On three misconceptions about the LGBTQIA+ community

July 03, 2020 10:53
Photo: Reuters

The District Council’s collective decision of endorsing the Pride Parade (as part of the wider Pride Month celebrations of LGBTQIA+ diversity) has drawn substantial ire from many, with conservative politicians and religious leaders condemning the council’s move for allegedly undermining family values.

Hong Kong claims to be an international city. Yet for too long – far too long – the city has made little to no progress in addressing one of the most persistent sociocultural issues afflicting a significant group within its population. For all the vacuous talk, Hong Kong, as a community or political collective, has failed to follow the footsteps of its many counterparts across the world, in recognising and pledging to rectify the plights of its LGBTQIA+ citizens. LGBTQIA+ folks and so-called “sexual minorities” are ordinary folks, who are nevertheless besmirched by critics who eagerly paint them as sexually deviant, unethical, and alien to Hong Kong’s moral fabric. Here one may well be sceptical, and with good reasons – what moral fabric?

The following constitutes three of the more common misconceptions about the community, and why each one of them holds little water.

The first claim is that LGBTQIA+ rights are inherently incompatible with religious values and freedoms. Some allege that LGBTQIA+ individuals should not be permitted to marry; should not be protected or exempt from discrimination at workplaces (especially government organisations); should not receive impartial treatment from government agencies – simply because doing so would contravene the interests of devout Christians or subscribers to other religions who reject such identities. The argument follows, then, that given the innate incompatibility between religious liberties and the civil liberties of Queer folks, we ought to prioritise the former.

Yet this argument is baffling, at best. Firstly, there exist many religious interpretations and arguments in favour of emancipating (or expanding, if you will) the institution of marriage. Marriage need not be between a man and woman, if we are to believe that the Judeo-Christian God loves all individuals equally and without unjustifiable prejudice. Even if marriage should be kept “sacrosanct”, it is, to say the least, a stretch to thereby rule out any and all affording of additional privileges (e.g. those covered by “civil unions” in certain international jurisdictions) to same-sex couples who are, barring the lack of legal recognition, identical to heterosexual couples. LGBTQIA+-friendly Catholicism and Protestanism have taken root in a large number of Western states – for a city that ostensibly possesses a high level of cultural diversity and value pluralism, there really is no normative reason, independent of the dogma propagated by particular lobbying groups, why we should collectively endorse the strictest possible interpretations of religious dogma. It is not politicians’ place to decide which sects of the Church they endorse or represent; it is their responsibility – particularly those who self-identify as devout Protestants or Catholics – to capture and reflect the genuine range of voices within the Church, as opposed to kowtowing to the powerful and influential.

Moreover, the seminal Obergefell vs. Hodges ruling in the US Supreme Court has aptly noted that anti-discrimination laws and rulings need not be inherently antithetical to religious interests. Justice Kennedy notes, “it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned." Granting marriage rights to voluntary, mutually consenting same-sex couples does not undermine the prestige or intrinsic importance of marriage for heterosexual couples; nor does it compel critics of LGBTQIA+ rights to self-censor and silence themselves.

Your right to express your views and beliefs does not extend to your right to severely interfere with the intimate spheres and interests of other individuals. Just as it would be unethical to compel an orthodox Christian to bake a cake for a gay couple; or it would be prejudicial to require an orthodox religious association to forego their own doctrine to admit Queer members into their ranks (note: such stipulations are not included under any version of anti-discrimination laws in the West, and are unlikely to be featured in Hong Kong’s equivalent counterpart), there is no reason why the other-regarding preferences of a subset of Catholics should be weighed significantly above the integral interests of individuals to have their love and convictions recognised and celebrated. You should not have to be rich or privileged, to have your love respected by the institutions to which you contribute – as a taxpayer, as a citizen, and as a part of the community at large.

Finally, those who advocate the weight of religious liberties must properly account for why such liberties outweigh all of the following countervailing considerations – the claims of citizens to feeling safe and respected, irrespective of their personal lives; the rights of citizens to express and articulate their identities and self-understandings in the public, without fear of unduly repercussions and reprimanding; the entitlements of LGBTQIA+ children to not be ridiculed, bullied, and harassed for asking questions that any and all youth should be allowed to ask.

There’s a Chinese saying that roughly translates to “Harmonious yet Different” (“和而不同”). The very reasons why upholding religious freedoms is important, also apply to our need to acknowledge and uphold the rights of LGBTQIA+ individuals. The hegemonic discourse of cultural conservatism is not just oppressive via its grounding restrictive laws – it is also oppressive through the stifling atmosphere, that eliminates any and all possible room for articulating and celebrating the diversity that inheres within the human condition.

Here the cynics may raise a further objection to the LGBTQIA+ cause – positing that the community, and the advocacy of anti-discrimination laws in particular, constitutes “reverse discrimination”. The usual intuition pump proceeds as follows – what if one day, we can no longer speak out freely about our reservations and objections to LGBTQIA+ individuals existing? Heavens forbid – wouldn’t that be a terrible world to live in?

