Hong Kong’s Gay Games, which kicks off on Friday, arrives hot on the heels of landmark achievements in local LGBTQ rights, including a court decision that the government must set up a framework recognising same-sex partnerships and another that upheld the public housing rights of same-sex couples who married overseas.

gay games
The Gay Games team. Photo: Gay Games 11 Hong Kong 2023, via Facebook.

But the event has been hampered by a lack of government cooperation, internal strife and the Covid-19 pandemic, and has also seen calls for its cancellation from conservative groups and human rights activists alike.

What is the Gay Games?

The Gay Games Hong Kong 2023 is an international sporting and cultural event that aims to promote inclusivity, diversity, and equality through sport and cultural exchange. Held every four years, it brings together athletes and participants from around the world – regardless of their sexual orientation – to compete in various sports and cultural events.

Gay Games Hong Kong basketball
Gay Games Hong Kong basketball team. File photo: Gay Games Hong Kong.

Some 2,000 athletes are expected to participate in the upcoming games in Hong Kong. Initially, organisers were hoping for 12,000, with a projected HK$1 billion boost to the economy.

Hong Kong emerged as the host for the 2022 Gay Games in 2017, prevailing over competing bids from Washington DC, in the US, and Guadalajara, Mexico. It marked the first time in the 40-year history of the games that an Asian city would host the event.

The competition was postponed to this year because of Covid-related travel restrictions. Early last year, with many of those limits still in place, Guadalajara was announced as a co-host the event to allow more participants to take part.

At the same time, Hong Kong Gay Games founder and former leader Dennis Philipse announced that he was stepping down, citing “continuing uncertainty” over the city’s international travel regulations during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dennis Philipse
Dennis Philipse. Photo: Gay Games Hong Kong.

According to the event website, there are 18 sports remaining which are open for registration in Hong Kong for anyone aged 18 or above regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or ethnicity. They include badminton, dodgeball, fencing, swimming, trail running and others. The track and field, field hockey and Rugby 7s events were axed in June.

Does Gay Games have government support?

In 2017, then-leader Carrie Lam said she had “noted” the city’s successful bid to host the games, as she referred to the “same sex games.” However, her tone appeared to soften over the following years, saying in 2021 that the event promoted inclusivity and diversity, and even going so far as to disavow discriminatory comments about the games raised by legislators.

Lawmaker Junius Ho claimed at a Legislative Council meeting in June 2021 that Hong Kong did not want the event’s “dirty money,” adding that he was worried it might lead to the legalisation of same-sex marriage. This year, he claimed the games were a national security risk.

gay games
Hong Kong representatives at the 2018 Gay Games held in Paris, France. Photo: Gay Games Hong Kong.

Within the city’s legislature, lawmakers Regina Ip and Adrian Ho from the pro-Beijing New People Party are among the few who have expressed support for Hong Kong hosting the games.

But lip-service aside, official and financial support has been lacking.

Former home affairs minister Caspar Tsui said in 2021 that the Gay Games was not recognised by the International Olympic Committee, the Olympic Council of Asia or any international sports federation, and that the Sports Federation and Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China would not send athletes to participate in the competitions.

Only statutory bodies, such as the Hong Kong Tourism Board, Brand Hong Kong, InvestHK, and the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), have been listed as “supporting organisations” of this year’s event.

gay games tram
A tram promoting the Gay Games. Photo: Gay Games 11 Hong Kong 2023, via Facebook.

Replying to HKFP enquiries, an InvestHK spokesperson said the investment body has not provided any support other than “being listed as a supporting organisation on their website,” while a tourism board spokesperson said the games “may feature Hong Kong Tourism Board as one of their supporting organisations.” Searches for the term “Gay Games” on their websites as of late October yielded no results.

The EOC said it had “nothing to supplement further to what has been reported in the press.” The commission had earlier said that it supported the games and its mission to promote equality and inclusion, but did not say whether it had provided financial support, according to local media.

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

According to the bidding document for Hong Kong’s hosting of the games, letters of support were received from Ip, as well as now-former pro-democracy lawmakers Charles Mok, Alvin Yeung, Eddie Chu, Kwong Chun-yu, and Raymond Chan, the city’s first openly gay lawmaker.

Yeung, Chu, and Chan are among 47 prominent democrats who were arrested and charged under the security law with “conspiracy to commit subversion,” after they organised primaries in a bid to win a majority in the 2020 legislative election. Yeung and Chu have been detained since March 2021, while Chan is out on bail.

The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau also submitted a letter of support, alongside the EOC and the tourism board.

Raymond Chan. Photo: Stanley Leung/HKFP.

The games’ co-chair Lisa Lam has said that, unlike other sporting events, Gay Games Hong Kong had not received any sponsorship from the Hong Kong government, while co-host Guadalajara had received sponsorship from local authorities, including its tourism bureau. When Paris hosted the Gay Games in 2018, the French president, the mayor of Paris, and the local tourism bureau contributed financially.

The games will be held mostly at private venues, including MacPherson Stadium, the Jockey Club HKCFA Football Training Centre, the University of Hong Kong’s Stanley Ho Sports Centre, and King George V School, after it failed to secure bookings at government venues.

