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Behind the policy 5.45 battle lines

'If you force them to teach their children that homosexuality is a normal and healthy lifestyle, you will instantly have a whole army against you,' says Charter Lau, a key spokesperson for 5.45's opponents. Credit: Shimon Karmel

Charter Lau lets the gender of his gay sibling slip in conversation but doesn’t want it revealed — to protect his relative’s identity, he says. So we talk in generalities: the sibling, the person, they.

He found out about the sibling’s sexuality through his mother, who wrote about it in a letter to her other children. Lau doesn’t know how she found out, but she wasn’t thrilled. “We told my mom, ‘Look, we’re all grown up. What’s the big deal?”

“She wasn’t happy because she wants offspring,” Lau elaborates.

“It’s not a right or wrong thing; it’s a preference thing. If someone wants offspring from her offspring, the person does not give her the offspring, she’s not happy,” he continues with a chuckle. “It’s a culture thing: this is how humans sustain, right?”

Lau says his parents never brought up sexuality, let alone homosexuality. “Because they didn’t mention it, we figure it might not totally be a good thing. Otherwise they will say, This is good, this is bad, right? This is the hot button.”

“Anything that is not normal is not okay in Chinese society,” asserts Hong Kong–born Heinel Wong, who recently shared an account of losing his anal virginity with Xtra readers.

“And normal is really, really normal,” he emphasizes. “No sex until married, guys should be providers, they should be tough; females should be gentle, more nurturing, stay at home, cook, take care of the kids. They should fit a certain mould in such a way that the family can continue on.”

As things stand, there’s no estrangement between Lau’s family and the sibling, who is still welcome at family gatherings and brings a partner, who is referred to as a friend.

“We solve the problem. We love the sibling, we have dinner, everything that a normal sibling will do in the family, except we don’t talk about sexuality,” Lau says, describing a kind of détente where no one forces anybody to accept a particular point of view. “My sibling appreciates the fact that we accept the sibling. ‘Accept’ meaning we tolerate it. We don’t make a big fuss, we pretend that nothing happened and then everybody is happy.” That said, Lau and his family feel homosexual sex will lead to ill health. He cites a recent study that shows more than half of all new HIV infections in BC are occurring in men who have sex with men.

Lau, who was born in Hong Kong in 1958 and moved to Vancouver in 1991, says Chinese people are not enthusiastic about discussing sexuality, straight or gay.

“We just make money, we marry, be happy and then life goes on. If we have a different lifestyle, and I’m not just talking about sexuality, you just go your own way, keep it low profile — as long as you don’t put it in our face, force people to make a stand, then everybody is happy,” he summarizes. “But sometimes some brave soul wants to stir up the pot a little bit in Hong Kong.

“When there is a gay couple fighting for their gay rights, to get married, then people will punish that guy, because we think you are wasting our time; you are making a big fuss out of small things. We think whatever your private life is, is your private life. Why you want me to accept certain things, or to do things for you? You marry in your village, in your home, you have your dinner party, you do your own stuff.”

What Lau can’t fathom is the public demonstrations he sees on the streets here. “In Canada, you can stand in the middle of the road to protest, you hold up traffic, just to complain about something — complain about politics, complain about whatever. To us, this is not okay.

“Because you have a right to express yourself, you don’t have a right to disturb other people’s life,” he contends. “So if someone wants to force us to say, ‘Okay, you must accept a certain idea,’ we resist. We don’t want people to force us to accept something — that’s the bottom line.”

Like 5.45, for example, the Burnaby School Board’s newly minted anti-homophobia policy.

The district’s trustees unanimously passed the policy on June 14, but not before hundreds of parents, many of them Asian and attendees of Willingdon Church, reportedly Canada’s second-largest Protestant congregation, staged three rallies to protest against its content. Among their grievances were that the policy promotes reverse discrimination, infringes on parents’ rights, and privileges its proponents who have a political agenda to target children.

“When you say you try to teach it in schools, they will feel uneasy,” says Lau, a Willingdon Church member and key spokesperson for 5.45’s opponents, some of whom later coalesced into Parents’ Voice.

“If you force them to teach their children that homosexuality is a normal and healthy lifestyle, you will instantly have a whole army against you, because you disturb the harmony and stability of the family, because you are teaching the children something they don’t feel comfortable with,” he says. “It’s not about gay is sin.”

He says he has no problem with schools recognizing the existence of gay people in society, saying their rights should be respected, and even saying they are “as normal as we are except that they are gay.”

But highlighting gay people’s positive contributions to society is going one step too far in Lau’s estimation. “I understand it is very effective to teach children about gay things, or whatever. I don’t think this is the role of education or school.”

He admits he doesn’t know if gay people have done positive things, because he doesn’t care. Take Tchaikovsky, he posits. “I don’t think [if] Tchaikovsky is a gay or not a gay. I still like 1812. The least thing I’ll think about or consider or judge him [for] is his sexuality. I don’t think it will affect me in any way.”

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Connie Chan Man-wai,chief director of Hong Kong Pride, says she’s heard from gay and lesbian friends in New Zealand, New York and Vancouver that after migrating, many Chinese parents try to protect and maintain their traditional family values, many becoming Christian to fit in with other Chinese Christian immigrants.

Chan Man-wai, who came out to her family 10 years ago, says her mother initially didn’t understand but now “totally” accepts her sexuality and has even met her girlfriend and other gay friends. She says parents’ reactions to such revelations run the gamut, from anger and crying to acceptance, or just silence.

