What four secretly gay civil servants in Hong Kong feel about the government appealing against city’s landmark LGBT ruling

Government employees speak to the Post on condition of anonymity for fear of being ostracised in their places of work after ruling on benefits for same-sex spouses

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 June, 2018, 10:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 June, 2018, 2:48pm

One week after an appeal court in Hong Kong overturned a landmark LGBT judgment, many in the city’s civil service are still struggling to understand the lack of support from their paymasters.

The ruling that employees in same-sex marriages were not entitled to the same benefits as their heterosexual colleagues came after the Civil Service Bureau launched an appeal against a lower court’s earlier ruling in favour of a gay senior immigration officer.

“Even if the government was not supportive, I would expect it to at least take a neutral stance,” said John – not his real name – who works in the Planning Department.

His view was echoed by Alice, also a pseudonym, from the Department of Justice, which helped the bureau with its appeal.

“The government should adopt a neutral position and leave the matter to the courts,” she said. “By appealing against the Court of First Instance’s decision, they have expressed their position … that they are actively siding against any form of equal rights or protection for LGBT communities.”

Since the protagonist in the legal battle, Angus Leung Chun-kwong, lost his appeal last Friday, the Post has reached out to gay and lesbian civil servants, both present and former, who spoke of their frustration and disappointment with the government and the appeal court’s decision.

Although only one out of four the Post spoke to is married, all feared the court ruling could affect them in the future. They asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter.

OPINION: LGBT rights in Hong Kong should be protected, and the government should not seek to block progress

John said, unlike the government’s reluctance to treat them equally, people at his workplace generally held a positive view towards homosexuality, though views become more split when it came down to the specifics – such as whether gay people should be allowed to get married or whether they should get spousal benefits.

“They would accept homosexuality, thinking it’s an individual’s choice,” he said.

Peter, a former immigration officer who recently retired, also agreed, saying attitudes had improved a lot since he joined the disciplinary force in the early 80s.

None of the civil servants the Post spoke to have made their sexuality known to others, because, as two put it, when people discover something different in their workplace, they become nosy.

The guarded secrecy would explain why a spokesman at the Civil Service Bureau said the human resources arm had no estimate of the number of employees belonging to sexual minorities.

Nor had it estimated how many stood to benefit had Leung won his judicial challenge.

Why gay civil servant Angus Leung took on the Hong Kong government to claim for spousal benefits

John said the Hong Kong government had far less incentive to improve LGBT rights than Taiwan, where support from the youth is abundant. In fact, the Hong Kong government’s appeal was lodged in May last year – just two days after the top Taiwanese court recognised same-sex marriage.

“It is startling for the government to appeal against the Court of First Instance decision with the aim of taking away rights from minorities,” Alice said.

Jasper, an alias, has been teacher at a government school for more than a year. “Honestly the government always claims it is an equal opportunity employer, but such a move to discriminate against those of sexual minority is a regression of basic human rights,” he said.

In the Court of Appeal judgment last week, the appeal justices said prevailing social norms and the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, backed heterosexual marriage. Granting certain benefits to gay married couples would, therefore, deal a blow to the institution of traditional marriage, it said.

It was an antithetical view, Alice said, because the very definition of minorities was that they are not the prevalent majority.

“I don’t understand [how extending these benefits] would undermine the idea of traditional marriage,” Peter said.

Director of the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong Kelley Loper said the appeal court seemed to incorrectly conflate a “right to same-sex marriage” with “rights for same-sex couples associated with marriage”.

“Although public support should not be prerequisite for the protection of minority rights, there actually is strong public support for granting rights to same-sex couples short of a right to marry,” the human rights scholar added, citing a telephone survey conducted by her and her colleagues in 2014.

Some 74 per cent of the public supported granting same-sex couples either all or some of the rights normally enjoyed by heterosexual couples.

The government should adopt a neutral position and leave the matter to the courts
“Alice” from the Department of Justice

Former constitutional law and human rights professor at the University of Hong Kong Michael Davis said the Court of Appeal judgment “clearly created obstacles for LGBT efforts to establish marriage and spousal rights through the courts by seemingly shifting the burden of initiative to the legislature and the government”.

“With the growing jurisprudence in this area the LGBT community would have hoped for a judicial push in this area,” he said.

Pro-establishment legislator Holden Chow Ho-ding, vice-chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, welcomed the judgment.

“The judgment … confirmed that marriage between one man and one woman is the only form of marriage recognised by Hong Kong laws. There is no legal ground for same-sex marriage … It also dismissed some activists’ argument that it was discriminatory to reject the legalisation of same-sex marriage,” Chow said.

A spokesman from the Civil Service Bureau, when asked how it could achieve its claim to be an equal opportunity employer, said: “We grant the same civil service benefits to civil servants according to their eligibility and act in consistency with the laws of Hong Kong.”

Additional reporting by Tony Cheung