex marriage. Hong Kong should not be on the wrong side of history on this issue and now is the time to act.

Professor Kerry Kennedy is co-director of the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at the Hong Kong Institute of Education