Lawyer Michael Vidler: rights hero pushing waves of change

Lawyer Michael Vidler is savouring victory in a ruling on transsexual marriage. The battle was just one of his many fights for human rights

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 11:28am

After solicitor Michael Vidler skimmed through the top court's landmark ruling affirming the right of his client, a transsexual woman known as "W", to marry her fiancé, he summed up how the victory felt. It was, he said, like "taking a through-train to justice".

It was one of the high points in Vidler's professional life in Hong Kong - a career stretching back to the early 1990s. But he very nearly decided to give the city a miss when he arrived.

After a brief stint in London, the young British law graduate embarked on a journey east, with a plan to eventually head north and take the Trans-Siberian Railway back west towards home.

Hong Kong was "grey, wet, humid, frankly miserable".

But its charms soon won him over and, scrapping his itinerary, Vidler decided to stay, and he was admitted as a solicitor in 1992.

Vidler has since emerged as a human rights defender. His devotion to protecting the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual (LGBT) community stems from an early, formative experience, he says.

"When I was in university, I shared a flat with a gay man ... I saw the way he was treated when we were going out," Vidler says.

Apart from the W v Registrar of Marriages case decided last Monday, another of Vidler's triumphs was William Leung's challenge to the law prohibiting men under the age of 21 engaging in gay sex.

In 2005, Mr Justice Michael Hartmann agreed with the assertion of Leung, then 20 years old, that the law was discriminatory, as it laid down a far higher age than that for heterosexuals and lesbians, who could legally have sex at 16.

Eight years on, however, the infamously outdated section 118C of the Crimes Ordinance remains entitled: "Homosexual buggery with or by man under 21".

Vidler argues that the law is, at best, misleading for the general public and even legal practitioners, and, at worst, it shows the government's slow response to a judicial decision, let alone social changes at large.

The case of W - whom Vidler describes as lovely, sweet, shy and vulnerable - was first heard in the Court of First Instance in 2010, when then Mr Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung, now chief judge of the High Court, said in his judgment: "[It] is hoped that this case will serve as a catalyst for the government to conduct general public consultation on gender identity, sexual orientation and ... the specific problems and difficulties faced by transsexual people, including their right to marry."

Not without some anger, Vidler says: "Three years later, nothing has been done."

He adds: "And what is it about our government that it cannot act? Why is it frozen on social issues so that it can't … move with the time, and it requires people to struggle so hard to fight for their rights. It effectively requires the court to have to step in and say: 'No, this is our declaration. You've got it wrong.'"

While Hongkongers remain undecided on whether an official consultation is needed on whether to create new laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation, France, for instance, has recently formally legalised gay marriage.

Vidler, who is also a legal consultant for the Big Love Alliance, a newly formed LGBT group that includes some of the city's most famous gay celebrities, asked Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying not to be another King Canute, who thought "he was so powerful that he could hold back the waves".

He also lamented that Hong Kong had been "hijacked by a fundamentalist religious group". He said he had been raised in a family devoted to what he called the "open-minded, accepting, forgiving, loving" Church of England, and he condemned those exercising vengeance or retribution in the name of God.

Vidler said that society - despite strong religious opposition - needed to rid itself of discrimination against the LGBT community by, among other things, introducing civil partnerships for gays and lesbians.

"If no one has the courage to stand up for what he thinks is right, then nothing will happen, nothing will change."

As for whether he'll ever make the 9,000-kilometre rail trip back to Moscow that he planned for all those years ago, he says: "I've got a young son now. He takes up almost all my time."


Michael Vidler

Age "Just passed a major milestone in life". (He told SCMP in a 2007 interview he was 43).

Education Bachelor of Laws, University of Leeds (UK).

Admitted as solicitor in England and Wales in 1990. Admitted as solicitor in Hong Kong in 1992.
Member, Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre's board of directors since 2008.
Legal adviser, Pink Alliance since 2008.
Member, Hong Kong Unison's board of directors since 2011.
Legal adviser, Hong Kong Cycling Alliance, since 2011.
Adjudicator, Obscene Articles Tribunal since 2012.

[Correction: An earlier version attributed the landmark ruling to the High Court in the first paragraph; it should be the Court of Final Appeal. The error was introduced during editing.]