On Thursday 17 May, Community Business and Barclays launched the report of their LGBT workplace climate study. This, a big event for the community in itself, came just after the furore over the inclusion of Regina Ip’s video at Hong Kong’s IDAHOT commemoration, and not long after Paul Ramscar went public about his amazing new App to list gay friendly businesses in Hong Kong. All of these events are connected, I think, as they throw light on the canyon that currently divides the activists in our community, viz their opposing attitudes to capitalism.
The radicals among us see our natural place in the political order of things as lying with the left wing, with others dispossessed by the system and with those politicians who struggle for them. People like Cyd Ho, Audrey Eu, Emily Lau, Margaret Ng and Long Hair have stood up for us for decades. In their struggles against authoritarianism, for rights, freedom and democracy we have been their natural allies. Their political enemies, the majority in the centre and the rich on the right, have naturally been seen by many of us so far as our enemies, too.
Underlying this is the unspoken issue of class. Most Hong Kong LGBT people are working class, many are disadvantaged and poor, many comparatively under-educated and so not very literate and not at home in English. We can’t escape the fact that activism led by wealthier, educated, middle-class people using the English language, and with expat figures prominent among the leadership, alienates many, not just those with radical political ideological beliefs.
This mix makes for a difficult recipe, and if you dust the top of the pudding with a leven of the moral and political purity that can go with radical political ideology, indigestion ensues. We saw a good illustration of this effect last year over the making of the ‘I Am Me’ videos. The Pink Alliance came up with the idea of copying Dan Savage’s ‘It Gets Better’ videos, but in Cantonese and aimed at Hong Kong kids. Mr Gay Hong Kong took on the role of funding this project as beneficiary of its ‘Tongzhi Tsai’ campaign. It seemed an ideal project to bridge, for once, the gap between moderates and radicals, so NTXS, the online LGBT TV producer that’s part of the radical grouping 4MyColors was invited to take on the production side. All was going well until NTXS objected to being part of a project funded by a ‘commercially exploitative’ organisation like Mr Gay HK, and walked out.
I have commented before on our need to seek support from politicians of all parts of the political spectrum if we are to get legislative change, so I won’t bang on about that again here. Instead, I want to make some points about the need to make use of the capitalist system to further our cause. I should say at the outset that I am not interested here in the merits or demerits of capitalism in its Hong Kong manifestation; just in what it can do for us.
Money, obviously, is the simplest thing. We, and in particular the poorest of our LGBT organisations like the Rainbow Centre, need cash, and the best place to get that is business sponsorship. Things like Pride Parades cost a lot of money and raising these sums by private donation every year will soon end in donor fatigue. To get sponsorship cash you need to give business something back. They’ll always need professional budgeting, accounting, transparency. They’ll always need exposure of their brand name and logo and acknowledgement in the most public way that they have paid up. So maybe we have to hold our noses if we don’t like the institution that’s forking out the money and maybe we have to pander a bit to their whims, but if that’s the price to pay for making sure our stuff happens, then I say so be it.
In any case, having commercial names attached to our activity has a positive effect on the great majority of the public who are still wary about us and don’t consider us part of normal life. If Barclays, Goldman Sachs and IBM publicly associate themselves with us, it gets noticed. It makes us ordinary, part of the furniture. The Interbank LGBT Forum banner carried down Hennessy Road in the last Pride Parade did just that.
Which brings me back to Community Business’s project, now over two years old, to educate Hong Kong businesses of the commercial and social need for diversity policies and LGBT networks within their firms. Their message has now reached hundreds of companies. Many of these have started to take the message onboard and are implementing change. International companies are slowly being shamed into bringing their worldwide HR practices to Hong Kong. That means that the daily working lives of some LGBT people in Hong Kong have got better. So far, this is principally in the banks and some major international corporations, but it is spreading slowly. Competition for good PR, desire to look good on the soon-to-be published diversity index, need to comply as a sub-contractor with tender rules demanding diversity policies among other CSR stuff, all these will slowly leach into the local Hong Kong companies and eventually even the SMEs that are always the most resistant to change.
Five years ago, there were no diversity organisations in business in Hong Kong, and no one was out at work. Now, there are young men and women working in major firms coming out at work, appearing on videos and leading their LGBT colleagues to win equal treatment. Change has already begun and we, in LGBT activism, should do everything we can to help this, because it will make everyone’s lives at work better, safer, more secure and better remunerated.
This all leads back to politics. We all know that what makes the Hong Kong system tick is capitalism. Whatever we feel about this is irrelevant to the fact that under the current system democratic politicians can cry to the moon for as long as it shines calling for human rights but no one need take much notice. Hong Kong’s government and civil service are actively resisting any positive action to bring equality for LGBT people. Our opponents on the religious right are more vocal and richer than we are and their voice carries into more administration in trays than does ours. We all also know, though, that if business speaks in this town, Government listens. Commercial clout will trump any amount of religious rage. If HSBC, for instance, were to just drop the hint to the administration that it thought there was a need for spousal visas for the same-sex partners of its employees, it’s more than likely that the government would start to listen. Lloyd Blankfein spoke out for same-sex marriage in New York. If his head of station in Hong Kong did the same here, there’d be shock waves.
Big business is beginning to see the commercial case for implementing diversity policies. To fulfil Hong Kong’s dream of being ‘Asia’s World City’ they’re going to need to make it attractive to the world’s business, and that will include social policies that attract business here. And that, for one, will make the case for a bill against discrimination stronger.
So what is to be done? We must use the capitalist system to get what we need. We must cold-heartedly make use of commerce like it makes use of all of us. We should not shy away from business but rather reach out to it in whatever way we can. Paradoxically, capitalism in this town is a force for change. Let us harness its power.