Pride Month puts the spotlight on Hong Kong’s LGBTQ+ community

Pride month is just around the corner, wrapping up what’s been an eventful six months in the Hong Kong LGBTQ+ community.

Pride Month puts the spotlight on Hong Kong’s LGBTQ+ community
Source: Pexels/42 North

❓What’s going on?

Pride month is just around the corner, wrapping up what’s been an eventful six months in the Hong Kong LGBTQ+ community. 

The city held the Gay Games from November 3 - 11, becoming the first location in Asia to host the athletics competition designed to promote the acceptance of sexual diversity. 

While the participation of around 2,400 competitors was far lower than the 15,000 initially expected, the games were largely viewed as a positive event for Hong Kong. In fact, a post-event survey found that the Gay Games created a HK$200 million (US$25.5 million) impact on the local economy. 

“The success of the Gay Games has indeed given a boost to the local LGBTQ+ scene, generating greater enthusiasm and support for subsequent events like Pride. There's a palpable sense of momentum and optimism within the community,” said David Ko, the Gay Games Hong Kong’s director of marketing and public relations, in a comment to TMS.

While the Gay Games were a big deal for the city and the LGBTQ+ community, recent legal cases suggest that Hong Kong is still pretty conservative when it comes to gender and sexual identity. 

💳Recent developments – a transgender ID card ruling

For the city’s transgender community, one of its biggest battles in recent years has been trying to convince authorities to let a person change the gender on their identification cards. ID cards are essential for day-to-day life in Hong Kong, and transgender activists often talk about the daily hassles and embarrassments trans people face due to the gender on their cards not matching how they present themselves to the world. 

On April 3, the government announced that transgender residents no longer need full sex reassignment surgery (SRS) to apply for a change of gender on their ID cards. 

Henry Tse, an activist who fought a years-long battle to receive a male identity card, told reporters on April 29, when he received his new card, “Finally, here comes the genuine solution to all the embarrassment and daily problems caused by an incompatible identity card.”

Hong Kong’s Court of Appeal actually ruled in favor of Tse and another appellant called “Q” that the requirement for SRS to change the gender on their ID cards was unconstitutional back in 2023. Although the ruling was worded in reference to the two female-to-male (FtM) appellants, the court also suggested that the government should more broadly revise the policy and requirements for amending gender markers.

Still, changing the gender on the ID card involves a number of requirements, including surgical ones. Male-to-female (MtF) transgender people must still undergo genital alterations (removal of the penis and testes), while FtM residents must have a mastectomy (removal of both breasts). On top of that, all trans applicants must prove that:

  • They have or have had gender dysphoria
  • They’ve lived in the opposite sex and have been undergoing hormonal treatment for at least two years prior to the application
  • They’ll continue to live in the opposite sex for the rest of their life
  • They’ll keep receiving continuous hormonal treatment and submit blood test report(s) as requested by the Commissioner for random checking of their hormonal profile. 

Surgeries to remove genitals are significant medical procedures and can have complications, some of which may even require more operations. The average complication rate for SRS, known now as gender confirmation surgery, varies anywhere from 4% to 40% for different issues, which could put people off from going through the process. Plus, some individuals may not even be medically capable of having the surgery. 

In a statement to TMS, Quarks, a Hong Kong non-profit organization that supports transgender youth in the city, said the immigration department's strict rules violated Section 14 of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance, which protects bodily integrity. 

“The Immigration Department's insistence on surgical intervention as a prerequisite for gender-marker change unequivocally contravenes these rights and stands in direct contradiction to the aforementioned court ruling,” the group said. 

Quarks also pointed out the new requirements are a form of gender discrimination, as transgender women are expected to undergo a more invasive procedure with a higher rate of complications than transgender men. 

“The new regulations unjustly impose severe burdens upon transgender women by requiring the removal of their reproductive organs,” said the group. 

Quarks urged members of the transgender community to take their personal health and preferences into consideration when considering gender-confirming surgeries or hormone therapy and not to feel compelled to pursue significant medical procedures “solely for the purpose of changing the gender marker on their identity cards.”

🏳️‍🌈The bigger picture – Hong Kong’s LGBTQ+ scene

Hong Kong boasts a vibrant LGBTQ+ community, highlighted by a lively nightlife scene, major events like the Gay Games, and high-profile queer members of the public. But, the city lacks clear legal protections compared to some Asian counterparts while also being much less restrictive than other neighbors. 

On the one hand, Hong Kong is generally more progressive than some neighboring regions. For example, same-sex relations in Malaysia and Indonesia are criminalized. Singapore, a city Hong Kong is often compared with, is far more restrictive of LGBTQ+ rights, only legalizing gay sex among men in 2022. In doing so, it also amended its constitution to make it nearly impossible for Singapore’s LGBTQ+ community to launch campaigns to legalize gay marriage.

As for mainland China, which famously defined homosexuality as a mental illness until 2001, many places in the country feature vibrant LGBTQ+ scenes, but public gathering spaces are disappearing, and legal protections are opaque, at best. The 2021 cancellation of the Shanghai Pride celebrations marked the closure of a major source of public recognition in the city. In the capital city, the May 2023 closure of the Beijing LGBT Center was a huge blow to the community. 

Hong Kong decriminalized homosexuality in 1991, and in the following years, more landmark legal cases followed. For example, ruling in favor of post-operative trans marriages in 2013, ruling in 2018 that same-sex couples married overseas are entitled to dependent visas and ruling in 2020 that excluding same-sex couples from public rental housing was unconstitutional. Additionally, the city recently protected the inheritance rights of LGBTQ+ people. 

Meanwhile, while Hong Kong’s top court permitted civil unions in September 2023, it stopped short of legalizing gay marriage. The city also lacks comprehensive anti-discrimination laws that protect LGTBQ+ people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

On the other hand, Taiwan legalized gay marriage in May of 2019 and has put into place comprehensive anti-discrimination laws. Also, Thailand’s lower house passed a same-sex marriage bill in March 2024 (although that has yet to become law). 

💬What are people saying?

“A significant concern is the slow pace of legal reforms necessary to ensure full equality and protection under the law for LGBTQ+ individuals. We remain vigilant and proactive in addressing these challenges through advocacy and community engagement."

-David Ko, Gay Games Hong Kong’s director of marketing and public relations

“Organising the Gay Games is inviting trouble and threatening national security. By infiltrating our culture, education, and legal systems, there is an attempt to undermine ethical values surrounding gender, marriage, and family and carry out a colour revolution.” 

– A statement from a group of 20 petitioners asking the legislative council to cancel the Gay Games 

“The visibility and success of the Games have inspired a wave of local initiatives and discussions aimed at increasing LGBTQ+ inclusiveness and awareness. We recently held a gathering with local LGBTQ community groups, and we have noted increased engagement and interest in their activities, suggesting a lasting influence from the Games' celebration of diversity and inclusion.”

– David Ko - Gay Games Hong Kong’s director of marketing and public relations

“Each family would have to apply to court to get the order for guardianship and joint custody. Not many couples choose to do that because they have to spend a lot of time and money to do so, and many would just rather resign to the fact that the law does not respect their status as a family.” 

– Lawyer Evelyn Tsao, speaking about a court ruling in 2023 that granted both lesbian parents joint custody over their son

“The continued insistence on surgical intervention and the introduction of additional oversight mechanisms unduly impact the psychological and emotional well-being of the community, while simultaneously impeding the ability of transgender individuals to fully integrate into society.” 

– Quarks, speaking about the new rules for receiving a gender change on Hong Kong ID cards