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HKFP Investigation: As Hong Kong’s private clubs open their doors to gay couples, progress remains slow for some

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For 15 months, Sean Rahui felt helpless. He was trapped in a private marina club contract that he neither wanted, nor asked for.

Once a month, he would begrudgingly pay an additional HK$990 fee, rather than the discounted spousal membership he had initially applied for. He lodged a formal complaint along with each payment, but management refused to budge because Rahui was married to another man.

Hong Kong has made big strides in LGBTQ rights in recent months. The Court of Final Appeal recently upheld a ruling in favour of lesbian expat QT, which said that the refusal of a spousal visa based on her marital status amounted to unlawful discriminationIt was hailed as a “landmark victory” for the gay community and a positive step towards equality.

Sean Rahui

Sean Rahui. Photo: Sean Rahui.

A New Zealand national, Rahui hopes that the ruling will pave the way for future same-sex couples also to be granted spousal visas: “The case is immense for us because it means that I can now apply for a spousal visa,” he told HKFP. But for him and his husband, the road to same-sex marriage recognition in Hong Kong has been fraught with uncertainty.

In December 2014 he moved to Hong Kong on a tourist visa to join his husband – who lived and worked in the city – because, under the law at the time, married same-sex couples were ineligible for spousal visas.

The couple leased a boat and began to look for marina facilities to dock their vessel, stumbling across a tight-knit private club nestled on the east coast of Lantau Island – the Discovery Bay Marina Club (DBMC). It was a scenic spot with sporting and dining facilities that, like many other private clubs in Hong Kong, came at a hefty price of HK$50,000 per debenture in return for exclusive access. Rahui was sold.

Not legally recognised

Rahui and his husband mailed off a signed joint membership contract, allowing for married spouses and their children to share the facility under one debenture: “They asked us if we were married, we said ‘yes.’ It asked us for a copy of our marriage certificate, we sent it through, and for all intents and purposes we didn’t think it would be a problem,” he told HKFP.

Discovery Bay Marina Club

The Discovery Bay Marina Club. Photo: Wikicommons.

But upon stepping through the door for their first visit to the club, DBMC had a change of heart. “When [the manager] saw that I was male, they then at that point told us that I could not be present under my husband’s debenture,” Rahui explained, adding that they were asked to shell out another HK$50,000 for a separate debenture, on top of the monthly fee. They were cornered.

“We were shocked and, if we had known, we could have made a decision before we laid out a significant amount of money,” he said. “There was nothing on the forms about same-sex marriage or marriage between a male and a female.”

When the couple asked why, the answer from the club was simple – under Hong Kong law, marriage was between “one man and one woman.” 

 Discovery Bay Marina Club

Email correspondence between the Discovery Bay Marina Club manager and Sean Rahui. Photo: Sean Rahui.

The Canadian manager was sympathetic but, as Rahui told HKFP: “When I asked him if he was prepared to advocate for us, he just shut down completely.”

“I think they were under higher direction and they had no courage or conviction to try and advocate. He was born in Canada, one of the first countries to get same-sex marriage… but he wasn’t prepared to even question it, and that was disappointing.”

After countless attempts to challenge the decision, the couple yielded. But not without making a point of voicing their dissatisfaction with each payment.

‘Unwelcome’

To make matters worse, the couple later learned that another same-sex couple had been granted spousal benefits a few weeks prior to their arrival. “Again, that kind of irked us because it was a regression as opposed to trying to change an existing policy,” Rahui said. “It left us feeling unwelcome by the club and confused.”

“I remember feeling really angry and not knowing what I could do. At one point, I wrote to the Equal Opportunities Commission and sent them the correspondence, but never heard back from them, even though they had been advocating for the admission of same-sex couples into anti-discrimination laws.”

Marc Rubinstein, co-founder of the Hong Kong Gay and Lesbian Attorneys Network, told HKFP: “It is unfair and demoralising to be rejected by a club on the basis that your marriage is somehow second-class or not recognised by that organisation, when you otherwise have the means and the desire to join that club.”

“Setting aside what the law currently says in Hong Kong, it is clearly discrimination to make a distinction between a same-sex couple and a heterosexual couple in terms of having access to a private club.”

equal opportunities commission

File photo: In-Media.

In response, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) told HKFP: “If the membership terms and conditions of the private club only allow heterosexual couples to enjoy certain benefits, it reserves the right to refuse to give same-sex couples equal benefits as heterosexual couples.”

“In light of the court decision on the QT case, the EOC believes that the Government should comprehensively consider the legal framework and policy measures on same-sex relationship recognition and the protection of equal rights of LGBTI persons in various contexts.”

They added that their body has no jurisdiction over sexual orientation, though in 2017 they received 36 enquiries related to LGBT issues.

