LGBT rights advocate Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit says Hong Kong’s gay community can only hope for social change through the judicial system because the government is passive in tackling sexual orientation discrimination.

“Gay rights can only be fought in the courts. The government rarely takes the initiative to review its policies and ensure equal rights for gay people,” Sham, of civil group Rainbow Action said on an RTHK programme on Tuesday.

gay pride parade
Gay Pride Hong Kong 2015. File Photo: Stand News.

Sham’s remarks came after a landmark decision at the High Court last Friday, which ruled that gay civil servants are entitled to welfare benefits for their spouses. The ruling will take effect on September 1.

“The gay community is happy about the ruling,” Sham said. “At least it is better than having no change at all.”

But he said there is still a long way to go for attaining real equality for gay people. For example, he said, many LGBTQ people face “serious discrimination” at their workplaces.

“The government should do more to ensure everyone is free from discrimination regardless of their sexual orientation,” Sham said.

‘Redefining marriage’

But outspoken anti-gay activist Choi Chi-sum of the Society For Truth And Light, a conservative Christian group, said he was disappointed at the court decision because it effectively redefined marriage against the opinion of Hongkongers.

choi chi sum jimmy sham
Choi Chi-sum (L), Jimmy Sham (R). Photo: RTHK screenshot.

“We should not let a few judges define marriage. Everyone should have a say on the issue,” Choi said, claiming that the majority of Hongkongers were against same-sex marriage.

“The civil service welfare benefits are paid for by public money. If people don’t agree with the ruling, why should they be forced to pay for the benefits of gay couples?”

Though the High Court held that gay civil servants are entitled to welfare benefits for their partners, it ruled in favour of the Inland Revenue Department in refusing to recognise same-sex marriage.

Marco Wan Man-ho, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said the difference is owing to the fact that Hong Kong’s tax law states clearly that marriage is only between a man and a woman, while the Civil Service Regulations stipulate that “spouses” may enjoy welfare benefits without defining the term.

The court held that it would be impossible for gay couples to enjoy welfare benefits if the term refers only to heterosexual partners, thereby constituting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, Wan said.

Gay Pride Hong Kong 2015.
Gay Pride Hong Kong 2015. File Photo: Dan Garrett.

“Only the government’s decisions were being challenged,” he added. “Technically, the ruling did not touch on the definition of marriage.”

But Choi disagreed with Wan’s view, saying that the court expanded the ordinary meaning of the term “spouses.”

“People in Hong Kong generally think of ‘spouses’ as referring to partners of an opposite sex,” he said. “Hong Kong is not obliged to recognise other forms of marriage as accepted in foreign countries.”

Choi is not the only one who has spoken up against the court decision. Pro-Beijing lawmaker and lawyer Junius Ho came under fire after he said Friday’s victory for LGBTQ rights advocates could lead to gradual acceptance of bestiality.

“It could threaten the basic right to reproduce,” he said.

The Civil Service Bureau said it would study the ruling in detail.

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.