The ruling by the US Supreme Court last week declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right was monumental and stirred up a celebratory frenzy worldwide. As the latest among a growing list of countries that have achieved marriage equality in the past decade, the US now joins the ranks of such countries as its northern neighbour Canada and majority Catholic Ireland, where same-sex unions were approved by a referendum in May. It is encouraging to see the world’s most powerful country achieve this milestone after grappling with the issue for decades, with major polls showing significant public opposition to gay marriage as recently as 2011.
This clear step forward for social justice – although not the end-all – has predictably led to discussions on gay rights in Hong Kong in the past week. On a popular radio programme last Monday, Cyd Ho, Legislative Council member and founder of the Big Love Alliance, debated Choi Chi-Sum, Secretary General of the Society for Truth and Light, a Christian conservative organization with fundamentalist views. Listeners tuning in were treated to the usual arguments of why religious conservatives are opposed to not only marriage equality but also anti-discrimination legislation to protect sexual minorities – so-called “reverse discrimination” would unfairly take away their God-given right to, well, discriminate against people based on sexual orientation.
It is not news that Hong Kong is far behind the curve regarding gay rights among developed countries. A 2013 survey by HKU showed that 43.1% of Hong Kong people opposed gay marriage, while 33.3% supported it (with the rest unsure), but there has been more public attention on the issue lately. Last year, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) commissioned the Gender Research Centre at CUHK to carry out a “Feasibility Study on Legislating Against Discrimination on the Grounds of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status”, which was meant to prepare the groundwork for anti-discrimination legislation. After year-long focus groups, literature reviews and public forums, a comprehensive report of the study is set to be released later this year. It remains to be seen when we can actually expect legislation after the report, though, especially as socially conservative groups will expectedly step up their campaigns in response.
Even with the expectation that progress will come slowly in terms of concrete legislation, it is ridiculous to see our public discourse dominated by Christian groups, with the Society for Truth and Light often its most vocal mouthpiece. With only 10% of Hong Kong’s population, Christians (of which obviously not all are extreme) clearly represent only a small proportion of the 43.1% percent of gay rights opponents in Hong Kong. But whenever there are public debates like the sort between Ho and Choi on radio, gay-rights activists are invariably pitted against Christian conservatives, making it seem as if the majority of gay rights opponents in Hong Kong share the same doctrinal beliefs, as opposed to other forms of more casual, socially ingrained conservatism that is far more easily mitigated by exposure and education.
A study by the Pew Research Center, cited by Ming Pao last week, on the age breakdown of people for and against the same issue in different countries shows that, not surprisingly, young people have more liberal views than older generations. While there are no recent polls in Hong Kong showing a similar age breakdown, numbers from a survey by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups in 2005 suggested that even ten years ago, young people between 16 and 20 were the most tolerant age group.
That young people in Hong Kong are, like their overseas counterparts, more progressive than older people should be no surprise. But if we consider the type of conservative environment in which many Hong Kong youth are educated, this trend is actually quite remarkable. Formal education in Hong Kong either treats the issue of gay rights as taboo, or subjects children to outright conservative indoctrination. Roughly half of the schools in Hong Kong, from kindergartens to secondary schools, are run by or affiliated with various Christian sects, including many of the most highly regarded schools in Hong Kong that churn out many of our city’s leaders. If the school I taught for is any indication of the type of attitude prevalent among its counterparts, half of Hong Kong’s school children grow up in a formal educational environment that preaches bigoted ideas regarding social issues including, but not limited to, gay rights.
Of course, there is not much evidence to show that Hong Kong’s secular schools, or even international schools, are much better in this regard (although I would venture to assume that at least they would not reach out to the Society of Truth and Light to hold seminars for their students). As for wider public discourse, even with the attention some prominent gay celebrities have garnered lately, the mainstream media still shy away from seriously grappling with the issue, let alone leading progressive discussions.
Against this social backdrop, I marvel at the fact that any young people at all are supportive of gay rights – this is a feat that requires them to actively suppress the education and information constantly instilled in them by our schools and the media. As such, I was surprised to see many of my former students add a rainbow filter to their Facebook profiles a day after the Supreme Court ruling. I am not sure how many of them did so to follow a social media trend, and how many did so out of thoughtfulness on the issue. Regardless, these young people showed they are at least open to embracing progressive thinking that is completely at odds with the ideas they are taught and influenced by on a regular basis.
I am proud of my young Facebook friends and other young people who go out of their way to think for themselves in spite of the constraining social forces in their formative environment. If these small signs of progress can show even in the face of a constant assault of conservative values, then I am hopeful that we are heading in the right direction; and if the experience of other countries like the US is any indication, when progress does eventually take place, it does so quickly and irrevocably.