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12 Aug 2013

Letter from Hong Kong: Anti-LGBT discrimination laws, Pink Season and other news

Hong Kong's third annual Pink Season has been scheduled for 28 September to 9 November and will include the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival which overlaps the Season and opens 31 August.

The summer months in Hong Kong, when everyone who can escapes the clammy climate for as long as they possess the means to do so, are traditionally empty of substantial news. Life usually picks up again in September and proceeds at the hectic Hong Kong pace till the Christmas season ends it all with a rush of alcohol and over-eating. This summer, though, has been a little unusual. It has seen a series of newsworthy events and incidents that, while perhaps undeserving of a full column to themselves, will nevertheless jostle comfortably alongside each other in a Letter from Hong Kong. So, craving the reader’s forgiveness for any lack of a theme or even of continuity in what follows, I press on here with Hong Kong’s motley news.

Politically, there has been a steady accretion of pressure upon the Government to take steps towards a Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance (SODO), almost entirely due to the advocacy of Dr York Chow Yat-ngok, the Chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). Chow’s term in office started in March with a whimper; to the dismay of the LGBT community, he publicly mentioned his own Christian faith and expressed doubts about the need for a SODO bill. It was not long, though, before he began to delight activists with a string of speeches and self-penned articles calling for protection for LGBT people. This began as early as 1 April, when RTHK reported a speech in which he called for swift action to protect ‘gays’. By July, he was really going to town, and on at least four occasions, two of them in op ed pieces in the Chinese daily Mingpao, he called for legislation to protect LGBT people. In one of these pieces Chow specifically focussed gender identity and on the discrimination faced by transgender people, and so almost single-handedly managed to turn the fight for a SODO into one for a SOGIDO. Most recently, he spoke out on RTHK about the discrimination LGBT people face in the work place. He has publicly committed EOC resources to drafting a bill. This has left the Government rather non-plussed and an official response has yet to emerge. The EOC is a statutory body independent of the Government and trammelled by the fact that Hong Kong legislation still gives it no power over LGBT matters, but Dr Chow is an establishment figure appointed by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, and his advocacy cannot be ignored forever. That Dr Chow has hit the campaign trail and that C.Y. still won’t even agree to a public consultation must be highly embarrassing. More, it will lead to change.

The Government had hoped to slow things down with the appointment of its Advisory Group on Eliminating Discrimination against Sexual Minorities (AGEDASM). This body, upon which I reported some weeks ago, had its first meeting in July under the chairmanship of Professor Fanny Cheung Mui-ching, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. There was little to report on this occasion as the meeting concerned itself with procedural matters, though there was, reportedly, the usual attempt to derail or slow down any process of change on the part of those Christian fundamentalists who had been included. These were particularly the pro-Beijing Legislative Council Member and lawyer Dr Priscilla Leung and Professor Kwan Kai-man, Head of the Department of Religion and Philosophy of Hong Kong Baptist University. Despite this, the Group’s meeting seems to have been conducted in a businesslike fashion. AGEDASM seems intent on making a contribution to the SOGIDO debate. Whilst it is admittedly early days, the indications are that AGEDASM is set to be a more effective body than the Sexual Minorities Forum (SMF) that it replaces and one which is not just a fig leaf for Hong Kong Government inaction.

Michael Vidler

In the courts, solicitor Michael Vidler struck another blow for individual freedoms in Hong Kong in the judicial review he had brought on behalf of his client, ‘Mr. T’, against the police action at the 2011 IDAHO commemoration. The Court of Final Appeal issued judgment and ‘Mr. T’ and Vidler won their case. In future the Police will not be able to misuse laws on entertainment licensing to regulate performances at political and other non-entertainment events. This judgment will be a boon, not only to the LGBT community, but to all democrats in Hong Kong. Vidler adds another scalp to his growing list, the most recent being his victory earlier this year, again before the Court of Final Appeal, in the case of ‘Ms. W’, the male to female transgender who sought the right to marry and whose ultimate victory has changed the law in Hong Kong. His earlier victory was in the case of Billy Leung, which equalised the age of consent between hetero- and homosexuals. Vidler is a phenomenon, a thorn in the side of those who perpetuate injustice.

Two publications of note have emerged this summer, one a local Hong Kong product, the other a piece of Australian research partly conducted here. At Propaganda on 11 July, Hong Kong-based North Carolinian Marshall Moore, publisher (of Signal 8 Press) and story teller, launched his most recent novel, Bitter Orange. The launch included a book reading featuring voices from Hong Kong’s Liars League. For those who have already experienced Moore’s dark, quirky, offbeat and often alarmingly funny work, Bitter Orange will not disappoint, being the story of a gay man in San Francisco blessed (though he would not see it that way) with a supernatural power of invisibility that manifests only when he wishes to do something illicit. This allows him to do all the rather nasty things to those he doesn’t like that we have ourselves been secretly harbouring in our sub-consciousnesses but have never dared to expose to the light of day. You can buy his book online.

