The Great Divide: What's stopping Macao’s LGBT+ movement?

Growing up in Macao, award-winning film director Tracy Choi suppressed her sexuality for much of her childhood and teenage years. It wasn’t until she moved to Taiwan in 2006, where she attended the University of Shih Hsin in Taipei, that she felt free to embrace her identity as a lesbian. She dove into the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community, participated in her first gay pride parade, and openly discussed the nuances of sexuality. 

“I used to have a lot of questions in my mind, but I didn’t know who to talk to, because nobody talks about [sexual orientation] in Macao,” says Choi. “However, after I moved to Taiwan, it became easy for me to recognise my feelings, because education about sexual and gender diversity is common in schools there.”

Upon returning to Macao in 2010, Choi began pursuing film projects that highlight the challenges facing homosexuals. Her 2012 documentary short I’m Here, traces the experiences of Choi and a friend, as they come out to their parents. Likewise, Choi’s feature-length film Sisterhood, recounts the love story between two female massage therapists.

“[I am driven to investigate homosexual topics] because their voices often go unheard. Macao has totally ignored this group of people,” she reflects. “The absence of discussion has stalled the development of LGBT rights, not to mention the fight for same-sex marriage.”

Choi isn’t alone in her observations. In a report released this November on the human rights in the People’s Republic of China, the United Nations Human Rights Council criticised Macao because it had not yet “adopted comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation” and tolerates “widespread discrimination” against migrants, people with disabilities, and the LGBT community. Such discrimination is particularly prevalent in employment, health care, education and housing.

“This is not the first time the Macao government has faced international condemnation regarding its LGBT rights,” says Jason Chou, a spokesperson for LGBT activist group Rainbow of Macao. “The city can’t ignore this issue anymore.”

 Award-winning film director Tracy Choi in her hometown of Macao

Legal setbacks in the SAR

LGBT rights first appeared in legal discourse in Macao in 2012. That year, the Social Welfare Bureau cut the protection of same-sex cohabitants from a draft of the anti-domestic violence bill, denying couples basic protections.

The ruling occurred after officials received more than 10 ‘public opinions’ concerning the rationality of defining same-sex couples as family members. Despite calls for transparency, the contents and analysis of such surveys have not been disclosed.

To garner international attention, a group of local LGBT activists, including Chou, held a video conference with the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations in March 2013, where they discussed the status of Macao’s LGBT community, the government’s decision to drop same-sex cohabitants from the bill, and the resulting “deprivation of their rights.”

That same month, José Pereira Coutinho made the first attempt to legalise same-sex relations. A member of the Legislative Assembly, the city’s main government organ, Coutinho submitted a bill to recognise same-sex civil unions. His effort was overwhelmingly rejected, with fellow members arguing the bill was “different to our traditional values” and claiming, “most people here [in Macao] oppose same-sex marriage.”

In the wake of these setbacks, activists established Rainbow of Macao in April 2013. The NGO aims to improve the social status and livelihoods of the LGBT community in Macao, with the anti-domestic violence bill as a focus.

“By dropping same-sex cohabitants from the bill, the Social Welfare Bureau, as a government entity, has spread a very dangerous message in our society. It openly justified discrimination against sexual minorities,” Chou says.

In December 2015, the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) released a report urging the Macao government to protect all victims of domestic violence without discrimination. However, the anti-domestic violence bill passed in 2016, excluding same-sex cohabitants.

Starting from square one

One of the major reasons Macao still lacks basic protections for the LGBT community can be attributed to shortcomings in sexual diversity education. The issue came to a head in August this year when Leong Vai Kei, the acting director of the Education and Youth Affairs Bureau, made a controversial remark that called into question the understanding of LGBT issues among policymakers.