Other private clubs

The DBMC are not the only club which fails to recognise same-sex marriage. An undercover HKFP reporter approached 20 private clubs in Hong Kong and found that the Discovery Bay Golf Club – owned by the same company as DBMC – also upholds a policy that does not recognise same-sex marriage “in accordance to Hong Kong law.”

Private clubs same-sex marriage

An undercover reporter contacted 20 private clubs offering spousal benefits in Hong Kong: 11 recognised same-sex marriage, six said that further committee consultation was required, two did not recognise same-sex marriage and one refused to answer.

When asked whether they recognise married same-sex couples under their joint debenture, a representative from the golf club said: “Because our rule follows Hong Kong’s policy… in our club, we do not accept this.” They reiterated that their policy defines marriage as between “a husband and wife.”

Over a third of the respondents did not have a clear policy when approached and said that applications had to go through a higher committee for approval. This included the India Club, the Kowloon Cricket Club, the Craigengower Cricket Club, the Dynasty Club and the Hilltop Country Club. When the Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club were asked if they would accept married same-sex couples under a joint membership, they said they would need to check as “in Hong Kong, we may not accept this.”

In full: Hong Kong clubs which extend spousal benefits to same-sex couples - click to view
The majority of local private clubs welcome married same-sex couples, including:

  • Club de Recreio.
  • The China Club Hong Kong.
  • The Foreign Correspondents Club.
  • The Gold Coast Yacht Club.
  • The Hong Kong Football Club.
  • The Kowloon Tsai Home Owners Association.
  • The Ladies Recreation Club.
  • The Pacific Club.
  • The South China Athletes Association.
  • The United Services Recreation Club.
  • The Victoria Recreation Club.

When Discovery Bay Golf Club were approached directly by HKFP for comment, they refused to comment on their policies and procedures. 

For Rahui and his husband, the constant bureaucratic to and fro became too much. By March 2016, the couple decided to not renew their lease at the marina.

‘Vulnerable’

But the incident had a knock-on effect on Rahui, who then realised that his visa status left him vulnerable to legal loopholes.

After hearing stories of same-sex partners being unable to visit each other in hospital, the couple exchanged powers of attorney, which allowed one partner to make health care decisions on behalf of the other if they were unable to do so.

declaration Sean Rahui.

Photo: Sean Rahui.

But it came at a price – drafting the powers of attorney cost HK$8,000 and the lawyer fees came to HK$5,000 per hour.

And in a move that rubbed salt into the wound, the couple were advised to use the term ‘partner’ to refer to each other on the statutory declaration instead of ‘husband’. Rahui said: “We were partners before we married, and having to revert back was just a bit diminishing.”

A game-changing case

Rahui and his husband have since been cautious about revealing their relationship to other private establishments: “When we are looking for an apartment, we are cautious about revealing our sexuality in the sense that if our potential landlord would judge us – just one of us would look at the apartment.”

Although the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau has issued a code of practice for employers and an annual scheme to fund projects that promote equal opportunities for LGBT people, there are currently no anti-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation in Hong Kong.

But with the QT ruling, there remains hope among the LGBT community for greater legal protection.

“The QT case changes everything,” Rahui said. “It’s hard to put into words just how immense it is for us because I can’t work in Hong Kong under a tourist visa.” He hopes that the decision will pave the way for foreign same-sex spouses like himself to be granted a spousal visa and the right to work in Hong Kong.

“It made us realise how far other jurisdictions have come in such a short space of time… it seems that the government wants to bury their head in the sand and [Chief Executive] Carrie Lam’s responses lately have just been so dismissive, dismissive of people who want to be here to contribute…”

Human rights lawyer Michael Vidler speaking to QT over the phone. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Human rights lawyer Michael Vidler speaking to QT over the phone. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

When told about the couple’s incident with DBMC, Joyce Chiang from the LGBTI group at Amnesty International Hong Kong told HKFP: “Such incidents underscore the need for the government to introduce comprehensive and specific legislation against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.”

But in the past year, it appears that other private companies are opening their doors to same-sex couples – last month, the South China Morning Post granted employees in same-sex marriages equal benefits to heterosexual colleagues.

Alfred Ip, chairman of NGO Pink Alliance, told HKFP: “[W]e believe that, as an increasing number of countries provide legal recognition to same-sex couples, more and more businesses with vision will recognise this reality and offer same-sex couples the same services and benefits that they would to their opposite-sex counterparts.”

With an overwhelming majority of the private clubs out of 30 that HKFP contacted saying “I do” to same-sex marriage, it appears that Hong Kong might be on the cusp of a new age of LGBTQ rights.

HKFP Investigation: As Hong Kong's private clubs open their doors to gay couples, progress remains slow for some