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Wednesday, January 4, 2017, 09:18

Family prejudice a major issue for gays

By Wang Yuke

Hong Kong is becoming a more open city when it comes to gay rights. But when dealing with members of their own families, some hold on to reservations about homosexuality. Wang Yuke reports.

Family prejudice a major issue for gays

People are coming out of the closet and owning to their gay lifestyles. They are helped on their way by the progressive views of Hong Kong’s young people.

Luk, 43, had lived with the sniggering behind his back at the office long enough. He is gay in the closet and has lived with the same man for more than 20 years.

“It was unbearable,” he confessed. “I heard whispers in office behind my back. ‘Is he married?’, ‘Have you ever seen his girlfriend?’, ‘Is he straight?’…” He crumbled every time the sotto voce murmurs caught his ear. It made him feel awkward. Maybe it was because the talk made him furious that there was nothing he could do.

Coming out was a big, scary proposition. He could see himself being shunned at office and written off as a social pariah but he couldn’t live in that work space and social environment that felt so caustic.

Last October, he came out of the closet and was stunned at the reaction.

Support from young people

Hong Kong’s becoming OK for minorities. People here will stand up against discrimination. And the changing times see more and more people willing to stand up and protect minorities, said Suen Yiu-tung, assistant professor of gender studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His specialization is what people might call, alternative sexuality, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT). Part of that specialty naturally covers discrimination of the stripe that can make life hell for any minority.

Young people are leading the way. They’ll even challenge traditional Chinese cultural mores to stand up for gay people. A study, commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission earlier this year, found that more than half (55.7 percent) of the respondents thought Hong Kong should pass legislation to outlaw discrimination over sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. That was about double the previous assessment of the public mind over a decade ago. Youth had a lot to do with the change in attitude. The 18-24 group were 91.8 percent in favor of putting in laws to protect people from discrimination. They not only thought those laws were desirable, but essential.

Suen also found from his research that a growing number of businesses in Hong Kong provide benefits that never used to be available for same-sex partners. Health insurance is a big one. More companies are adopting inclusion policies and people in and around the LGBT community say the changes are notable.

Luk had his coming out on Facebook. “The Mrs Luk that I often mention is really my boyfriend,” he declared. “It was he, who has accompanied me for 21 years and who gave warmth to my life, after my parents were divorced...If my sexuality makes you feel disgusted or uncomfortable, please accept my apologies. Feel free to delete me from your friends list...”

His posting got 332 “likes” and 137 comments. One comment read “Appreciate your bravery. I give you unlimited support and best wishes!” Another read “No one is in charge of your happiness, except you!”

Luk admits his father is disappointed that Luk won’t be carrying on the “family line”. “He takes it anyway. He knows I will always be his son no matter what. I can have children of my own or not,” said Luk.

To him, his first encounter with his partner was a fated and cherished experience. “It happened in the metro station after work. The train was so crowded I couldn’t squeeze in. While I was waiting for the next train, I glimpsed a guy from the corner of my eye. He was handsome and he was looking at me....” recalled Luk. “It’s just the chemistry between two homosexual men. You may not understand.”

Homosexual people in the city find life easier and less stressful than they used to. They expect society will become even more accepting, pretty much because the younger generation is much more open-minded. Young people in Hong Kong are more positive towards homosexuality, noted Suen, partly because of increased contact with LGBT people in personal, everyday life and increased exposure to related news.

Mary Leung, visiting fellow teaching at Hong Kong City University, with over 30 years of experience in counselling and social work, agreed and pointed out that individuals with higher education and as well as parents born after 1976 are more likely to favor giving homosexual couples the same legal rights as heterosexuals. That’s from a survey published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

Both Suen and Leung believe that Hong Kong still has some way to go toward full acceptance of homosexuals. Among the biggest remaining roadblocks are families.

Families’ avoidance of questioning

Families can offer major support or they can become completely soul destroying.

Money Wong, as we shall call her, is a 22-year-old lesbian, who thinks she’s one of the lucky ones. She said she felt overwhelmingly empowered by a message left by her uncle, under photos she had posted of herself and her girlfriend. His message read, “I have known for a long time that you are homosexual. Be yourself, as long as you are happy.”

She (My mother) asked if I was a lesbian. I denied it and she said she would kill herself if I was. I'm afraid of telling her the truth

Money Wong, 22-year-old lesbian

Now that she’s come out, she says has no worries about strangers or what they think. She doesn’t feel people staring the way they used to when she and her girlfriend would hold hands, or even kiss on the street. “Our biggest challengers are the religious people,” sighed Wong. Christian groups still are not willing to acknowledge the rights of same sex partnerships, which they consider sinful and prohibited.

Wong has become dedicated to promoting equal rights for LGBT people. She and other homosexuals of both genders take part in Christian forums and religious assemblies, taking every possible opportunity to make their voices heard. “But it’s made little difference so far,” said Wong. It’s not only Christians, however, many religions are deeply rooted in tribalism, renewed through procreation, and hold that same sex pairings, therefore are sinful, Wong added.

Wong’s strongest hope is to get a nod from the one who matters to her most — her mother. “She just avoids talking about this stuff,” said Wong, looking helpless. Her mother asked about her sexual orientation when she was in secondary school. It was the short cropped hair and the fact that she dressed like a boy that set it off. “She asked if I was a lesbian. I denied it and she said she would kill herself if I was. I’m afraid of telling her the truth,” lamented Wong.

Although older people often will claim they accept same sex relationships, many draw the line if the question relates to their own son or daughter, said Leung. They have a different attitude about such things in their own family.

Wong has had a difficult relationship with her brother for years. She’s never told him she’s a lesbian, though she’s sure he’s figured it out. Still, she plans to talk to him, hoping she can win him over to “her side”. “If my brother is on my side, I’d win half the battle as he would help me persuade my mom.” As far as she is concerned she never can be truly happy without her mother’s approval.

Wong is not alone in this. Dulldull Poo, 42, described her situation, “Although they (her parents) don’t argue with me anymore, they seem to ignore the fact that I’m a lesbian and avoid using that word. They just keep telling me to find a man to marry.”

Jimmy Sham from Rainbow of Hong Kong, a local organization campaigning for quality life for the LGBT community, echoes that many homosexual members have the same complaint. Their parents don’t show outward aversion but they will avoid talking about same-sex issues with their offspring, observed Sham.

“It’s understandable, parents fear damaging family bonds through their questioning. Besides, the parents of gay couples feel pressure to explain to their parents and friends,” he said.

Avoidance is not the way out. The stalemate or conflict cannot be settled unless they put it on the table, says Sham, who experienced his mother’s progression from firm denial to acceptance. Now he uses his experience to counsel homosexual members of Rainbow to talk the tricky issue through with their families, strategically and peacefully.

Hong Kong does not recognize same-sex marriages, which means same sex couples lose out on many fringe benefits at work and favorable taxation allowances. Partners may be denied visitation rights in hospitals or even the right to claim a deceased partner’s ashes, said Suen from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, stressing that the lack of legal recognition puts enormous pressure on same sex relationship.

With more and more developed countries and regions celebrate the introduction of anti-discrimination protection on grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, Suen argued it’s not too late for the Hong Kong government to get on board. She suggested public consultation be a good first step.

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