Being a ‘trailing spouse’ in a relocating family has its inherent challenges, but these can be amplified if the relationship could be considered ‘unconventional’ – a label that in many countries still applies to LGBT relationships.
Expat communities everywhere are most visibly comprised of professional couples, with either the wife or husband as the trailing spouse and often the primary carer for children. However Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) expats often fly under the radar for a variety of reasons – the most prevalent of these being the different attitudes towards LGBT people in different cultures. Many LGBT expats are discrete about their sexuality as a matter of personal security. The by-product of this discretion, however, is that it can be hard for newly arrived LGBT expats in a community to meet those already resident in a community.
Increasingly, western societies are recognising LGBT people and their relationships. Same-sex marriage is recognised and legal in many more countries now than even five years ago. Same-sex couples are increasingly able to have a family, through adoption, surrogacy or IVF donation.
But what is the reality of relocating a happy, accepted family with same-sex parents from where they are to a new, unknown, and perhaps less welcoming society and culture?
This is not a situation that could be said to apply to me; in demographic terms I’m as ‘normal’ as you can get – my family consists of my husband, me and our two children (girl and a boy, for good measure). The only thing missing is a dog. And so when I first started talking to a new friend in Hong Kong about his family’s experiences, I was shocked at how much more difficult their transition has been in so many small, initially insignificant ways.
While Hong Kong is not socially hostile towards same-sex couples and families, same-sex marriages that are performed elsewhere are not legally recognised here. There has been a recent ruling by the ECJ in the EU in this regard – determining that ‘spouse’ is a gender-neutral term, and therefore the right of free movement must be extended to non-EU spouses of EU citizens, regardless of their gender and whether or not the proposed country of residence allows same-sex marriage to be performed within its borders.
(nb – there is a case before the appeal court in Hong Kong seeking to extend dependent’s visas to same-sex spouses, and there is an active campaign to have same sex marriage legalised here – see SCMP)
But as the situation currently stands, I was shocked by the restrictions it imposes on my friend. The key issue is that while his husband has a work visa for Hong Kong, and their (jointly adopted) child has a dependent visa, my friend must reside in Hong Kong on a renewable, 6-month visitor visa.
Because he has a visitor visa, he cannot apply for a Hong Kong ID card – and this biometric, photo-ID is essential for many elements of a resident’s life in Hong Kong. Without an HKID, amongst other things, a person cannot:
- open a bank account
- apply for work
- apply to study locally
- take out a mobile phone contract
- apply for a Hong Kong drivers’ licence
- apply for insurance independently
- apply for a local library card; and
- apply for a police records check that would allow them to volunteer at their child’s school
And since same-sex marriages are not recognised in law, same-sex couples cannot apply for the tax deductions available to heterosexual married couples. It also means that it is even more imperative for same-sex couples with children to have wills written for Hong Kong specifying each other as the first next-of-kin for their children, regardless of the status of legal adoption, etc. in their home jurisdiction.
From this short list, it becomes painfully clear just how much more difficult the relocation experience can be for LGBT families, even to a welcoming society like Hong Kong. Apart from the same challenges faced by all relocating families, plus everyday discrimination, most LGBT couples will come up against bureaucratic issues when applying for spousal visas or residence permits in many countries.
This can have cascading personal repercussions which could, understandably, place additional pressure on a relationship and on a family. It is important to be aware of the situation and its complications prior to embarking on the relocation adventure!
For an employer, these repercussions could determine the success of an international assignment. In an effort to circumvent bureaucratic problems, employers will sometimes ‘step into the breach’ when they are seeking to relocate an LGBT employee with a married partner to a location where it would otherwise be either difficult or impossible for the partner to accompany the employee. Companies may do this by investigating alternative visa options for the spouse – this may involve paying for the spouse to undertake post-graduate studies, so qualifying for a student visa; or perhaps employing the spouse directly in their professional capacity, so allowing them to obtain their own, stand-alone work visa.
Relocating has its many challenges in itself but being slightly more “unconventional” can mean moving to a less welcoming community, such as certain parts of Africa, the Middle East or Russia is more than just socially and bureaucratically challenging for LGBT families. More liberal countries will be more welcoming and accepting but that doesn’t mean there aren’t road blocks along the way which LGBT parents should be aware of and ready to tackle.
Parental Choice can support all families and can provide a helping hand to face the relocation challenges that may arise.
Written by Marion Wotton, independent relocation consultant (Hong Kong) at Parental Choice (www.parentalchoice.co.uk)