Following news reports that Hong Kong’s MTR and Airport Authority rejected a Cathay Pacific ad featuring a gay couple holding hands, netizens have taken things into their own, well, hands, flocking to social media to post photos of themselves holding hands to voice their support for LGBT+ rights.
The Cathay Pacific advertisement was meant to showcase the airline’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, but appears instead to have highlighted Hong Kong’s continued ambivalence towards same-sex relationships — an ambivalence that was cast into stark relief by Taiwan’s move on Friday to become the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage.
The advertisement in question, part of a campaign titled “Move Beyond,” features an innocuous photo of two men walking down a beach holding hands, along with the tagline “Move Beyond Labels.”
Citing two anonymous sources, the South China Morning Post reported that the ad was the only one from the new campaign to be rejected by the MTR and airport.
The story caused an uproar among the city’s LGBT+ community and its allies, with the advocacy group Big Love Alliance putting out the call on social media for same-sex couples to post photos of themselves holding hands, or for allies to post photos of themselves holding hands with LGBT+ friends in a show of solidarity. The response was immediate (and appears to have worked, with the MTR and Airport Authority ultimately backtracking, but not before a whole lot of buck-passing).
For instance, Abby Lee and Betty Grisoni, partners and organizers for the upcoming 2022 Gay Games in Hong Kong, posted a photo to Facebook of themselves kissing in front of a sign for Central MTR Station holding placards that said “#MoveBeyondLabels” and “#MoveBeyondDiscrimination.”
“The MTR is for everyone,” the post read.
MTR is for everyone. MTR JCDecaux Cathay Pacific 國泰航空#movebeyondlabels #movebeyonddiscrimination #mtrhk #hkmtr…
Model and LGBT+ activist Kayla Wong also posted a photo of herself holding hands with another woman in an MTR station.
In her post, she said, “We are people too. We love too. We grew up in Hong Kong too. We ride the MTR too.”
She also included the hashtag “#movebeyonddiscrimination,” among a handful of others.
We are people too. We love too. We grew up in Hong Kong too. We ride the MTR too. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀Join the movement…
Lesbian activist Benita Chick also posted a photo of herself holding hands with a woman in an MTR station, admonishing others to “Join the movement.”
九龍西朋友揮手區 Join the movement #loveinhkmtr #loveislove #支持多元#fearlesslove #港鐵職員攝入#movebeyondlabels…
Gigi Chao, whose tycoon father famously offered HK$1 billion to any man who could effectively turn his daughter straight, also posted a photo of herself with another woman at Hong Kong Station, also with the hashtag “#MoveBeyondDiscrimination.”
#MoveBeyondDiscrimination to an inclusive and thriving Hong Kong. Love you my dearest Summer Luk.
Cathay has previously stressed the importance of LGBT inclusion to its brand, and a spokesman told the SCMP that the airline “embrace[s] diversity,” but declined to comment on the particulars surrounding the rejected ad.
The MTR and Airport Authority, meanwhile, appeared to be caught on the back foot by the sharp criticism, with both attempting to distance themselves from the decision-making process.
In a statement to Coconuts HK, the Airport Authority first offered an explanation as to why the ad might be considered inappropriate — “one important consideration is given to the fact that [Hong Kong International Airport] receives a large number of passengers of all ages with different cultural background from all over the world” — while at the same time maintaining the ad “was not included in the materials submitted to the AA.”
When pressed to clarify sources’ assertion that the ad had been rejected, however, a representative of the authority declined to definitively confirm the ad had never been presented for consideration, and would not explain the sort of submission they were referring to, adding that they “do not comment on specific airlines’ promotions.”
Even more confusingly, the authority’s statement maintained that the the airport’s stance on displaying ads did not reflect its stance on their content.
“Any decision made by the AA regarding display of advertisements does not represent AA’s position, if any, on related subject matters,” it said.
Similarly, the MTR Corporation palmed responsibility for the decision off to marketing agency JCDecaux, which handles ad sales for the MTR.
JCDecaux, for its part, pointed to guidelines it had received from the MTR as explanations for why the ads might be deemed inappropriate, including stipulations to reject ads that are considered “immoral; or which offend the generally accepted standards of public decency,” ads that “in any way caus[e] discomfort, fear, distress, embarrassment or distaste to the public,” and ads that “in any way… incite social controversy.”
JCDecaux added that it had decided to use “alternative visuals” instead of the “Move Beyond Labels” ad.
The agency did not respond to a request for comment from Coconuts HK regarding their decision and seeking clarification as to why the Cathay ad violated guidelines while past MTR advertisements for Hong Kong pride events did not.
According to its website, JCDecaux also handles some advertising for Hong Kong International Airport. Questions as to whether they were also involved in screening the ad at the airport also went unanswered as of press time.
However, if the company’s goal in rejecting the ad had been to avoid “incit[ing] social controversy,” the decision appeared to have backfired.
Ray Chan, Hong Kong’s first openly gay lawmaker, shared the story on Twitter, while pointedly contrasting it with Taiwan’s legalization of same-sex marriage.
“Two steps forward, always one step back,” he wrote. “#HongKong, Asia’s World Retrograde City.”
Speaking to RTHK, he called the move to block the ad “ridiculous,” and called on the companies involved not to “hide behind the [ad] agency.”
The backlash appears to have had the desired effect: in the wee hours of this morning, JCDecaux issued a statement to the SCMP saying it had been told to run the ad, while taking the lumps the MTR itself appears to have so studiously avoided.
“In the future, we will pay due regard to the MTR Corporation’s commitment to equal opportunities and diversity when handling the placement of advertisement,” JCDecaux said in its statement.
One person who wasn’t buying the agency’s whipping-boy act, however, was Chan, who told the paper he had said as much in a conversation with the MTR’s chairman, Fred Ma Si-hang, late Monday night.
“[Ma] told me that MTR has been embracing diversity and that the incident this time was really a decision made by the advertising agency,” Chan said. “He said the MTR was innocent this time. I told him that the ad agency worked for the MTR and that it was indeed MTR’s business that the agency failed to do its job properly.”
The Airport Authority also appears to have backed down in response to the public outcry, hours after the MTR did the same.
In a statement to the SCMP, the authority said it had “informed its agency for handling advertisement applications” that the ad did not contravene the company’s “established guidelines,” though it declined to elaborate on what those were, or who the agency was.
NOTE: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Airport Authority confirming that it would also be displaying the Cathay ad.