Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (Mark 12:31)
And yet, on the issue of LGBTQ+ rights, Christians, churches and religious organisations in Hong Kong have a history of making outrageous comments against sexual minorities. They have claimed that same-sex marriage will led to adoption and hence human trafficking, and that “laws against discrimination on sexual orientation grounds would lead to reverse discrimination.”
At times, there are even personal and political consequences. Gay teachers have been banned from Christian schools, while Catholics have been urged to consider candidates’ stance on homosexuality when voting in the District Council elections.
The dedication and fervour with which individuals and groups run such campaigns perpetuates the idea that Christianity is incompatible with advocacy for sexual minority rights. But two young Christians have been working to change this from within the system, so as to send a clear message to both those in the institution and outside of it: that supporting LGBTQ+ rights and being a Christian are not mutually exclusive.
One of them is Sunny Leung, a 22-year-old fresh graduate who has been outspoken about both his sexual minority rights advocacy and his faith on social media platforms. “I’ve been a Christian practically since the moment I was born,” Leung said. “There’s no escape – it’s my family’s religion.”
Leung had an admittedly sheltered upbringing and only learned about the concept of homosexuality when he was in the senior year of his secondary school. That was when he realised that he “fell into that category.”
But Leung has not always been an advocate of gay rights. In 2014, around the time of the Occupy protests, Leung would still share posts by The Society For Truth And Light, a prominent homophobic group in Hong Kong.
“I had agreed with the view that marriage means between a man and a woman, a husband and a wife,” Leung said, adding that he even believed those who advocated otherwise were “anti-human rights.” “I feel guilty, every time I talk about these things, because I feel like I played a role in making things worse.”
Due to his devout religious belief, he struggled with self-acceptance and even tried to date girls in the first year of university to “convert” himself to being straight. “It didn’t work,” he said matter-of-factly.
His next step was to approach the New Creation Association in July 2015, an anti-gay group that provided “conversion therapy.” “I just plucked up my courage and emailed them, and said I’m a Christian, and I’m seeking help.” The organisation held individual therapy as well as group discussion sessions; they handed out articles on whether one’s sexual orientation can change and paraded “successful cases” of conversion therapy.
“Their meaning of so-called ‘success’ is just not dating. But I’ve never heard of anyone actually ‘successfully’ being converted and then marrying someone of the opposite sex afterwards… For the younger people, they’ll just say that ‘they don’t go to bars anymore’. In that case, then I’ve succeeded too,” he joked. “It feels like they’re lying to others and themselves.”
They also persuaded him to rebuild his relationship with his dad – even though, Leung said, it was never poor in the first place – out of the belief that gay people “became gay” because they lacked fatherly love growing up and wanted a male figure in their lives.
As a result, Leung suffered from long periods of internal conflict: “I believed that you would either be gay, or a Christian – you can’t be both things at the same time.” He attended two years of such therapy, and was starting to feel fed up and exhausted.
“It was then when I started asking: is a change really necessary? Is it really so bad not to change? Could I possibly have happiness too?”
‘They don’t understand’
The turning point came in the summer of his third year at Hong Kong Shue Yan University, when he joined a course organised by the Fellowship of Evangelical Students. Leung’s chosen topic was gender and sexuality, which he said was an “eye-opening experience.”
As he learned more about the movement, he gradually grew more outspoken about gay rights. His parents were supportive when he came out to them. His two younger brothers would even make banners with pro-gay slogans together with him. “My parents are already open-minded, and the pastor is supportive – and it was still difficult for me. But what about those who don’t have this support? Shouldn’t I be doing something to help them?”
This February, he started attending activities at Blessed Ministry Community Church, a 25-year-old establishment that was the first gay-friendly Christian group in Asia. He sought to provide more specific support to the community at the church. Its Chinese name is a pun on “gay” which is phonetically identical to one of the two characters that make up the word “Christ.”
Blessed Ministry Community Church is not alone in its mission. There is also One Body in Christ – which also does work on transgender and refugee rights, among others – Ekklesia in Sham Shui Po, and Alabaster Box of Ointment Church, whose members includes Anthony Man Ho-fung, one of the more prominent Christians in Hong Kong to have come out, Leung said.
