Ashes to Ashes: Row Over Gay Husband's Remains Opens Raw Wounds in Hong Kong's LGBT Groups
The scars of Hong Kong’s LGBT community are again raw after the ashes of a man’s dead husband were nearly confiscated by airport security back in January. Airport security insists this was all a miscommunication, but the city’s gay groups are now speaking out—and they don’t doubt for a second this was yet another case of discrimination.
It was just last month that the new chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission accidentally referred to homosexuals as “lo tung,” a term used for drug addicts.
But it turns out that under Hong Kong law, the debate about whether the incident was a mistake or malice is moot. The city doesn’t consider discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity an offense—there’s no law against it.
Which means that anybody—including employers, doctors, teachers, government officials and, yes, the people who decide whether you are fit to enter the city—can discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people on those grounds without consequence.
One reason why there hasn’t been legislation to cover discrimination against gender or sexual minorities, says Doriane Lau, an education officer with Amnesty International, is that groups and individuals who have sway with the government don’t see any problems with the way things are now. Other lawmakers fear that pushing legislation to protect LGBT groups will pave the way towards gay marriage.
Without legal protection, gay or lesbian students can be bullied by their peers or even teachers. Transgender people, if detained or hospitalized, can be cut off from their medication and hormone therapy. Well-known advocates of conversion therapy have been hired by the government to lead social welfare workshops.
That's not to mention LGBT youth suicides: No formal research has been carried out on this topic in China or Hong Kong, but an American study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the rate of LGBT youth suicide at more than half that of their heterosexual peers. In one case from 2013, a Hong Kong lesbian teenager left a note to her brother, which said that “being discriminated against is very upsetting.” She drowned to death in her own home.
Among our east and southeast Asian neighbors, only Thailand fully bans all anti-gay discrimination. In Japan, the Philippines, East Timor and Macau, regulations on anti-gay discrimination are conditional: Only some cities within a country may uphold these laws, or they may extend only to hate crimes or are taken up on a case-by-case basis. But Tommy Jai, spokesperson for LGBT advocacy group Rainbow Action, says that Hong Kong should be leading the pack, “Hong Kong is an international city,” he says, “and anti-discrimination protection for sexual orientation is what an international city should have.”
Take, for example, Eliana Rubashkyn. In 2014, the Colombian transgender woman was passing through Hong Kong when officers detained her. Her face didn’t match her passport photo: She had transitioned since the photo was taken. The male officer who searched her grabbed her breasts and touched her penis—no one was punished or charged. Jai feels these things happen in Hong Kong because the LGBT is invisible to the government.
A religious anti-gay group, the Society for Truth and Light, has been invited to speak at schools by the government. And so has the Post-Gay Alliance, a group that advocates sexual conversion.
“A few months ago, we had a meeting with the Census and Statistics Department and we asked them to collect information on sexual orientation and they refused. We asked them to include information on gender identity and they refused,” says Jai. “We asked them to include information on overseas same-sex marriages and they refused. They are deliberately making the LGBT community invisible.”
Doriane Lau of Amnesty International says that “when government officials form special committees to discuss social issues, the LGBT community groups are left out.” Meanwhile, she says, a religious anti-gay group, the Society for Truth and Light, has been invited to speak at schools by the government. And so has the Post-Gay Alliance, a group that advocates sexual conversion.
In the case of the man who nearly had to give up the ashes of his dead husband, a spokeswoman from the UK Foreign Office wrote to HK Magazine saying that the UK was issuing a death registration to acknowledge the couple’s marriage. Airport security has dodged multiple requests for comment, including ours. Although the horizon is grim—a new census report coming out in June will not include any information on sexual and gender minorities—LGBT groups and community members will continue their campaign for basic rights.
“To pass a nondiscrimination ordinance is to legally recognize the rights of LGBT people, which has never happened before,” says Lau. “The government is not ready."