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Hong Kong’s Gay Rights Advocates Fear Civil Crackdown May Undo Progress

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(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong’s crackdown on social activism is threatening to undo progress for gay rights, once considered validation of the city’s reputation as Asia’s liberal, financial haven.

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Well-known LGBTQ figures, including former lawmakers and singers, have been arrested or jailed for their political activism. The national security law imposed following the violent protests of 2019 has also exacerbated the pandemic’s restrictive impact, forcing the suspension of the annual Pride marches and prompting human rights lawyers to leave the city.

“We are worried that there will be a decrease in the space where LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) activists can challenge discriminatory laws through legal avenues,” said Kai Ong, a researcher with Amnesty International. Amnesty shut its operations in the city last October, saying the national security law made it impossible to operate without fear of reprisals.

Activists say the current climate is particularly dispiriting after Hong Kong secured some important gains for the LGBTQ community in recent years, most notably a landmark court ruling in 2018 saying that gay expatriate workers can bring their spouses on dependent visas.

The case, called “QT” after the name of the British lesbian plaintiff, was lauded as a major step forward in a region where homosexuality faces discrimination and prosecution. A sodomy law is still on the books in Singapore, and Taiwan remains the only place in Asia that has legalized same-sex marriage.

The QT case was widely cheered by the city’s banks and law firms, which had been lobbying the government on the visa issue to attract international staff to Hong Kong. Major global firms such as Nomura Holdings Inc. and State Street Corp are among the main sponsors for events like Pride and Pink Dot, an annual LGBTQ gathering.

Hong Kong’s LGBTQ community has also successfully sued for equal rights for after-death arrangements and civil service spousal benefits among same-sex couples, for example. Activists say such legal challenges may become difficult ahead.

Ong said the city’s human rights lawyers faced growing attacks from Beijing, as well as technical obstacles including changes to the legal aid system such as caps on the number of judicial review cases lawyers are allowed to take on.

In April, lawyer Michael Vidler abruptly left Hong Kong for the UK, as photographers from pro-Beijing media filmed him at the airport. Vidler had come under attack for handling cases related to the 2019 protests.

Before closing his firm, he had been representing a trans man who was suing to change his official gender identity without undergoing sex assignment surgery. Vidler had also previously represented QT and other LGBTQ plaintiffs. But he blames Beijing’s “paranoid obsession” with organized activism rather than any targeted crackdown on gay rights.

“I’ve always said I didn’t view LGBTI rights as a particular hot potato issue,” he said. But now there was a “deafening silence” on such issues in Hong Kong’s business community, compared with the cheers that followed the QT ruling, he said.

Polls have shown the Hong Kong public becoming more accepting of LGBTQ people and even supportive of gay marriage, while the government has pledged that the rights of sexual minorities are protected.

Still, some worry about the effects of a widening campaign of repression against LGBTQ rights and growing chauvinism in mainland China. For example, pro-Beijing legislators in Hong Kong last year launched homophobic attacks against the Gay Games, which were due to be held for the first time in Asia in Hong Kong.

The Games were postponed to 2023 due to Hong Kong’s Covid-19 quarantine requirements, and Guadalajara in Mexico was named in February as the “presumptive co-host” of the event. The event had received support from the city’s Equal Opportunities Commission and the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

Amnesty’s Ong said that the Gay Games row and Beijing’s crackdown on advocates of sexual minorities meant global banks may think twice about lending their support to such causes in the future, especially after Shanghai’s Pride event was abruptly shut down in 2020.

Read more: How LGBTQ Life in China Has Gotten Tougher Under Xi: QuickTake

Activists, including Jerome Yau, a co-founder of advocacy group Hong Kong Marriage Equality, said they were trying to figure out how best to deal with a changed political climate.

“We need to find the right methods that are compatible with the new situation,” Yau said. “We are at a big intersection, we just need to figure out which is the better way to go.”

For the time being, Hong Kong remains Asia’s only major business hub that allows people in with same-sex dependents -- crucial for global businesses which need to relocate staff to the world’s most expensive city for expats.

Other cities are cognizant of the business opportunities that come with a more liberal environment for LGBTQ people.

In Japan, local governments have passed their own laws in recent years to recognize same-sex partnerships, the most significant of these being Tokyo, which will start doing so starting in November.

Masa Yanagisawa, a board member of campaign group Marriage For All based in Tokyo, said that investment banks were instrumental in persuading the city’s mayor to allow workers to bring same-sex spouses with them to Japan. And in a meeting with politicians from the ruling coalition, he said, many seemed aware of the need to attract talent to the country.

“One of the questions I received in the meeting was about the situation in Taiwan or Hong Kong,” said Yanagisawa, who works in the finance industry. “They are clearly conscious about what others are doing in the space.”

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