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Hong Kong running group going the distance for the city’s sexual minorities

Hong Kong running group going the distance for the city’s sexual minorities

Originally published at the South China Morning Post on August 20, 2016.

Crowds cheered on a sweaty stream of runners as they raced along a 7km trail that winds through Central Park, New York.

Vivid costumes and banners splattered the scene – an explosion of colour. Families, friends and strangers strolled along, celebrating a united cause. Not a cloud was in sight.

It was the summer of 2013 and Alex Chong, a Hong Kong-based IT manager, was taking part in New York’s annual pride run in honour of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) community.

It was also the first time for Chong to participate in a pride run and he was immediately moved by the event’s electric atmosphere – so much so that he was inspired to create his own running club for sexual minorities and their allies in Hong Kong.

“The whole pride run, the atmosphere, was inspiring. You could see other people actually supporting the LGBTI community ... whether they were part of an LGBTI family, an individual, or were straight,” Chong said, ­adding that he was struck by the diversity of the people running ­together to support LGBTI rights.

“I wanted to set up something similar in Hong Kong.”

That marked the beginning of OutRunners HK, an LGBTI trail and road running group which is now approaching its third year and in the process of becoming a formally registered club.

From having just a handful of members at its inception, the group now boasts about 100 participants – including a core team of 15 competitive runners and about 80 recreational members.

Among the activities it ­organises is a weekly social run of between 4km and 10km along Bowen Road, one of the city’s most popular trails located in the Mid-Levels.

The 42-year-old Chong, who is originally from Fujian, came to Hong Kong in 1982. He grew up doing track and field activities at school, and the sport taught him that one can be competitive and good at athletics “regardless of your sexual orientation”.

“That’s where I got my confidence from,” Chong said. “In competitions we just run and we don’t (label ourselves) as gay or lesbian. We just compete and do our best.”

Despite the efforts of LGBTI organisations in promoting inclusion in the city, not all professional environments are inclusive towards sexual minorities, Chong said. Hong Kong does not have an anti-discrimination law based on ­sexual orientation, and does not allow same-sex marriage.

“You have to judge the environment for yourself when deciding to be more open about your sexuality,” he said. “LGBTI communities and NGOs ... ultimately want to bring talent to companies regardless of your background. I would like to see that, but in reality it’s still a long fight.”

Having hosted about 50 events since its launch, the group now participates in both local and international trail-running races. It is also part of the International Front Runners, an affiliation of LGBTI running clubs in various cities around the world.

OutRunners HK members said the group not only plays a vital role in promoting LGBTI ­inclusion through athletics, but it also provides a support system that enables members to feel comfortable in their own skin.

Justin Lowes, Chong’s partner and the group’s secretary, said the club showcased an unseen aspect of the LGBTI community. “Members are not afraid to challenge themselves and challenge [one another],” the 40-year-old said.

Since its members include ­locals and expats of different ages, the group is also a great space for networking, he added.

Celine Tan, vice-president of Asia prime brokerage at J.P. Morgan, joined the group two years ago.

Although she was a sprinter at school, she did not pursue the sport after she graduated and stopped running for about a ­decade. Joining the group was daunting at first, and Tan struggled with body image issues.

“I was up to 10kg [heavier] when I first joined. I was slowly ushered in, and after a while my body became stronger and fitter. This group is about participation,” Tan said.

“Alex made it easy for me to run. He reminded me of the ­importance of health and fitness.”

Tan added that the group had not encountered any form of discrimination while participating in athletic competitions and events around the city. “I think there is a misconception that the LGBT community is all about partying and parades – a very flamboyant lifestyle,” she said.

“But running and athletics is very healthy, very non-discriminatory and a very equal kind of ­activity to show people that LGBT people are the same. It projects a very healthy image.”

Chong’s plans for the group ­include reaching out to local LGBTI NGOs for collaborations and ­participation in charity runs, as well as forming a local team to compete in the 2018 Gay Games in Paris. He hopes OutRunners HK can play a part in pushing for more inclusion and equality for the LGBTI community.

“I hope that in the near future, Hong Kong will open up more,” Chong said, reflecting on the city’s attitudes to LGBTI individuals.

“Maybe one day they will say you’ll be allowed to be in a civil partnership or have same-sex marriage. Ultimately, that’s [the level of equality] we want.”

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