Hong Kong’s gay community suffered another legal setback Wednesday after the Court of Appeal rejected an appeal against the country’s long-standing denial of same-sex marriage to those who have legally married abroad.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists have won several victories in court in recent years against discrimination currently enshrined in Hong Kong’s laws.
Wednesday’s ruling, however, means that any repeal of the current ban on gay marriage will likely have to come through legislation, not the courts.
Prominent activist Jimmy Sham, who married his Hong Kong partner in the U.S. in 2013, had sought to have that partnership legally recognized in his hometown and had appealed.
Sham is also a democracy activist and one of dozens of activists jailed and awaiting prosecution under a new national security law Beijing has imposed on Hong Kong to suppress dissent after major protests.
Three judges ruled Wednesday that the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, “only favors heterosexual marriage, which means only heterosexual couples are entitled to recognition of their foreign marriages.”
If same-sex couples who married abroad were offered recognition, it would create “an inherent incompatibility” between them and homosexual couples who cannot legally marry in Hong Kong, the judges added.
The ruling can only be overturned by Hong Kong’s final appeals court, but it is not clear whether Sham will continue the legal battle, which has now been dismissed by two courts.
Recent years have seen gradual legal victories in Hong Kong.
For example, it was ruled that a foreign lesbian couple is entitled to a spousal visa and that the husband of an immigration officer is entitled to the same benefits as heterosexual workers.
In 2004, the courts also declared unconstitutional a higher age of consent for male homosexual residents-21 instead of 16-but the law was not changed until a decade later.
Polls show that a growing number of Hong Kongers, especially younger residents, support gay rights, while a growing number of international companies are backing marriage equality campaigns, arguing that it will make it easier to recruit talent.
However, Hong Kong’s leadership, recognized by Beijing, has shown little willingness in recent years to pass legislation that could bring about equality for LGTBQ residents.
Many of those campaigning for equality were involved in the city’s now-defunct democracy movement, while some prominent pro-government politicians have publicly opposed gay rights.
The campaign for marriage equality has had limited success in much of Asia.
The only place in the region that has legalized gay marriage so far is Taiwan.
Singapore’s government said this week it would repeal a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexual sex.
But it also said it would amend the city-state’s constitution to prevent legal challenges to the traditional definition of marriage.