It's time Hong Kong explored gay civil unions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 October, 2013, 12:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 October, 2013, 12:20am

Same-sex marriage is highly controversial, but the issue will not go away by simply putting it aside. Even if the city is not ready to make a decision on whether it should be legalised, it is still necessary to enhance the rights of sexual minorities.

Thankfully, the Equal Opportunities Commission has spared no efforts on this front. The latest call by chairman York Chow Yat-ngok to allow civil unions for gays and lesbians is worth exploring.

Chow has proved to be a fast learner after taking the job in April. Having upset interest groups with a relatively weak stance on gay rights initially, the former health minister soon established himself as a strong advocate for equal rights and opportunities. His commitment in pushing for an anti-discrimination law for sexual minorities is to be welcomed.

However, the sense of urgency is not shared by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Although 60 per cent of the people are in favour of putting the issue to public consultation, Leung decided not to put it on the agenda. Instead, a group was set up in June to advise on matters related to discrimination faced by sexual minorities. Inevitably, the government has been criticised for dragging its feet. It is good that the commission is filling the gap by going ahead with its own public consultation next year. Hopefully the momentum can be increased.

Admittedly, gay marriage remains an alien concept in many conservative societies. Acceptance is further dampened because of religions, cultures and customs. Hong Kong is no exception. A consultation is already feared as too divisive.

But that does not mean discrimination is to be tolerated. Chow rightly points out that the issue should be viewed as a matter of equality. If marriage between a man and a woman is considered a fundamental right under the law, why is it not extended to the same sex?

Hong Kong prides itself on being a fair and tolerant society. Legislation to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sex, family status, disability and race have since been enacted. It is only a matter of time before we broach the gay rights issue.

Many countries started off by recognising same sex partnerships in the form of civil unions. It remains to be seen whether the public will find it an acceptable alternative to marriage. While such partnerships may be regarded by activists as not going far enough, it nonetheless gives couples similar legal rights and protections. The option can be explored further.