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28 Jul 2011

The canker of discrimination inside Hong Kong’s government

Fridae's Hong Kong correspondent Nigel Collett provides a long list of examples where the Hong Kong government is seen to have discriminated against its citizens on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and says it's time the government shows leadership and roots out the discrimination practised in its ranks.

Fighting crime and terrorism has taught governments well to regard two incidents as a possible coincidence, three as a pattern, so if the Hong Kong Government has given us cause to turn the spotlight upon the discrimination that is gnawing away inside its machinery against the minority of its citizens who are of diverse sexual orientation or gender identity, then it has only itself to blame. For its form is clear.

In June this year, Hong Kong LGBT activists including Connie Chan (above) of Women Coalition of Hong Kong demonstrated outside the social welfare department to protest the government's decision to hire Dr Hong Kwai-wah, a specialist in “ex-gay” therapy, to conduct a training seminar to social service staff.
Two occasions involving me personally and a whole series of events over the last few years have drawn the pattern clearly. The first occasion: I and just two other members of the public with the temerity to register a complaint appear before the Legco panel considering the Hong Kong Government’s report to the UN on its ‘progress’ in implementing the human rights conventions it has signed relating to sexual minorities. After each has said their piece in the mere three minutes allotted, a spokesman emerges from the massed ranks of the Secretaries from every Government department sitting across the chamber. She replies: "There is no consensus for change in this area so the Government plans no reform."

That’s it. No explanation, no reference to the changing swings in public view registered by opinion polls, no recognition that the Government has any duty to lead on human rights issues. Just a blank refusal.

The second occasion, the judicial review of Ms W’s attempt to be legally married in Hong Kong. Ms W is a male-to-female transgender who has been “made” a woman at Government expense and whom the Government obliges to carry an ID card that says that she is a woman. But the Government considers it’s done enough for Ms W and her like, and though she now wants to marry, will not change the sex on her birth certificate so that she can. So she is stuck in a legal limbo. She can’t marry a man as she was born as a man. She could marry a woman, but she’s not a lesbian. The Government, though, isn’t really worried about Ms W or about transgender marriage, as it made clear in court. What scares it is same-sex marriage. Just before the court hearing ended, the chillingly able British QC imported at great expense by the Government from England, who clearly expected she would lose the case she had so ably presented, leaned across to Ms W’s barrister and suggested that, in the event of judgment going against the Government, there should be no acceptance of the review as a precedent for allowing same-sex marriage. Never mind Ms W, but stop gay men and lesbians marrying at all costs. So Ms W can’t marry and Hong Kong, refusing her rights, sticks out like an Albanian sore thumb in a region where Singapore, Taiwan and Mainland China would allow her to.

There has been quite a deluge of indications emanating from a whole series of Government organs to show that these two incidents are not coincidental. The list is long, but at risk of boring readers, I will recite it. The most egregious indications come from the field of education. At the end of last year, RTHK’s Pearl Report revealed two facets of discrimination at the heart of the education system.

One is homophobic bullying in schools, which is at alarming levels and is being dealt with neither by the Education Bureau, whose anti-bullying policy is so unspecific that that it doesn’t even mention the word ‘homophobic’, nor by schools, where teachers in some faith-sponsored schools are as much likely to stimulate discrimination against their pupils of sexual minorities as they are to prevent anyone bullying them. The second is the complete absence from Hong Kong schools of any teaching material or programme covering the subjects of sexual-orientation and gender identity based upon the latest scientific facts and professional views. In fact, as the Pearl Report found, the only literature available, so the only literature being used, is that supplied by the faith-based bodies that regard homosexuality and transgender as a sin and advocate some form of ‘reparative therapy’ to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals.

The Social Welfare Department is not to be outdone in its institutionalised prejudices. For many years it has been employing as a consultant lecturer for its staff a Dr Hong Kwai-wah, psychiatrist and chairman of the New Creation Association, a body which is driven by the conviction that homosexuality is a sin and believes that any unlucky homosexual who isn’t fortunate enough to be able to force him or herself into bed with a member of the opposite sex can benefit instead by lifelong abstinence. The Department has perhaps not noticed these views; many would suspect that it is happy that they be taught to its staff, men and women, it should be noted, entrusted by the Government with helping Hong Kong’s young people facing for the first time the fact that they are of diverse orientation or gender.