Another is the Student Christian Movement, a pro-LGBTQ+ group of students who advocate the rights of sexual minorities and social justice, of which Leung is a member.
Leung said that he had long been out of the closet, but his acquaintances were more supportive when he was opposed to his own sexuality. These days some people have distanced themselves from him.
His current church had been split in their attitudes towards him since his participation in the pro-democracy Occupy protests. Now, with his sexuality, they were even more wary. “It’s funny, some people even tell me, I would rather you take part in the political activism, go back to Harcourt Road, but don’t do this,” Leung said.
Based in the heart of Kwai Fong, the church was where his mother worked and has been his home away from home for the past ten years. While his priest was supportive, Leung admitted that there are those who wish to force him away from his church, and others did their best to steer their children away from him. “It’s not their fault,” Leung smiles ruefully. “They don’t understand.”
Leung is now unabashedly critical of the state of equal rights in the city. “Hong Kong is almost third-world when it comes to equal rights. And the church would be fifth, sixth-world in that case.”
Last year, a study commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission found that 55.7 percent of the 1,005 surveyed agreed with enacting legislation against sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status discrimination. Amongst young people, 91.8 percent considered legislation necessary, while nearly half with religious views concurred.
But out of the three major issues that gay rights advocates hope to fight for – gender equality education, same-sex marriage, and anti-sexual orientation discrimination – Hong Kong currently has achieved none. The US only succeeded in same-sex marriage, Leung observed.
“The public is just not enlightened yet… and the church, they feel that they should be segregated from the world in that they are ‘sacred’; to them, homosexuality is evil and they wish to distance themselves from it. And because of this negative definition, they don’t even want to discuss it, and they don’t know anything about it. They would be opposed to it, but they can’t really provide arguments, only saying that ‘the Bible is opposed to it’ [but don’t elaborate].”
If you type Blessed Ministry Community Church or Student Christian Movement into Google, the first suggestion that follows is the word ‘heresy’,” Leung said.
‘Religious reasons are just an excuse’
It would likely be a close competition between pro-Beijing lawmaker Holden Chow and Roger Wong, father of democracy activist Joshua Wong, for the title of the most outspoken anti-gay Christian in Hong Kong. But Leung said that politicians like Chow were not adhering to their religious beliefs so much as the Communist Party’s beliefs.
“If the Communist Party changes their stance and suddenly allows gay marriage across the nation, people like Chow will definitely immediately follow suit… for them, religious reasons are just an excuse.”
Leung was more cautious when it came to Wong. “We’ve openly opposed them before, and the result was that they gained even more support. The church would give them more funding, because they think that them being attacked must mean they are doing something effective.”
Despite this, Leung is not angry at the church. “I think they just have a lot of people they need to ‘manage’ and sometimes they almost have a mentality as if they’re managing a company. They have a model answer of the Christian faith and try to impose it on everyone, and that’s why they’re scared of organisations like the Student Christian Movement.”
Leung has considered giving up his faith, but has for now decided against it. “My own experience with Christianity demonstrates that you can have a relationship with God and still be engaged in areas such as politics – like Occupy – and gay rights.” He hopes that his existence will be evidence that there is space in the church for a variety of experiences, and show those outside of the church that not all Christians are anti-gay.
As for his fight within the system, he said, “Some of those in my church have known me since I was a kid, and they wonder why I would ‘turn out like this.’ I hope it will inspire them to see that being gay and being a Christian are not mutually exclusive. You don’t have to deny my existence. It’s like same-sex marriage – just because gay people can marry doesn’t mean rights of heterosexual couples to do so are diminished in any way.”
Leung now writes articles for the Christian website Faith100 to explain why Christian values are not anti-gay, as well as to support other gay Christians. Leung especially wants to do more to help those who are young. According to a 2009 study by the Boys’ and Girls’ Club Association, fifty-three per cent of 492 LGBT students surveyed faced different degrees of discrimination with 42 per cent verbally insulted and 40 per cent socially excluded.
“I experienced the same struggle and pain. I want them to know that there are those who are with you and will listen to you. Even if they want to give up their faith, I will respect their choice.”
