Can Hong Kong follow Taiwan’s lead on same-sex marriage and live up to its Asia’s World City tag?

David Ogilvie says that, despite setbacks, the signs are that the conditions and mindset are right for Hong Kong to claim its place as a true East-West melting pot, with a citizenry tolerant of all sexualities

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 10:50am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 6:54pm

A few months ago, Taiwan became the first jurisdiction in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage, joining a list of more than 20 countries worldwide over the past 16 years that now permit this. Where might be next in the region? Hong Kong looks like a reasonable assumption. There are, of course, many reasons why same-sex marriage legislation is or is not passed in a particular jurisdiction, but essentially it comes down to three issues.

First, religious tolerance. There are only a small number of anti-gay religious activists in Hong Kong, although they do appear to have a relatively vocal platform that belies their size.

Choi Chi-sum, general secretary of the conservative Christian group, the Society For Truth And Light, for example, has been given an increasingly prominent stage to present his views following Taiwan’s legislative change. His opinions on same-sex marriage, sexual minority anti-discrimination laws, and even the recent “controversy” over a homosexual character in the Disney film Beauty and the Beast are well known.

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Also, a surprisingly large number of politicians in Hong Kong profess to be devout Christians, although this does not of course automatically denote anti-gay or even anti-same-sex-marriage sentiment.

Hongkongers are increasingly unlikely to be swayed by the traditionalist views

The second issue is the level of civic freedom that Hong Kong enjoys. Homosexuality was decriminalised here in 1991 and, while anti-discrimination laws are only applied to government employees, many corporations have worked independently to adopt their own codes on this issue.

Nevertheless, one could argue that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights have taken a few steps backward in recent years, such as when the government appealed against a High Court decision in April granting welfare benefits to the spouse of a gay civil servant. Moreover, the government’s decision to not allow same-sex couples to wed at the British consulate after the country legalised same-sex marriage in 2014 upset many activists, particularly given that several countries that have often been criticised for their gay rights record, such as Russia and Azerbaijan, had given their consent to the practice.

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So, while these two issues offer a mixed bag for those advocating a more liberal approach to same-sex marriage locally, they are perhaps both trumped by the third and most important issue, which is the degree of acceptance a society has towards sexual minorities.

Hong Kong does pretty well in this regard: for example, a 2013 survey by the University of Hong Kong found that 66 per cent of respondents believed a sexual orientation anti-discrimination law should be enacted, whilst 33 per cent supported the legalisation of same-sex marriage or registered partnership outright.

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Given that homosexuality no longer remains a taboo subject among Hong Kong youth, this number is likely to multiply: indeed, a more recent citywide representative survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission early last year found that 92 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 were in favour of further anti-discrimination legislation for sexual minorities, a trend aligned to a growing global consciousness on the issue.

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Moreover, it seems that Hongkongers are increasingly unlikely to be swayed by the traditionalist views of local religious authorities any time soon, given the results of a WIN/Gallup International poll in 2015 that found Hong Kong was rated second lowest in the world in terms of religious belief – behind only China – with 34 per cent claiming they did not believe in a deity. Other polls have put that number far higher, with as much as 80 per cent stating that they do not have any particular religious affiliation.

It seems that the powers that be in Hong Kong will, therefore, face increasing pressure on this issue.

Strengthened anti-discrimination laws are inevitable, either through the government’s own initiative to bring Hong Kong more in line with global norms, or through forced change brought about by civil action groups via the judicial system. The issue of same-sex marriage will doubtless follow shortly behind and will need to be resolved in good time. The manner in which the government settles this matter dovetails nicely with our claim to be Asia’s World City, with a tolerant citizenry befitting an East-West melting pot.

David Ogilvie is a writer and commentator on local affairs