LGBT marriage: can Hong Kong follow the USA?
Written by Philip Howell-Williams on July 01, 2015.
Last week witnessed a truly monumental step forward for LGBT rights when the US Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriages across all states. It was a close call with Justice Anthony Kennedy casting the deciding vote to bring a 5-4 ruling and protect the right to marriage equality under constitution. His words in announcing the landmark ruling were extremely moving, as he said:
"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfilment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."
Equally moving was the wave of support for gay rights across social media around the world as gays and non-gays alike celebrated the decision. Many posted rainbow profile pictures on Facebook. President Obama left no room for doubt about his views stating “This ruling is a victory for America. This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts: when all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free.” The White House was lit up like a rainbow in celebration, in a very visual display of just how far LGBT rights have come in the US.
Twas not ever thus however and the road to equality, as many of us know first-hand, has been a hard one, with the fight only just beginning in many countries. History tells us that the issue of same-sex marriage is nothing new – historians generally concur that same-sex relationships were not unheard of in Roman times with Emperor Nero reputed to have married a man. There are also documented incidences of same-sex marriages in Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt and ancient Assyria.
In modern times, the issue of same-sex marriage started appearing on the political agenda in the US in the 1970s when the first cases of same-sex couples challenging the denial of marriage licences are documented. As recently as 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act which effectively denied same-sex couples equal rights however, that same year in a landmark case, the first ever trial on freedom to marry ruled that the state did not have a legitimate reason for depriving same-sex couples the freedom to marry.
In 1999, California became the first US state to offer some of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples by creating a domestic partnership statute but it was Massachusetts that became the first US state to legalise marriage in 2004. Between that year and the Supreme Court ruling last week, 36 other states followed suit. Now all 50 are bound by the same constitution, with some states affected by the new legislation already issuing licences to gay couples last Friday. However, there is opposition in certain states, notably Texas and Louisiana, where the attorney generals have indicated that they will fight the ruling and that same-sex marriage licenses will not be granted immediately.
On the international stage, Denmark led the way in legalising same-sex unions, with the introduction of registered partnerships in 1989, and it was the Netherlands who were the first nation to legalise gay marriage in 2001. Same-sex marriages are now legal in the following countries, listed in the order in which legislation was introduced: Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, Denmark, Brazil, France, Uruguay, New Zealand, UK, Luxembourg and the US.
Hong Kong, and indeed Asia as a whole, is notable by its absence. Following the US ruling, Dr York Chow Yat-ngok of the Equal Opportunities Commission in Hong Kong called for a discussion on the legalisation of same-sex marriage here. Although equality is enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, in the absence of even a law against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, legal recognition of same-sex partnerships remains a distant dream. In the face of staunch opposition from many conservative Hongkongers, particularly highly vocal Christian groups such as the Society for Truth and Light, there is undoubtedly a long road ahead until Hong Kong’s LGBT community achieves equality. Nevertheless, the US ruling remains a victory for lesbians and gays around the world and should be celebrated as such.