Another reformer seeking a more tolerant church is Student Christian Movement’s 26-year-old chairperson Natalie, who preferred not to disclose her sexuality and only gave her first name. She started going to church in 2005 when she was in secondary school, and recalled that just a couple of months after she joined, Christian groups in Hong Kong had initiated a joint petition opposing a government-led consultation on sexual orientation discrimination.
“I asked my teacher why, and she told me it was because the Bible said that homosexuality was wrong. Back then, I did not question this – it was like it was absolute truth.”
She even remembered that one year, at the church’s annual Christmas show, an occasion usually aimed at converting non-believers to the faith, the church had arranged for two adults to “play gay people, wearing neon-coloured fishnet tights and acting in a very feminine manner.”
“Back then, I didn’t think much of it but looking back – it’s scary. As Christians and as adults, you’ve deliberately come up with something to smear minorities in society,” Natalie said.
When she was in the fourth year of secondary school, Natalie began questioning much of what she was taught. “I didn’t understand how God could be so all-inclusive in his love, yet single out just gay people. I felt that if I kept going to church, my voice would be drowned out by theirs. I also started wondering whether I wanted to be a follower in a faith where the definition of love was so narrow.”
At the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where Natalie was a cultural studies student, she had the chance to speak to liberal theology students who were in the same faculty. “That’s when I found out that homosexuality and Christianity were not mutually exclusive. My confusion finally disappeared.”
Natalie joined the Nu Tong Xue She, which advocates for the rights for all sexual minorities such as sex workers and transgender people, not just the gay community. In 2012, she also became a part of the Student Christian Movement, which she said “rescued” her faith. The international branch of the movement was founded in 1895 in Sweden, and in Hong Kong it has been around for over half a decade.
Student Christian Movement provided Natalie with new ways of thinking about the Bible and how to interpret the passages, and adopted a wholly different approach to topics on sex, emphasising sex education and liberation – in stark contrast to the church and school’s approach which stressed abortion or sexually transmitted diseases during her adolescent years.
This year, under Natalie’s leadership, Student Christian Movement held a Christian Gender Festival at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which included sessions on BDSM education and even a workshop with a lawyer on how gay couples could draft wills to secure rights for each other.
They also drafted submissions and a statement on gender recognition; currently there is no legislation in Hong Kong which provides for the recognition of the reassigned, acquired or preferred gender of a person for legal purposes.
Natalie’s motivation for joining the movement came when she saw the antagonism between the gay community and Christians, and wanted to mend that rift. At a meeting on the Hong Kong Sex Cultural Festival years ago, she overheard others commenting how Christians saw gay people as “revolting.”
“I sat there thinking – but I’m a Christian too, and I’m not like that. That’s when I realised how much prejudice the two groups have towards each other – Christians think that all gay people are promiscuous and evil, and the gay community thinks all Christians are opposed to them and are conservative – they don’t see that they can co-exist.”
She was also critical of ultra-conservative figures who “incite the emotions of the public” and champion discrimination under the guise of reverse discrimination.
“The Prayer of St. Francis in Christianity goes: ‘O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned…’ but on this topic, Christians are unable to do this at all,” she said.
In terms of the work that needs to be done in Hong Kong, Natalie said, “Sexual orientation discrimination legislation is a must. But what’s disappointing is that every time the government mentions this, it concludes by saying that they will keep studying [the issue], because there is no consensus in society yet.
“But I don’t think there ever will be a consensus. This is supposed to protect the rights of people with different sexual orientations, and those who are facing discrimination right now are the minority. How can the rights of the minority be determined by the views of the general public?”
“Rights should be inherently guaranteed to us – they should not be decided by voting or the mainstream opinion… The government has the responsibility to uphold human rights and equality. Sometimes I don’t understand how I’ve been in the movement for so many years, and we’ve been fighting for something so [basic] – it’s not as if we’re asking for a privilege.”
Natalie said that change is happening, but slowly.”People are less shocked than they were when I say I’m Christian and supportive of LGBTQ rights, as opposed to years ago. I also know that there are those in the church who will tell their gay friends they could come talk to me rather than say, ‘Go to the Society for Truth and Light’.”
“I really hope that one day, Christians will be able to reflect on God’s love and show concern for the institutional injustice faced by gay people, and not oppress them anymore.”