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21 Dec 2012

Hong Kong: Out of the closet

Following the closing of the second Pink Season and the 23rd Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival which started in 1989 when gay sex was still a criminal offence, Fridae's Hong Kong Correspondent Nigel Collett looks back at the territory's LGBT history and how far LGBTs have become mainstream including the election of its first gay legislator this year.

Hong Kong’s 2nd Pink Season wrapped up earlier this month after more than two months of activities. It’s been an amazing time here and the feeling of change in the air is almost palpable. It’s been a long time coming. When the Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (HKGLFF) started up in 1989, homosexuality was still a criminal offence here. (It was repealed in 1991). The LGBT community that the film festival played a big part in kickstarting took another two decades before it felt confident enough, last year, to create the Pink Season. At times, it has felt like nothing would ever change.

It doesn’t feel like that anymore. The HKGLFF and the Pink Season are both symptoms and causes of the changes in attitude to LGBT issues we are starting to see all around us. I write ‘symptoms’ because the two institutions have only arisen as our community has grown strong enough and free enough to mount them; and ‘causes’ because each provides a foundation from which to build a cultural bridge to the wider community. The film festival and the Pink Season are both better educators of the public than any school programme or government propaganda ever could be. They have helped drive the cultural change from which political change here is coming. They have helped us become, openly, part of Hong Kong. We are not quite yet seen as ‘normal’ here, but it now feels like we are getting there.

It might seem odd to write this only weeks after Hong Kong’s Legislative Council voted not even to debate whether the Government should consult the public’s attitude to LGBT issues. Odder when the Secretary of the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, Raymond Tam, commented after the vote that now was not the time to consider change as there was no public consensus for it. As often in LGBT history, the gerrymandered voting and the very enunciation of the conservative position caused a reaction to our benefit.

A recent survey showed that 63.8% of Hong Kong residents
believe LGBT people need protection from discrimination.
Click to see petition to urge the government to conduct a public consultation.

Legco Member Cyd Ho had just proved (by an academically administered survey) that 63.8% of Hong Kong residents believe LGBT people need protection from discrimination. The Government position, built on the shifting sand of an unexamined ‘consensus’, had already collapsed. They just seemed so stupid to a large part of the educated public, and that perception played its part in the shift in policy; little succeeds as well in Hong Kong’s system as embarrassment.

Now it has been allowed to be known that the Chief Executive’s policy address in January 2013 will contain a commitment to consult on LGBT equality. Our newly elected gay legislator, Raymond Chan (Hong Kong’s first) has indicated he intends to introduce a bill against discrimination during the life of this legislature. Well, we shall not hold our breath until that passes, but even the contemplation of such a move would not have been conceivable last year.

Out on the street, what has changed? The answer is quite a bit. This year we have had two celebrities, both Canto stars, coming out, the first since Leslie Cheung blazed the till now lonely trail in 1997. Anthony Wong came out at IDAHOT in May and Denise Ho came out at the Pride Parade last month. 

No one seems to have minded and the press coverage was uniformly good. In fact, the press here is almost all onside now. The English press, the South China Morning Post and the Standard, are now openly calling for improving LGBT rights, egged on by Hong Kong Magazine and Time Out, our best supporters. Now the Chinese press is weighing in on our side too: Apple Daily and Mingpao have both run articles and features supportive of the LGBT community. On the airwaves, RTHK’s radio programmes, and the serious parts of Hong Kong TV, have run a number of programmes focussing on LGBT issues. The old days when the opposition (our Christian fundamentalist right) had almost a monopoly of exposure in the media are gone. In fact, in the face of these changes, our opposition has grown less strident, more timid even. I think they feel a sea change in the public view and are no longer confident in their own horror stories of public health menaces and the efficacy of ‘reparative therapy’. They haven’t gone away, nor ever will, but they don’t scare the Government as much as they did.

The Government’s backbone has been stiffened by last year’s statements from the two Hong Kong professional bodies, the College of Psychiatrists and the Psychological Association, that ‘reparative therapy’ doesn’t work and is harmful, and that being diverse is normal. They have seen a majority of the directly elected Legislative Councillors vote to support consulting the public on LGBT issues.

Activists count between 17 and 20 Legco Members as being supportive or at least sympathetic to LGBT rights. Politicians of different parties are beginning to think about LGBT issues and to apply common sense to them. Three Hong Kong parties now have a pro-LGBT platform. Two of these are left-leaning, the Labour Party and the Civic Party, our natural allies. One, surprisingly, is centre-right, Regina Ip’s New People’s Party. Regina, in her earlier incarnation of Secretary for Security from 1998 to 2003, became a bête noire for many in Hong Kong due to her espousal of the introduction of a bill against sedition, Mainland-style. The bill was defeated on Hong Kong’s streets, Regina resigned, and radical LGBT activists have never forgiven her. Now, she has, amongst other changes of view, altered her stance on gay rights. Regina, it seems, has genuinely changed her mind. People do, sometimes. It’s that sort of thing we are fighting to achieve, and that is why the HKLGFF and the Pink Season are so important. They change people’s minds. 

Regina Ip’s party is small, but more useful from our perspective is the power she has acquired from her new place on the Executive Council, the committee of the great and the good that advises Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and pretty much runs the place. Two of her Exco colleagues are Anna Wu, who introduced the first attempt to get a bill against LGBT discrimination through in 1995, and Lam Woon-kwong, Chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, who has been campaigning unofficially but in public for us since his appointment two years ago. We now have, at last, some friends in high places.

Good things are happening commercially in parallel with all this. The Interbank LGBT Forum is becoming more visible, generous with its funding of diversity projects and slowly more prepared to be politically visible. NGO Community Business’s diversity in the workplace campaign is increasing the number of firms looking after their LGBT employees (though these are still all the international companies; nothing local yet). Paul Ramscar’s Pink Dollar App is spreading the word about which businesses are gay friendly. The British Council just had an anti-bullying campaign and Hong Kong University’s Queer Straight Alliance has had its biggest LGBT recruiting drive yet and more applicants for its mentorship programme than they could find mentors for. So, there’s a good deal of hope of change in the air. No doubt much of it will be dashed in the short term, but I think not all.

Which brings me back to the film festival and LGBT history to round off my piece. One of the closing films this year was Vito, the story of the American activist Vito Russo, a man who faced far worse odds than we do, yet who fought for the rights of our tribe in the US over two decades. Vito linked culture with activism, by single-handedly unearthing the history of LGBT cinema and writing it in The Celluloid Closet in 1981. He gave American LGBT people, all of us in fact, back part of the culture that had been lost or ignored. I saw the documentary on World AIDS day, which was fitting, as Vito was one of America’s earliest and most effective AIDS activists. He lost his partner to the disease then died of a related cause in 1990.

Vito never gave up fighting, even when he was dying. He used our culture and history as tools to persuade others of the justice of our cause and to inspire his fellows. Watch the film. It’s sad, harrowing, sombre, but it’ll inspire you. And we all need the inspiration that the history of our tribe gives us if we’re going to complete the work that men like Vito Russo started. Which, some day, we will.

Vito premiered on HBO on 23 July 2012.
Produced and Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz. 

Hong Kong

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