In the first rally of its kind in Hong Kong, some 350 people took to the streets on Monday to call for equal rights for lesbians, gays, transgenders and bisexuals (LGBT) and marched in protest against homophobia.
The rally, organised by Women Coalition of Hong Kong, Civil Rights for Sexual Diversities and Rainbow Action, was held to mark International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO), which commemorates the removal by the World Health Organisation of homosexuality from its list of mental disorders on May 17, 1990.
"Hong Kong is one of the few places in Asia to have an event to mark this day," said Roddy Shaw Kwok-wah of Civil Rights for Sexual Diversities, one of the organisers. Some 17 cities are marking the day, including in France, Greece, Lebanon, Kenya, Sri Lanka and the UK.
"Education about homosexuality and equality is important, but it has to be complemented by legal reform to provide guarantees for equal right to the LGBT community and to stop the spread of homophobia," said Shaw.
Organisers said that by the start of the march mid-afternoon, some 350 participants had registered, many from small community organisations representing the needs of Hong Kong's estimated 500,000 homosexuals.
Banners and placards scattered through the crowd read "God Loves Us, Just Ask Her," and "Turn Fear Into Love."
The protesters included gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals. Sam Winter, of the Transgender Equality and Acceptance Movement, told the crowd: "Homophobia is nowhere more obvious than in the reluctance to allow same-sex marriage."
He called on the government to allow marriage based on love and on "what is in people's hearts and not on what is between their legs."
Connie Chan of Women Coalition of Hong Kong said there was widespread violence, harassment, unfair dismissal towards LGBT people and "outing" gay students to parents by teachers.
The major concern of the dozen or so speakers who addressed the mainly young crowd of men and women, many dressed in rainbow colours and some wearing feathered masks, was the fight for an anti-discrimination law.
Hong Kong's unelected government is considering introducing the Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance later this year, but has stalled on its decision ahead of a survey to be conducted next month to measure the level of acceptance towards homosexuals by the general public.
Fundamentalist Christian groups have been waging a well-organised campaign to block such legislation, and any attempts to grant equality to recognise or extend rights to homosexuals. They have showered the Equal Opportunities Commission with thousands of letters, and taken prominent advertising in the local Chinese press.
Mainstream churches representing the vast majority of Hong Kong's half-million Christians and including the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian, have said they have no major problems with an anti-discrimination law and recognise the right of gays and lesbians to protection.
Equal Opportunities Commissioner Raymond Tan Yee-bong has said: "It is a very important and certainly controversial issued, involving people's notions of morality and family values.
"Society will eventually have to embrace diversity and understand that you cannot make an issue go away just by rejecting it."
As the rally held a 15-minute march through the streets and into Victoria Park, watched and assisted by dozens of police, there were no signs of hostility in the watching crowds, though more than a few faces took on a serious set.
"We have been planning this for a while, but yes, it is also a response to the recent campaign by the Christian group, the Hong Kong Alliance for Family Values. We want to tell the public that we are asking for equality and not special privileges," said Shaw.
Organisers handed out feathered masks to symbolise how "homophobia has forced us into the closet and, for supporters of equal rights, it is important that they experience the day-to-day stigmatisation we face by hiding behind a mask." By the end of the rally, only a handful of masks could still be seen.
Si-si Liu Pui-shan, chairwoman of Amnesty International in Hong Kong, said: "We have been working with other groups to push for anti-discrimination legislation based on sexual orientation. Right now, there are no consequences if someone violates the rights of a gay person."
She said that as a signatory to international covenants on human rights, the government was obliged to enact anti-discrimination laws.
Liz Whitelam, LGBT co-ordinator for Amnesty International in Hong Kong, said: Hong Kong's gays and lesbians are mobilising, trying to become more visible, and it is time the people took notice.
"Homophobia is always going to mean a proportion of the public will never be comfortable. They should not be allowed to dictate the rights of others.
"If the Hong Kong government was waiting for the gay community to speak out, they have now been heard and it should stop stalling behind opinion polls and start drafting legislation and providing proper education.
A recent poll of 350 members of the government's Public Affairs Forum, drawn from across the professional spectrum, indicates by a measure of 64 per cent that Hong Kong does not need a Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance, as is being considered by the government.
However, the Forum also believes - by a level of 67 per cent - that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation does not exist in Hong Kong.
This poll, though unofficial, sends a worrying message to gay and lesbian groups that they have failed to make the public aware that discrimination is prevalent in the wider community.
Notable at the rally was the almost total absence of members of the Legislative Council, at least 30 votes of which will be needed should antidiscrimination legislation stand a chance of becoming law.
Legislator Leung Kwok-hung did speak, and he apologised to the crowd for the failure of other legislators to appear.
Homosexuality is still considered a criminal act in at least 80 countries in the world. Those that are convicted can face up to ten years in prison or even be sentenced to death. In Brazil alone, it is estimated that from 1980 to 2000, 1960 individuals were murdered as a result of homophobic hatred.
In Singapore late last month, four men were arrested in a gay sauna in Singapore after Police who were reportedly on its premises to conduct a routine fire inspection found the men engaging in sexual activity.