Hong Kong just got a major ruling on rights for same-sex spouses

In 2014, Hong Kong immigration officer Leung Chun-kwong married his partner of about a decade in New Zealand, where same-sex marriage had become legal the previous year. On Friday, a High Court judge in Hong Kong, which doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, said that Leung’s husband was entitled to the same benefits available to the spouses of heterosexual employees of the civil service, the South China Morning Post reported over the weekend.

The judge disagreed with the civil services’ stance that extending the benefits would undermine the integrity of marriage in Hong Kong, the Post reported. A lawyer for Leung said the decision was a major one—an instance of “rare judicial recognition” of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights in the city.

Hong Kong hasn’t exactly been a beacon on that front in Asia. Although same-sex relations are legal, same-sex partners aren’t allowed dependent visas to accompany their spouses and their relationships aren’t formally recognized in other ways, for example when it comes to having the right to make medical decisions for their long-term partners. It’s a situation the city’s Equal Opportunities Commission asked the government to review last year, while acknowledging many people here oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

In December, when HSBC bank unveiled rainbow-hued lions in support of the city’s LGBT community, it drew protests.

It’s not clear yet how the government, a major employer, will handle the court’s decision. Leung’s department said it is evaluating the decision together with Hong Kong’s justice department, according to the Post.

There have been other attempts to expand the rights available to same-sex relationships by turning to Hong Kong courts, but they haven’t been successful. A challenge brought by a woman who was denied a visa as the dependent of the woman with whom she was in a civil partnership was rejected last year.

But there may be other ways in which Hong Kong law is ripe for further legal challenges. The judge in this case didn’t overrule the tax department’s decision not to extend married status to the couple, noting the tax department has defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. However, an interpretation guide (pdf) from the tax department also states that overseas marriages should be recognized—”the validity of a marriage is determined by the law of the place where it was celebrated”—which appears to create a contradiction in the regulation.

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