Sexual citizenship and social justice in the HKSAR: Evans Chan’s
Raise the Umbrellas

by Gina Marchetti

In 1998, Jeffrey Weeks published an article entitled “The Sexual Citizen” in the journal Theory, Culture and Society.[1] [open endnotes in new window] In it, he notes the importance of the conjuncture of the traditionally private realms of gender, sexuality, subjectivity, and erotic identity with the rights of citizenship, including access to public space, free assembly, equal accommodation, and, of course, full suffrage. During Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement, a broad coalition of political groups and individuals banded together to occupy the territory’s streets to protest the Chinese Central Government’s interpretation of the territory’s Basic Law. The issue that divided families and communities involved the question of universal suffrage and restrictions on the right to run and hold public office. Local and international media galvanized attention on the mass protests, and scholars from a range of disciplines have subsequently analyzed the movement.[2] However, although LGBTQ and feminist organizations as well as individuals played significant roles in the demonstrations, a full accounting of the importance of these sexual citizens to Hong Kong’s political development has yet to be done.

Films made after the events that reflect on the movement and its impact provide a starting point. Evans Chan’s documentary Raise the Umbrellas stands out in this regard because it devotes considerable screen time to Anthony Wong and Denise Ho , two popular entertainers who openly advocate for gender and sexual equality. Collaborating with female cinematographers, including Nate Chan and Nora Lam, who, individually made their own films about the demonstrations, Evans Chan highlights the importance of the rights of women and sexual minorities to the struggle for suffrage and self-determination in Hong Kong. This analysis of Raise the Umbrellas attempts to tease out the vital connection between social justice and sexual citizenship to better appreciate the role feminist and LGBTQ perspectives play in the forging of democracy in Hong Kong.

“I’m just a CITIZEN.” Intersectionality,
suffrage, and sexual citizenship in Hong Kong

Near the conclusion of Chan’s Raise the Umbrellas, Anthony Wong says the following about his involvement with the Umbrella Movement:

“Is the 79 day Occupy meaningless? It’s meaningful enough to turn be into a different person. In the past, I saw myself as an artiste. Now I’m just like everybody offstage. I’m just a CITIZEN.”

Within the film, Anthony Wong serves as the most prominent example of the link between sexual identity and commitment to democratic reforms. Speaking on behalf of himself and Denise Ho, he says:

“What made a lesbian and a gay man Hong Kong entertainment’s loudest supporters of democracy? Because they both understand the pressure put on an oppressed minority.”

Given the historical struggle of women and sexual minorities for basic rights around the world, the fundamental importance of suffrage as one part of full participation in society as citizens comes into sharp focus. As privileged celebrities, Wong and Ho spotlight the often-neglected importance of issues involving gender and sexuality to the wider democracy movement. Wong articulates the importance of collective action to his sexual citizenship, and this becomes a central theme in Chan’s film. However, Wong’s transformation was not the intended aim of the movement, but, arguably, it became one of its most significant consequences.

In fact, the occupation of Hong Kong’s Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mongkok districts September through December, 2014, did not achieve its principal goals of electoral reform and the resignation of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung. Set off in response to a White Paper from the Chinese State Council in Beijing putting severe limitations on eligibility to run for Chief Executive and making “universal suffrage” promised for 2017 largely meaningless, what had been originally scheduled as Occupy Central with Peace and Love, organized by Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, Benny Tai, and Chan Kin-man, became part of a broader coalition headed by student leaders, including Joshua Wong, Alex Chow, Lester Shum, Nathan Law, and Yvonne Leung, among many others. When demonstrators raised umbrellas to protect themselves from a police assault with tear gas on September 28, 2014, the “Umbrella Movement” was born.

With a very basic call for meaningful suffrage at its core, the occupation gathered strength from a wide variety of sources with conflicting political viewpoints, personal histories, and levels of commitment. Hong Kong’s protests have much in common with other grassroots calls for progressive political change; however, Hong Kong’s particular position as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China operating under the “one country, two systems” policy that guarantees a “high degree” of—but far from absolute—autonomy to the former British colony makes its situation unique.[3] While “pro-Establishment” politicians and their cohort see their fortunes inevitably tied to mainland China, Occupy demonstrators and their supporters cling to the promise of local governance and self-determination for Hong Kong.

