A gay Hong Kong civil servant finally won the right to benefits for his spouse

Fits and starts.
Fits and starts.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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Hong Kong’s highest court ruled today (June 6) that the government must give spousal benefits to a gay civil servant and his spouse, following multiple legal challenges by the government.

Angus Leung, an immigration officer, sued the government in 2015 after it refused to grant spousal benefits, such as health insurance, to his husband, whom he married in New Zealand the year before. A lower court ruled in 2017 in favor of Leung, only for the Hong Kong government to appeal that ruling weeks later. Another court later overturned the 2017 ruling, leading Leung to sue to the Court of Final Appeal.

The government had argued that granting same-sex couples spousal benefits would undermine the institution of marriage in Hong Kong. The five judges on today’s panel argued unanimously against government’s stance on the grounds that “reliance on the absence of a majority consensus [on same-sex marriage] as a reason for rejecting a minority’s claim is inimical in principle to fundamental rights.” It also said that extending tax benefits to gay couples has no impact on heterosexual marriage, and granted the couple the right to file joint taxes.

For the purpose of financial benefits, “the Court was satisfied that a same-sex married couple such as Leung and Adams are relevantly analogous with an opposite-sex married couple,” the court said.

Today’s ruling marks another major victory for the LGBT community in Hong Kong, following a court ruling in July that said the government must grant dependant visas to legally recognized gay couples the same way it does for married heterosexual couples. The years-long litigation involved a British woman, known only as QT, who alleged that she faced “irrational” discrimination by immigration authorities in not being awarded a dependant visa to accompany her female partner, with whom she was in a legally recognized civil union, to Hong Kong.

A Hong Kong court is also hearing the first challenge to legalize same-sex marriage, after a woman known as MK sued in May for the right to wed her partner. Two gay men also mounted a bid earlier in the year challenging the ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional.

Michael Vidler, a lawyer who advocates for LGBT rights in Hong Kong and represented QT, the British lesbian, said at a recent conference in the city that litigation is an important way of advancing gay rights in the city. “We use strategic litigation and the publicity we’ve been able to generate from that to increase discussion” of LGBT issues.

While Taiwan held its first same-sex weddings weeks ago after becoming the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage, the prospect remains dim in Hong Kong, where the government remains staunchly against it. The newly appointed head of the Equal Opportunities Commission, a statutory body responsible for implementing anti-discrimination laws, said recently that the body would not “waste resources” on promoting gay marriage when the chances of it passing the legislature were so slim.

Vidler added at the conference that pressure from companies is important in shifting the agenda on LGBT issues in Hong Kong, because the government “listens to business far more than NGOs.”