By Kent Ewing
While gay activists in this conservative city of 7.1 million people have for years struggled, mostly in vain, to win equal rights and legal protections for homosexuals, immigration officials have been quietly handing out special "relationship visas" for partners of gay professionals coming from overseas.
The stark contradiction has, of course, met with protests of a double standard among the local gay community. In the end, however, rights granted now on the sly to only a relative few high-flying gay executives will inevitably trickle down to their local counterparts. As with trickle-down economics, however, those waiting for tangible improvement in their lives are, understandably, growing impatient.
Anti-discrimination legislation protecting gays in the workplace and in public life, now commonplace in much of the West, is still a long way off here, and recognition of gay marriage even farther away. But, thanks to Hong Kong's relentless pursuit of its economic interests - which includes attracting the best foreign talent to the city, no matter the color, creed or sexual orientation of that talent - the agenda of the city's increasingly vocal gay community is on the advance, albeit slowly.
Although city officials only begrudgingly accept it, Hong Kong hosts an annual gay-pride parade, but that usually features campy displays of homosexuality, often garbed in provocative pink, that mostly serve to reinforce local stereotypes and prejudices. And gay-rights organizations such as Horizons and the Hong Kong Ten Percent Club have been up and running for more than 20 years. In all that time, however, victories - both legal and attitudinal - have been few and far between.
It wasn't until 1991 that Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Legco), then under British rule, acted to decriminalize consensual sex between men, although the legislation set the age of consent at 21 (while it remained 16 for heterosexuals) and ignored lesbianism altogether. In 2005, Hong Kong's High Court ruled the higher age of consent for gay men unconstitutional, and a government appeal of that ruling - spearheaded by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, a devout Catholic - failed in 2006. So the age for consensual sex for both heterosexuals and gay men in Hong Kong is now 16, but the legal invisibility of lesbianism continues.
Legco has also enacted equal opportunity legislation. Despite the increasingly visible presence of gay life in the city - in the form of gay nightclubs, gay beaches, gay pride parades and even a gay film festival - sexual orientation is not covered by these laws.
In 2006, RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong) - an independent public broadcaster modeled on the BBC - aired a controversial documentary called Gay Lovers, which prompted a stream of complaints from viewers who felt that it encouraged a homosexual lifestyle. Acting on those complaints, the Broadcasting Authority censured RTHK for showing a program that was "unfair, partial and biased towards homosexuality" and that had the effect of "promoting the acceptance of homosexual marriage".
Two years later, however, after one of the gay men featured in the documentary launched a legal challenge, the High Court overturned the authority's ruling, saying that it was not necessary to include anti-gay views in the program in order to honor broadcasting guidelines of equal time and fair play.
Moreover, in 2009, after prolonged sessions of wrangling laced with homophobic asides, Legco voted to include same-sex cohabiting couples in landmark legislation aimed at preventing domestic violence.
While the city's gay community celebrated these recent victories, their enthusiasm was tempered by larger legislative failures to protect their rights. RTHK may feel free to air programs about gay life and battered gay lovers can now take their abusive partners to court, but employers can still fire workers because of their sexual orientation and gay relationships remain a social taboo and a legal nonentity.
Unless you happen to be a gay expatriate with professional skills that Hong Kong needs to keep its competitive edge. Even in this case, however, recognition is limited and provisional.
As cities go, Hong Kong is very generous to heterosexual expatriates and their spouses. The spouse, like his wife or her husband, is granted a Hong Kong identity card and allowed to seek employment. After seven years in the city, permanent residency is granted, meaning the couple may live here as long as they like and enjoy all of the privileges of full citizenship - such as public health care and voting rights - as long they maintain their residence.
By contrast, the "relationship visa" now being granted to homosexual couples offers none of these benefits; it is nothing more than an extended tourist visa. Gay partners are not allowed to work, receive no ID card and do not qualify for permanent residency. The only thing that distinguishes their status from that of a run-of-the-mill tourist is that they are not required to leave the city after three to six months, depending on their home country, and then apply for re-entry. Instead, they are allowed to apply for a visa extension in Hong Kong and, if their spouse is deemed important enough, their applications are routinely accepted.
After 5% of the workforce at investment firm Goldman Sachs identified themselves as gay, bisexual or transgender in a recent internal survey, financial centers like Hong Kong were prompted to take notice. But the firm's head of diversity in Asia, Stephen Golden, says Hong Kong may need to grant broader recognition and privileges to partners of gay high-flyers if it wants to attract the best possible talent to work and live in the city.
"Hong Kong will need to consider these issues as it looks at ways to strengthen its lead as a regional hub and global financial center," he recently told the South China Morning Post, the city's leading English-language newspaper.
UBS's diversity chief Hayden Majajas added:
"Our ability to hire the best and brightest talent may be limited by the availability of different visa categories."Clearly, then, with gay marriage and civil unions on the rise in the West, international corporate culture is becoming increasingly accommodating to same-sex relationships. Talent is the bottom line, and sexual orientation is irrelevant - unless, that is, the Asian financial hub in which you are headquartered is unwelcoming to a gay lifestyle.
Hong Kong has taken the first step toward rolling out the welcome mat to gay professionals, but so far that partial embrace does little more than turn their partners into permanent tourists. The so-called "relationship visa" feels more like a cagey concession than a true accommodation; those it attracts are likely to stay for only a short period of time and, while they are here, the double standard applied to homosexual and heterosexual couples in the city is bound to be a source of irritation if not outright discontent. More should and - due to corporate pressure - probably will be done to make them feel at home.
Meanwhile, members of the local gay community can only hope that their employers, taking a cue from Goldman Sachs, UBS and other corporate giants, will start judging them by their talents rather than their sexual preferences and that Hong Kong's legal system, prodded by its economic interests, will finally grant them the same rights enjoyed by everyone else in the city.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer.