HONG KONG - President Barack Obama’s public announcement of support for same sex-marriage in the United States is being hailed by advocacy groups in Asia, where discussion of gay rights has only slowly moved into the public domain. Roddy Shaw, chairperson of the Hong Kong NGO Civil Rights for Sexual Diversities spoke with VOA about Obama’s statement, and the challenges of the gay rights movement in Hong Kong and China.
Q: Roddy, as an advocate for gay and lesbian rights in Hong Kong, in China, what’s your analysis of President Obama’s message today about same-sex marriage?
A: "Well, I think he has really moved forward and I think that is a great step and it’s a correct step for the United States. Many of the policy decisions he has made have tried to give every US citizen the same rights and the same opportunities. In fact this move is also important in the run-up to the presidential election later this year. He definitely made a ‘differentiation’ from his challenger from the Republican camp, Mitt Romney - a diehard opponent of same-sex marriage. I think public sentiment in the U.S. among younger voters particularly, are very supportive of same sex marriage. This position of President Obama will put him in a better position for the younger voters. "
Q: Do you see it as a brave step by President Obama, or a risky step?
A: "Well, I think it’s a brave step and then a risky step at the same time because the political right [wing] are still quite conservative on the issue of same-sex marriage. This could be risky... but I do think it’s the right thing to do as president and also as a Democrat."
Q: You talked about the right wing in the United States; we live in a conservative part of the world, as well. Can you tell us a little about the movement for gay rights in Hong Kong?
A: "I would say that I agree with you, that we are living in a conservative part of the world, but in quite a different way. We are conservative culturally speaking. Definitely the general cultural disapproval of homosexuality in our so-called 'Traditional Culture' makes it very difficult for gays and lesbians. But the conservatism in the U.S., it’s mainly religion. But in Hong Kong and in China, it’s less because of religion because the Christians, Christianity is still a minority [group] in Hong Kong, even though their religious leaders are very vocal. And if you look at the surveys and studies carried out by the government and other NGOs and academics, you find out that there is a very high approval rate of equal treatment for gays and lesbians. But culturally speaking, people still view homosexuality as a menace or a taboo. But definitely that is going to change as the young generation take the centre stage of the political arena. So I don’t think Hong Kong has as much baggage as some parts of the U.S. where they are really religious and really evangelical. "
Q: Is that a legacy of Confucian culture, or is it more of a modern phenomenon?
A:" Well, it’s a mix of the traditional culture and also the impact of British colonial rule. The main obstacle, at least legally speaking, was the law, the sodomy law or the buggery law left over by the British from its colonial rule. And in recent years the Hong Kong courts have fought to repeal those. And in fact those buggery laws have been successfully repealed in recent years.
The most important thing that the government has to do is legislate for non-discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And the government has not moved an inch since 1996 - the first time that a bill was introduced in the Legislative Council to protect gays and lesbians from being discriminated against - basing their decision not to legislate on what they called 'popular opinion'."
Q: Can you tell listeners about what challenges the gay and lesbian community faces in Mainland China?
A: "Well, in Mainland China, I think the gay and lesbian community, they face a very different reality. Culturally speaking, they [Mainland Chinese] are even more conservative than Hong Kong, I think. A lot of gay men are hiding; concealing their sexual orientation. They actually get married with women so they can get housing, get minimal social benefits, social protection. Because, in China, if you’re not married you don’t get public housing, you don’t have a whole set of benefits - and the same holds true for Hong Kong as well. That makes it even more difficult in the coming-out process.
But, on the bright side, homosexuality has never been a criminal offense in China, not in China, not in Taiwan - has never been a criminal offense. It is only in Hong Kong where the British brought their buggery laws into Hong Kong many years ago.
It’s not a criminal offense, but it is something that people frown upon and people don’t talk about it. There’s so little visibility in the community, even though it’s legal, totally legal to have a relationship - it’s totally legal to be gay. But it’s still taboo culturally speaking. It’s something you keep within the four walls of your bedroom. So I think that culture is very deeply rooted in China and that makes it difficult.
The past years, we’ve seen a lot of progress. The media, universities, schools, they’ve started to talk about homosexuality and that makes the issue more visible and more talked about in the public arena "
Q: Do we have any politicians in Hong Kong or China who have come out?
A: "I’m afraid not…" [Laughs]
Q: You mentioned Britain and colonial rule of the British in Hong Kong. My understanding is that homosexuality was only decriminalized in Hong Kong in 1991, whereas it was decriminalized in Britain in 1967. So how do we explain that time lag?
A: " If we trace back the history of colonial rule, in 1991, in the run-up to the Handover of Hong Kong back to China, the then Hong Kong government was very eager to make sure that the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights was incorporated into Hong Kong law to become domestic law. And that eventually became the Bill of Rights of Hong Kong. And that has enjoyed a constitutional status and later, because of the Basic Law [Hong Kong’s mini-constitution], became part of the constitutional framework of Hong Kong. It is still part of the framework. And because of the timing of that, the Hong Kong government actually looked at all the laws in Hong Kong to see which laws could be potentially contravening the Bill of Rights, and they found that the Criminal Code was one of those examples, so they repealed it quite quickly in 1991, at about the same time they incorporated the ICCPR into Hong Kong law.
But, if you ask about the discrepancy, the many years, it has to do with, I think, generally, the democracy, the democratic development of Hong Kong. Because Hong Kong did not have so-called representative democracy until the late 1980s.
Partly that was triggered by the Tiananmen Square massacre. So up until the late 80s and early 90s, the then Hong Kong government under British colonial rule had no intention of incorporating anything relating to basic human rights nor democracy per se. And they had no regard about what the public felt about certain issues or whether they would consider certain things as basic human rights… you know - the lagging behind of democratic development. "
Q: Do you have high hopes of achieving the legalization of same-sex marriage in Hong Kong?
A: "In fact, if you look at past successes in the past few years, there have been five litigations against the government, of violating rights of gay and lesbian individuals because of some of the policies or administrative decisions. Of the five litigations, we won four of them. Basically, the courts of Hong Kong have upheld the right of equal treatment for gays and lesbians and that led to the repeal of the law, of the sodomy law, [was responsible for the introduction of] the equal age of consent. So my hope still lies in judicial activism; still lies in judicial review. It is through judicial activism that the government will be bound to reconsider the urgency of the issue of non-discrimination, equal opportunity legislation as well as the issue of same-sex marriage.
In fact, there have been a few cases being filed with the Legal Aid department previously, where the Legal Aid department has given a favorable opinion for the right to same-sex marriage of same-sex couples. It is just for personal reasons that the cases did not go to court. But if it were to go to court, I am very confident that the court would rule in favor of the right of same-sex couples to get married in Hong Kong."
Q: So you’re saying same-sex marriage is more feasibly achieved through judicial interpretation of the existing equal opportunities legislation rather than through direct legislation by the government?
A: " Precisely. And maybe the result could be that, because of a court ruling, the legislature has to change its law. So that’s another possibility. To a certain extent the two are interlinked."
Video: Obama discussing his support for same-sex marriage