Hong Kong gays fight sodomy laws, triggering debate in traditional society
December 31 2005 12:00 AM ET
When William Roy
Leung made legal history in Hong Kong by successfully
challenging antigay laws, the 20-year-old gay man told
a crowd outside the courthouse he could finally be in
love without living in fear of being thrown in jail.
But the legal threat might soon be back in Leung's
life. The government is appealing the decision that found
sodomy laws discriminatory and unconstitutional. One
of the laws demanded a life sentence for gay sex when
one or both men are younger than 21.
The appeal surprised Leung, who works for a
medical aid group. "We're not asking for anything new.
This is about equality, about everybody having the
same rights," he told the Associated Press.
But others think differently in this Chinese
city—where sex, let alone homosexuality, is a
subject almost never brought up in the family. Though
Hong Kong does not actively persecute or repress its sexual
minorities, few would venture to say the city is open
or tolerant about gays and lesbians. The ruling
sparked a big controversy. Some predicted that
August's court case meant the legal age for gay sex will be
lowered from 21 to 16—the same as that for
In an ensuing city-wide debate over the
"appropriate" age for homosexual behavior, everything
from "traditional morals" and "Asian culture" to
religion have been called upon as defense against the
ruling. Hong Kong is more tolerant of homosexuality than
Singapore, which bans gay sex and bars gay groups from
registering as organizations. Prosecutions of gays are
rare in Singapore, which tolerates them as long as
they keep a low profile.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Hong Kong 14
years ago, but it is legal only for men 21 years of
age or older. Consensual sodomy between men, when one
or both are under 21, could mean life imprisonment, and
both men would be held criminally liable. The same
punishment applies to sodomy between straight couples,
but in that case only the man—not the woman if
she is under 21—is considered a criminal. There are
no corresponding laws for lesbians.
High court judge Michael Hartmann said such
differences contradicted the spirit of Hong Kong's
mini-constitution, which says all individuals are to
be equally protected by the law. He also criticized the laws
as "disproportionate punishment" for gay men, who at
the time of drafting were probably assumed to be
deviant in "choosing" to be gay—in the same way
people have a choice over drug addiction.
Gay rights activist Nigel Collett agrees with
the judge. "The disparity in the age of consent law
sends a message to all gay young men that this society
views them as different and somehow criminal. It
imposes a stigma," said Collett, a writer and businessman.
Meanwhile, Hartmann's ruling was greeted with
bitter resentment by conservative groups. Even Hong
Kong leader Donald Tsang—a Catholic who attends
Mass daily—felt compelled to speak out. "We must look
after the interests of people whom we believe need to
be protected," Tsang told reporters. "I think we have
to look at not only points of equity—which I
fully espouse—but also look at the interests of the
minor as well."
The Christian group Society for Truth and Light
has been leading a fierce campaign against gay rights,
maintaining that teenage boys must be protected
from "dangerous activities" and AIDS. Taking out large
newspaper ads and staging protests, the group also warned
that Hong Kong is in danger of overindulging in
equality for homosexuals, which it believes will give
gays license to demand more and more—eventually
bringing about same-sex marriage.
Many gays in Hong Kong say same-sex marriage is
an unrealistic expectation and that they harbor only
modest hopes. Some, like Collett, would like to see
committed gay couples given legal rights to pensions
and hospital visits. (AP)