As the Gay Games opened in Hong Kong, with hundreds of athletes, singers and a traditional lion dance, top government adviser Regina Ip hailed the event’s first staging in Asia as a “strong testimony to the diversity, inclusion and unity of our city”.
But Ip was the only Hong Kong official to attend the games, a quadrennial international sporting jamboree open to anyone “regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity or even training level”, according to the organiser.
Some in the Chinese territory have struck a far less tolerant tone. Junius Ho, a pro-Beijing legislator who urged Ip not to attend last weekend’s opening ceremony, said the Gay Games, which run until Saturday, were a threat to national security and risked “poisoning” young people’s values.
“We can sympathise with [the LGBT+ community], but that doesn’t mean the majority of us need to endorse such abnormal behaviour,” Ho said.
Such divergent views highlight Hong Kong’s delicate position as the former British colony seeks to balance improving rights for LGBT+ residents with the tightening control of a Chinese Communist party government that has cracked down on LGBT+ rights groups on the mainland.
With the local administration reluctant to anger conservative politicians, the games have attracted little fanfare. The Hong Kong government “has kept a low profile to avoid triggering noisy protests” from homophobic politicians or influencers, Ip told the Financial Times.
The row over the games, which Hong Kong is co-hosting with the Mexican city of Guadalajara, comes as the city struggles to forge a path on LGBT+ rights in the wake of a crackdown by Beijing on political dissent and the introduction of a tough national security law.
Tens of thousands of people, including Hongkongers and expatriates, left the territory following China’s response to pro-democracy protests in 2019, the imposition of a sweeping national security law in 2020 and tough zero-Covid rules during the pandemic.
“Whether Hong Kong is an inclusive society has huge implications for talent retention and attraction,” said Suen Yiu-tung, an associate professor of gender studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, adding that an increasing number of jurisdictions recognise LGBT+ rights.
Although homosexuality is legal in China, there has been a clampdown on the community, with the Beijing LGBT Center, one of the most prominent advocacy groups in China, closing in May amid shrinking space for civil society.
In Hong Kong, asserting protection for the LGBT+ community is one of few areas where liberal judges can “relatively freely” issue their rulings, said a Hong Kong-based lawyer involved in such cases, since local authorities handpick judges for national security trials, helping ensure a 100 per cent conviction rate.
In recent months, there have been a series of court victories for LGBT+ rights, including a landmark ruling in September by the city’s apex court that ordered the government to establish a framework for same-sex partnerships within two years.
While the Hong Kong government has appealed against the rulings, lawyers and LGBT+ advocates believe Beijing is willing to allow Hong Kong to take a more liberal line than it imposes on the mainland.
“I do not believe that [Beijing] is truly opposed to LGBTQ+ rights in Hong Kong,” said Azan Marwah, a Hong Kong-based barrister and legal adviser to Hong Kong Marriage Equality, a non-governmental body advocating for LGBT+ rights. “Mainland Chinese have chosen Hong Kong over Singapore . . . [for] protections for LGBT+ families and rights.”
“I am not aware of Beijing interference in respect of the Gay Games or LGBTQ rights,” Ip said.
But the government’s clampdown on dissent and civil society has made life more difficult for activists in Hong Kong, including those who want to build on “a long legacy of LGBT+ rights protections”, said Ryan Thoreson, an academic at the University of Cincinnati who focuses on LGBT+ rights.
Jimmy Sham, an LGBT+ rights campaigner and an applicant in the same-sex marriage court case, and Raymond Chan, the city’s first and only openly gay former lawmaker, are among the 47 opposition activists in jail and on trial under the national security law for their roles in an unofficial primary election in 2020. Although their arrests are not linked to their work on LGBT+ rights, their jailing means a loss of vocal advocates for the community, activists said.
Henry Li, whose husband died in 2020, is among those fighting for greater LGBT+ rights in Hong Kong. Li, who married in London in 2017, welcomed a court ruling last month that entitled same-sex couples to equal inheritance rights. He and his late husband filed the case against the Hong Kong government.
“I have encountered so many overseas gay and lesbian professionals who welcome and are thankful for that court decision,” he said, adding that the ruling would make professionals more willing to move to Hong Kong. “It is a lot to ask of someone to move to another city without their partner.”
At the Gay Games, Jinsun Yang, a South Korean football player competing for the first time this year and who identifies as non-binary, said the event showed Hong Kong could play a pioneering role in Asia in terms of the advancement of LGBT+ rights. Taiwan is the only country in Asia to have legalised same-sex marriage.
“It’s really impressive,” they said. “I hope the Gay Games in Hong Kong can bring more positive changes and public awareness, at least in the local community and in Asia.”
Additional reporting by Gloria Li in Hong Kong
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