Hot Topics: Hong Kong schools’ ban on long hair for boys comes up short – two students say it amounts to discrimination

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  • Two pupils have complained to the city’s equality watchdog, the Equal Opportunities Commission, saying their schools’ hair policies amount to discrimination
  • Experts point out that educators and social workers in schools should be more aware of how gender dysphoria can affect youth
Doris Wai |
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Oscar Wong shows his ponytail in front of the High Court in Admiralty. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Hot Topics takes an issue being discussed in the news and allows you to analyse different viewpoints on the subject. Our questions encourage you to examine the topic in-depth – they can be used on your own or with a friend. Scroll to the bottom of the page for sample answers.

Context: Hong Kong High Court rejects teen’s bid for legal aid to challenge school’s long hair rule

  • Oscar Wong is one of two students known to have complained to the city’s equality watchdog, saying schools’ hair rules for boys amount to discrimination

  • Because the 17-year-old had refused to cut his ponytail, he was previously banned from the classroom and made to attend classes virtually

Secondary school student Oscar Wong Wing-hei was banned from entering classrooms, attending physical education lessons and mixing with his friends at Tin Shui Wai Methodist College from April to June last year.

When the 17-year-old refused to obey his school’s hair rule, he was restricted to the sick bay at the school office. He attended most classes virtually using a tablet computer. “I felt distressed. The only chance I had to see my schoolmates was when I went to the toilet,” he said.

Although he was allowed back to class while keeping his ponytail in July last year, Oscar, who has autism, said the punishment further weakened his social abilities.

The student asked his father to apply for legal aid on his behalf to initiate a civil lawsuit against the school, but their application failed. The High Court dismissed their appeal at a closed-door hearing.

Hong Kong’s High Court has rejected Oscar Wong’s bid for legal aid to challenge his school’s hair length rule. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

He is one of two Hong Kong students who are known to have complained to the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), saying their schools’ hair rules for boys amounted to sex discrimination. The other is Nathan Lam Chak-chun, 17, who studies at Tung Wah Group of Hospitals Wong Fut Nam College. Both schools, like many others in Hong Kong, insist that boys’ hair should not fall below the eyebrows or the top of their shirt collars.

Among those supporting the students’ action against the hair rule for boys was Liam Mak Wai-hon, 21, president of Quarks, a support group for transgender youth. Mak, who is a trans man, said the punishment given to Oscar reflected the conservative and transphobic culture of some Hong Kong schools.

Out of about 20 youths who sought Quark’s help over their schools’ appearance codes, Mak said, only one succeeded in persuading their school to let them come in sportswear instead of a dress.

Staff writers

Question prompts:

  • List and elaborate on TWO other dress-code policies that some schools in Hong Kong have.

  • Using information from Context and Glossary, explain Oscar’s argument that his school’s hairstyle rules for boys amount to sex discrimination.

Face off: Should schools have authority over students’ hairstyles?

Illustration

Illustration: Shutterstock

Question prompts:

  • What might the illustration suggest about someone who is experiencing gender dysphoria?

  • Using Context and your answer above, explain to what extent this view of gender is supported in Hong Kong schools.

Why Hong Kong’s trans teens need support from groups like Quarks

News: Hong Kong teen challenging school policy on long hair for boys lodges complaint to equality watchdog, citing gender dysphoria

  • The student, Nathan Lam Chak-chun, who prefers using ‘she’ and ‘her’ pronouns, was forced to get a haircut to avoid suspension from school

  • The teen argued that the school’s dress-code policy violated the Sex Discrimination Ordinance

A teenager in Hong Kong who says she experiences gender dysphoria lodged a complaint to the city’s equality watchdog in July challenging a school policy against long hair for male students. This has sparked heated discussions on whether educators have overlooked cases of mental distress in this community.

In an Instagram video that went viral after attracting nearly 380,000 views within a day of its release, Nathan Lam Chak-chun recalled being forced to get a haircut to avoid suspension from school, adding that the EOC was pursuing the complaint. Lam’s Instagram bio has “she/her” to indicate the pronouns she uses.

“The ban is not only discriminatory but also ignored reasons some male students hope to wear long hair. Gender dysphoria has been overlooked by schools and society in Hong Kong,” said the 17-year-old.

