Intersectional Discrimination: What it's like to be a queer ethnic minority woman in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, the concept of intersectionality is relatively new. Yet the overlapping categorisations of race, class, gender and sexuality that together create interdependent systems of discrimination is a reality with which queer ethnic minorities are deeply familiar. 

Every day, news reports detail instances of discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexuality, and for those who identify with multiple minority identities, navigating Hong Kong is ever more challenging. 

While specific studies on intersectional discrimination in Hong Kong do not exist, we can get a broad sense of the situation by looking at racial prejudice and homophobia distinctly, even if in reality, multiple forms of discrimination can occur simultaneously. 

According to a report by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) – a statutory body that implements anti-discrimination policies and investigates complaints – the organisation handled 617 complaints and 3,487 enquiries about racial discrimination and harassment between 2009, the year the Race Discrimination Ordinance (RDO) was enacted, and 2017.

Aside from the EOC records, there is no concrete data on the frequency of racial discrimination in Hong Kong – a concern raised in 2018 by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a body of independent experts assembled by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – but ethnic minorities regularly report harassment, repression, discrimination and even violence. 

Homophobia also remains a major problem, based on anecdotal evidence, news reports and surveys. In 2012, a study entitled “The Hong Kong LGBT Climate Study 2011/12” conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme, surveyed 1,002 adult residents. Respondents could choose more than one answer for each question, a process which garnered 2,520 total responses. 

According to the findings, 60.3 per cent of respondents believed lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals were “subject to discrimination or prejudice”; 37.4 per cent thought LGBT+ individuals “suffered verbal insult or mockery” and 33.2 per cent agreed they “faced social stigma or exclusion”. 

The same report conducted a separate survey of 626 LGBT+ individuals in the workforce, in which respondents could also select multiple answers for each question.

Of the respondents, 522 were “not fully open” with their families about their sexual orientation, because they worried their family “might not understand” (67 per cent) and “might not accept” their sexuality (63 per cent) or “might be ashamed” (38 per cent). When asked about their co-workers’ attitudes toward LGBT+ individuals on a scale of 0 to 10, respondents gave it a mean score of 5.2. 

In the workplace, where sexuality and gender identity discrimination are prohibited by law, 13 per cent of respondents said they had experienced “negative treatment”. Among those, 77 per cent had been “treated with less respect”, 59 per cent had suffered “verbal insult or mockery”, 21 per cent claimed they were “excluded from workplace and social activities,” and 24 per cent were “denied a promotion that they were qualified for”.  

 Ana*, a queer Filipino domestic worker, works towards equal rights for domestic workers as a co-founder of SHARE Hong Kong. Credit: Karma Lo

“You know why [queer migrant workers] are in hiding? They look like me and talk like me, but their male employers resent them, so much so that they embarrass them to their faces.”

Ana, SHARE Hong Kong

Queer at work 

Queer foreign domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to discrimination based on overlapping identities of race, gender, class and sexual orientation. 

“It’s not easy being a lesbian domestic worker in Hong Kong where you have to deal with prejudice at work and in public,” says Ana*, a Filipino domestic worker who has been working in Hong Kong for nearly two decades. 

Ana first came out to her family as a lesbian in her home province of Kalinga, in the Philippines. At 13 years old, she started to identify as a butch lesbian, meaning one’s gender traits are expressed as more masculine than feminine. While she is a proud lesbian Filipina, she is wary that it could put her job as a domestic worker at risk.

According to the latest census, there are over 386,000 migrant workers in Hong Kong, most of whom come from Indonesia and the Philippines. Many have been subjected to exploitation by placement agencies charging exorbitant rates in exchange for jobs – a scam that has buried many migrant workers in debt. 

And those who, like Ana, identify as LGBT+ often face further discrimination. “If they find out that you’re lesbian or bisexual, employers could terminate the contract right there and then.”

Ana shares the story of a friend, a fellow lesbian who is a domestic worker. The friend’s employer fired her after finding out that she was gay and in a relationship with a woman. Adding insult to injury, the employer also accused her of physically harassing the family’s four-year-old toddler, which the friend adamantly denies. 

“[My friend] asked me for help: She needed to find an employer before the Immigration Department deported her to the Philippines.”

Though Ana is a leader in the domestic worker community, she cannot file complaints against employers or agencies, or ensure policy changes. “I can’t do much to help but give her comfort and support her until she lands a better employer,” she laments. 

Ana says this scenario is common. “You know why [queer migrant workers] are in hiding? They look like me and talk like me, but their male employers resent them, so much so that they embarrass them to their faces.”

She is referring to employers who often accuse lesbian migrant workers of pretending to be men, if they cut their hair short or wear “men’s” clothing. She points to another case, where a male employer forced a bisexual migrant woman to grow her hair out because he resented her masculine appearance. 

Despite protests and policy recommendations regarding the mistreatment of domestic workers, these women have little legal recourse if they are fired. Furthermore, due to the government’s two-week rule, migrant workers must find new employment within 14 days of being laid off or face deportation.

Considering herself lucky, Ana asserts that she has not personally faced discrimination based on her sexual orientation. Over the past two decades, two senior citizens – both of whom accepted her sexuality – have employed her. “I asked my employers why they chose me, and they said I looked stronger.”  

While her employers treat her well, Ana says she faces continued micro-aggressions from both the local and non-LGBT+ domestic worker communities: “Whether I’m going to the grocery store or taking my senior employer outside, people have said nasty things, suggesting I look strange and shouldn’t be with this old Chinese woman, as if I’m a threat.”

She also adds that such derogatory remarks come from a whole spectrum of people, including straight cisgender (that is, people whose gender identity and expression match the sex they were assigned at birth) migrant workers, as well as local Hong Kong-Chinese residents.

