Transgender pastor defies court to conduct same-sex marriages in Hong Kong

By Michael Taylor, Thomson Reuters Foundation

By Michael Taylor

KUALA LUMPUR, March 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A transgender pastor has vowed to officiate same-sex marriages in Hong Kong despite a legal challenge failing to provide assurances that he will not face arrest.

Marrz Balaoro was arrested in 2017 for holding ceremonies in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Straight (LGBTS) Christian Church which he founded in the global financial hub in 2014. Charges were eventually dropped.

The 62-year-old Filipino domestic helper, who moved to Hong Kong in 1981 and began living as a boy aged 12, filed a judicial review case with the High Court in May last year hoping to win the right to marry same-sex couples.

In its ruling earlier this month, the High Court rejected his application based on the right to freedom of worship, ruling it did not have the power to free him from the threat of prosecution but added that Balaoro had done nothing illegal.

"I can still do (same-sex marriages) and I will continue to do so," Balaoro told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding he had one ceremony planned for the first two weeks of April.

"The court said that I did nothing wrong or illegal - that is my assurance that I won't get arrested," Balaoro added.

Before his court challenge, Balaoro had conducted same-sex weddings in secret to avoid being arrested in Hong Kong which decriminalised homosexuality in 1991.

The legal bid was the latest in a series of challenges to laws that discriminate against LGBT+ people in the former British colony which last year upheld a ban on same-sex civil partnerships despite having a lively gay scene and Pride parade.

A victory in court would have allowed Balaoro to conduct same-sex marriages but they would not have had legal weight.

Other challenges, however, have resulted in gradual progress for LGBT+ people, including the right to obtain visas for dependants and spousal benefits for same-sex partners.

Earlier this month, a Hong Kong court ruled that married same-sex couples have the right to apply for public housing.

Balaoro said he and his lawyers decided against an appeal but he would now discuss with his church group whether to link up with other LGBT+ activists to lobby lawmakers into bringing about same-sex marriage changes through the legislature.

"I would love to express my willingness to help other local groups - so we can do lobbying together - but I'm not sure how soon that will happen," he said. (Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)