Hong Kong’s top court on Thursday ruled in favour of a gay civil servant fighting for spousal and tax benefits for his husband, in the latest legal victory for equal rights for same-sex couples in a city where gay marriage is banned.
Leung Chun Kwong, an immigration officer, who married his husband, Scott Adams, in New Zealand, went to court in 2017 against the Civil Service Bureau, which refused to grant benefits to his husband, and for the right to file taxes jointly.
After a lower court partially ruled in Leung’s favour, the government filed an appeal, and a higher court last year overturned the judgment. Leung appealed to the Court of Final Appeal, which ruled unanimously in his favour on Thursday.
The court said while the protection of the institution of marriage as defined by Hong Kong’s laws is a “legitimate aim”, the government “failed to justify the differential treatment” which amounted to discrimination.
The city defines marriage as between a man and a woman, but the court said the prevailing views on marriage were not a “relevant consideration”, and could not be a reason to reject a minority’s claim to fundamental rights.
The ruling is a “huge step forward for equality in Hong Kong”, said Man-kei Tam, director of human rights group, Amnesty International, in Hong Kong.
“This victory brings Hong Kong more in line with its international obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of people with different sexual orientations,” he said.
Homosexuality has been decriminalised since 1991 in Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The city has an annual pride parade and lively gay scene.
It does not, however, recognise same-sex marriage, and LGBT+ activists voice concerns about widespread discrimination.
Taiwan last month became the first place in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage after a long struggle but the push for LGBT+ rights is slow elsewhere in Asia.
A global outcry forced Brunei to recently back down on plans to impose the death penalty for gay sex and adultery.
A survey last year by the University of Hong Kong showed more than half respondents in the city backed same-sex marriage.
But rights are only won through court battles, said Tommy Chen, a spokesman for LGBT+ activist group, Rainbow Action.
Earlier this year, two gay men launched separate legal bids to overturn Hong Kong’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Last September, the Hong Kong government said it would recognise overseas same-sex partnerships, when granting dependent visas, after a British lesbian won a court battle triggered by being denied a spousal visa.
“Until the government ends discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, (court action) is the only option,” Chen said.
-Rina Chandran – Thomson Reuters Foundation