A groundbreaking court decision granting spousal visas to same-sex couples in Hong Kong could pave the way for a wider debate on marriage equality in “Asia’s world city.”
The Hong Kong Court of Final Appeals ruled on Wednesday in favor of “QT” (as she’s referred to in court documents), a British expatriate who applied for a visa to remain in the city with her partner. After the couple moved to Hong Kong in 2011 for work, she applied for a dependent visa for her partner, who is British and South African. Their request was denied.
Lacking that legal privilege, same-sex couples would only be able to petition for short-term tourist visas—which would prevent them from working or accessing public health care.
The decision forced QT to fly back and forth between the U.K. and Hong Kong for years, costing her thousands.
QT appealed the denial of a dependent visa to the Court of First Instance, which upheld the decision in 2016. The court claimed the case was a ruse to pass same-sex marriages in Hong Kong—which finally struck down British colonial laws banning sodomy in 2005—through the “back door.”
But last fall an appeals court overturned the earlier ruling in a unanimous verdict siding with the legal rights of same-sex couples for the first time.
This week’s decision from the Court of Final Appeals was likewise concordant. In a 45-page written decision, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li of the five-member bench claimed the local government’s policy of denying visas to same-sex spouses is “counterproductive” and “plainly not rationally connected to advancing” Hong Kong’s aim of enticing LGBTQ industry leaders to work in the South Asian metropolis.
Firms like Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, and Nomura Holdings adamantly lobbied Hong Kong to overturn the policy on those same grounds. They celebrated this week’s court ruling in a statement.
“This is a positive outcome not only for QT but also for the people and business community of Hong Kong,” claimed a coalition of more than 30 banks and legal firms. “This ruling strengthens Hong Kong’s ability to attract global talent and its competitiveness as Asia’s preeminent global center for commerce.”
Although the Court of Final Appeals decision does not alter Hong Kong’s prohibition of full legal recognition for same-sex couples, QT said it represents an important milestone. She told reporters she no longer feels like a “second-class citizen.”
“I can have the basic rights like anyone else, from as simple as having a library card to having healthcare,” QT said in a media phone call earlier this week.
But QT’s case may inspire further discussion in Hong Kong on securing greater rights and protections for same-sex partners. Its only openly LGBTQ lawmaker, Raymond Chan, told Bloomberg that next week he plans to make a formal call to debate the marriage equality issue in the city’s Legislative Council.
Legislative Council member Regina Ip claimed full legal recognition for same-sex couples is unlikely but plans to support the motion.
“There are quite a number of conservatives in the higher echelons of Hong Kong’s government who are opposed to gay rights for religious reasons,” Ip told the publication. “Like the court, younger and better-educated people are more liberal.”
A recent poll, however, showed that increasing numbers of Hong Kong residents support LGBTQ rights. Survey results released on Wednesday from Hong Kong University showed that a slight majority of city dwellers (50.4 percent) are in favor of same-sex marriage, a more than 12 percentage point increase from 2013.
QT’s attorney, Michael Vidler, is hopeful that Hong Kong’s city legislature will take up the issue by applying the Court of Final Appeals verdict to adoption and housing rights for same-sex couples.
“Every step of the case is an advancement,” Vidler claimed in an interview with United Press International. “I think it vindicates the idea that the time is now for a change. … Logically, if the government is going to apply this decision in relation to immigration policy, it should see that the writing is on the wall.”
He added that the ruling is “a small step for us, but one giant step for equality in Hong Kong.”
The legalization of marriage equality would make Hong Kong a leader in equality in East Asia, where only Taiwan has moved to recognize LGBTQ unions. In March 2017, its Constitutional Court ruled the municipality’s statutory ban on same-sex partnerships was “in violation of both the people’s freedom of marriage as protected by Article 22 and the people’s right to equality as guaranteed by Article 7 of the Constitution.”
The ruling will go into effect in May 2019. The Constitutional Court urged Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan to pass a law updating the Civil Code to allow all couples to marry before that time.
A handful of jurisdictions in Japan—including Iba, Sapporo, Setagaya, and Shibuya—have moved to recognize LGBTQ partnerships, but the country has yet to pass nationwide legalization legalizing marriage equality. Kanako Otsuji, Japan’s only openly queer lawmaker, has claimed the movement toward full legal recognition for same-sex couples will take “years.”
Thailand may be the next country to introduce civil partnerships for LGBTQ couples.
Elsewhere, progress remains slow. Although homosexuality was decriminalized in China in 1997, only five percent of LGBTQ residents say they are out to colleagues at work, while nearly one in three gay men (30 percent) are completely closeted. Sodomy remains illegal in Singapore, viewed as a major competitor to Hong Kong.