HONG KONG — Hong Kong has hired a prominent local psychiatrist who claims he can "re-wire" homosexuals as a trainer for its social welfare staff, sparking outrage among gay rights activists on Friday.
Critics said the move could be the world's first government-sponsored training session on gay conversion therapy, which includes prayer, cold showers and practising abstinence as a way to avoid same-sex relationships.
"The government seems to think that homosexuals are possessed by evil spirits and needed to be 'cleansed' or 'cured' through conversion therapy," Joseph Cho, a spokesman for gay rights group Rainbow Action, told reporters during a protest outside the city's Social Welfare Department Friday.
"They are criminalising people with same sex orientation -- this is an international joke," he added.
Psychiatrist Hong Kwai-wah, who specialises in "treating unwanted homosexuality," gave a two-and-a-half hour talk to staff at the former British colony's social welfare office on Friday.
Hong is chairman of the New Creation Association, whose mission is "to help people struggling with homosexuality and diffuse their inner dilemmas, rewire their mental state as well as propagate the belief that homosexuals can change," according to its website.
The group said it differs from other counselling organisations which "tend to encourage homosexuals to accept their sexual orientation."
"But we respect their decision to change. We provide services for those that want to change," it said.
New Creation did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
It was not clear how much Hong was paid for his services.
The southern Chinese city's Social Welfare Department said it had invited scholars and gay rights activists to speak at earlier sexual identity seminars.
"The department had adopted and would continue to adopt an open and impartial attitude in organising training courses, thematic talks and experience sharing sessions for the professional development of its social workers," it said in a statement.
The government added that "knowledge from multiple perspectives was essential for social workers to make professional and independent assessment on their cases and to address specific needs of service users."
Despite its reputation as an international financial hub, critics said Hong Kong remains a conservative city when it comes to gay rights, only decriminalising homosexuality in 1991.
A government survey in the 1990s concluded that most Hong Kong residents were "not ready" for laws banning discrimination against homosexuals, and the city had made little headway since to protect gays, said Dora Choi, director of the Gender Studies Committee at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"(But) this is very bizarre that the government would sponsor classes like these," she told AFP.
"It is the first time the government has publicly taken a stance on this issue. (It) should be neutral but it is obviously taking sides," she added.
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