Heinel Wong, who now lives in Richmond, says his parents took him to church when they moved to BC to help boost his social life. “A couple years ago when I come here, I don’t have much friends, I was really quiet, so they want to pull me to churches because that’s the easiest way to get friends,” he recalls.

Wong eventually objected, telling his parents he was gay after they asked him why he hated church so much. “They were like, ‘Oh, really?’

“If they are upset, they didn’t show it to me, but then they do not show upset. I’m pretty sure they don’t like it, but they wouldn’t say anything,” Wong adds.

Out in Schools youth outreach coordinator Jen Sung was born in Taiwan but moved with her parents to Vancouver when she was seven. She’s aware that her own coming-out script, in which her parents were fully supportive, reads exceptionally in light of her observations of her own community and her friends’ experiences with their families.

“A few of my friends are no longer speaking with their families, or parents. One of my closest friends came out when she was 18 and subsequently was kicked out of her home. She lived in between shelters and on the streets.”

Sung says most of the young folks who approach her during Out in Schools presentations are Asian. “Some of them simply want to know how I am able to do the work that I do, how I’m able to go to schools and talk about something that we don’t normally talk about at home, or in our culture, or in our countries back home.”

Like Lau, Wong and Chan Man-wai, Sung can attest to the silence about gay or straight sexuality within her own culture and other cultures similar to her own.

“The sex stuff is very private; I don’t think it matters if it’s same-sex or different sex.” Because of that silence, Sung observes, public advocacy and activism is virtually non-existent. As far as she knows, there isn’t an organization that addresses sexuality specifically in the Chinese community. She hasn’t seen one sustain itself through the years. And while she would “absolutely love for that to happen,” she’s uncertain whether there is a demand for such a resource, because of the silence. For Sung, the dearth of activism became a point of frustration when the Burnaby protests popped up on the radar.

“The fact that the Willingdon Church and parents were actually going out there and protesting this, that was a huge shock to me, because I just thought they wouldn’t even say anything; I didn’t realize there was that capacity or that room,” she admits.

But Sung is not entirely unhappy about the opposition. “In that case I’m glad, because it leaves room for a discussion, and it leaves room for us to have conversation with them. I never want to do this us-versus-them kind of dichotomy.”

So how would she engage with Heather Leung, one of the Burnaby parents who objected most strenuously to 5.45?

Sung notes that quite a few people have approached her, suggesting that the problem seems to lie with parents, not students. “Maybe we need to do presentations with parents or adults, and that might be the case… that we will do an Out in Church,” she says, perhaps not entirely in jest.

Leung, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is on record as saying that the policy’s passage amounted to “the darkest day of the Burnaby School Board history” and is “an irresponsible act.”

The policy’s approval “opens a big window for the pro-gay community to recruit, recruit, recruit our children into their camp,” she told Xtra in June. “In the meantime, they ignore the health risks behind it and the medical expense burden in this country.”

Sung says that if she did meet Leung one day, she’s under no illusion that she necessarily would share solidarity with her because they look similar or have the same skin colour. And yet those commonalities may allow some wiggle room to have that conversation, because of shared struggles with racism, or as women, maybe sexism, Sung suggests. “Those are points of connection I can draw upon and have a dialogue and say, Homophobia is just like racism and sexism — all of the things that are challenging because of the way we identify.”

“I think I want all communities — the Chinese community, the Christian community or the gay community — to take away that what happened is a good reminder for us that progress hasn’t been achieved,” Sung continues. “I’m tired of different marginalized communities fighting against each other. I want us to work together and talk to each other. Bridging that awkward space is something we need to work toward.”

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In Hong Kong, Chan Man-wai says she’s witnessed increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians over time and lists some of the legal and public policy gains. In 1991, the Legislative Council decriminalized consensual sexual conduct in private between men, stipulating 21 as the age of consent for gays but 16 for heterosexuals. Fifteen years later, in 2006, the Court of Appeal eliminated the disparity, equalizing consent at 16.

In the same year, the government also revised the Domestic Violence Ordinance to include same-sex couples. The main opposition during the whole process came from the local Christian right, Chan Man-wai recalls.

“They put a lot of money against us. They own many schools and social services centres; they can collect money and people there. Some famous government officers and politicians come from their churches; therefore, they have influence over government.”

Roughly 10 percent of Hong Kong residents are Christian, only some of whom are part of the Christian right, Chan Man-wai estimates. On the other hand, more and more non-gay human rights and women’s rights organizations, and pro-democracy parties, are coming out in support of gays and lesbians, she adds.

Those lined up against homosexuality and gay rights may claim that “we break the harmony,” but that perspective is not a universally held one, Chan Man-wai observes.

She points to a 2006 government survey that suggests a fine balance among Hong Kong people who cannot abide gays and lesbians, those who embrace them and those who have no opinion at all — the results split evenly into thirds.

“Traditionally, we don’t like homosexual people, not because they are monsters or their bad behaviour; it’s nothing about that,” Lau insists. “It’s because by looking at the numbers, most of us are heterosexual; we just don’t care.”

And what if one or both of his daughters come out as lesbians?

“After 18, they are grownup people; I cannot control their life,” Lau replies. “I would wish them to have a very healthy life, but if they choose a lifestyle — alcoholic, lesbian — that negatively impacts their life, I wouldn’t be happy about that, but what can I do?”

He’d still have them in his life, he says — “just exactly how we treat my sibling. As long as they don’t say, ‘Daddy, you have to do this, you have to do that.’ Otherwise, I’m happy.”