by Listen Chen

Hong Kong’s winning bid to host the 2022 Gay Games arrives at a tumultuous time for the LGBTQ community. Carrie Lam’s stoic acknowledgement of the win serves as just the latest example of our government’s homophobic attitude: earlier this year, it appealed two court decisions favouring rights for same-sex couples.

Despite a persistently hostile climate, mainstream LGBTQ organizations are giddy over the Games and all it ostensibly promises. As a queer and trans Hongkonger, I have to voice my dissent. To me, the 2022 Gay Games continues the corporatization of our political struggle, upholding a harmful rhetoric that conflates “good for business” with “good for queers.” It’s the kind of step forward that hinges on leaving many of us behind.

In assessing the impact of the Gay Games on queer struggle in Hong Kong, we need to recognize the increasing intimacy between corporate stakeholders and the LGBTQ movement. We might trace the beginning of this intimacy in Hong Kong to HSBC painting their lions rainbow a year ago. Then, this spring, 12 financial institutions submitted their support to the court for the case of a British lesbian appealing for a dependent visa from her spouse. However, HSBC was not one of those institutions.

Banks also publicly called on the Hong Kong government to make progress in equal rights for gays and lesbians, arguing that discrimination harms their ability to attract international talent. The sentiment that homophobia is “bad for business” has since become normalized, with prominent gay figures and organizations voicing the belief or alluding to it. As a commercial project, the Games serves as yet another opportunity for corporations and queers to scratch each other’s backs.

Despite its queer veneer, the Gay Games differs little from any other major, international sporting event in its complacent acceptance of the global exploitation of the poor, as well as the denial of indigenous sovereignty by settler-colonial states. Seven of the first nine Games took place on stolen native land, with the ninth and most recent one hosted by Cleveland on Iroquois territory.

Gentrification is rampant in Cleveland, while a third of its residents have lived in poverty for the past ten years—almost three times the national average. One of the directors of the Gay Games 9 described typical participants as having “discretionary income”, indicating that the Games has little to offer poor and racialized queers aside from the same justifications for displacement, debt, and police violence that FIFA or the Olympics provide.

gay games
The first Gay Games in 1982 in San Francisco. Photo: Gay Games.

In the United States, the battle for marriage equality and public acceptance disproportionately represents the interests of a cis, white, gay population. Queer and trans indigenous, black, and Latinx people are at the frontlines of fighting gentrification, police and border violence, transphobia, white supremacy, and colonialism—all issues that the mainstream LGBTQ movement largely ignores.

While Hong Kong differs from the United States in many ways, both are deeply capitalist societies. Capitalist culture encourages us to treat economic growth and political progress as complementary pursuits, which simultaneously excludes more marginalized queers and invites corporate stakeholders into our movements.

Rhetoric around the Gay Games reveals the tendency of mainstream LGBTQ organizations to adopt a kind of conflict-avoidant language that appeals to corporations and the public. The Pink Alliance’s statement on the Games, for example, lauds two things: an expected billion dollars in revenue and an opportunity for the LGBTQ community to gain wider acceptance (in that order).

The economic impact of the Games allows us to serve as allies to business, reciprocating the support that corporations have shown us in a currency they recognize.

The latter half of the Pink Alliance’s statement phrases queer politics in terms of fighting for “acceptance”, a word that sounds positive but ultimately amounts to assimilation. Echoing the Pink Alliance, Alfred Ip, of the Gay and Lesbian Attorneys Network, described the Games as an opportunity to showcase that “we are just like anyone else who can be good at sports and enjoy a life that’s not very different from the rest of the community.”

What happens to queers who are not “just like anyone else”? Ip’s statement implies that the LGBTQ community is homogenous and normal—”normal” meaning that we are otherwise unsaddled by forms of discrimination or otherness that would complicate assimilation. Such a rhetoric implicitly foregoes systemic critiques of heteronormativity in favour of piecemeal reform.

After all, it doesn’t make sense to fight for entry into normative institutions, such as marriage, the economy, or sports, while also advocating for radical change, like ending capitalism. At the same time, if our goal is to end violence against all queers, only radical, systemic change will achieve that.

In addition to misleading the public, the narrative that queers are “normal” citizens also pressures communities to divest themselves of more marginalized members. As I mentioned above, the corporatization of queerness in the United States has come hand-in-hand with the expulsion of racialized, trans, and poor queers from the movement.

Locally, I have yet to encounter an LGBTQ group supporting justice and equality for domestic workers. Although many domestic workers are in same sex relationships, their identities trouble the “we are just like you” narrative and fall outside the narrow concerns of more privileged queers.

Corporate stakeholders contribute to exclusion within the broader queer community by reifying the difference between queers whose rights are good for business, and queers whose exploitation is good for business. With their help, the “we are just like you” claim becomes self-fulfilling, not only shutting out queers who don’t fit in, but rendering their queerness invisible as well.

How do we resist a political message that depends on agreeability to win acceptance? First and foremost, we have to tell corporations to fuck off, lest the logic of capital determine what does and does not constitute queer struggle. Virtually every developed, capitalist nation offers cautionary tales about how corporatization depoliticizes queerness, and I believe we would do well to study those histories. At the same time, queer Hong Kongers must continue the legacy of situating our political battles in our unique context.

Early gay activist Samshasha recognized that Chinese gays must confront the tenacious misconception that queerness threatens traditional values. The mainstream LGBTQ movement continues to foreground the question of what it means to be queer and Chinese.

However, there are other questions we should be asking, such as: what does it mean to be queer in one of the world’s least economically equitable cities? What does it mean to be queer when hundreds of thousands of domestic workers are denied the right to permanent residency? What does it mean to be queer when sex workers routinely face violence from police and the public? What does it mean to be queer when HIV remains deeply stigmatized? What does it mean to be queer when our government disregards the human rights of refugees? What does it mean to be queer in a city that inherited white supremacy from colonialism, but whose population is largely Chinese?

Public and state resistance to queer rights in Hong Kong is frustrating, but I think it has political value: it forces us to build relationships of solidarity. Corporations have been quick to offer themselves as allies, but taking their bait means fighting for the assimilation of some, while allowing others to continue to languish in the margins.

I challenge us, as queer and trans Hong Kongers, to fight violence against queers in all its forms—including ones that may be difficult for those of us with certain social and economic privileges to recognize. Only by mobilizing across difference and building relationships with each other, not corporate stakeholders, can we articulate a vision that is uncompromising in its commitment to all queer and trans people.

Listen Chen grew up in Hong Kong and currently lives on the unceded lands of the Coast Salish peoples (aka Vancouver, Canada). A poet, radical Buddhist, and housing activist, you can follow Listen on Twitter.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.