No one should have to face discrimination and prejudice for who they are, or for whom they love. Yet, as a study commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission highlighted last week, Hong Kong has a long way to go to end the discrimination that lesbian women, gay men, bisexual, transgender and intersex [LGBTI] people face on a daily basis in our city.
The detailed research laid bare the “prevalent discrimination” on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity that occurs in all walks of life and to people of all ages: from children being bullied at school, and unequal treatment in the workplace, to individuals not being able to list their loved ones as the beneficiary of an insurance policy.
The report’s findings tarnish Hong Kong’s reputation as a modern and tolerant city which respects human rights for everyone. Yet, there are grounds for optimism, with the majority of the people polled now being in favour of legislation to end discrimination against LGBTI people.
Amnesty International Hong Kong urges the government to stop dragging its feet and to introduce comprehensive legislation. No one is pretending that legislation alone is a panacea but it is a vital first step if the government is to fulfil its basic obligations to, protect human rights, prevent abuses, and promote equality for all. The legislation would send a strong message that discrimination on grounds of real or perceived sexuality or identity is never acceptable.
And the responsibility to act lies with the government. Hong Kong is bound by key international human rights treaties, as a jurisdiction that has incorporated the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and on Cultural, Economic and Social Rights, into its Basic Law and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights.
It is ludicrous to claim, as some opposed to legislating have, that such anti-discrimination laws would grant LGBTI people ‘additional rights’. Discrimination continues to prevent lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people from enjoying their rights and freedoms and leaves the LGBTI community marginalised.
By not legislating, Hong Kong will fall further behind the times. Laws against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity have been passed in many countries and regions. Over the years, research has provided overwhelming evidence that anti-discrimination laws provide crucial legal protection for LGBTI people and empower them to gain equal access to enjoy their human rights.
More than 10 years ago the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights both criticised the failure of the Hong Kong government to curb discrimination against sexual minorities and to provide legal remedies for these individuals.
Anti-discrimination legislation promotes equality and empowers the LGBTI community
Anti-discrimination laws can lead to a reduction in discrimination towards sexual minorities seeking employment. An academic study in the US found retail managers in areas lacking anti-discrimination laws were more negative towards gay job applicants than those in areas with such laws, and that legislation has a notable effect on combating discrimination. By labelling discrimination ‘illegal’, it acts as a catalyst in changing attitudes and ending discrimination against LGBTI people.
At present, Hong Kong’s administrative measures, such as the Code of Practice against Discrimination in Employment on the Ground of Sexual Orientation, published by the government in 1998, are simply ineffective and fail the LGBTI community.
Another important effect of the legislation is to ensure that LGBTI people who face discrimination have access to legal remedies. The existing four discrimination ordinances in Hong Kong – on grounds of race, sex, disability and family status – highlight the importance of establishing mechanisms for redress with a legal framework. They empower those who are discriminated against with a tool to seek remedies and a channel to speak out against the perpetrators.
The Equal Opportunities Commission study provides the government with an opportunity to act. We all have the right to be treated as equals, regardless of our gender identity or sexuality. It is long overdue for the Hong Kong government to acknowledge this in law and end the prevalent discrimination against LGBTI people.