Hong Kong: Queer teachers forced to hide their relationship say marriage equality would change everything

Two women kiss in front of a Hong Kong flag

Support for same-sex marriage is growing in Hong Kong, but change isn’t coming fast enough for many LGBTQ+ couples.

A new survey has put support for same-sex marriage at 60 per cent, up from 38 per cent just a decade ago. Society is changing, but queer couples who want the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts are still struggling.

Leia and Zhen – not their real names – are one of those couples. Both teachers at a Christian school, they met five years ago at work. Within two months, they were romantically involved.

Because of their work, Leia and Zhen have to be discreet about the true nature of their relationship.

“The school told the teachers that if the students tell us they are lesbian or gay, that we’re not supposed to encourage them, we should tell them this is something wrong,” Leia says.

“Teaching at the same school, the interaction could be very obvious so we have to be really careful. When we hang out, we cannot hold hands or hug or do things ordinary couples do.”

You may like to watch

People marking the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in Hong Kong in 2019
People mark International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in Hong Kong in 2019. (Getty)

While they can’t be open at work, they say that things are getting better in Hong Kong for queer people.

“The younger generation is starting to accept same-sex relationships – they’re more open-minded than the older generation.

“If our students knew we [are] together, they would be thrilled and excited for us, but this won’t be the school’s perspective,” says Leia. 

The couple almost tied the knot overseas during the pandemic but ultimately decided against it because of the exorbitant cost.

“At that point, I wondered why I have to pay so much more than other couples to recognise my relationship” Leia continues.

Neither of them harbours particularly romantic notions about marriage – they see it more as a human right that would give them added security in life.

Participants of Hong Kong's annual pride parade march with a giant rainbow flag
Participants at Hong Kong’s annual Pride parade march in 2017. (Photo by Aaron Tam/AFP via Getty)

“Both of us agree that married or not, it doesn’t define how much we love each other. Marriage doesn’t mean a lot to us, but I think having same-sex marriage in Hong Kong is important for the next generation of our community – and for us as well. At least we can hold hands when we are out together.” 

More people in Hong Kong now know an LGBTQ+ person

Professor Holning Lau is one of the researchers who worked on a recent survey that showed support for same-sex marriage is on the rise. 

The research isn’t entirely clear about the reasons for the dramatic change of heart among Hong Kongers over the past decade, but Lau thinks it could be to do with increased media representation of LGBTQ+ couples, a series of significant court rulings on LGBTQ+ rights and the number of other countries around the world that have legalised same-sex marriage.

Some notable court victories include a 2018 case where the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) ruled that a same-sex couple who had registered their partnership abroad must be given permission to apply for a dependent visa in Hong Kong.

The following year, the CFA ruled in a separate case that a same-sex couple who married abroad must be given civil servant spousal benefits and joint tax-filing status.

There have also been a number of cases in Hong Kong’s lower courts since 2020 that have reaffirmed same-sex couples’ rights in housing, inheritance and regarding the custody of children.

Beyond legal victories, Lau says part of the shift is down to the fact that more Hong Kong citizens now know LGBTQ+ people personally.

“There’s research suggesting that people in Hong Kong are more likely today than 10 years ago to say they know someone who’s gay,” he says.

“In previous research, I have found that interpersonal contact is associated with more favourable attitudes towards gays and lesbians in Hong Kong.” 

Despite all this, Hong Kong’s government remains opposed to any progress on same-sex unions. In 2018, the government fought a lawsuit from a woman who argued that her right to privacy and equality had been violated because she wasn’t allowed to enter into a civil partnership.

The High Court eventually dismissed the case in 2019, saying the issue of same-sex unions was “beyond the proper scope of the functions or powers of the court”.

There’s still a lot of opposition, but Hong Kong’s LGBTQ+ community now knows that change is on the horizon and believe same-sex marriage will eventually come to their shores.

The question right now is when rather than if, as public support grows higher and higher

Leia’s advice to the government is simple: “Don’t be afraid of making a change.”