The first Gay Games in Asia has faced a political backlash in co-host city Hong Kong after a group of conservative lawmakers called on authorities to scrap the event – and even suggested it could breach a sweeping national security law.
The four-decade old event – which brings both gay and straight athletes around the world to compete in a festival of sport, art and culture – kicked off on Friday with Hong Kong and the Mexican city of Guadalajara as joint hosts.
But there has been vocal opposition from some within the Chinese financial hub’s new “patriots only” political system that was ushered in by Beijing following huge and often violent democracy protests in 2019.
Eight city lawmakers on Wednesday backed a petition from conservative groups calling for the games to be scrapped, accusing the event of advocating for LGBTQ rights and spreading “Western ideology”.
Junius Ho, a firebrand legislator known for both his intense pro-Beijing nationalism and opposition to gay rights, said the petition “objects to any Western ideology that sugar-coated its agenda in the name of diversity and inclusivity for a sports event.”
He also suggested the event could breach provisions within the new national security law that ban foreign powers interfering in Hong Kong’s governance.
“In short, the national security act is the legal basis,” he said.
Another pro-Beijing lawmaker Peter Shiu said the game went beyond an ordinary sports event.
“This is obviously just advocacy. I have no idea how it managed to reach Hong Kong,” he said.
Gay Games organizers hit back at the opposition from Hong Kong lawmakers and have vowed the event will be a proud, non-political, celebration of inclusivity.
“All our books have been checked by professional accountants, open and transparent,” said Lisa Lam, co-chair of Gay Games, at the Hong Kong launch on Thursday adding they had been “abiding by the local laws since Day One.”
They also dismissed concerns that the allegations may deter participants from attending.
“Everyone has their own opinion about things, but we are just about sports and culture,” said Alan Lang, the event’s director of sports.
CNN asked Hong Kong’s government what support it had offered the games and what its views were on those lawmakers who said the event might breach national security rules.
A spokesman did not answer the first part and replied on the latter: “Any activity that takes place in Hong Kong must not contravene any laws of Hong Kong. Law enforcement agencies will take action if there is any breach of the laws, whether it relates to general offences, crimes or acts endangering national security.”
A changing city
The rhetoric from pro-Beijing lawmakers comes at a time when the space for China’s LGBTQ community is being increasingly squeezed under Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Hong Kong does not allow same sex marriage and there is no law banning discrimination on the bases of sexual orientation. But as an international and financial gateway to China, Hong Kong has long had significant and vibrant LGBTQ community.
Multiple government restrictions on same sex equality – including the ban on gay marriage – have been successfully challenged in the court, most recently in September when the city’s top court ordered authorities to come up with some sort of civil partnership alternative for same sex couples.
But the city has also been transformed in the wake of the 2019 protests with Beijing cracking down on pro-democoracy activists using a newly imposed national security law that has criminalized much dissent.
While the law has not been used to specifically target the LGBTQ community, many of Hong Kong’s prominent democracy activists were vocal supporters of greater equality and have been prosecuted under the sweeping legislation or have fled overseas.
National security offences carry up to life in prison and authorities have broadened powers under the law to seize assets as well as a much higher bail threshold for those arrested.
Beijing also imposed a new political system on Hong Kong whereby anyone standing for elected office or prominent government positions had to be vetted for the patriotism to China and whether they posed any national security risk.
Hong Kong was initially chosen in 2017 as the sole venue for what was supposed to be an event held in 2022. But it had to be postponed for a year because of the city’s strict coronavirus controls at the time, which were in place for far longer than most places around the world.
Guadalajara was then added as a joint host, a first for Latin American, but that has also carried some controversy, with participants raising safety concerns over a location where drug cartel violence is endemic.
According to Reuters, no previous Gay Games has had fewer than 8,000 participants. But a week before the event, only 2,458 participants had registered for Guadalajara and Hong Kong had just 2,381.
“In my heart of hearts I wish the whole thing was cancelled and we could skip to Valencia in 2026,” Wayne Morgan, a senior Australian athlete who has competed in six Games already, told Reuters referring to the Spanish host of the next Games.
Taiwan’s athletes explicitly raised Hong Kong’s national security law as a reason they don’t feel safe in going to the city, fearing arrest if they were to wave a Taiwanese flag.
Taiwan’s Gay Sports and Movement Association said their athletes would take part in the Mexican leg instead. Taiwan has a thriving LGBTQ community and in 2019 became the first place in Asia to legalize same sex marriage.
China’s Communist Party claims democratic self-ruled Taiwan as its own territory, despite having never ruled it and have vowed to one day “reunify” it, by force if necessary. Relations between Taiwan and China are at their lowest in decades.
‘Come and join us’
Gay Games organizers have attempted to play down those concerns, saying participants are still coming from all over the world.
“Like the 2,381 athletes (coming to Hong Kong), there are individuals who chose to come and they come from different nationalities, different territories and different countries as well,” said Lang, the director of sports.
Funding for the Gay Games has come mostly from international banks, insurance companies and law firms that have long been calling for greater inclusiveness in the city for their LGBTQ staff. And events are being largely held in private establishments, not Hong Kong’s public sporting venues.
The government was represented by a single official, Regina Ip, at the opening ceremony.
One of Hong Kong leader John Lee’s top advisers and also a lawmaker, Ip has been one of the few Hong Kong politicians vocally supportive of the games.
The event, Ip said, “showcases Hong Kong as an open, inclusive and pluralistic society.”
“The government should have provided more positive publicity on the importance of non-discrimination,” she told CNN.
Meanwhile Chan Kwan-on, one of the Gay Games ambassadors in Hong Kong, urged critics not to jump to conclusions and come see for themselves.
“Come and join us and have a feel. We are not that evil,” he said. “Love and peace.”