By Holmes Chan in Hong Kong
Wedding photos of Henry Li and Edgar Ng show the couple holding hands, surrounded by beaming friends — the freeze-frame of joy a contrast to the two men’s struggle in Hong Kong for LGBTQ rights.
The LGBTQ community has seen incremental legal victories in finance hub Hong Kong since the mid-2000s, winning in the Chinese city’s courts on targeted issues ranging from visas to taxes.
But same-sex marriage remains out of reach — a painful jolt of reality for Li when the Hong Kong morgue refused to let him identify Ng’s body.
“They were telling me that my husband was not my husband and that I was nobody,” Li, 37, told AFP. “I couldn’t react. I froze.”
In a decision in September, Hong Kong’s top court ordered the government to create an “alternative framework” within two years that recognises same-sex couples’ legal rights.
However, the judges also unanimously declared marriage “confined to opposite-sex couples”.
The decision was met with guarded optimism and an undercurrent of grief in the former British colony, according to eight people who spoke to AFP.
Li said he was “a bit disappointed”, but hopes Hong Kong comes up with a framework that covers “growing up, growing old, illness and death”.
Showing photos in his home, Li said after their 2017 London wedding, Ng had insisted they hold a Hong Kong ceremony — even convincing a church to let them walk down the aisle.
“He was a brave person… He rightly said our marriage was open and aboveboard,” Li told AFP. “More members of Hong Kong’s LGBTQ community are waiting for their rights and identity to be respected.”
‘Needs of the minority’
Semi-autonomous Hong Kong has seen increasing support for same-sex marriage, a stark contrast to mainland China where stigma is widespread and the LGBTQ community has alleged a growing crackdown.
In the case decided in September, prominent activist Jimmy Sham had argued the city’s ban on same-sex marriage violated his right to equality.
“So many people, including Jimmy Sham, have been pushing forward (LGBTQ rights) to where we are today,” said Annie Chau, co-founder of “Butterfly”, a social network for the lesbian community in Hong Kong.
Hong Kongers are now more open about their sexual orientation “in their workplaces and families”, she told AFP, adding that Butterfly’s forum topics used to revolve around unpleasant experiences, but recent users talk about marriage, starting families and retirement.
“I think (September’s court decision) is a big improvement,” Chau said.
But the community is not immune to the changing political climate — rights advocacy has partly gone underground since Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, following huge and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests.
“It’s tougher for the public to see the needs of the minority,” she said, noting the relative lack of media coverage of Sham’s case.
Also a pro-democracy activist, Sham has been behind bars since 2021 pending trial for alleged national security crimes. He declined to comment.
Angus Leung, who in 2015 challenged the city’s restrictive policies on spousal medical and tax benefits, said he felt Sham’s lawsuit “came too soon”.
“Of course after he filed it, we hoped he would win. But in the end you could see same-sex marriage was dismissed.”
Leung’s case had a happier ending — the highest court in 2019 ruled that denying spousal benefits to same-sex couples breached Hong Kong’s anti-discrimination laws.
But the court process was stressful for the couple, who now live abroad.
“We knew that if the outcome was negative, I would become a tool for the government to dismiss future cases,” Leung told AFP.
Hong Kong officials have declined to comment on next steps after September’s ruling, while the Department of Justice has asked the court for flexibility on the two-year timeline, a legal source told AFP.
Ben, 53 — who has been with his partner since the 1990s — said he had little confidence Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing legislature would come up with a “reasonable” framework.
“Hong Kong still has a long road ahead,” said Ben, using a pseudonym.
For some, progress has come too late.
“There’s no point in coming out now, I’ll keep on pretending. After all, I’ll die soon,” said Pat, a 76-year-old retiree who has hidden his two-decade-long relationship from his family.
Thirty years ago, he might have longed for marriage, he said.
“But now I’ve walked such a long road, I’ve adjusted to my life.”
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