• A couple kiss at an LGBT event at Tamar Park, Admiralty in Hong Kong in 2014. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Hong Kong is perceived as a socially liberal city, so why are authorities dragging their feet in recognising the rights of same-sex couples?
Christy Choi

20 Apr 2016 - 11:42 AM  UPDATED 20 Apr 2016 - 11:14 AM

“Have you seen this? It’s horrible,” said Betty Grisoni flicking through her phone.

On screen is the story of Marco Bulmer-Rizzi, a British man who had his husband’s ashes seized by Hong Kong authorities at the airport while in transit, because they did not consider him to be next of kin.

“Imagine how…” she trails off. Bulmer-Rizzi’s story is a bizarre case, but the fears are not unfamiliar to the gay community in Hong Kong where the city does not legally recognise gay couples.

While Britain has taken steps in recognising the rights of gay couples, the former British territory still lags behind. Even falling behind China, who until 2001 had classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. Hong Kong decriminalised homosexuality in 1991.

“You have to worry about everything really,” said Grisoni, 46, a public relations professional and long time LGBT activist who, with her partner Abby Lee, has lived in the city for over a decade.

She and her partner Abby Lee met in Singapore some 16 years ago. They had their commitment ceremony at the Botanical Gardens in Sydney back in 2002.

While China will grant spousal visas, Hong Kong will not. Without the visa, the simplest things become complicated. Opening a bank account, applying for a mobile phone, having a name on a lease - are all impossible without a Hong Kong visa and residency card.

Partners who are unable to get work and their own separate visas live in a state of dependency and limbo, constantly needing to borrow money from their partners and forced to go in and out of Hong Kong to renew their tourist visas, with the looming threat of deportation, and separation from their partners over their heads.

“I almost had a panic attack when the [immigration] guy was like: why are you coming back and forth?” says Grisoni, remembering the first year she lived in Hong Kong and would be going back and forth between Hong Kong and neighbouring Macau.

“They said, ‘Sorry you can’t be with her. You are not family, you cannot be in there.’”

For some like QT, a British woman who cannot be identified because she is challenging the Hong Kong government in the courts for the right to be granted a spousal visa, the situation can be as heartrending as Marco Bulmer-Rizzi’s.

When she told medical staff at a Hong Kong hospital she was her partner’s wife, they would not allow her to be in the room. “They said, Sorry you can’t be with her. You are not family, you cannot be in there.

“[My wife] was furious with me, when she realised I wasn’t there.”

On a day-to-day basis, QT, Grisoni, Abby and other gay couples generally feel safe and accepted. They can walk down the streets holding hands without the fear of being harassed, hassled and physically hurt.

“Hong Kong’s a very liberal city, but there are all these laws that don’t match any other major city [when it comes to recognising gay couples]," says QT.

“I’m not an advocate. I just want my basic human right to be with the person I love. To have the same equal rights.”

Hong Kong has anti-discrimination laws on gender, family status, disability and race, but not sexual orientation. For the past few years the city’s equal opportunities commission, and the city’s former health secretary York Chow have been advocating for the strengthening of legal protection of LGBT and other marginalised groups.

It’s a move that groups like the Society for Truth and Light, a Christian advocacy group, oppose. It claims the potential reverse discrimination against those who believe that homosexuality is wrong.

“It’s like the cake seller in the United States,” says Helen Fu Dan Mui, the deputy secretary general of the society. She references a case in Colorado where a gay couple won an anti-discrimination case against a wedding cake baker who refused to sell cakes to gay couples. To her this was tantamount to religious discrimination, as the baker held conservative Christian views that consider homosexuality to be immoral.

“People come to Hong Kong, they have to respect our Hong Kong law and try not to impose their values and laws.”

The group holds some 300 sex education classes across Hong Kong at over 100 secondary schools, part of which touches upon sexual orientation. Fu said they preach a philosophy of respect and acceptance, but will not budge on the issue of allowing recognition for gay couples.

“We see the consequence in other countries and don’t want that to happen in Hong Kong,” says Fu.

“[Children] are going to be more accepting [of] homosexual behaviour, which is a high risk behaviour. [They'll] think that two fathers is no problem,” she says.

She says the people of Hong Kong are not ready to accept same-sex marriage, brandishing a recent Equal Opportunities Commission telephone survey of approximately 1000 people, which showed some 34.8 per cent opposed legislation.

“People come to Hong Kong, they have to respect our Hong Kong law [and] try not to impose their values and laws,” she says of those like QT.

The same report showed 55.7 per cent were in support of anti-discrimination legislation versus 28.7 per cent in 2006, leading the EOC to conclude support of legislation was growing.

Some 42 family and anti-gay groups protested against the EOC’s findings, claiming it was biased and that it manipulated figures to suit its own needs. This was despite the study finding that 48.9 per cent of those with religious views agreed there should be legal protection against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

For QT, the battle to have her partnership recognised looks to be a long one. In March the Hong Kong Court of First Instance ruled in favour of the immigration department.

“The judge at the Court of First Instance didn’t address the major issue of [discrimination based on] sexual orientation, he only looked at it from an immigration issue," says Michael Vidler, QT’s solicitor.

During the process QT was offered a visa on humanitarian grounds, but the visa was not one equal to that of a regular dependent visa granted to heterosexual couples and she turned down the offer.

Vidler, who has represented a number of LGBT clients throughout his career, says while the courts are beginning to recognise their rights, the Hong Kong government has been notorious in dragging their feet in meeting the court’s requirements.

“The Billy Leung case… it took eight years to bring the ordinance in line with the judgement of the Court of Appeal. It’s shocking by any measure,” says Vidler. Leung had been fighting for the age of consent for homosexual men to be lowered to 16, the same as for heterosexual couples.

Before the case, any man who was having sex with another under 21 could be sentenced to life imprisonment according to the city’s Crime Ordinance.

“It was the deletion or amendment of less than 10 words [in the ordinance],” says Vidler.

Although Vidler is certain the courts will rule in QT's favour, he expects similar resistance in QT's case.

“The government has claimed to the United Nations that it has been active every step of the way in tackling discrimination. But its actions show that it’s resisted the LGBT rights [push] that’s becoming the norm around the world,” he says.

“It’s refusing to recognise legal documents in the United States, UK and Canada, but quite happily recognising polygamous marriages.”