There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence, healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances.
Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made marriage equality a constitutionally protected right in all 50 states. Obergefell will enter history books as a landmark civil rights victory alongside Brown v. Board of Education (the 1954 Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools) and Roe v. Wade (the 1973 decision to protect women’s abortion rights). President Barack Obama praised the Friday ruling, reminding citizens that “when all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free.”
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Twelve time zones away, on the opposite side of the world, gay and lesbian folks find themselves navigating a very different political terrain. As far as sexual equality goes, Hong Kong looks like the surface of the moon. This is a place where just three years ago a property tycoon made international headlines by offering a HK$500 million (US$65 million) dowry to any man willing to marry his lesbian daughter. Until 1991, homosexual relations were still a crime. The age of consent used to be 16 for heterosexuals but five years higher for gay men, before the Court of Appeals corrected the anomaly in 2006. Even so, the criminal code wasn’t amended to equalize the age difference until last year. To date, the law remains silent on the consenting age for lesbian sex.
The Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender, disability, age, race and other status. Sexual orientation is not one of the enumerated groups in the statute, although local courts have interpreted “other status” to encompass it. But there is a catch: the Bill of Rights applies only to government actions – such as public sector hiring and firing – and not to the private realm. Whereas other minority groups are protected by specific statutes such as the Race Discrimination Ordinance and the Disability Discrimination Ordinance, there is currently no law to protect citizens from sexual discrimination.
In conservative Hong Kong, the path to marriage equality is treacherous and depressing. Most citizens have never heard of the phrase “civil union.” Same-sex marriage is so foreign to the collective consciousness that the mere mention of the idea evokes a range of responses from “What is to stop two male friends from getting married just to get public housing or tax benefits?” to “What’s next after same-sex marriage? Brothers and sisters tying the knot?” Given the growing cross-border tensions, many also fear that even more mainlander Chinese would come to Hong Kong through fake marriages.
The picture is just as bleak at the government level. It is no surprise that bureaucrats find same-sex marriage a hard pill to swallow, but they have proved to be just as uncompromising in situations that most reasonable people would consider uncontroversial. Take the case of W, a man who had undergone sex reassignment surgery and was legally a woman according to the new identity card and passport issued by the Immigration Department. Hell-bent on denying W a marriage certificate, however, the Registrar of Marriages summoned every resource at its disposal and fought her application all the way to the Court of Final Appeal, the city’s highest court. The registrar went after the woman with such tenacity that it began to look like a personal vendetta. The court eventually ruled in favor of W and ordered the government to redefine gender as a person’s identified sex instead of his or her biological sex at birth. Today, two years after W’s victory, the government is yet to make any of the legislative changes to comply with the ruling. A bill to amend the Marriage Ordinance was defeated in the legislature in 2014.
But the picture gets bleaker the closer you look. Here is another example of systemic prejudice. UK nationals living overseas – whether they are in a same sex or heterosexual relationship – can get married at British embassies and consulates around the world, provided that the local government does not object to such an arrangement. Even not so gay-friendly governments like China and Russia have given their green light to this so-called “getting married abroad scheme.” But so far the Hong Kong government has refused to play ball. The resistance has much to do with the fact that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong Chinese received a British National Overseas (BNO) passport before the handover. Bureaucrats are worried that once they sign on to the UK scheme, a deluge of gay and lesbian couples with a BNO passport would rush to the British Consulate in Admiralty to get married, which would in turn expose the government to future judicial reviews if they don’t recognize these “overseas marriages” administered in Hong Kong.
They say the strength of a society is measured by how its weakest members are treated. On that account, Hong Kong is not nearly as mighty as many think. As much as we hold ourselves out as Asia’s World City, our policies and attitude toward sexual minorities fall far short of our self-image. The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community needs a change agent to take up the cause, unite the various advocacy groups, and lead the continuous struggle toward full sexual equality.
Enter Ray Chan, a pan-democratic member of the Legislative Council (Legco) and a former presenter of the popular Commercial Radio program “Fast Slow Beats” – hence his nickname Slow Beat. The 43-year-old also happens to be the first, and to date the only, openly-gay lawmaker in Hong Kong. At Legco, Chan has been vocal on a variety of issues from electoral reform to social security. He is not afraid to filibuster important government initiatives even if it earned him many enemies. But ever since he came out of the closet in 2012, Chan has gone from a firebrand to also the go-to person on the uncomfortable subject of sexual politics. It is a role that he has assumed with pride and a sense of duty.
Chan is an outspoken champion against sexual discrimination and, from time to time, a victim of it. As recently as a month ago, he was verbally assaulted by a woman on a subway train, not for his Legco antics but his sexuality. The assailant’s two-minute diatribe ran the full gamut of insult, but with a curious focus on the size of the lawmaker’s manhood. The video, now posted on Youtube with subtitles in several languages, has been viewed nearly 600,000 times.
Adding insult to injury – or in this case, injury to insult – South China Morning Post columnist Michael Chugani defended the woman’s behavior by likening it to the pan-democrats’ frequent tirades and name-calling against government officials, arguing that both cases are constitutionally protected free speech. Chugani’s op-ed landed him in the center of a public relations firestorm, as critics lambasted the veteran journalist for condoning hate speech. To Chan, the incident and the ensuing drama were both simpler and more complicated: it underscores what he has been advocating for years – local legislation to outlaw sexual discrimination – except that the struggle has now become much more personal.
All that provided the pretext for my conversation with Ray Chan. Within 24 hours after Obergefell v. Hodges was issued and social media were plastered with the rainbow flag, I sat down with Slow Beat at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club to talk about the moonscape that is the state of sexual equality in Hong Kong. Wearing a pink Hollister T-shirt and denim shorts, Chan brimmed with excitement from the U.S. Supreme Court decision. Between finishing his chicken rogan josh and sending text messages on his iPhone, the lawmaker spoke candidly about sex and politics.