In seeming contradiction to the vast body of scientific knowledge, the Hong Kong government’s Social Welfare Department in mid-June hired the head of a fringe religious organization to teach a workshop to social workers advocating “gay conversion therapy, “ the belief that homosexual identity can be changed through therapy.
The welfare department has not responded to a request by Asia Sentinel for comment. Gay groups, however, have reacted to the seminar with outrage. Psychiatric studies, particularly one extensive compilation, Sexual Conversion Therapy: Ethical, Clinical and Research Perspectives, says gay conversion therapy is not only useless but dangerous and can lead to severe depression and suicide.
The session first came to public attention through a flyer publicizing the government-run training session, titled Talk on Giving Guidance to Same Sex Attracted Youth. The three-and-a-half hour session was led by Dr. Hong Kwai-wah, a Hong Kong-based psychiatrist who also serves as chairman of New Creation Association, a religiously-affiliated charitable organization that believes homosexual identity can be changed with therapy
The flyer called Hong a private practice psychiatrist who has worked with “same sex attracted people for over twenty years.” New Creation Association is described as offering counseling services to “same sex attracted people having psychological, emotional, and social problems.”
The New Creation Association describes itself as a “Christian ministry to people struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction., homosexuality.” On its website, the association, in its mission statement, says it respects homosexuals’ wishes to change their sexual orientations and provides pastoral counseling based on Christian beliefs to those who are being perplexed by “same-sex attractions” or those who have decided to leave the homosexual lifestyle..
The training session’s aim was to give the participants a “better understanding on issues of sexual identity, sexual attraction and the intervention skills that social workers may employ to work with same sex attracted young people.” The workshop’s contents included:
- Basic concepts and definitions on sexual identity and sexual attraction.
- Issues relating to same sex attraction.
- Understanding the developmental needs/difficulties of same sex attracted people.
- Skills that can be employed to work with same sex attracted young people and their parents.
The training drew protesters from Hong Kong-based gay rights organizations like Rainbow Action, which heard about Hong’s planned participation weeks before. Tommy Jai, a co-founder and spokesperson for Rainbow Action, told Asia Sentinel that although three weeks have passed since the training took place, the Social Welfare Department has yet to explain why Hong was enlisted for this topic.
Rainbow Action and other gay rights organizations argue that by inviting Hong to train government employees in what they regard as a specious theory , the Hong Kong authorities have broken new and worrying ground. Petitions expressing opposition to Hong’s practice of gay conversion therapy and to the government’s sanctioning of his training session have sprung up in Hong Kong and abroad.
“The Hong Kong government in this incident is actually the first in the world to have worked with a conversion therapy organization,” Jai said. “They invited the chairman of New Creation Association and the students of the training are social workers. It is extremely unusual. When we found out, we were very shocked and surprised. We need to stop this from happening again in the future, not only in the SWD but throughout the government.”
Jai fears that social workers will come to regard homosexuality as a pathology that can be cured by treatment. “They use government funds to hire speakers and the trainees are all social workers, so we’re very afraid of this misleading message,” he said. “It is possible that they did not teach how to convert. But if social workers encounter kids with same sex attraction, they can refer them to New Creation.”
Simultaneous with the June 17 training, Rainbow Action issued a press release alleging a series of violations committed by the government in view of Hong’s participation, citing contraventions of guidelines on the Code of Practice for Registered Social Workers, the World Health Organization’s position on sexual orientation, the Hong Kong Bill of Rights, and the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child and on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
To date, Jai says his group has yet to receive assurances that its concerns will be taken into account when future government-sponsored training sessions are organized. “We asked them to apologize to the gay community and promise that this kind of conversion therapy will not be taught again in the department,” he explained. “We asked them to review their activities for discriminatory, non-ethical or non-scientific practices. They have not contacted us yet.”
Rainbow Action has lodged a complaint about Hong with the Social Workers Registration Board, the statutory body charged with regulating the quality of social work in Hong Kong. The body’s goal is to protect service users and the general public. “If they find this violated practice,” said Jai, “then the person who organized the training should be penalized.”
In reply to Asia Sentinel’s request for comment on Hong, the Social Workers Registration Board’s chairperson, Dr. Hung Suet-lin, advised by e-mail that “the Code of Practice for Registered Social Workers (RSWs) regulates the professional conduct of RSWs only. As Dr. Hong Kwai-wah is not a RSW, it is not appropriate, not possible to apply the Code of Practice to Dr. Hong Kwai-wah.”
Such parsing will likely do little to ease the long-standing suspicion that many in the gay community harbor toward Hong Kong’s social workers, who are frequently accused of doing more harm than good. “We have very, very bad experiences with social workers in Hong Kong,” said Jai.
“Every year there’s news that a young kid tells a social worker of a sexual experience, and especially if it’s a boy having sex with another boy, the social worker will, without the client’s consent, tell the school principal and a family member and call the police.”
Jai characterizes many social workers in Hong Kong as conservative by background and insensitive by training. So while both government authorities and the gay community might agree that regular training is needed, differing opinions on the nature of that training form the flashpoint of a conflict that shows no sign of ebbing.
(Bong Miquiabas is a Hong Kong-based journalist.)