Not to be outdone, RTHK’s Radio 5 channel let Dr Hong loose on the airwaves on programmes throughout last year to enlighten listeners to the inaptly named ‘Smilee’ programme (a series of heart-warming chats about your children’s sexual orientation problems) and allowed him to imply that there is something wrong with your children if they are gay or lesbian and that they can be ‘treated’. No counter point was allowed on these programmes, Dr Hong’s views were warmly endorsed by the presenter, and when complaints were made to RTHK about the bias in the programme the station claimed ‘freedom of speech and ‘balance’ and refused to even meet those who had complained.

And now we have the 2011 census, a document meant to give a snap shot of Hong Kong’s current society to enable the Government to plan for its future. In the Government’s view that society does not include anyone from a sexual minority, for if you happen to be living in a marriage or civil partnership registered legally elsewhere, or in any other relationship with a person of the same sex, or you are a transgender person living in a relationship, you don’t exist as far as the Census Commissioner is concerned. His office has given us only one box to fill in for a partner labelled ‘spouse’, and if you tick that and also indicate, for instance, that you and your partner are both of the same sex, the system will not accept your submission. Yet if you fill the form in incorrectly you are threatened with penalties for lying. Reminds one, does it not, of the Government’s having its cake and eating it with poor Ms W?

Hong Kong is about to report to the UN in Geneva on its progress in implementing human rights for sexual minorities. It will try to paint a glowing picture. Does it not, after all, have a dedicated unit of the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau dedicated to this issue? Indeed it does. This is the Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Unit, GISOU, which runs the odd diversity lecture in places no one notices (have you ever seen one?). It is also the secretariat for the Sexual Minorities Forum (the SMF), a body that is supposed to bring the Government and the representatives of sexual minorities together to make policy. In fact this body hardly meets and when it does its business has been so disrupted by the Government’s admission to its ranks of the New Creation Association (yes, that’s it, Dr Hong’s group of ‘reparative therapy’ advocates) that it barely functions. GISOU is a fig leaf manned not by civil servants but by staff brought in on contract. It has no power, no influence, its staff can be safely ignored by career civil servants and it does no work of any use to the community. It was set up deliberately like that.

Down at Gloucester Road, the Immigration Department is doing its bit to keep foreign deviants out of Hong Kong. Citing a lack of recognition of same-sex marriage here, the Department chooses not to recognise the same-sex marriages and civil partnerships legally enacted elsewhere, so that anyone coming to Hong Kong with a same-sex partner who is employed here gets no dependent visa. No visa means no ID card, no job, no bank account, no real life. As a special ‘favour’ such unfortunates are allowed to extend their tourist visas without leaving the SAR. Will that, I wonder satisfy Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs if his firm can’t employ the person they want because the employee is not prepared to come here and put up with this discriminatory treatment? Blankfein, you might remember, recently wrote to both houses of Congress in New York State advocating same-sex marriage. The legislation was passed. One hopes he comes knocking here.

Are things better in Hong Kong’s professional medical world? Not much. The successful and highly efficient medical grouping at Queen Mary Hospital, the Gender Identity Team, formed in 1986 to provide the kind of counselling and surgery that helped Ms W, was closed in 2005. Hong Kong now has no specialist unit dealing with transgender cases. Too expensive a service, perhaps, for a country as rich as Hong Kong to provide? Where was the outcry, one has to ask, from Hong Kong’s psychiatrists and psychologists at this step back into the dark? Where, indeed, is the outcry of Hong Kong’s College of Psychiatrists and Psychological Society in the face of the antics of Dr Hong and other advocates of treating those with diverse sexualities with ‘reparative therapies’ that have been discredited by their colleagues worldwide. They have said and continue to say nothing in the face of the harm that such faith-based mumbo jumbo is causing to so many young people in Hong Kong.

