When Hong Kong residents Yan* and Janice* told their church counselor they were lesbians, he invited them to pray the gay away with the pastor. At a quiet church squeezed between bustling mega malls, they say the pastor then told them that homosexuality was wrong, and that they needed to ask God to clean them. After asking them for money, he told them the only way to be clean of gayness was through vomiting and fainting from exhaustive prayer.
Their experience is illustrative of the ex-British colony's complicated relationship with its LGBTQ citizens. Even as neighbor Taiwan makes strides toward legalizing gay marriage, people in Hong Kong take an extremely traditional view towards sex and marriage that extends to the LGBTQ community. Hong Kong doesn't protect its gay population through anti-discrimination laws, despite its development as a free economy separate from mainland China; in Taiwan and Macau, anti-discrimination laws plainly protect LGBTQ citizens from workplace discrimination, and those of the former extend to schools.
What's more, Hong Kong's government doesn't just ignore efforts to support its gay community—it sometimes actively works against them. Some have claimed that city social workers occasionally (and unofficially) refer youth to therapists who practice gay conversion therapy, which attempts to convert people to heterosexuality through shame-driven tactics that can leave patients deeply psychologically damaged. And through last year, the government provided funding to Post Gay Alliance, a fundamentalist Christian organization chaired by a psychiatrist named Hong Kwai-wah; though the city also funds pro-gay causes, Post Gay Alliance promotes "post gay" ideology to the city's youth, a practice closely linked to conversion therapy.
Hong Kong's general stance toward homosexuality stems from the outsized influence of Christianity and Catholicism in the city. While only some 5 percent of Hong Kong citizens identify as Catholic, making it a minor religion in a region dominated by Buddhism and Taoism, the church's roots run deep. "Its members hold a lot of social resources and have an influential social status," said Julia Sun, a prominent sexual rights advocate who founded a Chinese forum for accurate sex advice called Sticky Rice Love.
She added that many of the city's schools have a Christian background; according to Hong Kong's Yearbook, an annual compilation of statistics published by the government, Christian schools outnumbered secular schools in Hong Kong by more than double in 2015. Christian schools tend to perform among the region's best on public exams, which makes them preferred choices for parents—but the education their children receive is deeply conservative.
"Christian schools here teach students that masturbation and homosexuality are sins," said Tommy Chen, an LGBTQ advocate with Rainbow Action, the city's only gay community center. "Although most Hong Kongers are not Christian, because of Christian education, they're sexually conservative—and this makes the situation much worse than in mainland China," Chen said. Mainland China is Communist, and the government there does not allow Christianity ideals to thrive.
Those religious roots influence the city's complex relationship with gay rights. On one hand, Hong Kong has pride parades and out pop stars, and in a 2012 survey of more than 1,000 randomly selected working Hong Kongers, 50 percent said they were "accepting" of LGBTQ people. On the other, in a separate survey of 611 adults in November 2015, 68 percent said they agreed with the idea that society should tolerate anti-homosexual views.
One example of how those attitudes manifest comes via the practice of Hong Kwai-wah. In 2011, Hong was invited by the government's Social Welfare Department to speak to registered city social workers, which many felt amounted to a de-facto endorsement of his "post gay" therapeutic practice on the part of the Social Welfare Department. The invitation caused international controversy, including a protest in New York. Hong was hired by Gloria Lee, the head of training for the department at the time; a spokesperson would not let her respond to a request for comment. Since 2011, the government has continued to fund Hong's Post Gay Alliance and allegedly refer youth to conversion therapists.
Hong denies that he's ever practiced conversion therapy, and said that he has been practicing "post gay" therapy for the past 30 years, a counseling approach where the "objectives are to enhance self image, remove guilt and shame resulting from [a client's] sexual orientation, and to gain emotional satisfaction from other relationships such as family, friends, heterosexual, or spiritual relationships, so that they can experience joy and peace in their lives," Hong told me.
Hong's organizations have been careful to avoid using the term "conversion therapy" in describing what they do. New Creation Association, another organization chaired by Hong, has said on its website that it can help people "give up a lifestyle of homosexuality" through counseling. Hong denies that the primary objective of "post gay" therapy is to practice abstinence from gay sex. "This approach is too negative and ineffective. Sexual abstinence with [the] same sex is just a natural consequence of positive changes in other areas of [a client's] life," he said.
While Hong gave little detail on what happens during a "post gay" therapy session, he said that he uses a therapeutic technique known as Sexual Attraction Fluidity Exploration in Therapy, or SAFE-T. It's thought to be a revival of gay conversion therapy that affirms sexual orientation is changeable, albeit with a softer name than "conversion therapy."
"We had noticed [Hong's practice] for quite some time," said Chen, the Rainbow Action advocate. "But it was international news in 2011, because Hong Kong may have been the first government in the world to commission conversion therapy."
Though Hong denied that he's ever practiced gay conversion therapy, Yeo Wai-wai, a sexual minorities advocate with the Women's Coalition of Hong Kong, said she worked with a young man five years ago who went to Hong after a referral from his government social worker. Hong prescribed the young man antidepressants to treat his homosexuality, Yeo said. "He didn't find himself 'converted' at all," said Yeo, "but more and more unhappy throughout therapy."
When asked whether the Social Welfare Department still refers its youth to conversion therapists and what they do to support LGBTQ youth in crisis, a spokesperson from the department's Information and Public Relations Unit wrote that "knowledge from multiple perspectives is essential for social workers to make professional, comprehensive, and independent assessment on their cases." They did not affirm or deny whether the department refers youth to conversion therapy, or comment on whether they will publicly condemn the practice. As for Hong, the spokesperson simply wrote that "Dr. Hong Kwai-wah was once invited in 2011 to deliver a talk to provide our social workers with information to enable them to have a better understanding of sexual identity and sexual attraction among the youth, and the skills [sic] when working with them."
Unlike a wide variety of American medical bodies and the Obama administration, Hong Kong's government itself has yet to officially condemn gay conversion therapy, and a government spokesperson declined to comment why. Taiwanese officials published a plan to ban conversion therapy this month (though Macau also hasn't condemned the practice). The chairman of the city's Social Workers' Registration Board, Lun Chi-wai, said that he could not comment on this issue; the Registration Board is the city's official licensor for social workers.
While conversion therapy is not particularly common in mainland Chinese society, when it is practiced, it is hidden from public view. A doctor in mainland China who openly practiced the therapy sparked protests in 2014 and was brought to court in a landmark case.
*Names have been withheld to protect sources' identities.
Follw Justin Heifetz on Twitter.