Some dark clouds still linger over Hong Kong for Rainbow Action founder Tommy Chen
As group nears its 20th anniversary, much has changed for the city’s small but significant LGBT population but there is still a long way to go, says Tommy Chen
Veteran gay rights campaigner Tommy Chen claims to have founded the “first LGBT community centre in Asia” while fresh out of university in 1998. Now, as Rainbow Action Hong Kong nears its 20th anniversary, much has changed for Hong Kong’s small but significant LGBT population.
“Discrimination against LGBT people was very serious, especially 20 years ago. In the news, there was no coverage of LGBT topics outside HIV and cruising in public toilets,” Chen says.
As a result, Chen became determined to challenge negative stereotypes of LGBT people in society. After setting up Rainbow Action with two close friends, the three activists decided to come out publicly to the media – a remarkable move at the time.
“We got quite a lot of positive coverage since we were very young and brave to come out publicly,” Chen says.
Soon after, Rainbow Action started receiving calls from LGBT people wishing to connect with others and receive support. A small community quickly started to flourish.
Over the years, the charity has helped sexual minorities in Hong Kong in a variety of ways, including providing legal support services, HIV services and even offering its tiny Jordan office space as a temporary shelter for LGBT people with nowhere else to go.
Chen recalls the case of a transgender woman who was made homeless after coming out, since her family cut off all contact and she was fired from work. She was rejected by female shelters since her Hong Kong ID showed the wrong gender, and male shelters did not have private rooms or bathroom facilities.
“She eventually found us – we do not have 24-hour social workers or enough funding to run a proper shelter. But we had to let her stay here rather than out on the street,” Chen says.
Rainbow Action also offers temporary shelter to young LGBT Hongkongers, who commonly face domestic violence when coming out to their parents.
“We’ve heard of parents throwing chairs at them, slamming them to the floor and being verbally abusive to their children, confiscating their phones, not giving them money,” Chen says.
“Shelters will not take them because they are underage and the shelter needs parental permission. So they don’t know where to go.”
Even though attitudes towards LGBT people have massively improved since Chen founded Rainbow Action, there is still a long way to go. Chen insists that, despite the visibility of the LGBT community in Hong Kong, it is still hard for many to come out as LGBT.
Chen points out that this year’s Taiwan Pride drew over 100,000 attendees – 10 times the number who attended Hong Kong Pride, even though Taiwan’s population is not 10 times larger than Hong Kong’s.
“Taiwan has a discrimination law [protecting LGBT people] but Hong Kong does not, so most of our clients and members at Rainbow are closeted,” Chen says.
“Most of them cannot come to Pride even though we organise it and they know about it.”
In Hong Kong, it is still legal to discriminate against one’s sexuality. In this respect, Hong Kong law lags behind that of many modern democracies.
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Extending Hong Kong’s discrimination ordinance to cover discrimination against sexuality and gender identity is vitally important for Chen – something which he believes is more useful to the LGBT community than legalising gay marriage.
An Equal Opportunities Commission survey from January 2016 showed that a staggering 92 per cent of young people in Hong Kong also supported such legislation.
“Think about who gets married – if a same-sex couple gets married, they cannot tell their boss otherwise they’d get fired,” Chen says.
“Only a very small amount of privileged LGBT people would benefit from [legalising] same-sex marriage, but a discrimination ordinance would cover everyone.”
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Chen believes that new legislation of this kind would massively help with discrimination and homophobic bullying in schools: “Even if discrimination still happens, there would be a policy to handle it.”
Chen also welcomes the Equal Opportunities Commission’s recent proposals to let transgender people be legally recognised without having to undergo sex reassignment surgery. The move, which campaigners have been advocating for years, would follow in the footsteps of the UK’s Gender Recognition Act.
According to Chen, the transgender community is “quite concerned” about the inconsistent quality of surgery and specialist gender services between different hospitals in Hong Kong.
“We advocate for a non-surgical requirement for gender recognition which is very important,” he says, adding that for many transgender people, genital surgery can be costly, painful and invasive.