Queen Elizabeth Stadium, which will serve as the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies and gala concerts, is the only government-run venue to be used for the games.

Is Gay Games a threat to national security?

The games come more than three years after Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest in 2019. The law criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts.

taiwan gay
Gay rights activist Chi Chia-wei (centre) waves a Taiwan flag in support of Taiwanese athletes participating in the Paris 2018 Gay Games during a press conference in Taipei on July 23, 2018. Photo: Daniel Shih.

Security fears were earlier voiced by Taiwan, which has said it will not send a delegation to the games over fears that their athletes and staff could be arrested if they waved the island’s flag or used its name.

See also: Why is Taiwan called Chinese Taipei at the Olympics?

Athletes from the self-ruled island – which Beijing considers a breakaway province, to be united with mainland China by force if necessary – compete in many international sporting events under the name “Chinese Taipei.”

Taiwan is the only Asian jurisdiction where same-sex unions are legal. It displayed its flag at the Paris Gay Games in 2018, despite accusations that China had pressured organisers to ban its display.

Taiwan flag gay games
Photo: Taiwan Gay Sports and Gay Development Movement Association via Facebook.

Separately, five activists – including American lawyer Samuel Bickett who was jailed in 2021 for assaulting a police officer during the 2019 extradition bill protests and unrest – have called for the cancellation of the event over the organisers’ alleged alignment with “pro-authoritarian figures responsible for widespread persecution against the people of Hong Kong”

In an Out Sports op-ep published this June, the activists said the organiser had “betrayed the values and principles of the Gay Games, which purport to celebrate inclusion and promote human rights.”

The op-ed named the games’ Director Marketing and Public Relations David Ko as one of the board members who had “openly embraced the illegitimate regime tasked with crushing Hong Kong.” They also criticised organisers for inviting pro-Beijing lawmaker and former security minister Regina Ip – one of the few pro-LGBTQ voices in the city’s legislature – to a gala last year.

HKFP has tried to reach David Ko for comment.

“With respect to the Games, which undoubtedly will be seen as a political event by authorities, the National Security Law’s vagueness means that Beijing could decide to either ignore the event entirely, or order arrests of participants for sedition or subversion – and there is simply no way to know which direction it will choose until the event itself,” the activists said.

In response to the op-ed, the organiser said it was “deeply saddened by unfounded slurs made about the integrity of the [Gay Games Hong Kong] Team.” It said it was not a political organisation, adding that its volunteers represented “a rainbow of different genders, sexual orientation, ages, social backgrounds, nationalities and political views.”

The government in August ordered the organiser to conduct the games in a “lawful, safe and orderly manner” whether or not events were held in public or private venues. “The organiser must comply with Hong Kong laws and regulations, regardless of where the events are held, including private venues, government venues or public spaces,” the statement read.

It is unclear as to what prompted the statement.

In response to an HKFP enquiry, a spokesperson for the games said: “Hong Kong is consistently rated as one of the world’s safest cities. We see no reason why this would change before, during or after our event.”

According to the ticketing page for the games, those who attend a gala concert for the games must agree to be filmed by police or security staff “for the purpose of ensuring public security at the Event and preventing crime.”

Why has Gay Games come under fire?

Despite most Hongkongers supporting same-sex marriage, conservative groups have urged the government to oppose the games, calling the advocacy of LGBTQ rights a “threat” to “traditional values” and claiming the event could lead to a “repeat” of the protests and unrest of 2019.

gay games protest
Representatives from local conservative groups protesting against Hong Kong’s hosting of the Gay Games on June 21, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“This event has been infiltrated with [ideas] about sexual liberation, bisexuality and homosexuality,” said Grace Kwong from pro-Beijing group Politihk Social Strategic at a rally outside the government headquarters in June. “We parents do not want to see this and feel so helpless, because in 2019… we were already very scared.”

Representatives for top officials including Chief Executive John Lee and Secretary for Security Chris Tang stopped by the protest at the government headquarters to receive the petition letters, as did eight lawmakers including Starry Lee, Priscilla Leung, and Holden Chow of the DAB, Reverend Peter Koon, and Tik Chi-yuen.

See also: LGBTQ rights in Hong Kong – breakthroughs and bitter court battles against discriminatory laws

According to a study, 60 per cent of Hongkongers now agree with same-sex marriage, though it remains unrecognised. That figure has gone up significantly since the same survey was done a decade ago, when support stood at just 38 per cent.

Whilst same-sex sexual activity was legalised in 1991, Hong Kong has no laws to protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination in employment, the provision of goods and services, or from hate speech.

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James Lee is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press with an interest in culture and social issues. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he witnessed the institution’s transformation over the course of the 2019 extradition bill protests and after the passing of the Beijing-imposed security law.

Since joining HKFP in 2023, he has covered local politics, the city’s housing crisis, as well as landmark court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial. He was previously a reporter at The Standard where he interviewed pro-establishment heavyweights and extensively covered the Covid-19 pandemic and Hong Kong’s political overhauls under the national security law.