The case for civil unions for same-sex couples

October 20, 2023 09:29
Photo: RTHK

In the wake of recent landmark rulings by the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal regarding the rights of same-sex couples as well as the Court of Appeal of the High Court of Hong Kong’s ruling on same-sex couples access to public housing, the urgency for the Hong Kong government to reassess and recognise the rights of these couples has never been more pronounced.

The Court of Final Appeal's ruling pertained to the government's failure to establish an alternative framework that recognises same-sex relationships. The court urged the government to create an official framework, such as the implementation of civil unions, to legalise and cater to the basic societal needs of same-sex couples. For example, in the case "Leung Chun Kwong v. Secretary for the Civil Service", the Court of Final Appeal recognised the spousal benefits for same-sex couples married abroad.

It is crucial to note here that civil unions are not the same as same-sex marriages. This distinction, while subtle, can pacify opposition from conservative factions and avert the feared "slippery slope" effect, where the acceptance of one change could lead to other changes that are considered less desirable. Indeed, the legalisation of civil unions is a measure that would offer a balanced approach towards addressing the rights of same-sex couples, in a way that would in fact be perfectly reconcilable with the reservations of some – as reasonable as they are indeed – who may harbour religious or legalistic reasons for which they oppose same-sex marriage.

The case for same-sex civil unions is foundationally economic. Indeed, the government's primary focus is currently on driving forward growth, attracting talent and corporations, and achieving the objectives set for Hong Kong in China's "14th Five-Year Plan". Legalising civil unions for same-sex couples is most conducive to such goals and, indeed, telling a good Hong Kong story within the framework of One Country, Two Systems.

Embracing diversity and inclusivity, including recognising the rights of same-sex couples, can significantly boost Hong Kong's reputation on the international stage, and augment its competitiveness in an increasingly globalised world. This plays out across three critical fronts.

Firstly, in attracting and retaining talent. Note, a society that is diverse and inclusive is more likely to attract a wide range of talent. By legalising civil unions, Hong Kong sends a powerful message to the world that it values and respects individuals irrespective of their sexual orientation. This not only attracts a diverse pool of talent but also plays a crucial role in retaining them by creating a supportive and inclusive environment. For instance, a study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) showed that diversity increases innovation and that companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues.

Secondly, in creating an inclusive business environment. Businesses flourish in environments that are diverse and inclusive. Recognising civil unions can foster such an environment by signalling that Hong Kong is a progressive city that respects the rights and freedoms of all its residents. This not only attracts multinational corporations looking for a favourable business environment, but also promotes a culture of respect and inclusivity within the corporate sector. A recent Harvard Business Review article highlighted that inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time.

Thirdly, in competing with regional rivals. In the competitive landscape of Southeast Asia, legalising civil unions could give Hong Kong a distinctive edge over regional rivals such as Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. This progressive step would signal Hong Kong's commitment to diversity and inclusivity, potentially making the city a more attractive proposition for international businesses, investors, and high-calibre professionals.

All of these would enable Hong Kong to tell a much better and more forward-looking story that is fit for the 21st century. By legalising civil unions, Hong Kong can demonstrate to the world that it fundamentally respects the rights of all of its citizens, irrespective of their sexual orientations and gender identities. This approach not only serves as an example of the "One Country, Two Systems" principle in action but also signals that Hong Kong, which is of course a part of China, can nevertheless maintain a distinctive legal and societal framework. This uniqueness makes Hong Kong a valuable asset to China, as it allows the city to attract a diverse range of talent and businesses who may not otherwise be drawn to the mainland. This, in turn, maximises Hong Kong's contribution to China's overall development.

As we delve into the discourse surrounding the rights of same-sex couples, it is essential that we address and account for the conservative opposition that exists within Hong Kong society. Whilst advocating for the rights of same-sex couples, the concerns of conservative groups pertaining specifically to same-sex marriage cannot be neglected or dismissed. Legalising civil unions can hence serve as a viable compromise, a middle ground that respects the rights of same-sex couples while also taking into account the conservative values of certain segments of society.

Civil unions can provide same-sex couples with the legal recognition and protection they deserve, without necessitating a full endorsement of same-sex marriage. This approach harbours the potential to reduce tensions between different societal groups and foster unity in diversity. Taking the progressive step forward in legalising civil unions would not only signal Hong Kong's commitment to human rights and equality, but also forge a shared path towards a more inclusive and prosperous society.

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HKEJ contributor