Let’s be very clear here – sarcasm aside, it shouldn’t hopefully be controversial to argue that we don’t have the right to impose physical or severe psychological harms on others, without their consent. I do not possess the right to step into someone’s household, hold them at gunpoint, and force them to convert to being gay (to the extent that is in fact feasible, which remains an academically disputable question). Nor do I have the right to sack someone from their job – not for reasons pertaining to competence or aptitude – but simply because I find their heteronormative sexual orientation (“straight”) personally offensive. A right ends when harm arises. There is no right – on the part of anyone, Chief Executive or ordinary citizen included – to make others less well-off in the public sphere, for reasons that cannot be publicly justified (e.g. “I find you ugly.” may be a valid reason to disinvite someone from your family gathering; it is not, however, a ground for workplace discrimination. )

Note, discrimination constitutes interference on arbitrary grounds that inhibit what we are entitled to as citizens – i.e. equal treatment, recognition, and respect, at least within the public or quasi-public spheres. Gay couples, bisexual individuals, trans individuals are entitled to having their needs and identities respected and protected – but not to an unreasonable extent; and indeed, disproportionate “affirmative action” is neither what the LGBTQIA+ community in Hong Kong, nor what most in the community worldwide, is fighting for.

In contrast, we do not have the right to prejudicially shove down others’ throats our conceptions of what the ideal relationship ought to be; we are also not entitled to the right to treat others arbitrarily, unfairly in professional or public settings, for reasons that we ourselves would clearly reject if we were placed behind a veil of ignorance. That is, if we are to imagine what the ideal society ought to look like, with no prior conception or knowledge of our own sexual orientations, gender identities, we would not opt to live in a society whose laws are driven by doctrines adopted by a select fraction of the population, and which openly and unrepentantly impose burdens on another fraction within the population. Just as same-sex couples do not possess the claim or right to demand the divorce of heterosexual couples, there is no such thing as a “right to discriminate”.

There are indeed worries concerning judiciary overreach or activism that are valid, and must be addressed. All laws have the potential of overreaching and over-punishing; this is part and parcel for the legislative process – to say otherwise would be both naïve and conceitful. Yet let us not hyperbolise the manageable risks of imperfectly defined laws, and turn anti-discrimination laws into this maleficent beast. If the laws are poorly defined, legislators and public alike ought to collaborate in negotiating a set of publicly acceptable and justifiable boundaries and conditions pertaining to the laws, as well as clarifying the penumbra surrounding such laws. To resort to irrational, emotivistic slogans, or sweeping generalisations about how the community behaves, is neither constructive nor acceptable for such a “global” city – global, perhaps, in its hubristic self-aggrandisement; yet myopic and narrow-minded in its actual policies.

Finally, there’s the argument that promoting LGBTQIA+ rights would come at the expense of “family values”. Whose family values? The values of a heterosexual couple and cis-heteronormative family cannot and should not be taken to be the default that everyone ought to adhere to. Consider a micro-nation of 99 red-haired individuals and 1 blond-haired individual – why should the arbitrariness, plausibly genetically determined hair colour of the former be a normatively salient reason for the latter to dye their hair red? Why must we imagine the ideal family to be monolithic and necessarily orientated about a heterosexual couple?

Maybe the argument here isn’t so much that heterosexually grounded families are innately justified – maybe “It just so happens that this is the norm, but these families’ interests would be undermined by LGBTQIA+ equality!”

Yet this view is equally bizarre. Does the decision of a couple living on the Peak to send their kids overseas for education thereby undermine or skew the decision of a couple residing in North Point to do the same? Does the intimate pillow-talk between a couple thereby affect the love life of friends of theirs? How do the actions of two mutually consenting adults, provided that they neither interfere with nor impose their romantic ideals upon others, “undermine” the quality and value of relationships and families – even for those closely affiliated with them? How valuable, really, are (straight-couple-oriented) family values, if the cis-heteronormative family featuring a man and a woman, for all its historically engrained entrenchment and ostensibly universal importance, could be so easily challenged and superseded by the rise of same-sex relationships?

And let’s not get started on the inherently problematic nature of the “traditional family” – from being weaponised to justify deeply oppressive practices and treatments towards women, to assigning disproportionate power to ill-informed or authoritarian parents over their children’s decisions and choices, the archetype of the “traditional family” is steeped in ignominy. Family is frequented cited as the reason for working mothers to forego their careers, because it’s ostensibly “their job” to care for the children. Family is also purportedly the reason why parents get to dictate, police, and even condemn their children for their sexual orientations.

So if accepting and propagating equality requires us to bite the bullet, that we must repel the traditional family’s grip over socially acceptable relationships, then so be it! We can bite this bullet, and take pride in the fact that we are neither shackled nor blinded by anachronistic considerations that serve only to inhibit, as opposed to facilitate, genuine sexual liberation.

I close, with a few stanzas off Still I Rise, penned by the one and only Maya Angelou:

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

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Assistant Professor, HKU