A Gay-Pride Revolution in Hong Kong

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Ted Aljibe / AFP / Getty

Gay-rights activists form a human chain around a rainbow flag in Hong Kong

There were no drag queens in sexy ensembles with heavy makeup strutting down the streets in platform heels or buff shirtless sailor boys splayed like starfish on moving floats. But Hong Kong's first official gay-pride parade Saturday was still a colorful gathering; in fact, for a country that rarely acknowledges homosexuality, let alone celebrates it, it was downright revolutionary.

For a few hours, a city that usually seems immune to surprises watched in awe as approximately 1,000 paradegoers stopped traffic, filled the streets and spread their message to "celebrate love." A rainbow-colored dragon bobbed over the heads of carefully coiffed men donning dainty dresses and dancing to "Celebrate Pride," which warbled through a loudspeaker in the center of the city. Men with fiery red-feathered tiaras chanted, "Pride parade! Pride parade! Pride parade!" in Cantonese and English while marching through Hong Kong's congested Hennessy Road waving multicolored pride flags. (See TIME's top 10 pictures of 2008.)

Although Hong Kong has held several small demonstrations against homophobia, this was the first parade solely dedicated to celebrating queer identity. "We came out today to show the world that people in the queer community are normal people too," said Ariel Wong, a 21-year-old student at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University who wore a rainbow Afro wig and distributed stickers with pink hearts on them. The parade was co-organized by Rainbow of Hong Kong, Midnight Blue, Social Movement Resource Centre and the Women Coalition, with support from groups working on myriad issues, including civil rights, HIV/AIDS education and transgender awareness. It represented progress for China's gay community, marking the first large-scale event of its kind in any major Chinese city (only Taipei has hosted similar events). Antonio Licon, a Web designer for Hong Kong Magazine who grew up in Hawaii, said, "I think socially there are a lot of pressures in Hong Kong to conform to expectations and not disappoint parents."

People emerged from shops and restaurants to witness the historic event. While some spectators cheered in support, most looked confused and bewildered. "I never thought I would see this in Hong Kong," said Kevin Li, a salesman who nevertheless believes the younger generation is less homophobic than the older one. "Our society has different values than the West regarding sex because we are more traditional and more Chinese."

Yet it was Victorian colonial laws, not conservative Chinese attitudes, which first criminalized homosexuality. In 1901 British colonial laws threatened homosexuals with life imprisonment for anal intercourse and up to two years imprisonment for any so-called indecent acts involving two men, even if the acts occurred in the privacy of their home. In 1980, after an inspector of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force committed suicide as a group of officers were about to arrest him on suspicion of having engaged in homosexual activities, a debate sparked on legalizing homosexuality. Finally in 1991, after more than a decade of discussion, it was decriminalized.

But even if homosexuality is no longer a crime in Hong Kong, a stigma remains, as do discriminatory statutes with double standards. In 2005, Hong Kong–based civil rights attorney Michael Vidler successfully challenged a law that set the legal age of consent 21 for homosexuals (the age of consent for heterosexuals was 16), with a punishment of up to life in prison for violators. The law was ruled unconstitutional, but it has not been formally repealed.

"There are still archaic ideas of homosexuality as a form of gross indecency," said Vidler, who said he has seen cases of discrimination against homosexuals in the work force and housing market. "Hong Kong says it's a world city, but [it] has protocols in place that show it is still a backward country in regard to homosexuals' rights." Hong Kong lacks any non-discriminatory ordinance, and many locals still regard homosexuality with unease. Eric Herrera, a member of a white-collar gay-rights group called Fruits in Suits, which helped organize the parade, said, "I have no problem walking down the streets arm in arm with my partner of 21 years, but it makes many people very uncomfortable."

Many of the parade participants came from mainland China and Hong Kong's large expatriate community. "I've lived in China for a long time, and I've never marched in a gay-pride parade, so I always had my sister march in Chicago on my behalf," said Scott Wilson, who works in Wanzhou province. Amnesty International's LGBT coordinator in Hong Kong, Medeleine Mok, said, "In mainland China, it's impossible to have a gay-pride march, so this is a very important day that has attracted many people to Hong Kong."

The parade emphasized celebrating diversity and equality but also aired grievances with the Chinese government. Gun Lu of Beijing held a sign protesting censorship of movies and television shows that deal openly with homosexuality. In January 2007, the Broadcasting Authority issued a warning to producers of a show called Gay Lovers for presenting a "pro-gay" view. In March, Hong Kong's legislative council panel unanimously passed a motion demanding that the Broadcasting Authority withdraw its earlier ruling. "Non-heterosexuals rarely appear in the media, and when they do, they are portrayed as effeminate, flamboyant, sissies, perverts or AIDS carriers," said Dr. Ching Yau, an associate professor who teaches courses on media and gender studies at Lingnan University.

Such attitudes were reflected in the fact that, though Pride Parade 2008 turned out to be a success in many ways, planning the event was no easy matter. "While organizing the parade, we encountered many obstacles from the government, the police and a bus company," said Wai-Wai Yeo, a member of the Hong Kong Pride 2008 Organizing Committee. The local company Citybus refused to rent a double-decker to organizers of the city's parade because of concerns about its image. "This was a blatant act of discrimination, especially seeing the fact that this is a legal parade and the Hong Kong police have granted a permit," says Betty Grisoni, co-founder of a lesbian-rights organization called Les Peches, which helped organize the parade. A Citybus spokeswoman said on Dec. 11 that it would not discriminate against any party and that it was a commercial decision.

While significantly smaller in comparison to its counterparts in Berlin, New York City and San Francisco, Pride Parade 2008 set a precedent for what may become an annual event. "You have to start small," said Bill Boyle, a retiree who lives in Hong Kong and Toronto, as he watched the parade. "You want to educate the general population, not only to your presence, but also to the fact that you are just like them. You have the same right to fall in love like everyone else has and you need to have the same legal rights, and those legal rights are not here yet for people who are gay."

(See the top 10 buzzwords of 2008.)