Hong Kong NGO fights homophobia in schools
Fridae.com’s Hong Kong correspondent, Nigel Collett, investigates the Boys and Girls Clubs Association campaign against the harassment of LGBT students in Hong Kong schools.
“I was bullied from my Secondary Four class. I was groped. When I came out to those whom I thought my best friends in Secondary Five, they told everyone, and I was bullied all the way through Secondary Six and Seven. My classmates would jeer at me and throw paper at me when I came into the classroom. They wrote that I was gay on the blackboard. They would make out that they were gay and grind their bodies into mine.” Jack (not his real name; he is too anxious nowadays to come out in public), a gay Hong Kong Chinese university graduate, told me of his experiences at a Roman Catholic school.
He continued: “I got into arguments in the changing room, where I was trying to avoid them, and they said I was staring at them. On one occasion this led to a fight that had to be stopped by a prefect. The boy I thought was my best friend started to ‘borrow’ money from me in Secondary Four, about HK$20 (US$2.60) a day for ‘food’ for lunch, and when I asked for it back he wouldn’t give it to me. When he found out I was gay he told me if I asked for the money back he’d have me boycotted as a queer by everyone. After about a year and a half, I eventually asked him for the money. All he gave me was HK$360 (US$46), and he then told everyone to isolate me. Most of them never spoke to me again. Only one of my teachers ever talked to the class about sexual orientation sympathetically. I didn’t complain as I feared retaliation. The greatest impact was that I lost all trust in my classmates and even now, after university, I am still feeling the same.”
‘Smiles for Gays’ (同志你好-徵集500個異性戀朋友的微笑) Facebook project
organisers: Eric Chan (left), Chau Chun-yum, Tracy Tam and Benjamin Sin.
Jack is one among many LGBT pupils who are bullied in our schools, though one of the few brave enough now to speak out about it. It is a problem that has so far not been addressed. Now, though, unbeknownst to most of us, for over a year, the Boys and Girls Clubs Association (BGCA), a mainstream NGO, has been beavering away in Hong Kong’s background to bring some much-needed help to young LBGT people who are suffering homophobic harassment at school.
The BGCA was formed back in 1936 to provide facilities for Hong Kong’s youth. This makes it one of the oldest and most prestigious NGOs in the Hong Kong SAR; nowadays, it has over 1,000 full time workers running hostels, social groups and special projects (such as helping children with learning difficulties).
For the first time, in 2007, taking advantage of the funds being channelled at that point by the Government into HIV prevention, the BCGA set up a programme to reach out to young LGBT people. The BGCA decided to create what they saw as ‘healthy’ places for young gays and lesbians but which would not segregate them from the mainstream, so that they could heal and grow. It was able to build upon its unique place in schools and in youth clubs to offer counselling, activities and safe places to meet. LGBT groups were treated just like other groups, such a s the Boy Scouts, using BGCA facilities, so could meet discreetly, something that made it easier for those faced with the difficulty or impossibility of coming out. The groups were and remain independent, and engage in a wide variety of activities. The group known as Elements, for instance, took part in organising this year’s Hong Kong IDAHO commemoration.
As this was happening, the BGCA hired a full-time gay social worker, CY Chau, to coordinate the programme. CY had been a social worker with the Hong Kong charity, the St James’s Settlement, where he’d worked to fight for better social provisions in Hong Kong’s redevelopment projects. He set up a network of volunteers to counsel queer kids and to bring them together with others, including teachers, to share their problems. This was called Project Touch. It had never been done before and was very popular. It soon gave rise to a growing realisation that there was a huge amount of homophobia lurking beneath the surface of Hong Kong’s education system.
This was not in itself a surprise, for those who know anything about Hong Kong’s educational establishment will have long ago understood that it is very heavily dominated by the Christian missionary organisations that have stepped in over the years to provide schooling where the Government hadn’t. Getting education thus on the cheap has saddled Hong Kong with a system where many teachers are motivated by homophobic religious beliefs. Anecdotal evidence has always circulated in Hong Kong of the problems this causes gay teachers (who face arbitrary dismissal) and pupils (who suffer from a range of problems, including labelling as sinful in assembly to verbal abuse by staff). The BCGA uncovered a much more widespread problem. Whilst Hong Kong may not see anything of the violent physical attacks visited on LGBT victims in other countries, it soon became clear to the BCGA that there is a very deep undercurrent of verbal and minor physical harassment and that there is no redress for the victims or even any recognition by the system that there is a problem.
The result of this realisation was an online survey conducted from July 2009 to understand the experience of gay and lesbian students. Over some months, 492 questionnaires were completed by self-identified gay, lesbian, bisexual or questioning students. The organisers had expected to include transgender students as well, but had only one possible response, so statistically excluded this from the results, which showed that:
- 82.3% of respondents had realized their sexual orientation in or before their 15th year.
- 79.7% of respondents stated that their sexual identities were known by other students.
