Lack of legal protection is driving sexual minorities out of Hong Kong

The city still has no comprehensive legislation against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, despite a marked shift in favour among the public

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 February, 2017, 4:28pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 February, 2017, 11:02pm

In his chief executive election declaration, John Tsang Chun-wah said that a great Hong Kong means a place where people can lead happy lives and see it as a home for generations to come.

He explained that one of the reasons why he was running for election was that he wished to change people’s intention to emigrate, which is a sentiment that is increasingly felt among Hongkongers these days.

There are many “push factors” for emigration besides the broader political climate and economic reasons. In particular, the lack of legal protection can also propel a certain minority group to emigrate.

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For example, in migration and sexuality research, “sexual migration” – international relocation that is motivated, directly or indirectly, by the sexuality of those who migrate – is a recognised phenomenon.

What John Tsang and other candidates may not recognise is that a sizeable proportion of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people are considering emigrating from Hong Kong because of the lack of legal protection.

According to an online survey that I conducted with 1,026 LGB people in Hong Kong in August 2016, 39 per cent had considered leaving Hong Kong because of the lack of legal protection against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation; 48 per cent had considered leaving because same-sex marriage was not legalised or recognised in Hong Kong; and 26 per cent had considered leaving because of the difficulties facing same-sex partners who wanted children.

It is also alarming that these LGB people who have considered emigrating may be the talents that Hong Kong should be keen to retain. The LGB people in the survey were relatively very well-educated, with 48 per cent having obtained an undergraduate degree, and 23 per cent holding a master’s degree or above; 72 per cent of them were 29 years old or below.

It means that Hong Kong may be driving a significant proportion of the young and well-educated LGB workforce away because of the government’s failure to provide legal protection and recognition for them. The phrase “brain drain” rings a bell.

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If these LGB people do indeed emigrate from Hong Kong, there will be negative consequences for the city. Social scientists, city planners and policymakers have extended the argument that diversity and creativity are basic drivers of innovation and regional and national growth.

The American urban studies theorist Richard Florida even went as far as to suggest rather controversially in his creative class theory that the level of acceptance of gay people by the straight community in a certain location (which he refers to as the gay index) is a sign of tolerance which is important for attracting the creative class.

The lack of protection for LGB people could hamper the government’s efforts, seen for example in the latest budget speech, to diversify our economy by developing innovation and technology as well as creative industries.

It is understandable why LGB people may feel frustrated and consider the opportunity of living abroad desirable. It has been more than 25 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Hong Kong in 1991.

Yet, there is still no comprehensive legislation against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in Hong Kong. This despite evidence of notable and widespread discrimination reported by LGB people in Hong Kong, and that public opinion has significantly shifted in support of legislation to protect LGB people from discrimination.

In Hong Kong, same-sex relationships are not recognised except in the rare and limited exceptions of domestic violence and medical emergencies. Same-sex marriage is not legalised and same-sex relationships registered overseas are not legally recognised in Hong Kong.

Even a suggested amendment to the Private Columbaria Bill that was passing through the Legislative Council to allow same-sex partners to claim for the return of their deceased partner’s ashes, ran into resistance from the government. These regressive steps taken against LGB people are against the trends in the region and many parts of the world.

Returning to the chief executive election declarations, different candidates have pledged to foster diversity and inclusiveness in society. Let us see if the promise will be kept.

Dr Suen Yiu-tung, DPhil, is assistant professor at the Gender Studies Programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong