Advancing LGBTQ Equality in Asia: Legal Community Advocacy

“There will not be a magic day when we wake up and it’s now okay to express ourselves publicly. We make that day by doing things publicly until it’s simply the way things are,” stated Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay U.S. Senator. 

When employees and leaders are fully free to be who they are at work and outside of work, mental, physical and spiritual energy is freed up that used to be wasted from self-editing and compartmentalising part of themselves. As a result, our LGBTQ colleagues flourish in their careers and new levels of success are achieved that before seemed unattainable. 

Certainly, this has been a key outcome for the LGBTQ community in Hong Kong thanks to the Hong Kong LGBT+ Attorneys Network (HKGALA), which has played a pivotal role in advancing LGBTQ equality in Hong Kong since 2013, and the efforts of the law firm Allen & Overy, which produced the report, Recognition and Treatment of Relationships under Hong Kong law report, which captured more than 100 instances of differential treatment were captured across LGBTQ couples,  heterosexual couples, and single individuals. 

As co-chair of Hong Kong LGBT+ Attorneys Network, Marc Rubinstein, General Counsel at Asia Pacific Land, has helped to make the network an organising force for advancing LGBTQ equality. 

He knew it was a powerful movement when the first “main accomplishment was simply to demonstrate to the market that there is indeed an organisation here that represents and serves as the voice for the LGBT legal community and serves to foster best practice in the legal industry with respect to LGBTQ diversity and inclusion,” he explained. 

More recently, a key achievement has been to serve as “a clearinghouse or touchpoint to involve law firms in specific actions to advance LGBT equality in Hong Kong.” For example, several years ago, HKGALA organised a group of 16 law firms along with a group representing 15 banks to intervene in a case known as QT, which was testing whether, from an immigration perspective, a foreign same-sex marriage or civil union would be recognised for immigration purposes in Hong Kong.   

Because of the report produced by A&O, which was led by litigation partner Matt Bower as a pro bono engagement with the Equal Opportunities Commission, other legal actions could be taken. For example, bankruptcy law imposed benefits to creditors of legally married heterosexual couples that did not apply in the same manner to creditors of nonmarried couples, including LGBTQ couples. 

Another area impacting married and nonmarried couples inconsistently was around legislation requiring that directors and CEOs of listed companies disclose their and their spouses shareholdings in the listed company, but the law does not extend that obligation in respect of the holdings of a director’s or CEO’s civil partner.

Advocating for LGBTQ enhances that of the broad diversity and inclusion agenda

Advances made in Hong Kong to progress LGBTQ equality also impact the evolution of progress in other areas of diversity and inclusion. For example, when Matt Bower oversaw efforts to create formal committees on LGBTQ inclusion and gender diversity as a means to internally understand what the firm could be doing better in the area of D&I, he saw first hand the common actions the firm can take to increase retention of women and LGBTQ individuals. More specifically:

  • Ensure there are visible role models for women and members from the LGBTQ community.  For women, it can be important to spotlight people making partner whilst going through pregnancy and/or progressing in their career while working part-time because of a young family. On the LGBTQ side, showcasing partners succeeding in business development, generating revenue, and serving clients well without needing to hide their LGBTQ identity is also critically important for retention.  
  • Working with clients and competitors to advance the D&I agenda. Partnering with the local business community, clients and other stakeholders to extol the benefits of a specific area of diversity is another commonality.

“Advocating for diversity alongside our clients, competitors and colleagues will have more impact within Hong Kong and on the firm’s ability to retain talented employees than doing so alone.”

– Matt Bower, Partner, Allen & Overy

The progress in LGBTQ equality would not have been made with the partnership among private industry via HKGALA on advocacy and research, like that done by A&O, and with the positive shift of the Hong Kong public in support LGBTQ rights-related legislation, these tailwinds will accelerate the removal of discrimination policies.   

Related discussions on LGBTQ equality

Who else is leading the conversation on inclusivity? Subscribe to the Change Makers Podcast on Apple, Spotify, or simply tune in to the following episodes we recommend on Legal Insight:

Westlaw Asia subscribers, for further reading on the legal considerations of this topic, visit HKGALA’s FAQs: Concerning Sexual Minorities-related Issues in Hong Kong, 2019 via your Westlaw Asia account.

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