As one of the founders of Share Hong Kong, a grassroots organisation created by and for migrant workers, Ana’s objective has been to empower migrant workers and encourage integration with Hong Kong-Chinese residents through hiking activities, donation drives and individual fundraisers. She also mentors lesbian and bisexual migrant workers who are looking for peer-support groups.

Since domestic workers are still fighting for basic rights, Ana feels the dream of achieving anti-discrimination protection for sexual and gender minorities within her community is still a long way off.

And without such protections, lesbian and bisexual domestic workers continue to live and work under constant fear of harassment, job discrimination and other forms of backlash. 

Contributing to the lack of protections is a dearth of analysable data upon which to draw policy blueprints. To date, aside from anecdotal evidence, no studies have been conducted to better understand the scale of LGBT+ discrimination cases among the domestic worker community.

“I’ll make sure this stops, even if that means I’m sent back to the Philippines for creating too much noise for my gay comrades,” Ana promises. Through her activism, she hopes to strengthen migrant workers’ basic rights and open a pathway to citizenship.

By lobbying for anti-discrimination policies and fighting for the financial and social needs of queer domestic workers, Ana is taking a stance and tackling intersectional discrimination head on. 

‘I am no less brown than I am queer’

Domestic workers are not the only queer, ethnic minority women fighting for equality, safety and respect. Discrimination impacts queer women of colour across all ages and classes, professions and races.

“I am no less brown than I am queer; I am no less a woman than I am queer,” says Rani*, a human rights lawyer of Indian descent who was born and raised in Hong Kong.

“You come up against this classic intersectionality problem,” she says, referring to the homophobia, sexism and racism that she has experienced as a queer woman of colour in Hong Kong’s “predominantly Chinese environment”. 

Rani’s story is familiar to many: her family emigrated from India to the city in the 1950s, with entrepreneurial dreams of starting an import-export business.

Hong Kong comprises over 500,000 ethnic minorities of South and Southeast Asian descent, including Thai, Nepalese, Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans. And each group encompasses a wide range of socio-economic classes, religions, gender identities and sexual orientations.

Finding a sense of belonging in Hong Kong can be challenging for professional ethnic minority lesbians and bisexuals, asserts Rani. In addition to everyday racism and sexism, they also face pressure to uphold their family’s honour and fulfill traditionally “female” duties.

Many women struggle to disclose their sexuality for fear of repercussions from family and discrimination by the local Hong Kong-Chinese community. 

While attending an international secondary school, Rani attempted to come out of the closet to a couple of close Hong Kong-Chinese friends, but they didn’t take it well. Some could not handle the news due to “internalised homophobia” and a general lack of understanding about LGBT+ issues, according to Rani. “[One of my friends] was coming to terms with her own stuff when it comes to gender and sexuality.” 

Concerned about her mental and physical well-being, Rani decided to leave Hong Kong in 2017 to study human rights law in the UK. For the first time in her life, she encountered queer South Asian groups and could drop the imposter syndrome that had “prevented her from being all parts of my identity without fear”.

Seeing brown queer people openly expressing themselves “out and proud” in London was pivotal in helping Rani refill her “barrel of hope” that she, too, could express herself freely. 

Even though Hong Kong feels a world away from the accepting streets of London, Rani feels a growing sense that it is time for ethnic minority LGBT+ women to truly claim their identities and speak up. 

“On migration, status, sexuality, wealth and language, it’s time we carve out safe social – and even political spaces – to discuss a lack of representation for queer ethnic minorities in the general community and in the LGBT+ space.” 

Beena*, a queer Bangladeshi advocate and art curator, also hopes to see better integration across the board, from queer support groups to major LGBT+ festivals.  

Like Rani, Beena’s family migrated to Hong Kong when she was 12 years old. She, too, experienced discrimination at school due to the colour of her skin and imperfect Cantonese. After secondary school, Beena stayed in Hong Kong to study art and comparative literature at HKU Space from 2006 to 2008.

“I realised that the only way out of the cycle is to be educated and continue on that path even though that’s a self-imposed pressure as queer, brown and female to prove myself to my Muslim parents and community that, ‘Hey, I’m a decent human being.’”

 With a grant from HER fund, SHARE Hong Kong supports migrant domestic workers impacted by Covid-19. Credit: SHARE Hong Kong

During her studies at HKU Space, Beena and a local Hong Kong-Chinese student formed a low-profile Facebook group called “G-Spot” for LGBT+ students and young professionals. 

“When we started G-Spot, we did it to bridge the age, gender and class gaps that exist in all areas of Hong Kong society.” At its most active, roughly 100 people had joined.

Though intended to be multicultural, only white and Hong Kong-Chinese women signed up for the group: not a single member was brown, aside from Beena. She believes queer women of colour did not feel comfortable coming out, even in a private group, for fear of rejection and backlash from the community.    

Discouraged by the showing, Beena started looking for queer brown women in Hong Kong, but the exercise often made her feel even more alone. 

“I attended the Hong Kong Pride Parade and a lot of events organised by LGBT+ event organisation Pink Dot Hong Kong, and to be honest, I never felt represented in that crowd,” Beena reflects, adding that she feels people who look like her seem absent from leadership positions in mainstream queer organisations. 

Beena would like to see better representation of ethnic minority queer women at such major events. If existing LGBT+ spaces highlight the voices and share the reins with women of colour, she says, it could be a meaningful way to let more lesbian and bisexual ethnic minority women finally feel seen and heard in Hong Kong. 

With hopes to improving the situation, Beena is planning to create a queer group on social media with the goal of affirming and validating the experiences of queer women of colour. 

“Visibility of diversity is key. It’s important to note that not everyone is able to publicly follow or interact with queer groups. So we need to create safe spaces for women like me, so they feel like they’re a part of something.” 

*Names have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.