Nathan Lam recalled being forced to get a haircut to avoid suspension from school. Photo: Captured from Facebook

The Form Five student argued in the video that the school’s “unreasonable and outdated” dress-code policy violated the Sex Discrimination Ordinance.

She also argued that the usual grounds for schools to uphold similar bans were not substantiated. The student noted that boys with long hair would not damage the reputation of any institution and students’ tidiness did not depend on the length of their locks.

According to a local media outlet, the school involved had said the purpose of its dress-code policies was to help develop good living habits and a healthy image, and to prepare pupils for entering the workforce.

Separately, Secretary for Education Christine Choi Yuk-lin in July said she believed the school could handle the matter professionally. Without commenting on Lam’s case, she said: “Relevant rules were established according to schools’ own culture and value for education.”

Staff writer

Question prompts:

  • Refer to the last paragraph. Should the government leave it to individual schools to decide on a solution, or does it have a duty to make a decision for all schools? Explain.

  • To what extent do you agree with the school’s argument for enforcing the ban on long hair for male students, and why?

What does it mean to be transgender, and how can you support your trans friends?

Issue: Hong Kong teen challenging school ban on long hair for boys may take legal action after ‘unsatisfactory’ mediation

  • Nathan Lam says the school’s proposal has not met her expectations as the long hair ban is still in place

  • Expert notes that educators and school social workers need to recognise that students’ gender identity should not be confined to binary terms

Nathan Lam Chak-chun has not ruled out taking legal action against her school’s long hair ban for male students, after finding the first conciliation session arranged by the city’s equality watchdog “unsatisfactory”.

Nathan, who attended a two-hour mediation meeting with the principal of Tung Wah Group of Hospitals Wong Fut Nam College earlier this month, said she did not feel the session arranged by the EOC was helpful.

Before the meeting, Nathan told the Post that she expected the school to offer an exemption for her to keep her long hair, but she would not accept it as her goal was to have the rule abolished.

Nathan Lam’s mediation meeting with the principal of her school was arranged by the Equal Opportunities Commission. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Principal Lee Ching-pong said both sides had “pleasant” and “effective” communication in the meeting. He revealed that the school offered discretion to Nathan and would continue to provide her with professional emotional and psychological support.

“We will offer discretion based on professional advice. Our ultimate goal is to help our students and lessen their pressure so that the school is a place where they can feel safe,” he said.

Separately, Diana Kwok Kan, a sex therapist and a scholar specialising in gender studies at the Education University of Hong Kong, said children might experience discomfort caused by a discrepancy between their gender identity and biological sex as early as four years old.

“Mistreatment of adolescents with gender dysphoria diagnosis could induce self-harming or suicidal behaviour, which is often overlooked by educators in Hong Kong,” she said, adding that school social workers were important in understanding students’ distress and recognising that gender identity should not be confined to binary terms.

Staff writers

Question prompts:

  • Amy Barrow, a legal scholar, weighed in on Nathan’s situation, noting the EOC was not mandated to investigate and conciliate relevant complaints. Using Issue and Glossary, explain what this suggests about the government’s stance towards LGBTQ+ students.

  • “When schools suppress gender diverse children, they have a higher risk for mental health issues.” How might Issue and News support this view? Explain.

Tung Wah Group of Hospitals Wong Fut Nam College is a subsidised school in Kowloon Tong. Photo: Handout

Sample answers

Context:

  • List and elaborate on TWO other dress-code policies that some schools in Hong Kong have. Answer: Only certain coloured hair accessories are allowed; no ankle socks are allowed; students are not allowed to roll up their sleeves; students are not allowed to put on cosmetics; students are not allowed to wear bracelets and other accessories. These rules are part of schools’ efforts to maintain discipline and uniformity among students. (accept other reasonable answers)

  • Using information from Context and Glossary, explain Oscar’s argument that his school’s hairstyle rules for boys amount to sex discrimination. Answer: Oscar was punished because he had long hair, which is allowed for female students, but not male students. This is a form of sex discrimination because he was not given equal access to education because of his gender.

Illustration:

  • What might the illustration suggest about someone who is experiencing gender dysphoria? Answer: When society forces them into performing a gender they don’t identify with, it can feel like wearing a mask that hides who they really are.

