A new era in equality?

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When it was announced that Dr York Chow Yat-ngok would be the new chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the news was greeted with more jeers than cheers. Many, especially human rights activists, had criticised the 66-year-old orthopaedic surgeon and former Secretary of Food and Health as too inexperienced and bureaucratic, with far too close ties to the government. It was also assumed that his strong religious background would threaten rights for sexual minorities. And when Chow was initially questioned about supporting anti-discrimination legislation for the LGBT community, he remained ambiguous and reticent.

But then he took it upon himself, on his first day as EOC chairman, to attend the impromptu live concert called Big Love Day, held on April 1 by pro-gay activist group, Big Love Alliance. On the very same day, he also denounced the government for failing to attend to the educational needs of ethnic minority students – bold statements for a guy at his first day at work.

Now, about three weeks into office, Chow has had enough time to settle in and share his views on discrimination with Time Out.

Dr Chow, there has been a lot of concern about your religious beliefs influencing your role as chairman of the EOC. How would you respond to these accusations and what is your reaction to religious opposition against sexual minority rights?
I will talk to the religious representatives all in due time, but I think they have very diverse views, even within the Christian community. We don't mind people with diverse views, but we should not discriminate people with outlying views either. We have a freedom of belief and expression, but when we do anything in terms of providing services, education and employment, we should not discriminate against people.

But when influential radical groups exist that believe in the use of 'conversion therapy', a practice denounced by the medical community, doesn't that hinder progress?
If we're able to discuss these issues openly and lay out the facts and arguments in the open, I'm sure the public will have a much better understanding of 'which' is the right logic. We have lacked that sort of discussion over the years. We now only hear people with polarised views, not representitive of the majority.

As someone with a medical background, do you think homosexuality is innate or learned? I think it's more innate and discovered earlier on in life, but there are also environmental factors. Social issues are not simply black and white, but the most important principle is that this is the lifestyle homosexuals choose.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by choice of lifestyle?
They choose a lifestyle that is appropriate to their characteristic and it's something that we need to respect. You look different from me. You may be taller, shorter, heavier or slimmer but this is our characteristic and we should not discriminate people's characteristics. This is the basic principle. If what they do is not hurting anybody, then why should we discriminate against them? As far as sexuality is concerned, people can be good or bad irrespective of their sexual orientation. Heterosexuals could do a lot of things that are harmful to society as well.

Why do you think, then, that the Legislative Council rejected the need for a public consultation regarding sexual minority rights last year?
There are a few issues that they feel are more pressing, but discrimination is something that will affect the life of everyone in Hong Kong. This issue should be dealt with earlier rather than later.

There is a fear that broadening discrimination laws to protect sexual minorities would have a detrimental effect on society and pose as a negative influence to future generations. Do you agree?
When you look at those countries that have legislation against sexual discrimination, do they have more moral problems? They don't. This is actually an unfounded fear as far as my understanding is concerned.

The opposition often cites the term 'reverse discrimination', as an argument against an anti-discrimination ordinance for sexual minorities. Is this an accurate use of the term?
It is actually inappropriate in this sense. When we cover sexual orientation we are including all sexual orientations, including heterosexuals, in the same way in the ordinance. We are not granting any privileges to homosexuals.

What do you think has been lacking in the EOC in the last few years and what will you do to change it?
The EOC has been in existence for 16 years and we have made some progress, but the power of the EOC is limited – we do not have legal authority. This is why we think, in order for us to be effective, we should have an overall review of all discrimination ordinances – maybe an overall framework that all types of discriminations fall under. Mainstreaming of anti-discrimination is one of the goals.

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