Hong Kong high court rules in favor of recognition of overseas same-sex marriages

Detained Hong Kong activist exiting a prison van
Detained activist Jimmy Sham, center, exits a prison van to enter the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong.
(Louise Delmotte / Associated Press)
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An activist detained in Hong Kong partially won his final appeal seeking recognition for same-sex marriages registered overseas, in a landmark court ruling Tuesday that is likely to have a far-reaching impact on the city’s LGBTQ+ community.

Jimmy Sham, a prominent pro-democracy activist during huge anti-government protests in 2019, married his husband in New York 10 years ago. Sham first asked for a judicial review in 2018, arguing that Hong Kong’s laws, which don’t recognize foreign same-sex marriage, violated the constitutional right to equality. The lower courts had dismissed his challenges.

Sham has been in custody since being charged under a Beijing-imposed national security law following the anti-government protests. The law has been used to arrest and silence many other pro-democracy activists as part of a crackdown on dissent in the former British colony.


Judges at the city’s top court, by a majority, declared in a written ruling that the government was in violation of its obligation to establish an alternative framework for legal recognition of same-sex partnerships, such as registered civil partnerships or civil unions.

“The absence of legal recognition of their relationship is apt to disrupt and demean their private lives together in ways that constitute arbitrary interference,” Justice Patrick Keane wrote.

But the judges unanimously dismissed Sham’s appeal on other grounds relating to same-sex marriage and recognition of overseas same-sex unions.

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Their ruling in favor of civil unions will have implications for the lives of the LGBTQ+ community and the financial hub’s reputation as an inclusive place to live and work.

Currently, Hong Kong recognizes same-sex marriage only for certain purposes such as taxation, civil service benefits and dependent visas. Many of the benefits were won through legal challenges in recent years, and the city has seen a growing social acceptance toward same-sex marriage.

Surveys showed 60% of respondents supported same-sex marriage in 2023, up from 38% in 2013, according to a report issued by researchers at the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of North Carolina School of Law in May.


In a previous hearing, Sham’s lawyer Karon Monaghan had argued that the absence of same-sex marriage in Hong Kong sent a message that such unions were less worthy of recognition than heterosexual marriages.

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Jerome Yau, a co-founder of the non-governmental organization Hong Kong Marriage Equality, said the ruling was “a positive step forward.” He said that the judges’ decision sent a clear signal that same-sex relationships deserve some form of recognition, and that it would help enhance Hong Kong’s reputation.

“This judgment, we believe, will go a long way in attracting young talent coming to Hong Kong to work and live,” he said.

Sham is the former convenor of Civil Human Rights Front, which was best known for organizing an annual protest march on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s July 1, 1997, handover to Chinese rule.

The group also organized some of the biggest political protests that roiled the city in 2019 but was disbanded in 2021 under the shadow of the national security law.