During a visit to the Emergency Reception Centre at Tap Seac Multisport Pavilion, Leong said in a media interview that students who exhibit homosexual tendencies should be referred to a psychiatrist for “clinical diagnosis”. Although Leong later clarified she had confused homosexuality with gender dysphoria – the condition of feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity conflict with one’s biological sex – the remark put her at the centre of criticism, especially among the LGBT community.

Sulu Sou, member of the Legislative Assembly and a long-time human rights advocate in Macao, took the clamour around Leong’s statement as an opportunity to submit a written inquiry to the government in early September, urging for a more comprehensive academic curriculum to promote the de-stigmatisation of gender variance and sexual diversity.

“We need more teaching materials to help society learn about [LGBTs and sexual minorities]. With more knowledge, people will become more respectful and accepting,” he says.

As an example, Sou cites the Gender Equity Education Act established in Taiwan in 2004, which states that all schools should provide gender equity education curricula and cover “affective education, sex education, and gay and lesbian education.” The implementation of an LGBT-inclusive curriculum in Taiwan was prompted by the controversial death of Yeh Yung-chih, a 15-year boy who suffered bullying at school for his feminine characteristics.

In April 2000, Yeh was found unconscious in a school bathroom and sent to the hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead. Although the court concluded that Yeh’s death could have resulted from a fall, the cause of death remains unknown.

Sou hopes Macao will enforce those very same rules, albeit without a tragic catalyst. “Bullying is also very common in Macao, but nobody cares. We certainly don’t want to take action only after a tragedy has occurred.”

In response to Sou’s inquiry, the Education Bureau referred him to a set of sex education teaching materials, which the bureau provides to local schools. The set includes a book chapter titled “Respecting Diversity”, specifically designed to encourage inclusion and better understanding of sexual and gender diversity amongst secondary school students.

The Education Bureau tells Ariana that roughly 90 per cent of the city’s 77 primary and secondary schools refer to these materials. In addition, the bureau says it also provides sex education training to more than 700 teachers across 63 schools, covering gender-related topics such as sexual diversity, sexual harassment, and domestic violence.

However, it is not mandatory for teachers to apply the training nor materials provided by the bureau. Kelly, a high school teacher whose name Ariana has changed upon request for anonymity, says government materials promoting respect for diversity have never been used at the Catholic school where she works. Based on anecdotal evidence, she believes the same can be said for many other local schools with Christian affiliations, which make up of more than 40 per cent of schools in Macao.

Kelly also reveals that some of her colleagues teach students that homosexuality is morally wrong, preaching the Catholic belief that marriage should be reserved for the union between men and women. Although Kelly says her school does not endorse these practices, it also does not prohibit them.   

 In 2012, the LGBT community in Macao protested the government’s decision to drop same-sex cohabitants from the anti-domestic violence bill

Stuck in the closet

In Macao, the overall pace of civil society and human rights activism has been slow to gain momentum. For instance, legal protections as basic as sexual harassment laws came into effect just one year ago.

Non-consensual physical contact in a sexual manner is now considered a crime; however, the law does not cover verbal and other forms of non-physical sexual harassment. By comparison, Hong Kong criminalised unwelcomed sexual advances or requests for sexual favours more than two decades ago.

Chou says the late start is partly due to the city’s history and economic development. Turbulent personal experiences and career pressure faced by residents have cultivated deep-rooted cultural values of harmony and stability.

“A lot of people from the older generation were migrants from mainland China and their priority was to seek stability and a better quality of life, instead of politics and human rights,” he explains. “As for the younger generation, the low level of economic diversity in Macao leaves them with limited career options. As a result, they may feel scared to fight for their rights, worrying that they may make enemies and jeopardise their careers.”

In the case of LGBT issues, the territory does not offer any liberties or protections. There are currently no anti-discrimination laws in Macao to protect sexual minorities, except in the field of labour relations. In addition, homosexual Macao residents who wed in other countries are not recognised by the local legal system.

