By Athena Lam

Yes, the cancellation of Badiucao’s show opening in Hong Kong this weekend is newsworthy. Equally so is the encouragement that feminist punk band Pussy Riot’s members gave for Hong Kong’s young political activists. But equally so is that they participated in a modestly sized LGBTQ travel advocacy forum, Miles of Love, that had over 35 presenters from 15 countries in a cozy ballroom at the Eaton HK in Kowloon.

John Tanzella,
John Tanzella, President/CEO of IGLTA talks about how international networks can support LGBTQ businesses in unfriendly countries. Photo: Athena Lam.

The spotlight was on the Miles of Love forum not just because of the members of Pussy Riot – Olga Kurachyova and Nika Nikulshina – were speakers. Rather, that they were two of the speakers in a lineup that included international athletes, directors of NGOs and international agencies, partners at global firms, a TED Fellow, performers, artists, filmmakers, journalists, and academics. The participants embodied experiences that reveal the continued barriers to travel and cultural exchange, including disability, perceived gender, perceived race, nationality, and lack of anti-discrimination policies in the business sector. With travel as a common topic, they tackled issues from personal experience – such as faith, travel as trans, intersex and non-binary individuals, to industry discussions on cybersecurity especially for NGOs and LGBTQ businesses with databases and airline industry cases of inclusion and discrimination.

Kurachyova spoke on the sports panel, which included FIFA’s first transgender athlete representing American Samoa, Jaiyah Saelua, Singapore Paralympian Theresa Goh, and David Palumbo, Vice-Chair of the Executive Board at You Can Play Project and Partner at Baker McKenzie in Canada. The curated panel helped provide perspectives from professional athletes (trans and disabled), professionals who also work on NGOs, and the arts and activism. Together, they embodied experiences of government oppression, gender and the right to play sports, and safety when travelling with a disability. They also articulated how inclusion in sports for LGBTQ coaches, athletes and fans have implications for public sentiment greater inclusion for all.

Spotlight sessions LGBT
Spotlight sessions for us to learn about LGBTQ activism in hostile countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt. Photo: Athena Lam

Nikulshina sat on the panel titled “Closing Fireside: Chechnya: How Can Travel Industry Respond to Crisis”, which included Matt Beard, Executive Director from UK-based All Out, Kimahli Powell, Executive Director of Rainbow Railroad from Canada, and Mikhail Tumasov, Coordinator of the Russian LGBT Network. That the forum dedicated a panel to Chechnya, which made international news in 2017 for its large-scale persecution of gay men, holding space for issues that are often forgotten after initial media coverage. In addition, the event gave spotlights to less featured countries in mainstream media such as Cambodia, Egypt, Indonesia, and Malaysia, raising awareness of the continued struggles for local activists and NGOs long after an interview or conference.

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Hong Kong is a model city for global finance, not grassroots activism. The city’s population is 92 per cent Han Chinese, according to the 2016 government by-census, but it is nonetheless host to regional offices and a global flow of talent. Yet, discrimination continues to be pervasive, whether to its Filipino and Indonesian migrant workers, South Asian locals, or LGBTQ individuals. But organizations and events ‏ can take initiative to be more inclusive, and many in Hong Kong are beginning to.

At the Miles of Love forum, Filipino and Indonesian presenters shared the stage with participants from American Samoa, Australia, Cambodia, Canada, Egypt, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Palestine, Russia, Singapore, United Kingdom, and the United States. The event curation embodied the diversity and inclusion that is now a trending topic within corporations that are seeking to attract and retain talent.

gender neutral bathroom
Eaton HK had to fight government regulation to have a third sign on washrooms. Photo: Athena Lam.

But the media cannot stop at highlighting only the messages that recognized international presenters such as TED Fellow Prumsodun Ok, Pussy Riot, John Tanzella from International Gay and Lesbian Tourism Association (IGLTA) and Matt Beard from All Out (UK) have for Hong Kong. In addition, they should highlight the people and organizations in Hong Kong that invited these presenters in the first place. The Miles of Love forum was organized by All Out from the UK, Planet Ally from Hong Kong, and Pink Season from Hong Kong, and hosted by the venue Eaton HK, that ensured it was adequately inclusive with gender-neutral washrooms and staff support for people with disabilities. These organizations have taken quiet, but firm, steps to create a more inclusive city and region.

The story cannot stop at what Pussy Riot sees in Hong Kong. There is something at this grassroots event in Hong Kong that international athletes, business people, artists, filmmakers, NGOs and activists saw worth coming for. Behind the excitement, these international visitors have generated is a question for the people in this city to ask, “What does Hong Kong see in itself?”

Pussy Riot Miles of Love
Photo: Brent Pottinger.

Amid growing concerns about democracy, let’s not lose sight of the counter-narrative — that people in Hong Kong Kong are actively working to create a more diverse and resilient city through solidarity among locals and the global community. In addition to the media highlighting international activists, and political challenges, they can also shine a spotlight on the local underdogs who are working to build a more connected and inclusive city.

Athena Lam is a content marketing professional in the tech industry. She translates LGBTQ information for Hong Kong, Greater China, and Japan in her blog The Cup and the Road. She leads the project LGBTQ Glassdoor, Hong Kong’s first opensource and crowdsourced LGBTQ-friendly workplace directory, available in English and Chinese.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.