Fridae’s Hong Kong correspondent Nigel Collett examines the furore surrounding the Hong Kong Government’s appointment of a reparative therapist advocate to train its social welfare staff.
It is not often that the Hong Kong Government allows its prejudices to so get the better of it’s judgment that it does something stupid enough in the field of human rights for even Singapore to point the finger at. On 17 June it became clear that it just had. On that day that vanguard of campaigning liberalism, Singapore’s Straits Times, carried the headline: Hong Kong government hires ‘gay conversion expert’. How smug its staff must have been to be able to report that the Hong Kong government had hired as a trainer for its social welfare staff a prominent local psychiatrist who claimed he could ‘re-wire’ homosexuals! With glee, they characterised this as the world’s first government-sponsored training session on gay conversion therapy.
The news had only just broken in Hong Kong’s own local press. The English language daily The South China Morning Post reported that psychiatrist Hong Kwai-wah had conducted three and a half hours’ training for sixty government social welfare staff on Friday 10 June. Hong, a favourite mouthpiece for fundamentalist homophobes in Hong Kong, denied that his training mentioned ‘conversion therapy’ but had to admit to reporters that he had cited case studies to argue that gays could be treated and turned into heterosexuals.
Local LGBT groups, including Women Coalition of the Hong Kong SAR, Ten Percent Club and Rainbow of Hong Kong picketed the Lady Trench Training Centre in Wan Chai (where the two-and-a-half-hour training had taken place) on 16 June. The reports of this are assembled on the Tongzhi Community Joint Meeting (TCJM)’s website.
The government almost immediately found itself on the back foot, not helped by the ineptness of the junior civil servant the Social Welfare Department thrust in front of reporters to respond: “Multiple perspectives are essential for social workers to make professional and independent assessments of their cases,” the un-named unfortunate said, rather as if it were government practice that every time it dealt with a case of social abuse it should consult a witch finder to advise on the possibility that the victim was under a spell.
If all this was not enough to make Hong Kong’s senior bureaucrats squirm, the news rapidly spread worldwide. Pink News picked it up the same day in the United Kingdom, where it told its presumably bemused readers that psychiatrist Hong Kwai-wah, trainer for the government’s social welfare staff, was chairman of the New Creation Association, a body which says the wishes of gay people who want to become straight should be respected and has a website that says its aims are ‘to help people struggling with homosexuality and diffuse their inner dilemmas, rewire their mental state as well as propagate the belief that “homosexuals can change”. Treatments advocated by this organisation reportedly include cold showers, prayer and abstinence. Pink News reported that it was not known how much Hong was being paid by the tax payer for spreading his message of light.
The 56-year-old doctor, who is described on christianmentalhealth.com as a specialist in “treating unwanted homosexuality”, has defended his therapy saying: “I did mention about the possibility to change which is an option. We need to respect the client’s choice, whether they want to remain status quo or they want to live a heterosexual life…We should not ban people from therapy if they want to change. We should respect their right.”
The peanuts Hong would have earned talking to a few social workers would, though, no doubt pale into insignificance compared with the sums the Hong Kong Social Welfare Department must be forking out in grants to his NGO’s brother organisation, the Society of Truth and Light (STL), which is the fundamentalist christian NGO that has led the fight against every improvement in LGBT human rights in Hong Kong. He is also a board member of the group. Research has discovered that this homophobic bunch has set up a hotline to ‘counsel’ homosexuals and staffed it with sponsorship from the Social Welfare Department. For those amongst you who can read Chinese, check out their link at: http://www.truth-light.org.hk/homo_hotline.
The Hong Kong government is not an overtly oppressive body. Much of what it does rests on liberal principles and honesty. Many of its members honourably seek to serve the whole public. Yet every now and then, like now, the lid is lifted on the prejudices lurking inside its departments, and out pops some form of ill-informed christianity masquerading as confucianism or as a need to conform to ‘social consensus’.
More worrying still is the way that fundamentalist Christian believers within civil service ranks seek to use their positions to further their ‘ethical’ aims. Teachers and educators circulate homophobic booklets in schools or use the parents of their pupils to petition government against LGBT rights. They hang anti-LGBT banners on their external school walls. They issue grants to the fundamentalist NGOs whose beliefs they favour. They stonewall change.
The Hong Kong government has a good deal of form here. Back in 2005, its Education Bureau quietly appointed the STL to teach human rights to secondary school teachers. On that occasion, activist Roddy Shaw led a finally successful campaign that so embarrassed the government that it did not renew the teaching contract at the end of the year. What became evident, horrifyingly, during the campaign, was that the responses made to the media by civil servants and representatives of the STL were almost word for word the same, a coincidence unlikely to have occurred without collusion. The Education Bureau, its fingers badly burned by open association with fundamentalist NGOs, has avoided any overt links ever since.
Not so the civil servants of the Social Welfare Department, who have embarked upon the same quest for international loss of face as their colleagues in the Education Bureau had done six years ago. And it will be loss of face. For there is no doubt that the more sane members of the Hong Kong government will be forced to pull back from the foolishness inflicted by their subordinates. One thing the Hong Kong government cannot stand is loss of face, and it is face that it is in the process of losing in a big way. The news of this foolishness has now gone viral. In Hong Kong, activists have started a petition which is has already garnered almost 1,000 signatures to date.
The US campaign Truth Wins Out, with its poster boy Lieutenant Dan Choi, who was recently in Moscow being arrested at their Pride Parade, has lent a hand with another petition.
Buoyed by this international support, Hong Kong activists are mobilising to take the campaign further. Exactly what is planned is becoming clearer, and is likely to involve pressure upon medical, psychiatric, psychological, social welfare and educational professional bodies to at last make firm statements distancing themselves from the snake oil peddled by the reparativists. They have so far been either too cowardly or too conservative to take a stand, but they are unlikely to be able to avoid doing so for much longer. Much the same applies to government departments, whose cries of allowing a ‘balance’ of views and permitting ‘freedom of speech’ have so far managed to privilege the teaching of faith-based untruth over scientific fact. The government of ‘Asia’s World City’ as it likes to call itself will be brought to face the fact that its functionaries are propagating mumbo jumbo worthy of darkest Africa.
One clear objective will be to prevent any more tax payers’ dollars being spent on such nonsense. The irony is that businesses with the most liberal and all-encompassing diversity policies are paying corporation tax to fund fundamentalists campaigning against the rights of their own LGBT employees. Here at least is a clear and present target that everyone in Hong Kong will understand.
So, this incident has been a nonsense and a horrifying one, but one that will have effects unintended by its perpetrators, effects that this correspondent for one is confident will ultimately benefit the rights of the LGBT community in Hong Kong. Time, it would seem, for the community to gird its loins to take advantage of the opportunity with which the idiots in government have presented it.