Gay marriage hurdles put happy family to the test

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 August, 2013, 5:00am

They fell in love at first sight. They have been together for 22 years, married 10 years ago, and have a young son. But they are not your average family.

Nine-year-old Ethan, an adopted Chinese boy, has two fathers. "Dada" is Walter Jennings, a 51-year-old American. "Papa" is Santo Rizzuto, 49, an Australian-born Italian. The family arrived in Hong Kong in 2009.

"When we go to supermarkets in a non-Western area, a lot of people see us and I think what interests them most is that we have a Chinese child," says Jennings, a managing partner for Greater China at a strategic communications company.

The couple chose a Chinese child to adopt because they wanted a girl and thought there would be more options for abandoned baby girls than boys.

But surprisingly Ethan, a bright little boy who regularly jumps into the conversation, came to them.

"My classmates just keep asking if I have a mum," Ethan says. And when asked whether he has ever wanted a mum, he replies: "I don't think about this."

It's just fun having two dads, he says.

But as Hong Kong does not recognise same-sex marriages, Rizzuto needs a tourist visa that must be renewed every six months. It also means he cannot work or study in the city and is now a stay-at-home dad.

And if the family remains in Hong Kong, only Ethan and Jennings can apply to be permanent residents.

"As many countries in the world are making progress in recognising same-sex marriage, perhaps one day Hong Kong will also," says Jennings.

Earlier this year the new chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, Dr York Chow Yat-ngok, promised to make legislation to ensure gay rights a priority during his three-year term.

The government has been criticised by gay-rights activists for procrastinating on developing laws protecting and empowering sexual minorities.

Chow said the government would inevitably have to address the issue of same-sex marriage after it was legalised by a string of countries. But he said that in Hong Kong's traditional society, a civil union - which gives most of the legal rights of marriage - could be an alternative.

As for Jennings and Rizzuto, they have found Hongkongers to be welcoming. "In Hong Kong, it's a little bit easier for an expat because everyone assumes expats are a little strange anyway," says Jennings

Jennings and Rizzuto met in 1991 in Sydney at the annual gay and lesbian festival. After 12 years together, they were married in Canada in 2003. They adopted Ethan the following year when he was only nine months old, when they were living in the US.

Surprisingly, the couple never experienced strong opposition from their families, even though Rizzuto has a traditional Italian background.

"Our problems are exactly the same as any relationship," Jennings says. "I remember once we had a big fight over broccoli. I went to the grocery store and I bought broccoli and Santo was like, 'I told you we don't need broccoli, why did you buy it'. We are just like any couple that fights over stupid things."