By Michael Taylor
KUALA LUMPUR, May 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A transgender pastor who has gone to court in Hong Kong to win the right to marry same-sex couples said on Wednesday that he conducts such weddings in secret because of the risk of arrest.
Marrz Balaoro was arrested in 2017 for holding ceremonies in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Straight (LGBTS) Christian Church, which he founded in the global financial hub in 2014, although the charges were eventually dropped.
"I asked (the police) for a written confirmation that I would not get arrested when I officiate a holy union again and they refused," said the 62-year-old Filipino domestic helper who moved to Hong Kong in 1981 and began living as a boy aged 12.
"We cannot do it in the open because of fear of arrest."
Homosexuality has been decriminalised since 1991 in Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The city has an annual pride parade and lively gay scene but it does not recognise same-sex marriage.
In a region where no country allows gay or lesbian couples to marry, two gay men launched separate legal bids in January to overturn Hong Kong's ban, arguing that it violates their right to equality.
Balaoro's judicial review case, filed at the High Court on Friday, rests on the right to freedom of worship - allowing the faithful to officiate holy unions as they see fit.
"We should not be threatened with prosecution because it is our freedom of religion," Balaoro told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Wednesday.
"We can have rights to conduct holy unions because nothing prohibits us from doing that because we are protected under the law," he said, adding that a verdict was due in about one month.
Campaigners say gay and transgender people in Hong Kong face widespread discrimination and often come under family pressure to marry and have children.
Victory in court would allow Balaoro to conduct same-sex marriages but they would still have no legal weight.
"More countries are opening up ... maybe it is time for Hong Kong to also open up," he said.
"While it is progressing, it should move with the times."
The government said last year that it will recognise overseas same-sex partnerships when granting dependent visas, after a British lesbian who was denied a spousal visa took it to court and won.
(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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