  • Using Context and your answer above, explain to what extent this view of gender is supported in Hong Kong schools. Answer: Most Hong Kong schools reject this view as there are still strict rules concerning how male and female students should dress, and the hairstyle they can have is based on the sex they were assigned at birth. This is reflected in what Mak said in the last paragraph of Context: out of 20 students who sought help over their schools’ appearance codes, only one succeeded in persuading a school to let them wear sportswear. This shows that Hong Kong schools in general are still reluctant to allow students to express their gender identity when it does not agree with their sex assigned at birth.

News:

  • Refer to the last paragraph. Should the government leave it to individual schools to decide on a solution, or does it have a duty to make a decision for all schools? Explain. Answer: The government has a duty to make a decision for all schools in Hong Kong and come up with a list of guidelines for students such as Nathan who are experiencing gender dysphoria after discussing with experts in gender studies and mental health. This is because the burden should not be placed on students at each school to ensure they have a safe and welcoming environment to learn.

  • To what extent do you agree with the school’s argument for enforcing the ban on long hair for male students, and why? Answer: I do not agree with the school’s arguments because it places too much emphasis on physical appearance and incorrectly assumes that all students who do not conform to the hair ban are going to ruin the school’s image. It also reflects the stereotype that male students with long hair have bad living habits. In fact, such stereotyping will do more harm than good as it ignores teens’ need to develop their self-confidence through their choice of hairstyle. Focusing on students’ hairstyles also distracts from what should be the most important part of school: learning. (accept other reasonable arguments)

Issue:

  • Amy Barrow, a legal scholar, weighed in on Nathan’s situation, noting the EOC was not mandated to investigate and conciliate relevant complaints. Using Issue and Glossary, explain what this suggests about the government’s stance towards LGBTQ+ students. Answer: It suggests that the Hong Kong government has taken a hands-off approach on matters related to LGBTQ+ youth. The government lacks the will to address their concerns because the EOC is not required to investigate these complaints. Hong Kong’s Sex Discrimination Ordinance does not include protections for transgender and non-binary people. In addition, the EOC’s scope is limited to addressing discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status, pregnancy, disability, family status and race.

  • “When schools suppress gender diverse children, they have a higher risk for mental health issues.” How might Issue and News support this view? Explain. Answer: Diana Kwok mentioned in the article that children as young as four can start feeling that the sex they were assigned at birth does not match who they are. When they are left in a school environment that does not recognise their gender dysphoria, such as at Tung Wah Group of Hospitals Wong Fut Nam College which dictates male students cannot have long hair, it can add to their distress. The school is treating these students with bias and prejudice (i.e. being forced to get a haircut to avoid suspension), which can lead to other mental health difficulties such as self-harm or suicidal behaviour. (accept other reasonable answers)

Get the word out

dress-code policy :

a set of rules that outline the appropriate attire and personal grooming standards required at a particular place or institution. This can include details such as what clothes and hairstyles are allowed.

Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) :

Hong Kong’s statutory body responsible for implementing anti-discrimination ordinances. Established in 1996, the EOC works towards eliminating discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status, pregnancy, disability, family status and race. Its work includes investigation and conciliation, education and promotion, review of legislation and issuing codes of practice and guidelines.

(gender) binary :

the idea that there are only two genders, male or female. “Non-binary” describes genders that do not fit neatly into one of these two categories.

gender dysphoria :

psychological distress when someone’s gender identity does not agree with the sex assigned at birth. According to a 2021 survey conducted by the Family Planning Association of Hong Kong on 8,343 students, 4 per cent of females and 2 per cent of males said the sex they were assigned at birth did not reflect their gender experience.

gender identity :

one’s internal sense of self and gender, whether that is man, woman, neither or both. For transgender people, their gender identity differs in varying degrees from their sex assigned at birth. It is different to gender expression, which is how people present gender outwardly, through behaviour, clothing or hairstyle, etc. Society defines these cues as masculine or feminine.

Sex Discrimination Ordinance :

code of practice issued by the EOC to promote equal employment opportunities between men and women. It provides guidance on procedures and systems that can help to prevent discrimination.

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