Chan’s documentary Raise the Umbrellas gives voice to a wide range of players across the political spectrum, including pro-Establishment stalwart, Jasper Tsang, former president of the Legislative Council, a participant in the anti-colonial 1967 riots, whose brother, Tsang Tak-sing, went to jail for leftwing political activities. Anti-Establishment democracy advocates such as Benny Tai, Martin Lee, and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-Hung also receive a fair share of screen time. The film includes scholars such as the late Arif Dirlik, author of Modernity in the Age of Global Capitalism; Hector Rodriguez, City University of Hong Kong; and, Andrew Nathan, Columbia University, board member of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED); and it references diverse thinkers including Martin Luther King, Hannah Arendt, and George Orwell. Working within the framework of the essay film, Chan’s point of view emerges through editing choices; however, he does allow a range of voices to surface that point to contradictions within the movement as well as the perspective of the opposition. In spite of this, Chan has encountered difficulties showing his film in Hong Kong,[5] accused of producing a partisan document, and its critical reception has been mixed.

The focus here, however, is not on the controversy surrounding the film or even the principal figures featured in the documentary, but on demonstrators who bring gender and sexuality into the public arena through their participation in the movement. Raise the Umbrellas illustrates the movement’s capacity to represent the intersectional interests of citizens marginalized or silenced by the political status quo. Chan’s film is exemplary in this regard, since it showcases the participation of women and sexual minorities in the demonstrations not only as individual citizens but as members of underrepresented populations with a particular stake in the healthy functioning of the democratic public sphere.

Raise the Umbrellas, then, rebalances the tendency of many media depictions of the protests to downplay the importance of intersections of gender and sexuality in fuelling the demonstrations. Oppressed because of their gender and/or sexual orientation, many activists take to the streets to demand a voice within a larger movement advocating for open elections and public debate. In fact, it can be argued that the movement’s credibility would be lessened considerably without the support of individuals and organizations advocating for women’s equality and LGBTQ rights.

Debating sexual citizenship

In 1993, David T. Evans published a book entitled Sexual Citizenship: The Material Construction of Sexualities providing the foundation for the critical examination of the ways in which sexuality operates in the public sphere. In his 1998 essay on the subject, Jeffrey Weeks underscores the centrality of the franchise to the full exercise of sexual citizenship:

“The idea of sexual citizenship has many features in common with other claims to citizenship. It is about enfranchisement, about inclusion, about belonging, about equity and justice, about rights balanced by new responsibilities. What is different about it is that it is bringing to the fore issues and struggles that were only implicit or silenced in earlier notions of citizenship.”[6]

Paralleling the long struggle for voting rights by African Americans in the United States (culminating in the Voting Rights Act of 1965), women around the world also struggled for full political participation throughout the twentieth century (with the partial franchise in 1918 in the United Kingdom, equal franchise in 1928; national women’s suffrage in the United States in 1920; women’s right to vote nationally in Switzerland in 1971, in all local jurisdictions by 1991). Article 21 of the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights (1948) guarantees “universal and equal suffrage.” While women now go to the polls in most parts of the world, their meaningful participation in the political arena reflects the gender hierarchy of the broader society. Racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities as well as women suffer, and those at the intersection of these markers of difference in society, as Kimberlé Crenshaw[7] points out, face even greater challenges. Economic inequality, political exclusion, gender-based harassment, and violence against women take their toll on the body politic and make inclusive democracy an unrealized aspiration in far too many parts of the world.

