On Sunday, athletes from around the world competed in the Hong Kong Marathon. By all accounts it was very successful, with both the weather and the virus cooperating to produce a brilliant event.

Unfortunately, the marathon was marred by reports that an organisation, Out in HK, was forced to remove banners supporting gay runners and their friends after the police were called.  

pride banner marathon
Photo: Dennis Philipse.

Police said they received a report at 8:30 a.m. regarding two banners hung on a railing near the Central Ferry Piers where runners would pass by. Police determined that banners hung without permission violated the law – Section 104A of Cap 132 – and ordered their removal. The banners were a rainbow flag and an Out in HK banner. Out in HK removed both the flag and the banner. 

Out in HK, whose Facebook page has 6,800 members, describes itself as a “non-commercial group that welcomes and connects all members and friends of the LGBTQ+ community in Hong Kong with an interest in developing a fit and healthy lifestyle.” Activities include hiking, (trail) running, rock climbing, swimming, yoga, sailing, and so forth – the full gamut of sports activities.

Its members train for and participate in events like the HK Marathon. Out in HK came to the Marathon to cheer and support their members running that day, and by extension this international event.

Whoever called the police apparently did not report the banners of another NGO, also attached to railings, just beside the Out in HK banners.

A reasonable person could conclude that those who called police did so not because they suspected that Out in HK’s banners violated the law, but because they were offended by the rainbow flag and banner that read “Out in HK,” the name of the group supporting LGBTQ+ runners. 

The caller’s intent is clearly important. According to Out in HK, a marshal present could not explain why the flags had to be taken down. The police also had discretion about how to handle the banners.  

Out in HK also observed that other groups supporting their runner-members were allowed to attach their banners to railings at other places along the route. No action was apparently taken about these banners. Perhaps they had applied in advance for permission to attach them? Or not. 

This incident smacks of discrimination. Without an explanation from those who called the police we may never know the motivation behind it, but it shows that the managers of the marathon and the police must better train their staff. People should not be allowed to make apparently arbitrary decisions based on their own personal prejudice, as may have happened here. 

The rainbow flag and Out in HK banner are statements of identity, nothing more. To discriminate against them is to deny identity. Identity denied is existence denied. This is why removing the banners and only these banners matters. 

The incident explains, yet again, why Hong Kong needs to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. Such a law would boost attempts to create an environment that values everyone in Hong Kong equally.

Hong Kong also needs education, of course, and this incident should be used to teach.

Standard Chartered
Standard Chartered. File photo.

Standard Chartered Bank, the sponsor of the marathon, is an organisation with a global reach. It employs many LGBTQ+ people. As an international player, the bank undoubtedly has policies that support their gay employees. Those values of inclusion and equality should also be reflected in the marathon and how the marathon is managed. 

Hong Kong is now struggling to reopen to the world. The behaviour of the marshal and the police is inconsistent with Hong Kong’s professed image as a “world city,” a welcoming city. Their action undermines the “Hello Hong Kong” campaign, now in full swing.

Among the talent the government hopes to attract to Hong Kong are many gay people, who will be deterred by this incident. The apparent discrimination also leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of the hundreds of thousands of gay people in Hong Kong, their families and supporters.

Hong Kong needs them to tell “good stories” too, right? Without good stories told by ordinary people, all the official shouting about good stories is useless. No good story here. Hong Kong is better than this. Or is it?

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John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU's Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.