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When Daniel Ou moved from New York City to Hong Kong in 2009, one of the first things he did was seek out the city’s gay sports teams. He had grown up playing tennis and ice hockey in a family full of athletes, and he’d competed around the world with the Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance. But after finding a small gay tennis group in Hong Kong and becoming captain of the city’s first gay ice hockey team, he noticed a difference between his Hong Kong teammates and those in New York.
“The word ‘gay’ was not easily spoken among my local gay friends,” Ou says. “They would instead divert the conversation or use the term ‘PLU’ or ‘people like us,’ which I felt was somewhat cowardly. I remember thinking, ‘What do they mean “people like us”? Do they mean people who are Asian?!’”
Ou, who is Korean-American, was surprised. While many of his American and European pals had come out without much trouble, he hadn’t realized just how many of his Hong Kong associates remained closeted in a sort of self-imposed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Many worried about being fired or shunned by their families for coming out, and Ou wanted to help them.
“Gay sports had given me so much joy, a sense of belonging and camaraderie,” he says. “I felt like it was time to give back.”
Eight years later, Ou has joined a group of sports-minded activists who want to advance queer culture in Hong Kong through a simple yet ambitious undertaking: They want to make Hong Kong the first Asian city to host the Gay Games.
The Gay Games: More Than a Rainbow-Colored Olympics
The Gay Games are a quadrennial sporting event that invites straight and queer athletes of all nationalities, ages, abilities and skill levels to participate on a world stage. Unlike the Olympics, the Gay Games aren’t fixated on nationalist competition and medal counts. Participants represent their home cities rather than countries, and the competition emphasizes unity, inclusion, participation and personal growth. The games also feature 10 days of related cultural programs and educational panels meant to change public attitudes about LGBTQ people and challenge queerphobia in athletics.
The Games have proven quite popular. Competitors at the 1994 Games in New York City outnumbered the number of competitors in the 1992 Summer Olympics. The 2014 Games in Cleveland brought in 8,800 athletes from 30 different countries and generated $65 million for the local economy. The 2018 Games in Paris are expected to draw 15,000 participants and up to 10,000 more related visitors.
But since its premiere in 1982, North America has hosted six out of nine Gay Games; Europe has hosted two, Australia one—Asia has never yet hosted one.
Last year, the Federation of Gay Games (FGG) included Hong Kong on a list of nine potential host cities for 2022. In March, the FGG will announce its three finalist cities; they’ll make evaluation visits to each one over the following months and then announce a final pick in November.
In March 2014, local activist and athlete Dennis Philipse reached out to the FGG to begin the bidding process. He started a bidding team together with lesbian activist Benita Chick and together they assembled a small group to raise the funds and public support they’d need for an attractive bid. But immediately they ran into several challenges.
Unlike most major U.S. cities, Hong Kong had no central LGBT sports organization to lead the bidding process, which takes years and costs tens of thousands of dollars. Luckily, Philipse had recently founded Out in Hong Kong, a group that coordinates LGBTQ athletic events around the city, so that helped. But with an LGBTQ athletic community so new and underdeveloped, Hong Kong lacked immediate funding and infrastructure.
Furthermore, most LGBTQ athletes in Hong Kong were closeted and didn’t want to be outed or seen supporting a queer sports organization. After Out in Hong Kong posted several pictures from one of its events on a closed Facebook group, some of the people in the photos asked the group to remove the pics for fear of being outed. The same thing happened after Out in Hong Kong held a bodybuilding event to promote the Gay Games.
Philipse and Chick’s team had an immense challenge facing them: They needed to dismantle Hong Kong’s closet and get queer Hong Kongers to publicly endorse an event that could potentially out them to the entire world. Without their support, Hong Kong had no chance of ever hosting the Games.
Hong Kong: A Modern City in an Ancient Closet
One might wonder how such an irrepressibly modern city widely regarded as friendly to international queer visitors can have such a widely closeted population. After all, the region repealed its colonial era laws criminalizing homosexuality in 1991; it currently has laws forbidding anti-gay discrimination by the government and has had virtually no instances of anti-LGBTQ violence.
The city also hosts a queer chorale, several queer bars, an LGBTQ walking tour and numerous annual events, including a gay and lesbian film festival, a queer literary and cultural festival, the Mr. Gay Hong Kong competition, a pride parade, an annual Pink Dot celebration and Pink Season, a five-week LGBTQ festival with citywide events celebrating openness, diversity, acceptance and love.
And yet, as China’s neighboring stepchild, Hong Kong remains hampered by a widespread view of homosexuality as antithetical to traditional family structure. In Hong Kong, as in many other Asian countries, children are expected to wed, raise kids and eventually care for their parents in an unending cycle of filial piety; because LGBTQ people threaten that cycle, they’re often regarded as selfish and shameful. Businesses reinforce this cultural stigma by commonly refusing to promote unmarried employees.
As a result, a 2012 study found 80% of openly LGBTQ Hong Kongers experiencing queerphobic abuse at work, while 42% worried about losing social connections or personal relationships over coming out. Thus, many queer Hong Kongers remain closeted or marry someone of the opposite sex just to fulfill societal expectations.
Hong Kong also lags behind Western countries in terms of legal rights. The region lacks comprehensive anti-discrimination laws in housing, employment and public accommodations; it offers neither legal recognition of same-sex couples nor any rights for adoption or raising children. Worse yet, government policy requires transgender citizens to undergo full gender reassignment surgery before changing any gender markers on ID. It’s a costly procedure that renders patients sterile, and it’s a policy the United Nations denounces as a form of torture.