So, as I said at the start of this piece, how can you avoid the inference that this is all not a coincidence? And if you conclude that it’s not, it’s impossible to avoid the further conclusion that there’s a sad rot of discrimination lurking throughout the organs of this state. What will it take to get this Government to take a lead and enact the human rights to which they are internationally committed? Are they endlessly prepared to put up with being made to look foolish in the eyes of the world by their own junior civil servants, of being laughed at by even Singapore (and yes, it was the Singapore Straits Times that pointed out that Hong Kong was the only government in the world that had knowingly appointed an advocate of ‘reparative therapy’ to teach its staff)? Will they not see the damage being inflicted on their reputation in Beijing by their association with faith-based homophobic groups whose origins and finances are the American religious right, elements, in fact, of the Republican Party? Beijing is dropping hints now; China Daily asked the other day when Hong Kong would grow up enough to institute same-sex partnerships. Hong Kong will look very isolated when China changes, which it will.

Does any of this matter? Life, after all, is OK here, and no one is beating gays up on the street. Yes, it does matter. If you are a lesbian couple refused accommodation by a landlord; if you are a gay man refused entry to a bar; if you are a transgender person blackmailed and bullied at work then sacked, yes it does matter. For there is no legal redress for any of these, no legislation against discrimination covering these things. Anna Wu tried to include it in the original bill against all forms of discrimination in the mid Nineties and the Government threw it out. So the Equal Opportunities Commission, which would sorely like to help this country’s sexual minorities, can do nothing.

We need a bill against discrimination and we need it now. It is time that this Government showed leadership in this issue and that it rooted out the discrimination practised in its ranks. It is time for legislation to outlaw the discrimination that this Government is allowing and practising itself against its own citizens.

Nigel Collett is the Joint English secretary of Tongzhi Community Joint Meeting (TCJM).

Hong Kong

Reader's Comments

1. 2011-07-28 22:20  
I totally agree with this article. I was recently refused joint membership of a club on the grounds that my civil partnership was not recognized. I was annoyed at the club, but just appalled that a purportedly modern city such as Hong Kong left me no legal redress.
Comment #2 was deleted by its author on 2011-08-13 17:09
3. 2011-07-30 00:20  
That QC seems to be making a career out of opposing gay marriage in Courts around the world, though she has also saved some gay people from being deported back to very hostile countries .
4. 2011-07-30 00:38  
Seems that HK and SG share some of the same fundies, flying first class no doubt.
5. 2011-07-30 08:42  
I really enjoyed the article and find it to be great service to the community- well done Nigel! dgs
6. 2011-07-31 02:52  
What is less well known..or acknowledged is that the civil service hierarchy has been dominated since colonial times ,British and you could now say Chinese, by evangelical type christians and catholics. The Chief Exec is well known to be anti=gay and is catholic. The Education Dept allowed a Fascist religious right group which is against homosexuality and fought against gay decriminalisation , to teach human rights in schools. An anti gay christian psychiatrist Dr Philimona Choi was appointed head of a government Youth Commission .
The best way to fight this discrimination is in the courts while they are just about independent( being eroded ). Also to get the UN to be public about this attitude in HK...a left over legacy from the British combined with natural Chinese reticence(not Buddhist ) to accept anything to interfere in their concept of family.
7. 2011-07-31 19:00  
Hong Kong is one of most favorite places in the world, and fortunately mainland has had some impact on influencing the judicial system with logic ...but it has not been able to influence/cleanse the years of British colonialism and it's oppressive Christio-centric conservatism. mainland has shown an interesting bent on sexuality and it's cultural influences. From what I have been able to observe from the view point of Political Science, is that legislation and judicial prerogative is guided by social logic rather than personal mores. This does not mean that religious bodies can't discriminate regarding the establishment of criteria for membership and participation their groups, but it does however try to exclude that prejudice from having influence over the judicial...I am not suggesting that China is the spokesperson for the HRC lol, but rather that the likelihood of equal rights has a better chance in a system rule by logic and balance rather than ruled by the tyranny of emotions and religiosity. I respect people having the right to practice religion, but not for religion to have the right to practice law.
8. 2011-07-31 19:03  
governments always ignore reality, we should not expect them to take care of their citizens...
Comment #9 was deleted by its author on 2011-08-13 17:09

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