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Recent rulings have sparked hopes that Hong Kong will soon legalize same-sex marriage

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hong Kong's civil liberties have been in decline since China's government imposed a national security law there. That law followed large-scale and sometimes violent anti-government protests in 2019. But the rights of LGBTQ people seem to have been left alone for the most part. And this year, Hong Kong's courts made several key rulings in favor of granting gay and lesbian couples more rights. This is sparking hopes that the city will join a growing number of places in Asia with legalized same-sex marriage. Cindy Sui sent us this report from Hong Kong.

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CINDY SUI: Across the border in mainland China, holding LGBT+ events like this one would be impossible. This is Pink Dot Hong Kong, an annual carnival celebrating gay pride. More than 13,000 people came out to this year's event, one of the biggest turnouts. Gay and lesbian couples are swaying to the music, and families with children are joining in on the fun, trying to keep a giant, inflated pink ball in the air. One of the singers proudly declares that she switches sexual orientation from day to day, saying that's what makes life interesting. This kind of public speech would most likely be suppressed in mainland China, but not in Hong Kong, where people have become more accepting of homosexuality. Now, however, there are worries that Hong Kong's government may follow in the footsteps of mainland China, where an LGBTQ center in Beijing and online platforms have been shut down.

ALAN HAU: We are scared that if there are these large-scale shutdowns and more that are more prolific, then it would send the wrong message to our government leaders in Hong Kong that they have to follow suit and do the same.

SUI: That's Alan Hau, the deacon at the LGBTQ-inclusive Blessed Ministry Community Church. Fueling such fears is that in November, Hong Kong's annual gay pride parade was canceled. A low-key exhibition was held instead. And at the Pink Dot event, NGOs were not allowed to make speeches on stage like before. Alan and others think the government is worried that protesters would hijack the events, as has happened in the past.

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ESTHER LEUNG: It is a significant victory, which make clear that Hong Kong law must afford the respect and protection to same-sex couples.

SUI: But amid the worries, there's cautious optimism. That's because Hong Kong's courts handed down four key rulings this year in favor of the LGBTQ community. The most important ruling, handed down in September by Hong Kong's highest court, ordered the government to create a framework to recognize same-sex unions within two years.

JEROME YAU: Now, of course, the court stopped short of mandating the government to implement same-sex marriage. But at the same time, the message is very clear. First of all, same-sex couples should be able to live a dignified life, and their relationships should be recognized and protected by law. And the government has two years to work on this framework. I think that's a very, very important development.

SUI: That's Jerome Yau, co-founder of Hong Kong Marriage Equality, a nonprofit that advocates for the fair treatment of same-sex couples. He says he's not worried LGBTQ rights will be curtailed.

YAU: Well, you know, I think let's just look at the fact. You know, what I'm seeing is Hong Kong is Hong Kong, mainland is mainland, because obviously we have seen big LGBT events happening in Hong Kong, you know? In September, we had a Lesbian Gay Film Festival, Gay Games - you know, very big international sporting event promoting diversity, inclusion happening in Hong Kong for the first time in Asia in the game's history. The facts speak for themselves as to the situation here in Hong Kong.

SUI: He's optimistic the government will take action to adhere to the highest court's ruling.

YAU: Well, I'm cautiously optimistic. This is a legal obligation. The government is legally required to do something within two years. This is the final judgment of the court. I would be very surprised if the government did not do anything.

SUI: Recent surveys have found out around 60% of Hong Kong people support same-sex marriage - much higher than in the past. Now people like Alan are waiting to see if the government will keep pace with changing attitudes in society and grant homosexual couples the same rights heterosexual couples have, including to inherit each other's assets, make medical decisions for each other, and get married right here in Hong Kong.

HAU: A lot of couples here think this is very much needed for the community as a wholes. Right now, for LGBTQ couples - they can get married, of course, if they go abroad, but then...

SUI: Or even do it by Zoom, right?

HAU: Or do it by Zoom, yes. Me and my husband actually did it by Zoom. Like, why do LGBTQ couples have to go through this extra step when we're all paying the same taxes? Shouldn't we all enjoy the same civil rights?

SUI: If the government legalizes same-sex marriage, members of the LGBTQ community say it will show that one country, two systems formula, under which Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, still works, at least in this respect.

For NPR News, I'm Cindy Sui in Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Cindy Sui