Without LGBTQIA+ equality, there can be no equality in HK

May 25, 2021 09:44
Photo: Reuters

As the zeitgeist goes, it is imperative that Hong Kong redresses its long-standing inequalities. Beijing is right – when it comes to housing, land, and the underlying socioeconomic tensions of our city, past administrations have struggled to articulate a cogent, sustainable, and long-lasting vision that strikes at the heart of Hong Kong’s malaise: inequity.

Inequity in access to housing. Inequity in access to social mobility – as evidenced by the widening gap between the rich and the poor, but also the absolute stagnation when it comes to disadvantaged families seeking to break free of the poverty cycle. Inequity in access to education – specifically, international, cosmopolitan, and high-quality education that renders our graduates globally competitive and well-positioned. So it’s all fair and square to think that amongst all the objectives our administration must value and seek to accomplish, equality is, first and foremost, a critical principle for which it ought to strive.

This piece is not a tired tirade against the developers, the New Territories, or the government. You’ve heard that all too often from me – so I’m going to give it a pass. I’d like to talk about Queer rights instead. Hong Kong remains a deeply discriminatory, bigoted, and conservative society when it comes to legislating anti-discrimination protocol for Queer folks. Yet is is also amongst the more open, liberal, and progressive regions throughout the entirety of Asia – especially as compared with states such as Singapore, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Thailand (though the latter has come leaps and bounds on LGBTQIA+ rights over recent years).

Here’s my rather bold conjecture: without substantive equality for all LGBTQIA+ individuals in this city, there can be no equality; there can be no socioeconomic reform or progress, as envisioned by Beijing or local officials.

Let’s dispel one critically misguided misunderstanding from the get go – LGBTQIA+ rights are not Western values. The entitlement to respect, to dignity, to having one’s family and relationships enshrined and acknowledged by one’s commonfolk and community, these are values that straddle Confucianism, Legalism, and communitarianism. They are Confucian, in that LGBTQIA+ relationships have never sought to thwart – for the most part – stabilising institutions and forces such as marriage; indeed, the whole point of same-sex marriage advocacy is to push for an expansion in the clientele and demographics that can be served by the long-standing tradition.

They are legalistic, in that through their distinctive emphasis upon legal liberties, rights, and institutionally upheld contracts, LGBTQIA+ rights advocates eschew the whimsical tendencies of arbitrary policymaking and contingent politicking. What instead matters, here, is the legal formalisation of norms and mores, whose value derives from the law’s acknowledgment – as opposed to the other way round. Legalists are not necessarily rigid, dogmatic status quo adherents – they, too, can be open-minded about legal changes that conform with the quality and stability of rule.

Finally, the doctrines of communitarianism point to the need for accepting that there exist baselines that demarcate the private and personal spheres of individual participants in these communities. Yes, the personal is political. But the personal is also intimate – it reflects the breathing room that each and every member of our community, imagined or actual or otherwise, should be allowed to engage with and exercise their discretion over; if we truly care for the wellbeing of communities and their participants for their sake, we should uphold LGBTQIA+ rights!

We’re decades behind the world, when it comes to formal and legal protections for the disenfranchised. From anti-discrimination legislation, to mental and physical health support, to ensuring that existing civil law clauses and procedures are upheld and fairly employed in arbitration when it comes to instances of alleged or blatant discrimination. We must also reckon with the fact that as Hong Kong welcomes migrants from all corners of the world, there would be many whose marriage arrangements – including civil unions, partnerships, or marriages to their spouses – may not conform with the local legal practice. The solution is not to alienate them through remaining obstinate and anachronistic with our laws – ‘tis to update our laws instead.

And don’t even get me started on the conservatism and bigotry that permeate public school curricula (or indeed, religious school curricula). The view that families can only comprise a man and a woman; the claim that it is ostensibly sacrilegious to permit a man to love another man, or to have their love recognised by society – these are claims that have no place in a city that allegedly champions equality. If we are truly compassionate and serious about rectifying what Beijing terms “fundamental divides” in this city, we ought to start, at the very least, with removing the undue restrictions and inhibitions placed upon individual civil liberties, by dated, restrictive, and fundamentally oppressive religious structures.

If Hong Kong is to retain a role as an international, cosmopolitan city, obviously LGBTQIA+ protection legislation alone won’t ‘seal the deal’ – the rule of law, the openness of debate and discourse, the cultural pluralism and diversity within the city, must and ought to be upheld. Yet if we’re short on ideas to start, here’s at least somewhere where we can start. Last Monday was IDAHOT day – but it shouldn’t take a particular date for us to commemorate those whose lives were lost at the hands of vitriolic bigots and dangerously distorted dogma.

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Assistant Professor, HKU