The academic publication is sociologist Peter Robinson’s study Gay Men’s Relationships across the Life Course, a survey of 97 gay men of all ages in the United States, England, India and Hong Kong. Robinson, a Lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, is interested in the way different age cohorts cope with the ageing process and the effect upon their attitudes of their different ages. He writes with genuine sympathy and a good deal of acuity, not to mention with a complete absence of disfiguring jargon, and you’ll find that his book touches many a nerve, especially, if like me, you are some way along the ageing process. You can buy his book through publishers Palgrave Macmillan (www.palgrave.com) or the usual online sources. Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, Robinson found that Hong Kong exhibits differences from the other sources of his informants, some cultural, but the most powerful economic, arising from the tiny size of the place and its vastly overblown property market, which prevents many from ever flying the family nest.

Marshall Moore’s book launch in Propaganda marked not exactly the start but near as damn it of that disco and bar’s re-launch as a centre for LGBT activities taking place before the 2 am. that has till now marked the beginning of its weekend programmes. Proprietors Steve Khouw and Lawrence Ho, who back only in 2010 opened the glittering and very popular bar Psychic Jack in the site of the old Works (and before that of the older Propaganda), were forced to close it on 22 June as the landlord, in typical Hong Kong fashion, demanded an uneconomic rent. So, the bar of Propaganda is now taking PJ’s place as a venue for community events as well as for the old PJ Happy Hour on a Friday evening between 6 and 10pm. As they did at PJ, Steve and Lawrence will give you a free drink and bar snacks up to 8 pm (if you get on their list!).

The community is preparing for the third annual Pink Season, which is scheduled for 28 September to 9 November. Coordinator Bess Hepworth is planning an even bigger season this year than before, and will include the old stalwarts, the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (which overlaps the Season and opens this year on 31 August), the beach party Out in the Open on 6 October, Mr Gay Hong Kong on 19 October and Floatilla on 20 October. I will write more on these events later. Hong Kong Pride is also under preparation and will take place this year on 9 November.

Finally, back to politics, the opposition to LGBT rights has been muted but not totally dormant over the summer. The announcement on 19 June of the demise of Exodus International seems to have taken some of the wind out of the ‘reparative therapist’ sails, but it has not persuaded their local representatives, the New Creation Association (NCA), to close their doors, and they continue to campaign for a seat for ‘ex-gays’ in Advisory Group on Eliminating Discrimination against Sexual Minorities (AGEDASM). They had, unbelievably, managed to achieve that on the old Sexual Minorities Forum (SMF). The Government is not yielding yet on this, though has asked the NCA to make a statement at the next AGEDASM. The NCA and their Christian supporters seem to be becoming more subtle in their message. Their opposition to LGBT rights is nowadays expressed in terms of the discrimination Christians will suffer for their homophobia if a SOGIDO is passed and upon the impingement of any legislation upon their freedom of speech and religious beliefs. They are also seeking to present themselves to Hong Kong’s largely secular population in a slightly more sympathetic light, as cuddly if not as victims themselves of LGBT intolerance!

In mid July, ‘The Walking Together in True Love’ declaration was published, signed by about 9,000 Christians from 90 Christian groups. This had been initiated in May by 26 fundamentalist religious leaders and was designed to show their acceptance of homosexual people, stating that nobody should be rejected by a church because of their sexual orientation. However, the fact that this was in no way a change of policy, but rather was an attempt to win public sympathy, was shown by their repetition of the view that ‘we believe that believers who continue to engage in same-sex activity, and refuse to pursue a holy life, are not walking in truth.’ In this they are one with the new Pope Francis, who was reported on 6 August making similar noises about loving the sinner but not the sin. Perhaps we should be encouraged by the fact that they all seem to have realised how ugly their earlier stridency has made them look to those not of their views.

Hong Kong

Reader's Comments

1. 2013-08-13 17:14  
Sounds like somebody should send Mr Vidler a red cape. Attaboy! All legal systems could do with relentless lawyers fighting for 'unpopular' causes - genially because, decades later, such unpopular causes are heralded as key social rights that help to define how progressive and inclusive a society is. Tackling homophobia and discrimination is something that you shouldn't need to fire up the Bat Signal to do, but it's good if there's a sharp lawyer on the job pushing for more equality. Vidler, you've got yourself a Robin.

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