How Gigi Chao sparked Hong Kong gay rights debate

The BBC's Juliana Liu meets Gigi Chao

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In a recent column for the Apple Daily newspaper, the woman often called Asia's most famous lesbian listed her rules for living a fulfilling life: spend time outdoors, do charity work and be true to oneself.

Gigi Chao, a Hong Kong socialite, grabbed international headlines last month when she published a letter to her multi-billionaire father asserting her sexuality and asking him to accept her spouse, Sean.

This was after property tycoon Cecil Chao, a never-married playboy who has boasted of bedding 10,000 women, offered more than $100m (£60m) to any man who could successfully woo and marry his daughter.

"Of course I can find a man and have 2.4 children and appear to have the perfect life, but it's just not an option," Ms Chao said from her penthouse office in the Hong Kong neighbourhood of Wanchai.

"There is paparazzi everywhere, and why would I want to live the life of a lie?"

File photo: Gigi Chao (right), the daughter of Hong Kong tycoon Cecil Chao Sze-tsung with her partner, in Macau, 4 September 2011 Gigi Chao (R) wrote a letter to her tycoon father urging him to accept her sexuality and her spouse, Sean (L)

The family saga of a wealthy father, his determined daughter and an enormous dowry has attracted interest from around the world.

It has also drawn attention to the lack of legal protection for sexual minorities in Hong Kong, an outwardly modern and cosmopolitan city.

No protection

Ms Chao says her money and celebrity have shielded her from the sort of discrimination often experienced by sexual minorities in this deeply conservative society.

Start Quote

I am told Father has rescinded the offer - So please tell everyone there is no more money to be had, on my hand, or my head or my heart”

End Quote Gigi Chao

She holds a top job at her family's publicly listed property firm and regularly receives invitations to walk the red carpet at posh events along with her partner.

That she is now an internationally known lesbian has hardly changed her life.

Her "coming out" story, while unusually public, is in marked contrast to that of Angel Tsang, a 27 year-old transsexual woman.

Born male, Ms Tsang paid little attention to her gender identity until five years ago, when she happened to see a full-length red and black dress in a store window.

She bought the dress and began wearing women's clothing in the privacy of her own room, as she was then living with her mother and sister.

Within a few months, she decided she wanted to live fully as a woman.

When she confessed the plan to her mother, she was given a choice: remain a man and live at home, or become a woman and be cast out. Then 22, she chose the latter.

Ms Tsang says she lost a steady job as an assistant in a hair salon because the boss was uncomfortable with her gender identity.

Angel Tsang at a park in Hong Kong Ms Tsang had a choice: remain a man and stay, or become a woman and go

Jobless and penniless, she was homeless for a time.

"My ID didn't match my appearance, so the bosses wouldn't hire me," she says, sitting in a suburban park where she once slept. "To me, this was discrimination, but to them, it wasn't."

Job interviews that seemed promising ended in rejection because she was always asked to show her government identification, which clearly stated she was a man.

Desperate to support herself and to afford the facial plastic surgery that would allow society to fully accept her as a woman, she became a sex worker, servicing men who admired transgender women.

"I was very lonely and helpless," she recalls. "It was a bad time in my life."

Eventually, Ms Tsang found help from Rainbow of Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation that helps sexual minorities.

Legal change

The group helped her find public housing and gave her new direction as a political activist.

Last September, she had sexual re-assignment surgery. And in December, she finished another round of facial surgery that gave her the chiselled features of a movie star.

"I didn't have the surgery for myself. I had no problem with the way I used to look. But, for society to accept me, I have to be more feminine than a natural-born woman," she explains.

This week, Ms Tsang and her colleagues from Rainbow addressed Hong Kong lawmakers at the Legislative Council.

Tommy Jai, a spokesman for the group, urged them to expand existing anti-discrimination legislation to protect sexual minorities.

During his testimony, he held up a photograph of a young lesbian woman who reportedly killed herself last year because she was tired of being mistreated due to her sexual orientation.

File photo: Rally participants take part in a gay and lesbian rally through the streets in Hong Kong on 13 December 2008 Discrimination on the basis of sexuality is not banned in Hong Kong

Homosexuality was de-criminalised in Hong Kong in 1991.

Five years later, the Equal Opportunity Commission was set up to carry out anti-discrimination legislation.

A public consultation in 1996 found strong opposition to laws protecting sexual minorities, so they were not included in the new ordinance.

Under Hong Kong's current laws, it is illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of gender, family status, ethnicity or disability, but not sexual orientation or identity.

York Chow, head of the Equal Opportunity Commission, said he hoped the government would carry out another public survey in a year or so.

"We have a very strong position on non-discrimination against sexual minorities. We think this is something that needs to be addressed. And appropriate law needs to be introduced," he says.

Dr Chow believes social trends are changing and the younger generation is far more supportive of alternative lifestyles.

And as for Gigi Chao and her father, they still see each other regularly but have agreed to disagree.

She says: "I am told Father has rescinded the offer. So please tell everyone there is no more money to be had, on my hand, or my head or my heart!"

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