Hong Kong’s gay community faced another legal setback on Wednesday after the Court of Appeals dismissed an appeal against the city’s long-held denial of same-sex marriage to those legally married abroad.
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists have won multiple court victories in recent years against the discrimination currently ingrained in Hong Kong’s laws.
But Wednesday’s ruling means any lifting of the current same-sex marriage ban will likely have to come through legislation, not the courts.
The appeal was filed by prominent activist Jimmy Sham, who married his Hong Kong partner in the United States in 2013 and sought to get that partnership legally recognized in his hometown.
Sham is also a democracy campaigner and one of dozens of activists in prison awaiting prosecution under a new national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing to quell dissent after large protests.
Three judges ruled on Wednesday that the basic law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, “only favors heterosexual marriages, meaning only heterosexual couples are entitled to recognition of their foreign marriage.”
If same-sex couples married abroad were granted recognition, it would “create an inherent incompatibility” between them and the gay couples who cannot legally marry in Hong Kong, the judges added.
The ruling can now only be overturned by the Hong Kong Court of Appeals, but it is not clear whether Sham will continue a legal battle that has now been dismissed by two courts.
In Hong Kong, more and more legal victories have been won in recent years.
Regulations mean that a foreign lesbian couple is entitled to a spousal visa and the spouse of an immigration officer should be entitled to the same benefits as heterosexual workers.
The courts also ruled in 2004 that a higher age limit for gay male residents – 21 instead of 16 – was unconstitutional, but the law was not changed until ten years later.
Polls show that a growing number of Hong Kongers, especially younger residents, are in favor of gay rights, while a growing number of international companies have supported marriage equality campaigns, arguing that this will make it easier to attract talent.
But Hong Kong’s Beijing-approved leadership has shown little interest in passing legislation in recent years that could bring equality to LGTBQ residents.
Many of those advocating for equality have been involved in the city’s now-crushed democratic movement, while some prominent pro-government politicians have spoken out publicly against gay rights.
The Equal Marriage Rights campaign has had limited success in much of Asia.
The only place in the region where same-sex marriage has been legalized so far is Taiwan.
Singapore’s government said this week it would repeal a colonial-era law criminalizing gay sex.
But it also said it would amend the city-state’s constitution to avoid legal problems with the traditional definition of marriage.