Polls in Hong Kong and the US have signalled a shift in public opinion towards equal rights for sexual minorities. But they fall short of community consensus. Rather, they mask deep division in which tolerance is tested by religious, moral and personal conviction. What sets the US apart is that gay Americans and advocates of same-sex marriage won landmark cases in the US Supreme Court last week. These were narrow victories, by five-to-four majorities, that reflect both changing attitudes and lack of consensus. It is debatable how soon lawmakers could have achieved them through the legislative route of political persuasion. Indeed, in Hong Kong, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has declined to hold a formal public consultation because the community remains "deeply divided".
Society must tread cautiously in reconciling changing standards with traditional moral foundations. Successive governments have stalled in addressing these issues because of church-led opposition in defence of family values. But a community consultation would chart the changing boundaries of public opinion. Generally, as Leung has observed, there is no need to wait for full consensus to move forward.
The US Supreme Court struck down a central plank of the Defence of Marriage Act that denies federal benefits to same-sex couples, and swept aside a legal obstacle to the resumption of same-sex marriages in California. Leung remains concerned that a consultation on equal rights for sexual minorities would stoke fears for the family, religion and education. This does not entirely square with our reputation for being a tolerant society, nor is it consistent with polls showing 60 per cent back a consultation, or with anti-discrimination laws.
Consensus building takes time. It took nearly 20 years to enact measures to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sex, family status, disability and race. A recent ruling by the top court in favour of a transsexual whom the government tried to stop marrying her boyfriend is a step forward. A consultation would leave it to the people to find the way forward.