News has filtered out to Hong Kong's gay and lesbian communities that the government is preparing to openly debate the rights of homosexuals - cause for quiet celebration within a minority community which feels the bite of public discrimination more than most. On the agenda is an ordinance barring discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Also up for discussion are issues relating to taxation, health and education, as well as possible recognition of committed same-sex partnerships. To find out what Hongkongers think, a survey will be launched later this year or early next year to test public opinion on attitudes towards homosexuals and the need for an anti-discrimination law. The government wants to known whether societal attitudes have change since a 1995-96 survey, which showed widespread opposition to a sexual orientation discrimination ordinance. Stephen Fisher, Deputy Secretary of the Home Affairs Bureau, said nothing would happen if the survey did not show Hong Kong attitudes had changed over the past decade. 'I don't think the Hong Kong SAR government will try to impose something like this on the community without at least 50 per cent support,' Mr Fisher said. A successful survey will lead to a consultation paper and, if there is sufficient support within the Legislative Council, a bill will be put forward. Gay activist Chung To, of the Chi Heng Foundation, said: 'I am quite confident we have over half [the community's] support. But while public opinion is important, protecting the rights of minorities should not be left to the majority to decide. That is the government's job. 'This survey is long overdue,' said civil rights lawyer Roddy Shaw, who heads the non-governmental organisation Civil Rights for Sexual Diversities. 'The community at large has changed its attitudes and it is important the government see that change,' he said, cautioning against the use of biased or leading questions in the survey. The Polytechnic University conducted a survey in May, 2002, which found up to 80 per cent of respondents supported measures to extend equal rights to homosexuals. 'If the survey is done in a fair and comprehensive way, I think it will have a positive outcome,' Mr To said. The recognition of same-sex partners would have widespread ramifications for Hong Kong law, not the least in the areas of housing, health and taxation. Mr Fisher said the government was open to discussing all issues and, to that end, would launch a sexual minorities forum 'before the end of the year', modelled on the existing forums on human rights and ethnic minorities. 'We will invite all the NGOs and other organisations interested in the subject to sit together and tell us what are their problems, and we will let them know what we think,' he said. Mr Fisher, a career civil servant, moved to the Home Affairs Bureau as deputy secretary in February, 2002, from Planning and Lands, and took over the human rights portfolio in September last year. He steered the race discrimination policy paper to the Executive Council and is confident that ordinance will become law by mid-2005. Gay activists have described him as 'reasonably open-minded' and 'quite capable of handling human rights issues which are at odds with the government', a man who 'doesn't shy away from difficult issues', and 'a driving force behind policy'. Central to the forum concept is the involvement of relevant government departments and bureaus, which will be directly involved in resolving problems. Mr Fisher said he would 'not let the other government bureaus hide behind Home Affairs. They will have to defend themselves'. Mr Fisher has also effectively put Hong Kong's gay and lesbian community on notice. 'Like any political game, someone has to act as advocate and the government can only do so much,' he said. 'There must be a group of people who are prepared to speak up for their rights, because there are groups who will speak against them. In this fight for equal rights, people have to come out and stand up and be counted.' A public forum will require representatives from groups otherwise shielded by the relative anonymity of writing letters to 'come out', something most gays and lesbians in Hong Kong find extremely hard to do. Mr Fisher's warning signalled that little progress could be expected by the gay community if the task was left to the same handful of activists. The make-up of the coming Legislative Council will also play a major role in the ordinance's fate. 'I don't know how much support we will have if eventually we want to initiate a new policy initiative,' said Mr Fisher. 'So far only a very small group of legislators has been talking about this.' He said it required at least 30 votes to get a bill through Legco. 'And if we don't have 30 votes it doesn't really matter what we think ... and that 30 votes will very much depend on community attitudes,' he said. Gay groups will be asking each candidate in the September Legco elections for their position on sexual orientation discrimination, as well as same-sex marriage and age of consent, which is 21 for homosexuals and 16 for heterosexuals. A 'report card' on each candidate will be released at a press conference in coming weeks. The key issue in any debate about gay rights in Hong Kong will likely be the question of recognising same-sex couples in a committed relationship. Figuring prominently will be the case of Roddy Shaw and his partner, Nelson Ng, who want the Inland Revenue Department to recognise their marriage in Toronto last year under Canadian law and grant them the spousal tax rebate. Mr Fisher knows this is a potential time bomb. Mr Shaw and Mr Ng fully expect their case to end up before the Court of Final Appeal. 'If Roddy Shaw ... and Nelson Ng win in court, then they will have won the war,' he says. 'If the court says what we are doing now is wrong, we will change our ways to comply with the law. 'But having said all that, we strongly believe the law is on our side.' That is, marriage is a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. 'We are not saying that we are not sympathetic to the situation of same-sex couples who have been living together for a very long time in genuine domestic arrangements, who are not able to enjoy the benefits of a married couple,' he said. 'They cannot apply for a married couple allowance for their dependant partner; they cannot apply for public housing on the basis of their lifelong relationship; a partner of such a union cannot sign on behalf of the other partner in case of medical emergencies. 'All this we need to look at. The question basically is: do we go for a form of same-sex marriage or do we go for another approach; that is, recognise same-sex unions and provide certain rights and benefits to them?' Mr Fisher said recent cases in the US and Canada 'have rung alarm bells and we are looking at our taxation legislation and our marriage law to see if someone married abroad and bringing to Hong Kong a foreign marriage certificate, whether we can still deny them the marriage couple allowance'. But, ultimately, 'there is tremendous opposition'. He cited churches, religious groups and the teaching profession. Mr Fisher believed Hong Kong had changed over the past 10 years. A decade ago 'people did not think there was racial discrimination in Hong Kong and did not support racial discrimination legislation'. 'Now that is all changed. People now accept that as a modern society, as a world city, we need to have anti-racial discrimination legislation. 'But if you talk to people about legislation against sexual orientation, they come up with very strong moral arguments. They really, genuinely, believe we shouldn't recognise homosexuals or same-sex marriage. It is an ethical, moral thing in this society.' But Chung To said equal rights for Tongzhi [homosexuals] was not a moral issue. 'It is about treating people fairly and equally,' he said. 'We are not asking for special privileges. We are asking for equal treatment.' What the Hong Kong government seems intent on avoiding is the acrimony evident in the US, which has pitted city against state, and state against the federal government, prompting moves led by US President George W. Bush to amend the US Constitution and ban same-sex marriage nationwide. Activists like Chung To are moved to ask if Hong Kong can claim to be a world city with a fair society 'if gays are so blatantly discriminated against'. 'If you are a gay Harvard MBA, Hong Kong is not a place you want your company to send you to,' he said. Still, he conceded there was some cause for celebration. 'After five years of talking to the government and being told the community is not ready, at least we're getting a new survey. That's a start.'