Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp was undoubtedly the biggest winner in the city’s recent district council elections, but another traditional underdog also made significant gains – LGBT rights advocates.
Three candidates – Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit, Kenneth Cheung Kam-hung and Alice Wei Siu-lik – became Hong Kong’s first openly gay and lesbian district councillors when they were elected alongside many young and apparently liberal candidates almost three weeks ago.
Sham took over Lek Yuen in Sha Tin, while Cheung won in rural Tuen Mun, and Wei was victorious in Lei King Wan in Sai Wan Ho.
Their triumphs came as some of the city’s most staunch defenders of traditional relationships and family values – including Holden Chow Ho-ding and Vincent Cheng Wing-shun, from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, and Business and Professionals Alliance’s Priscilla Leung Mei-fun – lost their district council seats.
While Sham, Cheung and Wei said they hoped the results indicated a rise in liberal attitudes at district level, others argued the victories did not reflect increased support for the LGBT sector.
“I will not only pay heed to those from the LGBT sector but all vulnerable groups,” said Sham, better known for his role as the convenor of Civil Human Rights Front, which has organised many of Hong Kong’s large-scale marches this year.
But Choi Chi-sum, general secretary of the Society for Truth and Light, a pressure group which promotes Christian values, warned against reading too much into the results, pointing out none of the three played up their sexual orientations during their campaigns.
A large number of pro-establishment councillors crashed to shock defeats during the election on November 24, as an unprecedented turnout of voters backed pro-democracy candidates to express their resentment of the government’s controversial extradition bill – since withdrawn – that triggered more than six months of wide scale unrest.
The pan-democrats claimed 347 out of the 452 district council seats while independents – many of them young and also pro-democracy – won another 45. It put the pro-democracy camp in control of 17 of Hong Kong’s 18 local councils.
Sham’s openly gay status has long made him a target for online abuse and during a march organised by the front two weeks ago, police officers allegedly hurled a derogatory term at him targeting his sexual orientation.
Cheung and Wei said it was more pressing for them to fight for the anti-government protesters’ demands, with the city plunged into more than six months of civil unrest triggered by the government’s now-abandoned extradition bill. The focus has since shifted to allegations of police brutality and renewed calls for universal suffrage.
But, while it was not initially on the agenda, the trio said now they had been elected, they would advocate equality on the sidelines of their district work.
Sham said he would push for more gender-neutral toilets at government premises and promote equality though dialogue.
Once an organiser for the city’s pride parade, Wei said an increasing LGBT presence in the community was vital, but she preferred a subtle approach. She planned to blend into the community, and with other district councillors, influencing gradual change through daily conversations.
Cheung’s to-do list ranged from placing rainbow flags in his office to distributing educational material and even putting a drag queen onstage at district events.
The social worker had been working in mainland China as an LGBT advocate, until he was kicked out and banned from re-entering earlier this year. He said he would open his office to those in Tuen Mun who needed counselling or advice on LGBT issues, including parents struggling to deal with their children coming out. He also planned to volunteer to give talks at schools in the area.
Cheung said the significance of his victory lay in the opportunity to preach to a more local audience. He would be talking to light rail passengers in Tuen Mun rather than passers-by in Central or Causeway Bay, which are considered more gay-friendly districts.
Local councils play mainly a consultative role and have little say on legislative and policymaking processes. But they can either propose a non-binding motion or respond to the government’s consultations and their consensus is often seen as a mandate for the government to introduce new proposals.
Raymond Chan Chi-chuen, the city’s first openly gay legislator, believed there would be less resistance to district councils endorsing LGBT policies following the exit of some of the more conservative councillors.
He added the new, younger councillors, tended to be more open-minded and willing to express their views on LGBT-related issues, making those topics less taboo inside the district councils.
Holden Chow, who lost his seat in Tung Chung South, doubted whether the trio’s advocacy would work as they had imagined.
He said they had not yet been required to handle conservative voters on an LGBT-specific topic because the focus had been on politics. “So it remains to be seen,” Chow said.
Cheung was not too bothered, believing voters would not target his sexual orientation as long as he did his district work properly.
“In four years’ time, let’s see how voters decide. If it’s purely for this reason they will not vote for me, even though I have been doing a lot of district work and supporting democratic campaigns in the face of arrest, I will accept that,” he said.