HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s top court ruled on Wednesday that committed same-sex couples living in the city had the same rights to spousal visas as married heterosexual couples, a decision that advocates said could have ripple effects in advancing gay rights.
The case, which was brought in 2014 by a British woman who wanted to join her partner, galvanized gay rights activists who said that Hong Kong had not been living up to its image as “Asia’s world city” by failing, until now, to recognize such rights. Banks and law firms had pushed for such recognition to lure and keep top talent in the financial and business center.
“This judgment is a milestone for Hong Kong and a watershed moment” for gay rights across Asia, Jan Wetzel, senior legal adviser at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
The woman at the center of the case, known in court papers only as QT, came to Hong Kong as a visitor in 2011, several months after entering a same-sex civil partnership in Britain with SS, a woman of South African and British nationality who had taken a job in Hong Kong. QT’s application for a dependent visa was refused on the basis that marriage is defined in Hong Kong as the union of one man and one woman.
Without such a visa, a foreign partner would be able to stay in Hong Kong only on a short-term tourist visa and would not be able to work or receive public services.
QT took the government to court, claiming discrimination based on sexual orientation. She lost in 2016 in the Court of First Instance, which said it would be unlawful for the government to accept same-sex partnerships “through the back door.” Last fall, the Court of Appeal ruled unanimously in her favor on the grounds that the visa policy was indirectly discriminatory. That decision was upheld in Wednesday’s unanimous ruling by the Court of Final Appeal.
In a statement, QT said the ruling “affirms what millions of us in this wonderful and vibrant city know to be true, that discrimination based on sexual orientation, like any other form of discrimination, is offensive and demeaning.”
Her lawyer, Michael Vidler, said that while the case was not specifically about same-sex marriage in Hong Kong, the decision had implications for local residents as well as expatriates.
For Hong Kong residents who have gone abroad to marry in Canada, the United States and other countries that recognize same-sex marriage, Mr. Vidler said, the ruling could be applied in areas like housing, succession rights and adoption rights.
“Logically, if the government is going to apply this decision in relation to immigration policy, it should see that the writing is on the wall,” he said, although it may require litigation.
A spokesman for the Immigration Department said the government respected the court’s decision.
“We are studying the judgment carefully and shall seek legal advice as necessary before deciding the way forward,” he said.
More than 30 major banks and law firms had petitioned the court to participate in the final appeal, citing concerns that Hong Kong’s immigration policy made the city less attractive to top international talent. Their request was denied.
The QT ruling is seen as a promising development for a case brought by Angus Leung, a gay civil servant who is seeking to claim spousal benefits for his British partner. Mark Daly, Mr. Leung’s lawyer, said he would review the decision to see how it applied to the case, which they lost at the appeals level last month and plan to appeal to the top court.
Mr. Leung said the ruling demonstrated that “without undermining the current Hong Kong marriage system, there’s always a way to give same-sex benefits without any discrimination.”
The ruling also came a day after the University of Hong Kong released the results of a 2017 poll showing that more than half of Hong Kong residents surveyed support same-sex marriage, compared with 38 percent in 2013.
The survey also found similar support among Hong Kong residents for granting immigration visas to same-sex partners.
That shift is in line with international trends, said Kelley Loper, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law who was involved in running the survey.
“Hong Kong is an international, cosmopolitan city, so it’s not surprising that views are becoming more progressive over time,” she said.
Public opinion in Hong Kong has been influenced by a court ruling in Taiwan last year that could make it the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage, said Waiwai Yeo, a spokeswoman for the Les Corner Empowerment Association, a Hong Kong group that advocates equal rights for female sexual minorities.
Local events like the Hong Kong Pride Parade and Pink Dot have also shaped public opinion, Ms. Yeo said, as has the greater publicity surrounding openly gay celebrities like the Hong Kong actor Vinci Wong, who came out in 2013 and married his boyfriend in 2016.
But strong opposition to gay rights remains in what is in many ways a conservative society. Last month, a Hong Kong group said it had successfully petitioned the government to remove children’s books that discuss same-sex parenting and related themes from the main stacks of public libraries.
Ten books, with titles like “Mommy, Mama, and Me,” “Daddy, Papa, and Me” and “The Boy in the Dress,” were moved to closed stacks, where people can get access to them only by asking librarians, according to the group, the Family School Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance Concern Group.
Ms. Yeo noted that while almost 70 percent of respondents in the Hong Kong University poll favored a law against discrimination based on sexual orientation, the government had not moved to establish one. Hong Kong was chosen to hold the Gay Games in 2022, but it could end up being the first host city where same-sex marriage is not recognized.
Raymond Chan, an opposition member of the Legislative Council who is Hong Kong’s first openly gay lawmaker, wrote a post for Medium in which he applauded QT and others for going through “a mentally and financially draining legal process.”
In an email, he pointed out that many international banks and law firms in Hong Kong had moved on their own to provide benefits for their employees’ same-sex partners, putting them “light-years” ahead of local officials.
Mr. Chan said that the government should take the opportunity to establish civil unions, but that it was unlikely to do so. In the meantime, he plans to call for Hong Kong to study how the process would work.
“The government will face endless legal and political challenges if it keeps on stalling progress toward equality,” he said.
Alan Chan, a volunteer aide to Mr. Chan who is not related to the lawmaker, said the ruling could allow him to reunite with his partner of eight years, an American living in Taiwan.
“It just solved a lot of problems in our lives,” he said, “because we’re now in a long-distance relationship. We’ve been doing this for a while, so I kind of got used to it. But we know that one day, someday, we want to be together again.”
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