US envoy highlights business advantages of respecting gay rights during Hong Kong visit

Randy Berry urges LGBT activists to become more visible as he meets city officials, lawmakers and business and religious leaders to discuss the contentious issue

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2016, 6:29pm
UPDATED : Friday, 26 May, 2017, 12:44pm

Advocating equal rights for sexual minorities is not only a matter of human rights but also an “economic issue”, the first-ever US global envoy for gay rights told Hong Kong as he encouraged LGBT rights advocates to be more “visible” in the community.

Randy Berry, who was in Hong Kong for several days last week, is the first US special envoy for the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons – a new State Department post created in April last year.

His remarks came a week after a number of investment banks refused to sign a petition letter urging the Hong Kong government to change the current immigration policy that denies same-sex couples equal recognition in spousal visa applications.

Some banks support LGBT inclusiveness in the workplace, but stopped short of signing the letter over fears it might open the door to a flood of future petitions.

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Berry was reluctant to comment on the letter, but said it was a global trend for the business community to be a vocal voice in demanding better government protection for the LGBTI community as it knew productivity would be compromised without such equality.

“Businesses certainly in the US context have been at the leading edge of equality – not because they are ... approaching this as charity or corporate responsibility, but believe this is the best thing for business,” Berry told the South China Morning Post.

“I think that is happening in other places as well.”

The diplomat also admitted the restrictive immigration policy was a barrier for companies to recruit and retain the best staff, though it was not a unique issue for Hong Kong.

“Whenever we see barriers to companies being unable to move their people where they need them, that’s a disincentive for sure,” he said.

Before leaving Hong Kong for Australia – which will be the 50th country he has visited since he assumed the rights role – Berry took the opportunity to meet local officials, lawmakers, business and religious leaders as well as LGBT activists to get a better understanding of the city’s situation.

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When asked about calls for legislation to ban discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, Berry said he was not in Hong Kong to make an “assessment”. But he highlighted the importance of having a transparent conversation in society to dispel misconceptions.

It was also crucial for LGBT advocates to be “visible”, he added, as that would help present a face to an otherwise abstract issue.

“Personal knowledge [on LGBT issues] and progress on realising greater equality are fundamentally linked,” he said.

Roger Wong Wai-ming, convenor of the Family School Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance Concern Group, who met with Berry, reiterated any change to the current immigration policy to grant dependant visas to same-sex couples would pave the way for the legalisation of same-sex marriages in Hong Kong, which he said would be unacceptable.

“Societal values are more important than individual cases,” he said.

Billy Leung of the Pink Alliance said the city had to up its game in protecting the LGBT community to remain relevant and competitive.

“The business community understands that Hong Kong has to lead and attract the best talents to contribute to our economy,” he said.

“Legal protection from discrimination is essential not only among top executives in multinational corporations but all those in small and medium enterprises, which account for over 98 per cent of all businesses.”