York Chow backs civil unions as answer to call for gay marriage law

Equal opportunities chief says civil unions between gay and lesbian couples could be 'feasible' alternative for conservative Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 10:19pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 2:59pm

The time is right for Hong Kong to contemplate civil unions as a "feasible" alternative to allowing gay and lesbian people to marry, the head of the Equal Opportunities Commission says.

Amid an international debate on gay marriage, Dr York Chow Yat-ngok says other governments consider it a "matter of human rights" to allow people to marry others of the same sex. But he says conservative influences in Hong Kong will make it difficult to change the law, which restricts marriage to a union between a man and a woman.

A civil union is a legal recognition of the partnership between a same-sex couple, which grants them the same rights in law as marriage in matters such as welfare benefits and inheritance. But Chow hopes that by not using the word marriage, this would be more acceptable to conservative Hongkongers.

Civil unions, or civil partnerships, were pioneered in Denmark in 1989 and are also in use in countries such as Australia, Germany and Ireland.

Similar arrangements have been introduced in other western countries, including France, and in England and Wales, which have since moved to allow gay marriage. In the United States the Supreme Court struck down the Defence of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

"To use 'marriage' for same-sex couples would be rather difficult to accept for Hongkongers, especially the conservative ones," Chow says.

"Overseas governments first thought of dropping the term 'marriage' and replacing it with 'civil union'. Legally, though, the protection is identical. I think this is feasible.

"I, and the commission, are of the view that the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community should be provided with the same opportunities [as heterosexuals have] wherever possible," Chow says.

The appointment in April of Chow, a committed Christian, as head of the equalities watchdog raised eyebrows among gay rights groups. Catholic and evangelical Christian organisations have been among the leading opponents of gay rights legislation. But the former health minister, who says he takes a "liberal" view of his faith, has put gay equality at the top of his agenda.

The government had shown little sign of changing its stance on gay marriage, but will have to make changes to the legislation after the top court ruled in favour of a transsexual woman, named only as W, who wanted to marry a man. The court gave the Security Bureau one year to decide whether the law needs to be amended to reflect the ruling that the definition of "woman" includes a "post-operative male-to-female transsexual".

Chow is hopeful that the amendment debate will open up discussion of gay marriage.

"If a person gets married and then changes his or her gender, this becomes a same-sex marriage. Whether this should be legally enforceable remains contentious," he says. "And an ensuing question is: should same-sex marriage be allowed as well?"

Chow is also looking to the government for progress on legislation outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has formed a committee to consider whether a new discrimination law is needed, and while Chow says he has "no idea" what the committee is working on, he warns that a failure to make progress within two years could anger the public.

Chow's tough stance has taken him closer to the gay rights groups that questioned his appointment - and further from religious organisations and his old colleagues in the government.

Cyd Ho Sau-lan, a Labour Party lawmaker and strong supporter of gay rights, praised Chow for his "proactive" approach to discussions with LGBT groups.

Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, a pop singer who co-founded the LGBT rights group Big Love Alliance after coming out as gay, says he sees Chow as an ally. Wong believes the 2017 election for chief executive - due to be the first contested on a one-man, one-vote basis - will be an opportunity to press the case for civil unions, as voters will be able to scrutinise candidates' views on the issue.

But Chow concedes that his meetings with religious organisations have been less fruitful.

Without naming any particular group, Chow says certain organisations opposed to LGBT rights were abusing their freedom of speech.

"Freedom of speech and freedom of thought are two things which need to be seen separately," Chow says. "Freedom of thought? No one can change how you think. But freedom of speech? There is a place for it. It's not right to say whatever you want in whatever situation. If you're in a public setting, you do have to be careful. You should not - towards certain people - say or do something which is discriminatory."

He has urged them to change their stance and argue, for example, that their sermons should be exempted from future anti- discrimination legislation.

But the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong says it would oppose civil unions. "To compare homosexuals' rights with heterosexuals' rights is like comparing apple and orange - they are different in nature," says Dr Peter Au-Yeung Kar-kit, a layman who chairs the diocesan committee on bioethics.

Au-Yeung says that in matters of right and wrong, discrimination is "necessary" and that introducing civil unions would damage traditional values by implying to the public that homosexuality is "morally correct". The church would "keep a close eye" on Chow's actions.

Also strongly opposed is the conservative Christian group, The Society for Truth and Light.

"York Chow has become like a spokesman for sexual minorities," the group's general secretary, Choi Chi-sum, wrote last month in a blog post entitled " When Equality Crosses the Line" .

Fierce though the opposition seems, Chow says all his beliefs boil down to one, fundamentally existential concept: love.

"Anybody should have the right to love and be loved," Chow says. "If this mutual love is translated into a much-wanted desire for the two to live together for good, then why should the homosexual and transgender people be deprived of this right?"