Hong Kong promising candidate for same-sex marriage reform
Two months ago Taiwan became the very first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriages, joining a list of more than 20 jurisdictions worldwide which have moved to permit the practice over the past 16 years. Where might be next in the region? If I could put my money on it, I would say Hong Kong looks like a reasonable assumption. There are of course a diverse number of reasons why same-sex marriage legislation is or is not passed successfully in a particular country or region but essentially it comes down to three primary issues of concern.
In no specific order these are, firstly, religious tolerance toward the issue. There are only a small number of antigay religious activists here in Hong Kong, although they do appear to have a relatively vocal platform that belies their size. Choi Chi-sum, the chief executive of the conservative Christian group 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-discriminatory laws and even the recent “controversy” over a homosexual character in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast are well known. It is also the case that 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.
The second issue is the level of civic freedom Hong Kong enjoys. Homosexuality was decriminalized 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 rights have taken a few steps backwards in recent years, such as when the relevant authority appealed 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 legalized same-sex marriage in 2014 upset many gay-rights activists, particularly since several countries that have often been criticized for their gay-rights record, such as Russia and Azerbaijan, had given their consent to the practice.
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 that a population has toward sexual minorities. Hong Kong does pretty well in this regard with, for example, a 2013 survey conducted by the Public Opinion Programme at the University of Hong Kong finding 66 percent of respondents believed the government should enact a sexual-orientation antidiscrimination law, while 33 percent supported the legalization of same-sex marriage or registered partnership outright. Given that homosexuality no longer remains a taboo subject among the youth of Hong Kong, this number is likely to multiply; indeed, a more recent citywide representative survey by the Equal Rights Commission early last year found 92 percent of 18-to-24 year olds in Hong Kong were in favor of further anti-discrimination legislation for sexual minorities, a trend seen to be aligned to a growing global consciousness on the issue. It moreover seems that Hong Kong people are increasingly unlikely to be swayed by the traditionalist views of local religious authorities anytime soon, given the results of a WIN/Gallup International poll in 2015 that found that Hong Kong was rated second-lowest in the world in terms of religious belief – behind only the Chinese mainland – with 34 percent claiming they do not believe in a deity.
It seems the powers that be in Hong Kong will, therefore, face increasing pressure on this issue. Strengthened anti-discriminatory 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 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. This can only but enhance our reputation and make our city an even more inviting place to visit and work.