When the bus system in Hong Kong broadcast the results of his social science research study on its in-vehicle TVs, Holning Lau knew he had struck a chord. Lau, a comparative law professor at UNC School of Law, teamed up with the deputy director of the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong to measure public opinion on same-sex marriage and couples’ rights. The results of the survey he helped design revealed strong support across Hong Kong for same-sex couples to have rights that married couples enjoy: visiting their partner in the hospital when only family members are allowed, inheriting property without a will; and being allowed to sue if their partner suffers a wrongful death.
The news received broad coverage in both English- and Chinese-language press.
“This work is not confined to an ivory tower,” Lau said. “The findings of our report improve the public discourse in Hong Kong on gay and lesbian rights.”
Lau’s study showed that fully three-quarters of the public believes that same-sex couples should have at least some of the rights married couples have; a quarter of the public fully supports same-sex couples being allowed to marry, with another 12 percent leaning toward that sentiment.
“One reason we conducted this study was that all of the research in Hong Kong prior to our study focused on marriage rights, telling only part of the story,” Lau said. “As legal scholars, we knew a broader set of questions that could be asked. We decided to study public opinion on a broader set of rights.”
Other than a domestic violence law that extends to same-sex couples, Hong Kong has no legal recognition of gay unions. Courts are not supposed to take public opinion into consideration in their constitutional rulings. After all, the role of the courts is to uphold rights that majority opinion has attempted to quash. However, lawmakers often are swayed by what their constituents think. Recently, the chair of Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunity Commission suggested that if Hong Kong was not yet ready for same-sex marriages, the government should consider compromise solutions such as civil unions.
“Hong Kong is similar to other parts of the world in that most same-sex couples would much prefer marriage over a compromise solution,” Lau said. “Marriage matters. But even without the label of marriage, compromise solutions would go a long way to protect couples’ rights.”
Lau travels to Hong Kong regularly. In the spring of 2012, during a pre-tenure leave from UNC, he was a visiting fellow in the Centre for Comparative and Public Law. There he connected with co-author Kelly Loper and completed the background work for the study. They later designed the study with survey methodologist Charles Lau from RTI International, a nonprofit research institute based in North Carolina. The University of Hong Kong’s Social Sciences Research Center conducted the telephone survey; 98 percent of the surveys were done in Cantonese and the others in English. A grant from the University of Hong Kong covered most of the cost of the study; Lau used his professional development allocation from UNC School of Law to fund the balance.
The Hong Kong government contends that same-sex marriage is highly controversial and points to the lack of majority support for legalizing such unions. Lau and his co-authors note that public opinion should not be the deciding factor; nevertheless, if the government intends to base legislation on public opinion, Lau’s survey shows public support for protecting same-sex couples’ rights through a compromise solution short of marriage.
The survey is part of a larger research project Lau is conducting on public opinion in Hong Kong about other sexual orientation matters. His telephone survey probed a number of issues and found that the number of gays and lesbians living openly has increased dramatically since 2005, the last time such a survey was done. He also discovered that contact with gays and lesbians is a strong predictor of people’s willingness to accept gay rights. In fact, the reason women and young people in Hong Kong are more supportive of gay rights seems to be linked to they are more likely to have contact with openly gay people.
“The implication for gay rights advocates is that the human element makes a difference.”
-February 7, 2014