HONG KONG—Ten children’s books with LGBTQ themes are at the center of a storm in Hong Kong, igniting discussion not only about equality and education, but also the undue influence of conservative groups on public and private life.
An anti-LGBTQ rights group called the Family School Orientation Discrimination Ordinance Concern Group singled out the books, which were found in the children’s section public stacks of Hong Kong’s government-run libraries.
In January, the group said that public libraries were “spreading unethical homosexual messages” by carrying those titles, and then spent months petitioning the city’s Home Affairs Bureau, which oversees operations of Hong Kong’s public libraries, to remove them from view.
In mid-June, public officials finally caved, though they issued a statement to indicate that the books did not “encourage or criticize same-sex marriage or advocate homosexuality.”
The ten books that were removed from the public stacks of Hong Kong’s libraries include popular works that are written and illustrated for children of a variety of ages. They were: And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell; Daddy, Papa and Me by Lesléa Newman; Mommy, Mama and Me by Lesléa Newman; Milly, Molly and Different Dads by Gill Pittar; Molly’s Family by Nancy Garden; The Family Book by Todd Parr; Introducing Teddy by Jessica Walton; The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams; Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden; and Good Moon Rising by Nancy Garden.
The “concern group” in question is headed by Roger Wong, father of Joshua Wong, who was the face of the largely student-driven, pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014, when a 79-day street occupation took place. (Joshua has since distanced his own political actions from his father’s homophobic initiatives.)
Wong senior has a history of opposing the existence of LGBTQ communities.
In late 2016, when the iconic bronze lions of HSBC’s Hong Kong headquarters were painted in rainbow colors as part of the bank’s drive to promote LGBTQ rights, Roger Wong organized an oppositional campaign, calling the statues’ rainbow swirls “disgusting.”
He also co-opted a frequently used line in the propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party, saying that the lions’ new coats could “hurt the feelings” of those who see them. Roger Wong’s group is one of about ten that in that same year spoke out against anti-discrimination legislation, and then stormed the office of the Equal Opportunities Commission.
The books being targeted by Wong senior and his reactionary cohorts embrace inclusive notions of the meaning of relationships and family.
For instance, And Tango Makes Three, authored by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson with illustrations by Henry Cole, tells the tale of two male penguins, Roy and Silo, that are given an egg by a zookeeper and build a family together.
It’s a story based on two male chinstrap penguins that paired up and built a nest together in Central Park Zoo in New York, and in 1999 attempted to hatch a rock that they treated as an egg.
Zookeepers gave the real Roy and Silo an actual egg, and the chick that they hatched was named, as the book’s title suggests, Tango.
Though And Tango Makes Three has won multiple awards, it has been the target of other challenges, some of which have resulted in full censorship or bans.
In 2014, in nearby Singapore, the city-state’s National Library Board pulped copies of three children’s books with LGBTQ themes in their storylines, stating that the publications were “against its ‘pro-family’ stance.” Parnell, Richardson, and Cole’s work was among the books that were singled out in the Singaporean purge.
Since being moved to closed stacks in Hong Kong, And Tango Makes Three and the nine other publications have registered an unusually high number of reservations.
It’s unclear whether individuals affiliated with the anti-LGBTQ cause have been doing this to limit access to the books, or if others who champion equality are sending a signal to Hong Kong’s public libraries—that parents want their kids to have the option of reading these books.
Hong Kong is socially conservative. Topics related to LGBTQ rights and gender equality have, until the past few years, been sidestepped.
The late singer and actor Leslie Cheung—one of the stars of the seminal 1993 film and Palme d’Or winner Farewell My Concubine—remains a Cantopop favorite years after his suicide, but the entertainer’s androgynous dressing and bisexuality is decoupled from his fandom.
That conservatism carries over into Hong Kong’s government. Following a court ruling that states spousal visas should be granted to same-sex couples, one Liberal Party politician and the spokesperson for Ban Gay Marriage Hong Kong, Dominic Lee Tsz King, appeared at a public forum last week, claiming that same-sex marriage “encourages LGBTQ lifestyles," as local media put it.
Days later, when Raymond Chan Chi Chuen, the first openly gay legislator in Hong Kong (and Greater China), probed the possibility of the government actively engaging with matters of discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community, the city’s top political official responded by saying that they must take into account Hong Kong’s “general level of acceptance” of homosexuality.
Some residents have chosen to take matters into their own hands, and to be the change that they wish to see.
A small band of citizens are currently spearheading a grassroots initiative to raise funds for placing copies of the removed books into school libraries. The group will be liaising with primary schools across the city in the coming weeks, and plans to donate sets of books before the next school year begins.
Roger Wong’s anti-gay actions, for once, may have backfired.