While activists in Hong Kong can push for LGBTQ rights with impunity (unlike in neighboring China, where activists get harassed, surveilled and imprisoned), a rising tide of Christian and conservative anti-LGBTQ activists have become more vocal in their opposition to pro-LGBTQ policies. Just last year, anti-LGBTQ activists protested Hong Kong University for placing rainbow-colored logos upon its gender-inclusive restrooms, and HSBC for displaying two rainbow-colored lion statues outside their building as part of a month-long campaign for LGBTQ rights. Neither organization removed those colorful emblems.
2022: The Year That Could Transform Asia’s LGBTQ Culture
“The U.S. is far more advanced and evolved than Asia in gay rights,” Philipse says. “In the U.S. everyone knows what the Gay Games are; here they don’t. People here are not out. The number of depressed LGBTQ people in Asia is about 20 or 30 percent, and this effects everything; it effects HIV cases.”
He’s right. A 2016 study of 580 LGBTQ Hong Kongers showed that 30% had either seriously considered or attempted suicide, and in 2015, Hong Kong’s HIV rate reached its highest levels since 1984. Though a lead researcher for the city’s HIV prevention efforts couldn’t say whether anti-gay stigma contributed to gay men not getting tested, the region’s non-existent sex education likely does.
If Hong Kong gets the Games, Philipse says, the 40,000 LGBTQ visitors from around the world could provide positive role models, help change cultural perceptions about being LGBTQ and get the region thinking and talking about LGBTQ issues in entirely new ways.
Peter Reading, legal counsel at Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC)—the office responsible for implementing the region’s non-discrimination ordinances—echoes Philipse’s hopes.
“Generally, [the Games would bring] greater understanding about LGBTQI people because there’s still generally a lack of understanding, so that’s a big thing,” Reading says. “Better social interaction is key to people’s greater tolerance, and respect for people in general. It is as important for Hong Kong as it is for anywhere.”
In addition to the spectators, Philipse says, the Games would also bring the AIDS Memorial Quilt to Asia for the first time, as well as many Americans and Europeans, providing educational cultural experiences for new visitors and natives alike.
The city’s bid book calls 2022 “a perfect time to bring the Gay Games to Hong Kong” because “Beijing will host the winter Olympics that year and Hangzhou will hold the Asian Games.” It may also be an ideal time politically. In just the last year, the Taiwanese government took steps towards legalizing same-sex marriage, while several Japanese cities begun issuing certificates legally recognizing same-sex couples. In 2018, China will compete for the first time ever in the Gay Games.
These changes across Asia coincide with changing public attitudes in Hong Kong. While a 2006 survey showed only 28.7% of all Hong Kongers supporting anti-discrimination laws, a 2015 survey showed that support nearly doubling to 55.7%. The same survey showed that 91.8% of Hong Kongers ages 18 to 24 support LGBTQ legal protections, as do 48.9% of people with religious beliefs.
Hong Kong could also have anti-discrimination protections in place for its LGBTQ citizens by 2022. An EOC study released in 2016, the first of its kind, reviewed all the research on LGBTQ discrimination in Hong Kong and suggested that the government develop anti-discrimination legislation while fostering talks between the LGBTQ and religious communities.
While the Gay Games Hong Kong 2022 team (GGHK 2022) would need to invest $7.3 million over the next five years to make the Games a success, the event could inject up to $128 million into the local economy. Any money that GGHK 2022 makes in the process would be distributed to help fund sport, health and diversity initiatives within Hong Kong, meaning the Games could make positive long-term impacts on Hong Kong’s overall well-being as well as LGBTQ rights long after the games have ended.
In Stride: How GGHK 2022 Cleared Its Initial Hurdles
Before Philipse and Chick began the official bid process, they had spent four months talking with advisors about the best ways to approach government officials and sponsors for support. After a key local figure joined Out in Hong Kong, the bid team quickly found itself connecting to a network of queer Hong Kongers, all of whom loved the idea of hosting the Games.
“From there it was a snowball,” Philipse says. “Hong Kong is like a small village, and people connected us to other people.”
One of the eventual members of the GGHK 2022 bidding team worked for a commercial sports company and promised to ask his employer for a letter of support, even though he wasn’t out at work. He came out to his boss and got the letter. Since then, Philipse says, he has changed, seeming more open and happier than ever.
“Even if we do not win the bid this time,” Philipse says, “we’re already making change by having this type of conversation. Normally when the gay community goes to the government, they talk about gay marriage and equality. This time, we talk about sports events and gay sports, so with this conversation, things have already taken a different dimension.”
Another breakthrough moment came when GGHK 2022 received letters of support from the EOC and other various government departments. The Hong Kong government now considers the Gay Games to be a normal sporting event, supporting it the same way they would a rugby sevens or Formula E race car event. Since then, the GGHK 2022 team has spent its time raising awareness of Gay Games at other sporting and social events.
The GGHK 2022 team now has 132 letters of support from different political, commercial, sports, arts and culture, queer and non-governmental organizations in Hong Kong and around the world, as well as the support of groups like the city of Amsterdam, LUSH Australia, Lloyd’s of London, Air Canada and Hornet, the international gay social network that funds this site. If Hong Kong gets the Games, these groups would all add funds and marketing efforts to help make it successful and as widely known as possible.
“I’m a firm believer that sports in any capacity does both the body and mind good, enabling us to live richer, healthier and more fulfilling lives,” says Ou, the athlete mentioned at the beginning of our story. As a child, Ou and his brother dreamed of one day competing at a global sports event, and Ou achieved that dream when he played tennis at the 2010 Gay Games in Cologne, Germany. Since then, he has begun sharing his story as a way to build support for Hong Kong’s bid.
“The gay community is a lot more diverse than people may stereotype us as, and sports is one the world’s most common expressions of inclusion and empowerment,” he says. “By showing people that you are just like them—or even better than them—it’s an effective way to combat homophobia. Once the trust and respect is there, anything is possible.”