CONNIE CHAN WAI-MAN expects to hold a big wedding next year. She and her partner plan to fly friends and family to either Montreal or Toronto to witness their nuptials, which will put a serious dent in their bank accounts. But they have little choice. Chan and her partner are lesbians, and Canada is one of the few countries which recognise same-sex unions. Britain has now joined the list as its Civil Partnerships Act came into force this week, allowing gay couples such as Elton John and David Furnish to register their relationships. But Hong Kong residents won't be enjoying similar rights anytime soon. Despite its cosmopolitan veneer and the touting of its world city status, Hong Kong lags much of the developed world in terms of gay rights. 'Many people in my community dearly wish to marry their partners,' says Chan, referring to the lesbians she got to know as head of the Women's Coalition of Hong Kong, a group fighting for equal rights for women of all sexual orientations. A coalition survey last month found more than 70 per cent of 693 women polled wanted a legal union with their partners. Just as with straight couples, a formal bond seeks social acknowledgement. 'I'd want to let my family and friends know that, yes, she's the one - so that they wouldn't think they are wasting their time and emotions on just a fleeting girlfriend,' says KK, an executive who declines to reveal her full name or that of her partner. Legalisation also addresses practical needs and affords a degree of protection for same-sex partners, for example, in rights to shared property. Such problems were underscored when Chan and her partner were making funeral arrangements for the latter's mother, who died last month. 'We discovered that in order to be buried together you need a marriage certificate,' says Chan. 'We just panicked. What would happen if something were to happen to us suddenly? Would our family be able to place our urns together, for example?' Without legal standing in Hong Kong, same-sex couples do not have the rights and benefits that straight people enjoy. For instance, Chan, a reporter with a local daily, expects a hard time claiming the matrimonial leave that her straight colleagues are entitled to. Gay partners are not accepted as the next-of-kin, so they will not automatically benefit should one partner die. Ownership of a shared apartment may well go to the deceased party's family rather than their long-term partner unless special arrangements are made. According to Chan, many gay couples get around this problem by transferring the ownership of shared assets to a joint company, thus assuring that the surviving partner will inherit. The 33-year-old says she and her partner are among the luckier couples. 'Our families get along well with us so there's no chance of a fight over our stuff if something happens to either of us.' Some same-sex couples who face family disapproval can avoid such disputes by setting out their wishes in a will. But this involves legal fees that married couples do not have to pay. A formally recognised union eases matters considerably. KK felt the difference immediately after marrying her partner in Vancouver last month. Returning to Hong Kong with a marriage certificate, she and her spouse managed to make each other beneficiaries in their insurance policies - something they were not able to do previously as they were not recognised as next-of-kin. As the spouse of a Canadian citizen, KK can already share many of the rights that her partner is entitled to. For example, she can now apply for Canadian citizenship and enjoy the same social and medical benefits in the country. Not so in Hong Kong, which both view as home. 'If something were to happen to me here, like if I crash my car, my partner would have problems admitting me to hospital,' KK says. 'Hospital staff might just send her away and ask her to get my mother to arrange things for me.' Chan's partner found out how difficult things could be when the reporter was hospitalised after a small operation during the Sars crisis. At the time, visits to medical wards were strictly limited to close relatives, and her partner was nearly turned away because she had no proof of status. 'Fortunately my mother happened to be there and asked the nurses to let her in,' Chan says. Couples who wish to have children face even greater hurdles. Adoption is out of the question - the law limits this to heterosexual couples. This poses a problem for women who have children from a previous relationship; their lesbian spouse therefore cannot become the childrens' legal guardian. Hong Kong is one of the most liberal territories in the region. The local gay community is more visible and well-established compared to those in Singapore, Malaysia and the mainland. There's a thriving homosexual subculture, with specialised bookshops, nightspots and an annual film and video festival. And a landmark ruling by Justice Michael Hartmann in August lowered the age of consent for homosexuals from 21 to 16, the same as for heterosexuals. Even so, homosexuals encounter considerable barriers. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, a devout Catholic, has expressed reservations about the 'privatisation of morality' as such liberal rulings emerge. Efforts to introduce laws to protect sexual minorities have made little headway. The Equal Opportunities Bill was rejected by the Legislative Council in 1994, and a government consultation on anti-discrimination legislation for gays and lesbians ran into considerable opposition from conservative religious groups such as the Society for Truth and Light. As defined by the Marriage Ordinance, the institution is 'a formal ceremony recognised by the law as involving the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of others'. This excludes same-sex partners from enjoying benefits given to married couples such as public housing and tax breaks. A Home Affairs Bureau spokeswoman says recognition of same-sex unions 'would have tremendous impact on the society'. 'This is an issue concerning the ethics and morality of the society, so the society, rather than the government, should play a steering role in deciding the way forward'. However, the issue 'has not been discussed as an agenda item' by the Sexual Minorities Forum, the government's channel of communication with sexual minorities. Gay activists acknowledge they have an uphill struggle. 'A mention of the m-word [for gay people] would touch the rawest nerve of religious groups who believe we are all set to desecrate the sanctity of marriage,' says Roddy Shaw Kwok-wah, chairman of the group, Civil Rights for Sexual Diversities. But Shaw agrees it would be a tactical mistake for the gay community to confront its opponents. 'One easier front to open up is to fight for what we call the legal consequences of marriage,' he says. 'That means going to the courts and fighting for divorce arrangements, visitation rights and medical benefits for same-sex spouses. With this we will arrive at the legalisation of civil unions that are effectively the same as marriages.' Shaw, who married his partner Nelson Ng Chin-pang in Toronto in 2003, advocates pushing for top-down policy changes through judicial reviews rather than through legislative amendments. Describing the Legislative Council as 'undemocratic in its representation', he says many legislators can't be counted on to sympathise with sexual minorities. Still, he says Hartmann's ruling has made a wide variety of laws vulnerable to legal challenge: tax and housing benefits could now be argued to have excluded same-sex couples, Shaw says. But it's tough finding someone prepared to endure the stress and public hostility that will come with a legal challenge, he says. Few people are as brave as William Roy Leung, the charity worker who pursued an eight-month judicial review of the law that makes gay sex for under-21s a crime. 'We are just waiting for the right plaintiff to arrive at the right time.'