The Hong Kong Pride Parade is an annual march in support of LGBT rights. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Another Believer

As the world said good riddance to 2020, many Chinese LGBT members in Hong Kong and China began to dread Lunar New Year’s family reunions, during which they will have to deal with unwelcome questions from parents and relatives about their supposedly heterosexual  marriages.

Although same-sex marriage became legal in Taiwan in 2019, the High Court of Hong Kong upheld the ban in November of the same year, and ruled against the recognition of overseas marriages in September 2020. These recent rulings were setbacks for the LGBT community, but the popular tides are changing in both Hong Kong and mainland China. 

In 2020, Hong Kong’s high court ruled that same-sex couples should receive equal treatment under inheritance law, and since 2017, mainland China has allowed same-sex couples to register as “appointed guardians,” which allows same-sex couples to make medical and personal care decisions for each other. What can we learn from these rulings? 

If we observe how society evolves and how people’s attitudes toward homosexuality change over time, legalizing same-sex marriage appears to be the product of the natural progression of humanity.  

While homosexuality in China was acknowledged as far back as the Han Dynasty, it remains a taboo subject in Chinese society, especially among its political class. We can learn from the evolving views of two world leaders on homosexuality.

UK Parliament’s changing attitudes

After the World War II, legal sanctions against homosexual behavior together with prejudice against gays and lesbians rose to a peak in the UK. In the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Parliament did not address LGBT matters. 

For example, Alan Turing, the codebreaker who deciphered Enigma coded messages, a breakthrough that was vital to the British war effort against Nazi Germany, was convicted for being gay in 1952, was subjected to chemical castration, and committed suicide in 1954.

As the British attitudes toward homosexuality changed, Parliament progressively pivoted, often with parliamentarians playing a critical role in steering and bolstering progressive values in the crowd.

Parliament ratified the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized homosexual acts, in 1967. It also  approved same-sex marriage in 2013; indeed, Queen Elizabeth pledged to protect the LGBT community from discrimination in her address to Parliament in 2017.

Then-prime minister Gordon Brown issued a posthumous public apology to Alan Turing in 2009, which was followed by a royal pardon for Turing in 2013. More recently, the Bank of England announced that the image of Turing and his work will be depicted on the new polymer £50 note in 2021.

Better late than never – people can change; so should politicians. There’s no reason to think that politicians must always act reactively. 

Obama’s evolving stance

Across the Atlantic Ocean, homosexuality was illegal in the United States until the US Supreme Court eliminated sodomy laws in 2003. Despite decriminalization, hate crimes against LGBTQ people have risen over the years. The death of Matthew Shepard, a 22-year-old gay student who was beaten, tortured, and tied to a prairie fence in Wyoming, shocked the nation in 1998.   

Most politicians do take public opinions into consideration, and Barack Obama was no exception. During his US Senate campaign in 2004, Obama stated that he would not support same-sex marriage, even though he believed that homosexuality is not a choice and “for the most part, it is innate.” He later stated in his 2008 presidential campaign that he would support civil unions for same-sex couples but not same-sex marriage.

Once in office as president, Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Act in 2009 to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. 

In 2010, Obama signed a bill setting in motion the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” – a law signed by president Bill Clinton in 1993  that conditionally allowed  LGBT people to serve in the military “as long as they do not reveal their sexual orientation or identity.”

As support for same-sex marriage reached a majority in the country for the first time in history, Obama announced that he had changed his mind and decided to support such marriages in 2012. He clarified that his change of heart was due to society’s evolving attitudes and his own observations from friends and staff members who live their normal lives as same-sex couples.

In 2015, the US Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

Both the British Parliament and Barack Obama changed their views about LGBT matters over time because the world had changed. Yet LGBT rights are by no means a privilege or concept that is inherently Western-centric. LGBT rights have long been an item of concern in ancient Chinese political thought – though certainly not couched through the lenses of rights and the law.  

Public attitudes are changing in Hong Kong and the mainland alike. Same-sex marriage is gaining popular traction. If we care about DEI (diversity, equality, and inclusion), legalizing same-sex marriage is the right thing to do.

Ultimately, love is love, and love always wins. 

Christopher Tang

Christopher S Tang is a university distinguished professor and holder of the Edward W Carter Chair in business administration at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

Brian Wong

Brian Wong is a Rhodes Scholar and DPhil in Politics candidate at the University of Oxford, and the editor-in-chief of the Oxford Political Review.