Games win puts focus on banks' gay rights push in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s HSBC bank painted the lions outside its main office in rainbow colours for its pro-LGBT campaign in 2016. (Photo: AFP)

By Bruce Einhorn

Hong Kong’s selection to host the 2022 Gay Games puts the spotlight on calls by Goldman Sachs Group Inc., BlackRock Inc. and other financial institutions for the city government to make progress on gay rights or risk harming efforts to lure global talent.

Hong Kong beat out Washington, D.C., and Guadalajara, Mexico, to become the first Asian city to be awarded the Olympics-style event, held every four years. Currently, same-sex marriage isn’t recognized in the Asian financial hub, even after two court defeats earlier this year, leading to talented employees refusing to relocate to or remain in the city. Game campaigners hope more awareness will drive change in public attitudes toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, community.

“Having the Gay Games will be a great opportunity for people to step out of the dark and into the light,” said Dennis Philipse, head of the Hong Kong bid committee who went to Paris for Monday’s announcement. The team cheered and drank champagne after the win and planned a bigger celebration upon its return, he said. “It’s a major step for Asia.”

The push by financial institutions to ease restrictions on same-sex marriage came to light when 12 of them filed a court document in May on behalf of a lesbian from the U.K. who had applied for a visa as a dependent of her partner. The court ruled in September that the government must allow her to legally reside in Hong Kong.

That follows a court ruling in April that a civil servant who married his husband in New Zealand, where same-sex marriage is legal, is entitled to the same government benefits for his spouse as his heterosexual colleagues.

In Favor

Financial institutions in favor of granting the visa included Goldman Sachs, BlackRock, Morgan Stanley, Nomura Holdings Inc., Credit Suisse Group AG, ABN Amro Bank NV, American International Group Inc., Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd., Bank of New York Mellon Corp., Societe Generale SA, State Street Bank & Trust Co. and Royal Bank of Canada.

In March, most of the same companies, plus Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Barclays Plc, Commonwealth Bank of Australia and JPMorgan Chase & Co., had called on the government to introduce legislation against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“It’s critically important that we have policies and benefits in place that allow us to be able to attract and retain the best talent,” said Claire Goodchild, head of diversity and inclusion in Asia for Morgan Stanley, declining to comment on banks’ efforts to lobby the government.

Policies that put LGBT people at a disadvantage hurt companies’ ability to recruit and retain talented employees, said Bruce Larson, Goldman Sachs’ Hong Kong-based head of human capital management in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Denying access to certain parts of the population to participate in the talent market is not in Hong Kong’s best interest to continue as a global financial center,” Larson said.

Hong Kong’s unwillingness to grant spousal visas and benefits makes it difficult to convince people to move to the city, according to Harry O’Neill, a Hong Kong-based partner at Heidrick & Struggles International Inc., an executive search firm headquartered in Chicago, and co-chair of its regional diversity council.

“If you want to be Asia’s World City and attract global talent, then you need to keep up with what norms are in other parts of the world,” he said. Lack of legal recognition for same-sex marriage and benefits “makes Hong Kong a less attractive proposition.”

Refusing Move

Because of the lack of legal status, some employees have refused to move to Hong Kong, according to an executive at a global bank who asked not to be identified because of the political sensitivity of the issue.

But instead of easing rules, the Hong Kong government has been ramping up efforts to continue to deny rights to same-sex spouses, even after suffering defeats in the courts. The government has filed an application to appeal the ruling in favor of the British woman. The Hong Kong government is appealing the New Zealand marriage ruling, too.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, when asked about legalizing same-sex marriage after a speech on Oct. 11, cited opposition from religious groups and said it’s up to society to change attitudes before the government responds with law.

“On such a sensitive issue, the government must take into account what the society finds acceptable, and it’s not up to the government to decide on a course of action unilaterally,” she said.

Major Concern

The Hong Kong government’s opposition to granting rights to same-sex spouses is a major concern for members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, which has submitted positions to the government seeking change.

“We really see that same sex spousal visas widen the talent pool and widen Hong Kong’s competitiveness,” said Tara Joseph, AmCham Hong Kong’s president. “The current immigration policy has the potential to be a significant obstacle.”

More countries are recognizing same-sex marriages. The first and only in Asia is Taiwan, where a constitutional court in May ruled that the island’s laws must be changed to allow gay marriage. In Australia, polling closes Nov. 15 on a postal vote on whether to legalize same-sex marriage there.

Risky Trips

Because Hong Kong doesn’t recognize such marriages, spouses stay in the city on short-term tourist visas that can be renewed by making trips across the border to Macau or mainland China. That’s risky, according to Robert Ronneberger, an associate at BlackRock and a board member of the Hong Kong LGBT+ Interbank Forum, an advocacy group.

“At some point, having all those stamps in your passport, the immigration officer asks what you’re doing,” he said.

While they try to influence the government, many multinationals have been pushing change internally, setting up mentoring, awareness events and networking opportunities, as well as providing benefits for same-sex spouses.

“There are many multinationals that are very committed to this,” said Fern Ngai, chief executive officer of Community Business, a local non-profit that in May named Goldman Sachs, HSBC Holdings Plc, BlackRock, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley as the top five employers in Hong Kong for LGBT people.

Hosting the Gay Games will help LGBT people in Hong Kong win more acceptance, said Alfred Ip, a partner with law firm Oldham, Li & Nie and a member of Hong Kong Gay and Lesbian Attorneys (HKGALA) Network.

‘Not Mutants’

“It’s definitely going to be a very positive move to bring LGBT activity to society and help the community understand that we are not mutants,” he said. “We are just like anyone else who can be good at sports and enjoy a life that’s not very different from the rest of the community.”

News of the city’s selection was met with a muted reception from official Hong Kong. Neither the chief executive’s office nor the government’s website released statements acknowledging the city’s selection.

In response to questions, the government noted the win of the bid by “a local registered society” to host the Games, and said that Hong Kong “is committed to promoting equal opportunities and fostering in the community the culture and values of inclusiveness and mutual respect.”

There are some pockets of official support. The sponsor of the statement calling for anti-discrimination legislation was the Equal Opportunities Commission, a government body that makes policy recommendations. Its head, Alfred Chan, did officially welcome the announcement, saying the EOC was “very pleased to hear that the Gay Games will be hosted in Hong Kong.” The EOC and the government-backed Hong Kong Tourism Board had been supporters of the bid.

Corporate sponsors for the games, which are expected to draw 40,000 participants and spectators and inject HK$1 billion ($128 million) into Hong Kong’s economy, include Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., Accor SA and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, according to the bid committee.

Another official supporter is Regina Ip, a member of the government’s Executive Council.

“Hosting the Gay Games will showcase Hong Kong as an open and highly tolerant society,” she said in an interview, calling them “an important step in saying no to discrimination and bigotry.”

 

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Einhorn in Hong Kong at beinhorn1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net;  Kenneth Wong at kwong11@bloomberg.net Sheridan Prasso

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