LGBT campaigners have applauded key legal developments in Hong Kong that they say could eventually bring same-sex partners the same rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples.
And while warning that a hard fight lies ahead to secure those rights, they pointed to research that suggests the public is in favour of expanding legal protections for LGBT people.
In a forum on Thursday night, held as part of Pink Season, a five-week festival of LGBT-themed events in the city that ends on November 3, legal experts and researchers hailed a July ruling by Hong Kong’s highest court that granted a married British lesbian a spousal visa. She had initially been denied one.
They are now following closely the outcome of a case involving gay civil servant Angus Leung, who is seeking the same spousal and tax benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples for his husband.
Aaron Chan, a lawyer from the team representing Leung, said: “Gay rights are like any human rights issue: if you are a human being, no matter what ethnic group you come from, you deserve the same rights. That should be applicable to Hong Kong as well.”
Gay rights are like any human rights issue: if you are a human being, no matter what ethnic group you come from, you deserve the same rights
Aaron Chan, lawyer
Under Hong Kong’s Marriage Reform Ordinance (1970), marriage is defined as “the voluntary union for life of one man with one woman to the exclusion of all others”.
Leung, a Hongkonger, initiated a judicial review against the Civil Service Bureau in 2015, when it refused to grant his British husband Scott Adams spousal benefits and the right to declare their tax jointly, as is the case for heterosexual couples.
The case has gone back and forth in court, with the Court of First Instance initially ruling in favour of Leung in April 2017 on the benefits issue. But in June this year, the Court of Appeal overturned that decision.
Separately, on July 4, the Court of Final Appeal ruled that a British lesbian, identified as QT, should be granted a dependant visa on the basis that her wife, SS, held an employment visa to work in the city. The case was initially lodged in 2015, but suffered a setback in 2016 when a lower court ruled against it.
The July ruling for QT gave Leung and his supporters a boost, and last month it was confirmed that his appeal would be heard by the higher court, on a date to be set.
Speaking at an event attended by about 80 people, including legal experts, business leaders and senior executives, Chan said Leung’s case highlighted the discrimination against LGBT couples.
“This is probably the first case in which we’re talking about same-sex marriage. What Mr Leung wants to do is ask: if New Zealand heterosexual counterparts can bring their marriages to Hong Kong, why can’t he?”
If Leung wins his case, it will be a big step forward in obtaining equality for same-sex partners, but Chan said it was down to changes in public opinion that would eventually convince the government to accept a change to the law.
“It’s important for society to tell lawmakers: we are ready – listen to the majority’s voice and make this happen,” Chan said, referring to recent public surveys that indicate a growing acceptance of LGBT people in local society.
It’s important for society to tell lawmakers: we are ready – listen to the majority’s voice and make this happen
Philip Howell-Williams, a British financial consultant and director of Pink Season, said the QT case raised key questions for LGBT people in Hong Kong. Giving the example of same-sex couples who move to Hong Kong with children, he told the Post: “We know the child can only be registered to one parent because their marriage is not recognised. But now, if you can have a spousal visa, can the child be registered to both parents?”
Howell-Williams, who has been a leading LGBT campaigner in the city over the past three years, also described what he called the “potential disconnect between the local community and the expat community”. He pointed out that foreign same-sex couples could move to the city and have their marriage recognised, whereas native Hong Kong couples were not accorded such recognition.
This, Howell-Williams said, underlined the significance of Leung’s case, given Leung is a Hongkonger.
Peter Charles Reading, legal counsel for the Equal Opportunities Commission, said “there are many areas in Hong Kong where there is discrimination against same-sex couples”.
He noted several countries have introduced the option of civil unions – a legally recognised form of relationship – not only for same-sex couples, but for heterosexual partners.
“The government needs to address these in a comprehensive manner, by seeing this as an issue of the human rights of couples,” Reading said.
Kelley Loper, director of the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong and another speaker at the event, expanded on the findings of a survey, released earlier this year, that found slightly more than half of Hongkongers supported the right of gay couples to wed, up from 38 per cent in a similar 2013 study, while 69 per cent said they favoured having a law to protect against sexual orientation discrimination.
“We found that a majority of people in Hong Kong do favour protecting gay and lesbian rights,” Loper said. “Even in 2013, there was already majority support for granting rights to same-sex couples. But by 2017, we’ve seen a statistically significant shift in favour of same-sex marriage.”
Angus Leung, who attended the event, told the Post of his frustration about the lengthy legal battle, but said he was optimistic about a favourable outcome.
“The fight continues, and the whole process has been very long. But if this is what we have to go through to get our rights, we’ll do it.”