Hong Kong immigration officer’s appeal over gay marriage recognition should lead to a welcome rational debate

Misunderstanding and prejudice do nothing to build tolerance and community consensus and can only deepen inequality

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 January, 2016, 12:40am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 January, 2016, 12:41am

A civil servant seen as a rising star resigns unexpectedly to take a position in the private sector. What surprises colleagues is not that the person is trading future, well-paid job security for higher rewards now, but is seeking to gain access to job benefits for a partner and dependents in a same-sex relationship – benefits denied by a bureaucratic ruling on entitlement.

We just made that up. But it is a credible hypothetical example of how markets and community attitudes can move ahead of the law or administrative practice. In fields of business or finance that compete for talent, there is nothing to stop payment of benefits to men or women in same-sex relationships.

But what if a gay person in a same-sex relationship does not want to leave public service? An example is a senior immigration officer who has applied to the High Court for a review of the refusal of the Civil Service Bureau and Inland Revenue Department to recognise his marriage – legally entered into in New Zealand – for the purpose of entitlement to medical and dental benefits and joint assessment of income.

Leung Chun-kwong said the bureau has maintained that because its regulations view marriage as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman”, his union with a man “falls outside the meaning of marriage”. According to his document calling for a review, Leung said the decisions discriminated against his sexual orientation and were unconstitutional.

Hong Kong is traditionally conservative on social issues. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying dropped a planned consultation on equal rights for sexual minorities because the community was “deeply divided”. Discussion tends to be emotionally charged, as evidenced in the Equal Opportunities Commission’s consultation on the first review of anti-discrimination laws. If the court grants a review hearing, it will at least be held in a calm atmosphere, and may even inform reasoned public debate. That would be good. Misunderstanding and prejudice do nothing to build tolerance and community consensus, and can only deepen inequality.