HONG KONG (AP) — Football enthusiast Gina Benjamin is not just training for victory in the upcoming Gay Games in Hong Kong, but she’s also on a mission to help push for legal reform for same-sex marriage.
After moving to Hong Kong from Britain in 2016, Benjamin, 33, met her true love in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city. But local laws, recognizing only heterosexual marriages, forced the couple to travel to the British Embassy in Vietnam to get married in August. Their inability to marry in the city where their love story unfolded left her frustrated.
This weekend the drama teacher along with diverse teams of male, female and transgender players will take to the pitch with what she calls “a big purpose.” She hopes participation in the games can show the government the city’s strong support for equal rights for same-sex couples.
“We’re playing to possibly change laws,” she said.
Set to begin on Friday, the first Gay Games in Asia are fostering hopes for wider LGBTQ+ inclusion in the regional financial hub, following recent court wins in favor of equality for same-sex couples and transgender people.
After a year’s delay due to the pandemic, the nine-day event will host about 2,400 participants from some 40 territories. They will compete in a range of games, from tennis and swimming to culturally rich activities like dragon boat racing and mahjong.
Lisa Lam, co-chair of the Gay Games, said LGBTQ+ acceptance in Asia is still lower than in the rest of the world and that it’s important to make sexual minorities visible in the community.
“Biases come from misunderstanding or stereotypes,” Lam said. “Bringing different people together, you are able to break down stereotypes.”
But organizers have faced various challenges since winning the bid to host the games in 2017.
The opportunity to grow Hong Kong’s reputation as an inclusive international financial hub did not draw much support from the government. Some lawmakers have even attacked the games, with one suggesting it could pose a threat to national security.
The scale of the event also falls short of the organizers’ original goals set in 2016. They had aimed to attract 15,000 participants and inject 1 billion Hong Kong dollars (US$128 million) into the economy.
The COVID-19 pandemic is largely to blame for its downsize. As Hong Kong grappled with the uncertainty of when stringent quarantine rules for travelers would be eased, Guadalajara in Mexico was named as a co-host for the games.
With a closer option available, many individuals from Europe and America opted not to undertake the lengthy journey to Hong Kong, Lam said. The high costs associated with long-haul flights and hotel accommodations in the post-pandemic era also deterred many potential visitors, she added.
Others are hesitant to visit due to the risks posed by a Beijing-imposed national security law that has jailed and silenced many activists following 2019 pro-democracy protests. Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, will not send a national delegation to Hong Kong out of safety concerns.
But equality advocate Jerome Yau was optimistic that the community would still appreciate how the games promote LGBTQ+ dialogue. It can take time for people to fully realize the legacy of an event, said the co-founder of non-governmental organization Hong Kong Marriage Equality.
LGBTQ+ activism is a rare spot that is still making considerable progress in Hong Kong under a government crackdown on its civil society.
Over the past year, the city’s courts have ruled that full sex reassignment surgery should not be a prerequisite for transgender people to have their gender changed on their official identity cards and backed the granting of equal housing and inheritance rights for same-sex couples married overseas. Hong Kong is now moving toward a framework for recognizing same-sex partnerships following a landmark ruling in September. All these wins were brought by legal challenges launched by members of the LGBTQ+ community amid growing social acceptance of same-sex marriage.
Suen Yiu-tung, a gender studies professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, acknowledged the positive progress but said Hong Kong’s LGBTQ+ development remains uneven because other areas have not advanced much. Suen pointed out that discrimination based on sexual orientation is still legal in the private sector, and that a report from a 2017 public consultation on legal gender recognition has yet to be released.
While government policies may take years to fully incorporate equal rights, many members of the LGBTQ+ community are proactively seizing every opportunity to drive small changes. Hundreds of volunteers have helped to build the Gay Games.
Emery Fung, a 29-year-old founder of a diversity and inclusion consultancy, is one of them. He helped set up all-gender toilets for participants and arrange some contests to allow people of different genders to play together — breaking from the tradition of conventional sporting events, which typically segregate players by sex.
“I hope that ultimately, there will be a day people won’t need to specifically state what kind of person I am or what kind of person you are, we just all live together,” he said.