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From denying visas and spousal benefits to homosexual couples to now moving children’s books to restricted sections in public libraries, Hong Kong’s government continues to treat its LGBTQ+ community as second rate citizens despite legalizing homosexual relations in 1991. Responding to a campaign initiated by the Family School Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance Concern Group, the Home Affairs Bureau restricted access to 10 children’s books in public libraries earlier this month. This signifies a concerning governmental overreach into freedoms of expression and information, particularly as the Department itself found that seven of the ten books ‘do not promote or advocate homosexuality’ and were nonetheless removed. The more ‘explicit’ of the ten included ‘And Tango Makes Three’ about two male penguins who raise a family and Introducing Teddy about a stuffed teddy that, identifying as a girl, wishes to be re-named Tilly.
While the censorship of children’s books appears relatively innocuous amidst broader denials of LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance, it is the government’s conservative and discriminatory standpoint lying behind the decision that is of great concern. As expressed by a letter from the Human Rights Watch, limiting access to LGBTQ+ friendly children’s books not only violates the rights of LGBT youth to ‘education, information and health’ but also indicates the ‘government’s support of discrimination against this population.’ A University of Hong Kong poll from 2017 found that more than half of Hong Kong’s residents support same-sex marriage (a considerable improvement from 38% in 2013). This progress in society’s attitudes towards LGBTQ+ individuals is evident the proliferation of events like Hong Kong Pride Parade, Pink Dot and even Hong Kong’s bid to host the 2022 Gay Games. However, these advancements ultimately have limited capacity to promote acceptance of Hong Kong’s LGBTQ+ community if policymakers not only fail to protect this demographic but continue to make decisions that actively discriminate and alienate them.
Just last month the Court of Appeal overturned a ruling in favour of the government, enabling the government to refuse medical and dental benefits to Senior Immigration Officer Leung Chun-Kwong’s spouse despite freely providing these benefits to heterosexual couples under the Civil Services Regulations. The spokesman for Rainbow Action, Tommy Chen, aptly highlights that these civil servant benefits are clearly ‘not a spousal benefit [but a] heterosexual privilege.’ In its judgement, the court reinforced the government’s position as a ‘custodian of Hong Kong’s prevailing socio-moral values.’ It is questionable whether this is an appropriate title for Hong Kong’s present government when the city’s supposed ‘custodian’ continues to deny equality to all of its citizens whilst even major banks and law firms have begun to provide benefits for employees’ same-sex partners that Hong Kong’s largest employer (the government) fails to.
Hong Kong has taken noteworthy steps towards improving LGBTQ+ rights, particularly in the Court of Final Appeal’s landmark judgement in early July that found committed same-sex couples should have the same rights to spousal visas as married heterosexual couples- a case considered to be a ‘watershed moment for the rights of LGBTI people across Asia’ by Senior Legal Advisor at Amnesty International Jan Wetzel. Hong Kong’s civil society, leading banks, law firms and even judiciary have advanced towards a future of greater equality and acceptance but if the government continues along its present trajectory, the status of LGBTQ+ individuals will ultimately remain second-rate.