Kayla Wong was just 22 when her life was turned upside down. “I was with my girlfriend, we were in Kennedy Town by the harbour, we were just hugging and kissing,” remembers Kayla, the founder of ethical clothing brand Basics for Basics. “But the paparazzi had followed us and they suddenly appeared in front of us in the dark with their cameras flashing. It was super traumatic.”
The tabloids had a field day. Newspapers and magazines plastered the photos on their front pages, prompting Kayla to come out to the press and reveal that she had the full support of her parents, actor Michael Wong and model Janet Ma. “I had already told my parents two years before,” says Kayla. “I was fine with being out as a gay person, but I just didn’t feel like this should be a thing.”
Kayla’s disappointment is understandable. This isn’t a story from the 1960s, when homosexuality was still illegal in most countries; this happened in Hong Kong in 2014, the same year that Britain legalised same-sex marriage, Apple CEO Tim Cook came out as gay and Jared Leto won an Oscar for playing a transgender activist in Dallas Buyers Club.
Even the conservative Catholic Church softened its stance on homosexuality in 2014, with Pope Francis declaring “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.”
So for all Hong Kong’s claims to be “Asia’s world city,” just how LGBT-friendly is it? It’s a tough question to answer, say some of the city’s leading LGBT personalities who recently gathered at Douglas Young’s Mid-Levels home for a roundtable discussion on the state of LGBT rights in Hong Kong.
As this discussion took place on the eve of Pride Month, which is celebrated in June, it was an especially appropriate time to reflect on the lives of the city’s LGBT residents.
Homosexuality was only legalised in Hong Kong in 1991—24 years after it was legalised in the UK, and 11 years after the state of New York—but Douglas doesn’t remember living in fear before legalisation. Instead, sexuality simply wasn’t discussed.
“When I was young, nobody knew the word in Cantonese for gay,” recalls Douglas, the founder of the brand GOD. “I think my biggest breakthrough was watching this TVB soap opera called A House is Not a Home, which came out in 1977. It featured a gay character. They used the phrase tung sing luen, which translates roughly as same-sex love. It was such a mysterious word for me. We had a nanny and when I asked her, she said, ‘That’s no business for kids.’ But I knew instinctively that it was something to do with me.”
See also: Douglas Young of G.O.D.