- Of these whose sexual orientations were known. 53.1% had suffered some form of discrimination including bullying and more than 42.3% had encountered verbal violence, teasing or being the subject of rumour.
- 39.8% had experienced isolation and a decrease in contact and felt socially isolated.
- 13.5% had been physically hurt or faced sexual harassment.
- Among those who reported that they had been abused, 62.2% reported feeling lonely and helpless.
- Among those who reported that they had been abused, 22.3% had entertained thoughts of suicide.
- 54.7% felt panic and anxiety.
- 45.9% were afraid of meeting with other students.
- Only 11.5% of gay or lesbian students were willing to seek help from teachers.
- More than a half the respondents indicated that their school did not have adequate information on sexual orientation and that they had difficulty finding a trustworthy teacher with whom to talk.
The personal tales of those like Jack which lie behind all this are saddening, stories of many young lives which have had the confidence and self-assertiveness knocked out of them.
Oscar (this is his real name) is another who has been bold enough to tell me of his experiences: “I was at a state secondary school for all my education. I’m a Christian, and have had to listen to my church telling me I’m sinful ever since I joined it, so I’ve always had this guilty feeling anyway. I came out to my classmates in Secondary Five. After that, they started to treat me a as joke, to make fun of me, to try to kiss me in public, even my best friends. They told me it was wrong to be gay and that I should change. I found it very difficult to deal with. In Secondary Six, I came out to some of my teachers. One or two were good about it, said it wasn’t a problem, but most tried to get me to change to being straight and said being gay was unnatural. I felt I couldn’t talk to the social worker because she was a Christian and I was scared she’d tell the school authorities and my parents, who don’t know yet. I was scared to be treated differently. I’m going to university this September and don’t know whether I should come out or not.”
The results of the survey and the personal cases they’ve found have pushed the BGCA to initiate a campaign to persuade the Government to take action. This has been joined by the Tongzhi Community Joint Meeting (TCJM) as part of its fight for a bill against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. To kick off this campaign, the BCGA presented the survey findings at a series of press conferences and events in 2009, including a session on Brian Leung’s RTHK chat show, We Are Family.
Teenagers who had suffered abuse shared their stories on air. The issue was well-covered in the press. Despite all this, there has been no sign of action by the Government or any school. When the BGCA approached Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) it found some support from the new Chairperson, Lam Woon-kwong, who acknowledged that the issue was an appropriate one for his organisation to cover, despite the lack of legal basis for this (Hong Kong has no ordinance against homophobia or discrimination in these areas). Regrettably, though, this led to an intervention from conservative Members of the Legislative Council, who demanded in debate that the EOC be kept away from schools. The religious right (in the shape of the Society for Truth and Light) commented publicly that whilst bullying should be prevented, there should be no “encouragement of homosexuality in schools” and that “gay organisations would take advantage of this issue to enter schools to convert students”.
The BCGA is not deterred. On three occasions in June and July this year, it screened the film Prayers for Bobby at Mongkok’s Golden Harvest Cinema. It is investigating making a documentary that may be screened on Hong Kong TV. It has initiated a survey of school teachers to back up its earlier work with pupils; this will be online within a few months. With the TCJM, it will continue the campaign for support from the EOC and for improvements in the policies of Government education and social welfare departments. It is a huge task to undertake and will take years.
CY Chau is not deterred. On Monday 19 July, in the City pages of Hong Kong’s English language daily, the South China Morning Post, CY and some of his fellows from Elements and Project Touch came out to the public while discussing their Facebook project, ‘Smiles for Gay’ (同志你好-徵集500個異性戀朋友的微笑), which has collected about 1,200 photos of heterosexual people prepared to support their LGBT family, friends and colleagues. The Post said:
Chau, who is gay […] was pleased at the strong favourable response, which “gives gays the courage to face their own selves, their lives and society […] Having gone through the ‘tortured process’ of telling his parents of his sexual orientation, he hoped other parents would try to understand their children, instead of asking “why has this happened to me?” […] NGO worker Eric Chan Yuen-wan and research assistant Benjamin Sin Man-yin, both 24 and gay but not out to their families […] said they hoped their parents would read the article and understand them a little better.
I doubt that the columns of the Post have ever before been used so strikingly to come out! In Hong Kong this is still a deed of considerable personal bravery.
I asked Jack and Oscar what was wanted by the young people who have suffered homophobic bullying. “The Government should ensure that teachers are trained to handle the issue,” says Jack. “It should stop Christian elements trying to enforce their religion in schools and should bring in regulations to make them stop harassment.”
Oscar says in agreement: “The Government should stop teachers criticising gay pupils and make them support them instead.”
Both believe there is a need for legislation to stop discrimination, as that would kill homophobic behaviour by school authorities stone dead.
CY Chau and the BCGA are taking the first steps along this path.
Nigel Collett is the Joint English secretary of Tongzhi Community Joint Meeting (TCJM).