Tokyo has done it. When is Hong Kong’s turn?

December 21, 2021 10:21
Photo: Reuters

Tokyo recently declared that it would proceed with advancing the recognition of same-sex partnerships – a pivotal follow-up to the March ruling that determined that the lack of legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Japan was unconstitutional. Japan isn’t a state that is exactly known for its open, progressive cultural norms; it is, in many ways, deeply traditional and bound by conceptions of “family values”. Yet Tokyo – as its most vibrant and cosmopolitan gem – has undertaken active steps in advancing the rights and progress of a core constituency within its community. So here’s the question, when are we following suit?

To be very clear – and in preemption of cynics, critics, and challengers, Tokyo has not committed to recognise same-sex marriage. Governor Yuriko Koike has called for measures that would – if adopted and implemented fully – allow for the de facto recognition of some kind of civil partnership for same-sex couples. It’s not a revolution to marriage we’re speaking of here, folks, it’s just common, basic decency grounded in granting protections and equal treatment to individuals whose love, whose appreciation, and whose entitlement to intimacy are no different from heterosexual couples.

So what’s the proposed deal in Tokyo? The metropolitan government is due to introduce a system in 2022, that would effectively allow same-sex couples to register with the government their partnership status, with such status bearing significant legal implications on how they are treated by the medical, fiscal, and public administrative institutions within the city. This effectively extends protection to all same-sex couples residing in the 14 million-strong metropolis – a substantial step forward in Japan’s push for greater equality and rights protection.

Such recognition may seem trivial to many – and indeed, for a vast majority of those who are heterosexual, and who are not encumbered by bigoted or narrow conceptions of what homosexuality entails, the proposed changes would have minimal, if any, impact on their marriages, relationships, and self-conceptions. All remains well.

Yet for those who are indeed in same-sex arrangements, this legislative change ensures that their rights, as spouses, such as their entitlements to their partners’ estate after their death; their ability to collect welfare and transfer payments on their partners’ behalf, and the spousal allowances and tax rebates afforded to heterosexual couples, could be duly reflected and expanded in scope to incorporate them. This is vital, as a first step to remedying the socioeconomic injustices and barriers precluding same-sex couples from participating as equal members in the civil society at large. Furthermore, this sends out a clear and expressive signal to the private sector that discrimination against employees, on grounds of theire sexual orientations and their spouses’ genders, will not be tolerated.

A further implication of this is juridico-legal. Victories over same-sex marriage and entailed rights are often fought over and achieved within the courtroom. The legal recognition of such partnerships provides a healthy precedent that allows for more robust and dynamic articulation and debate over the pros and cons of legalising gay marriage in the country at large. I am not saying that gay marriage must be the end-goal – instead, the end-goal I am advancing here, at least for now, constitutes merely a more informed and well-reasoned public discourse. Tokyo’s seminal policy shift provides the basis to such conversations – and its benefits cannot be overstated.

Finally, the civil partnership proposal offers a healthy compromise between competing interests and considerations. To naysayers and challengers who argue that marriage must remain the product of a man’s union with a woman – well, here you go: you get to keep your “sacrosanct” marriage, whilst others get to enjoy what they should have the right to, irrespective of your (or any other folks’) judgment and personal preferences. It’s a win-win for all. There need not be any compromising or jeoparidising of traditional family values.

So let’s talk about Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is – in economics, finance, culture, and social ethos – by far a more progressive and open-minded city than Tokyo, even in the aftermath of the recent upheaval and turmoil that have dealt heavy blows, for sure, to the city’s vibrance. We’re not dead, for all the (trash-)talking suggesting that we are. And one of the best means of demonstrating that we’ve got it in us to be culturally liberal and different – is to embrace rights and values that the rest of the world has caught up on; upholding the interests and rights of queer folks need not come at the expense of the majority – indeed, those who know me well would know that I would vote (if I could) with my hands and feet against any and all transformations that rock the boat too far. But this is a matter of values, and ‘tis a matter where progress can and ought to be made, irrespective of broader political point-scoring and considerations. If Hong Kong truly wants to stay classy, and remain a world-class city, let’s give the above some thought, and pay it more than mere lip service.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review