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Time for open debate on homosexuality in HK

Stephen Vines says Hong Kong falls short on acceptance of homosexuality

Hypocrisy has a new name: Cecil Chao Sze-tsung. This flamboyant shipping tycoon is offering HK$500million to a man prepared to marry his daughter Gigi. Even if we set aside the rather repulsive idea that a rich man should be announcing his intention to pay someone to marry his daughter, we are still left with the stench of prejudice that prompted this offer, coming after news that Gigi Chao had married her girlfriend in France.

It is quite likely Chao Senior has a limited understanding of lasting loving relationships as he has never married, claims to have had 10,000 girlfriends and acknowledges parentage of three children born out of wedlock. Gigi Chao, on the other hand, has entered into a lasting relationship that is recognised in most other European countries. She cannot, of course, marry here or even form a civil partnership of the kind that is becoming increasingly common in Britain.

Indeed, although Hong Kong prides itself on its progressive thinking and likes to claim that it is part of the advanced international community, officialdom shares attitudes towards homosexuality that are largely confined to the world's most backward nations.

The Equal Opportunities Commission has shown awareness of this and taken up some issues but, frankly, to little effect. And now we have an openly gay legislator, Raymond Chan Chi-chuen, but he thought it prudent not to discuss his sexuality during the election campaign. Chan's emergence from the closet is brave and exceptional in Hong Kong where no one in a senior government position dares to declare their homosexuality. Maybe there are no such people, a legacy of the civil service homosexual witch hunts, which led many to leave the service.

Other nations have homosexual heads of government, business leaders of all types and, of course, in the arts and creative industries prominent gay people are hardly rare. Yet, in Hong Kong, we live in a world where it is generally considered best not to discuss these things and we are still struggling with such issues as whether gay couples should be entitled to public housing.

The official excuse for denying any form of official recognition to same-sex relationships (the transgender community faces even greater problems even being acknowledged, as a recent court case has demonstrated) is that Hong Kong remains a deeply conservative Chinese society.

But this does not explain why another Chinese society, Taiwan, has moved light years away from Hong Kong in terms of acceptance of its homosexual citizens. Still, no doubt some government stooge has a convoluted explanation.

Whoever provides this explanation needs to take account of a recent and groundbreaking public survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme concerning homosexual and transgender people in the workplace. The survey goes some way to challenge the government's fondly held assumption that Hong Kong people are bigots when it comes to issues of sexuality.

It found that a majority of those questioned were "accepting" or "somewhat accepting" of non-straight people in the workplace. A much bigger majority, 85per cent, believed there should be greater acceptance in Hong Kong.

However, the survey also found that a majority did not know anyone who was homosexual, bisexual or transgender and an even bigger number never talked about sexual orientation.

So, it seems reasonable to conclude that this subject is on the back burner and most hardly give it a second thought. Why should they? If the majority does not need to tackle issues of sexuality, why should they spend time thinking about it?

The problem lies with those who encounter problems because of their sexual orientation. Other societies have sensibly concluded that all that needs to be done is not to take a view on the desirability or otherwise of a person's sexual orientation but to allow people to make up their minds and not suffer discrimination if they happen to be in the minority.

Hong Kong, which claims to be Asia's world city, has quite some way to go to catch up with other world cities.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Time to take discrimination debate out of the closet