The same applies to those with Portuguese passports – Macao was under Portuguese administration until 1999 – who may opt to get married in Portugal where same-sex marriage was legalised in 2012. This deprives homosexual couples of their right to apply for economic housing, inherit property, and make medical decisions for their partners.

At the same time, Macao also does not have a history of overt oppression, nor violent crimes. In fact, homosexuality was never been criminalised under the Penal Code of Portugal – which was applicable to Macao beginning in 1886 – nor the more recent Penal Code of Macau, first promulgated in 1995. 

“Based on my observation, there has been no obvious violence [against LGBT people] in Macao, and people won’t expose you, even if they suspect your sexuality. In this context, the LGBT community can choose to come out in some social circles, while keeping their identity secret in others,” says Melody Lu, associate professor of the Department of Sociology of the University of Macao. “If the community wants to claim their rights openly, they have to disclose their identities in circles that may not accept their sexuality.”

This non-confrontational attitude has driven many LGBTs to stay closeted, which has taken its own toll. A 2016 survey conducted by Rainbow of Macao, found that around 60 per cent of roughly 700 LGBT respondents graded their happiness level as 5 or below, on a scale of 1 (very unhappy) to 10 (very happy).

“Macao is still a conservative society in terms of family expectations,” says Anthony Lam, chairperson of Rainbow of Macao. “The pressure to get married and have children makes it harder for LGBTs to express their identity.”

A more inclusive future

The SAR’s LGBT community has a long road ahead when it comes to equal recognition and legal rights. But Rainbow of Macao says the territory is slowly warming up to change.

Next year, the group expects the government to review the anti-domestic violence bill for the first time since its enactment. The NGO has since been petitioning for the restoration of same-sex cohabitants into the bill, and the upcoming review will provide a chance to pressure the Legislative Assembly to include equal protections for the LGBT community.

At an individual level, Lu stresses that society needs to avoid making young people feel scared or oppressed about exploring their sexuality: “That’s how they can be encouraged to come out and speak up.” 

Choi recalls her own experience of coming out to her mother. After returning to Macao from Taiwan, Choi summoned the courage to tell her mum she was in a relationship. Her mother, who was watching television at that time, turned to her and said: “Is she a girl? I knew it a long time ago.”

At that moment, Choi says she felt a wave of relief. While grateful for her mother’s acceptance, Choi says few of her LGBT friends encountered this reaction from their parents.

“Some of my friends had huge conflicts with their families [after coming out] and they could no longer live together. There is always a risk of disturbing the stability,” she says. “But for me, coming out is not about being political and fighting for anything. It’s about how you spend your life. If there is nothing to hide in your life, you will feel more at ease.”

All Eyes on Taiwan

On 27 October, a sea of rainbow flags filled the streets of Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, as an estimated 137,000 LGBT advocates marched through the streets in the 17th-annual gay pride parade.

Attendees had reason to celebrate: In May last year, Taiwan was set to become the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex unions, following a landmark ruling by the high court to formally amend marriage laws by May 2019.

But in referendums held on 24 November, the majority voted in favour of “restricting marriage to being between a man and a woman” in Taiwan’s Civil Code and voted against a gender equity education curriculum that covers homosexual education. Annie Huang of Amnesty International Taiwan has called the results “a bitter blow and a step backwards for human rights in Taiwan.”

Despite the conservative landslide, LGBT advocates in Taiwan remain confident that the result will not supersede the court’s decision to legalise gay marriage. At the time of print, the path to same-sex marriage in Taiwan remains unclear. 

 At an LGBT rally ahead of the November referendums in Taiwan, participants hold ‘X’ signs in opposition to three referendum questions that would limit gay rights

ID Dilemma

For Macao residents who have undergone gender reassignment surgery, there is no clear process when it comes to updating identification documents. “For the past two years, we have been representing an individual who needs to change their ID card gender,” says Lam. “We have approached the Identification Bureau and Legal Affairs Bureau, but until now, the individual continues to hold an unsuitable document that does not reflect their gender.”