Misogyny and homophobia mean that recognizing women and sexual minorities as full “citizens” must be a critical aspect of any push for democracy, and the importance of inclusion to the Umbrella Movement testifies to its strength in empowering those with a particular stake in seeing a just society for historically oppressed and marginalized groups. In fact, Hong Kong’s protests provide only one example of the many grassroots demonstrations that agitate for political reform around the world. As such, the Umbrella Movement has much in common with the 1989 demonstrations in Tian’anmen Square as well as the more recent Occupy Wall Street protests. While the economic roots of the 1989 Beijing protests are often underplayed, the importance of political as well as fiscal reforms to the demonstrators in Zuccotti Park has not been given sufficient attention. Sexual citizenship also played a role in Beijing as seen in fictionalized accounts of 1989 such as Stanley Kwan’s epic gay romance, Lan Yu (2001), a film based on a 1998 Internet novel.[8] As many scholars have shown, Occupy Wall Street not only owed a debt to feminism and women activists,[9] but included explicit critiques of the electoral system because of its suppression of the female vote and queer representation.

Demands for sexual citizenship, however, have also generated controversy in the aftermath of 9/11 and a global call to arms based, in part, on the racist perception that the Muslim world suffers more acutely from an authoritarian lack of democracy as well as misogyny and homophobia than the rest of the globe. In “Rethinking Sexual Citizenship”, Diane Richardson recognizes a tendency toward Orientalism based on “Eurocentric notions of cosmopolitanism” [10] in some of the discourse surrounding the status of women and sexual minorities across Asia. Imperialists use appeals for democracy, liberty, and the uplift of women and oppressed minorities as justification for invasion, colonization, and subjugation of other lands and peoples.

However, the local/global dimension of sexual citizenship cannot fall victim to this instrumental use of feminist and queer calls for suffrage. As Raise the Umbrellas demonstrates, the power of having the “whole world watching”[11] protests in a particular location strengthens not only local support but can help create a political climate that makes it more difficult for oppressive powers to suppress demands for change. Few countries court ostracism because of their poor treatment of their own citizens, so the perception of fair governance can make a difference to trade and geopolitical influence across borders. Taiwan, for example, has been a leader in the Chinese-speaking world in reforms opening the road for same-sex marriage even though female president Tsai Ing-Wen wavered in her initial support for marriage equality.[12] Although Hong Kong now has a female Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, it lags behind in granting equal rights to its LGBTQ citizens.

The People’s Republic does not compare favorably to either Taiwan or Hong Kong in female participation in political office (with 95% of the Central Committee male in 2017 and no female head of state following the establishment of the PRC in 1949)[13] or in granting equal rights to the LGBTQ community. While no laws against homosexuality exist in mainland China, LGBTQ individuals suffer from social opprobrium, political marginalization, police harassment, as well as homophobic violence.[14]

Petrus Liu’s ruminations on the potentialities of a “queer Marxism” leave Hong Kong mainly out of the picture in a study of the intellectual and artistic intersections of anti-capitalism and sexual orientation in the “two Chinas” of the PRC and Taiwan.[15] Critical of parliamentary government because the pressure elected politicians face when courting votes can compromise positions favoring gender equality and LGBTQ rights, Liu points to the tension between activism and electoral politics at the root of splits within the feminist movement in Taiwan. He observes:

“Under the constraints of liberal pluralist electoral politics, mainstream feminists are either conservative or at best centrist, while truly progressive social movements are left in the hands of nonstatist feminists.”

Raise the Umbrella highlights a similar tension between activists working outside the system and elected politicians on both sides of the suffrage debate. Given limitations on suffrage, inevitable crises in the legitimacy of the government punctuate Hong Kong’s history before and after the 1997 Handover. As a result, the clear division between “outside” activists and “inside” elected officials does not always hold, and the territory has seen activists win elections—including the radical “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-Hung, seldom seen without his Che Guevara shirt. Because of the constraints placed on elected representation throughout its history, Hong Kong boasts a strong culture of effective street protest as well as a vocal oppositional presence in its legislature. The very broad coalition that opposes the authoritarian imposition of rule on Hong Kong by both the former British colonizers and current mainland Chinese authorities includes diverse perspectives on participatory democracy, governance, economic and social justice.