Starting operations amid sweeping political changes has meant that Hong Kong’s transgender youth group, Quarks, has to tread carefully between community building and outright advocacy.
The youth-led organization, which began informally in 2017, runs peer support groups, offers resources to transgender people, and shares educational posts on social media. While Quarks focuses on “promoting diversity” through their events, the leaders cautiously hope that their work may develop into legal campaigns.
“We’ve also been wanting to fight for the rights of transgender people,” said Liam Mak Wan Hon, a 21-year-old transgender activist and co-founder of Quarks. Wan says the group wants to begin addressing gender recognition issues and medical support from the Hospital Authority.
Yet this transformation from a “youth community” into a full-fledged “concern group” could introduce a host of new issues. Mak worries that Quarks could fall afoul of the government’s strict regulations for civil society groups, often seen as a challenge to Hong Kong’s government and, by extension, Beijing’s rule of law.
“We’ll try to avoid mentioning political things, but we will not control the freedom of speech of members,” said Mak. “We also want to make this space safe for them to talk and to express themselves.”
The apprehension Mak and his fellow organizers feel reflects a shifting landscape for LGBTQ youth in Hong Kong. New regulations have curbed dissent and, despite gradual improvements, the expression of LGBTQ identity remains subversive.
Since Hong Kong’s 2019 protests, authorities have cracked down on political opposition parties, as well as rights groups and professional unions. The 2020 implementation of the National Security Law, a far-reaching measure that criminalizes dissent, prompted concerns among activists that any criticism of the government would be punished severely.
Hong Kong Free Press, an independent English-language news outlet, has counted 54 civil society groups shut down or disbanded following police investigations since the start of 2021 – either voluntarily, to avoid legal trouble, or following the arrests of leaders.
In October last year, police raided LGBTQ non-profit Rainbow in Hong Kong and the headquarters of the League of Social Democrats. The two political organizations were connected to the now-disbanded Civil Human Rights Front, which had organized some of the largest protests during the 2019 unrest. Rainbow of Hong Kong did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Caught in the crosshairs were two of Hong Kong’s most prominent LGBTQ figures, Raymond Chan Chi-chuen, the only openly gay lawmaker in Hong Kong’s legislature, and Cyd Ho, one of the city’s pre-eminent LGBTQ rights activists. Last April, both were jailed for inciting “unauthorized assembly” for organizing an October 2019 protest.
While authorities did not target these organizations or individuals for their work for LGBTQ rights, the overlap between LGBTQ issues and charges of subversion or foreign interference raised alarm bells given the recent suppression of LGBTQ expression seen in mainland China.
Beijing has cracked down on LGBTQ expression in tech, education, and entertainment over the past year, as officials and state media outlets promote the narrative that LGBTQ culture is an imported “Western” idea.
In September, China’s top media regulator called for a boycott of “sissy idols” and depictions of “gay love” in video games, which they said flout “traditional Chinese” values of masculinity. When prominent LGBT Rights Advocacy ceased operations in November, the state-run newspaper Global Times suggested that LGBTQ issues were used by foreign forces to “infiltrate” China.
Last summer, WeChat, China’s largest messaging platform, shut down dozens of accounts run by student organizations. Several public figures celebrated the move against “what Americans call ‘human rights.’”
For Liam Mak, China’s disapproval of LGBTQ culture contradicts its long-standing history in the country, along with the “strong and diverse” presence of the LGBTQ community today.
“People who don’t agree with new concepts and improvements will often put a label on these things and blame that they’re a cultural invasion from the West,” Mak said.
As LGBTQ rights are undermined or presented as antithetical to Chinese interests, reconciling ethnicity with sexuality may remain an issue for Hong Kong’s youth seeking to fight for their rights.
“Many local LGBTQ youths have obvious and overt disdain for Chinese-ness,” said Cyril Ip, a 22-year-old journalist. “Right now, the primary objective for the Hong Kong government is to cultivate a sense of Chinese-ness, among people in Hong Kong, so that creates a conflict.”
Ip distanced himself from parts of his sexual identity because he did not identify with Hong Kong’s gay community, he said – especially since he feels that LGBTQ rights are not a priority for government policy.
LGBTQ rights are still lacking in the city, years since Hong Kong’s top court decriminalized homosexuality in 1991, and the Hong Kong College of Psychiatrists announced that homosexuality is not a mental illness in 2011. Gay marriage is banned, and LGBT workers have no explicit legal protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Conversion therapy has not been banned, including sessions involving electric shocks.
At the same time, public opposition to LGBTQ legal rights in Hong Kong is at a historic low, according to a 2020 survey by Chinese University Hong Kong. Survey respondents between the ages of 18 to 34 were the most vocal in their support of same-sex marriage and protection against workplace discrimination.
The heightened understanding among younger generations would benefit from more LGBTQ representation in culture, said Jodie Chan, a co-president of the student LGBTQ rights organization Queer Straight Alliance (QSA).
“Right now, Hong Kong is lacking a certain degree of LGBTQ culture,” said Chan, a fourth-year speech therapy student at Hong Kong University. “That’s why I think we’re not moving fast enough in terms of accepting and also forming community.”
“It’s only when we form a community that we’re powerful, or we can have more say, more rights in certain things, in social environments, and from a legal standpoint as well.”
One of Chan’s goals for the Queer Straight Alliance, she said, is to produce more material in Chinese to reach Hong Kong university students, expanding their community across language barriers.
Quarks also navigates the divide between Chinese and English materials, which Mak said requires tact. For instance, students at international schools may feel more willing to speak about LGBTQ issues, whereas students at local schools may not. In fact, Quarks began as an “official society” that would fill a gap in representation among the existing community of transgender or questioning local students.
Hong Kong has at least 50 LGBT groups. In addition to prominent rights groups Rainbow in Hong Kong and Rainbow Action, groups like Pink Alliance or Out in Hong Kong complement groups that target specif portions of the population like Les Corner, for LGBTQ women, or Gay Grey, for older gay men. Professional societies, like Fruits in Suits and the Hong Kong Gay and Lesbian Attorneys Network, offer connections in business, law, or medicine.
Forging communities and recognizing the nuances of different identities may provide young advocates with a way forward.
Quarks will celebrate the second anniversary of its founding this year. Although the pandemic put a dampener on plans to reach out on university or school campuses, Mak said his team would continue to post on social media and host video information sessions.
Mak, who is studying wine and beverage business management at Hong Kong’s International Culinary Institute, said he has confidence in the group and its role to play in the city.
“Hong Kong is my home. No matter how much it’s changed, I still have hope here,” he said. “I still want to do more things to make this place better and more inclusive.”