Hong Kong (AFP) - A British lesbian won the right to live and work in Hong Kong with her partner in a landmark decision Wednesday by the top court in the city, where same-sex unions are not recognised.
"QT", who entered into a civil partnership in Britain in 2011 and moved to Hong Kong with her partner the same year, was backed by major financial institutions in her fight for visa rights in the economic powerhouse.
The Court of Final Appeal ended the protracted legal battle by ruling that it was "counter-productive" to limit dependant work rights to straight couples.
"The ability to bring in dependants is an important issue for persons deciding whether to move to Hong Kong," the court said.
It said employment visas are granted because someone "has the talent or skills deemed needed or desirable. Such a person could be straight or gay".
Hong Kong does not currently recognise gay marriage or same-sex civil unions.
QT's lawyer Michael Vidler said the verdict marked the first time the city's highest court has ruled in relation to the rights of same-sex couples.
"Hopefully it will pave the way to change" and to the recognition of same-sex marriage, he said.
Top financial institutions including Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have publicly supported QT, saying diverse hiring practices are crucial to attracting and retaining top talent.
In a statement delivered by her lawyer after the verdict, QT said she felt "joy" in the court's decision "and knowing that I have in some small part helped advance the rights of LGBTI people in Hong Kong".
She accused the government of treating her "like many thousands of other lesbian and gay people in Hong Kong, like a second class citizen because of my sexual orientation".
Denied a dependant visa when she moved to Hong Kong after her partner got a job in the city, QT was forced to stay on as a visitor without the right to work.
In September last year she won her case at the Court of Appeal, which ruled immigration authorities had "failed to justify the indirect discrimination on account of sexual orientation that QT suffers".
But that decision was challenged by the government and taken to the city's highest court, in what critics said was a disappointing backwards step.
During the case, Dinah Rose, representing QT, argued the couple have a "public, registered" and legal bond which is not recognised in Hong Kong and are therefore "placed in a significant disadvantage" compared to straight couples.
David Pannick, representing the government, told the court "marriage creates a status" which in itself justified different treatment for same-sex couples and heterosexual couples.
Hong Kong's first openly gay lawmaker Ray Chan hailed Wednesday's ruling as a "milestone".
"The LGBT community, with myself included, is elated today over the Court of Final Appeal's judgement," said Chan, a pro-democracy politician.
"(They) should not be burdened with going through laborious legal and political processes to seek the rights that they should already enjoy as human beings," Chan added.
Amnesty International urged the government to "swiftly introduce comprehensive legislation against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status" in a statement following the verdict.
When the constitutional court in neighbouring Taiwan ruled in favour of allowing gay marriage last May, campaigners in socially conservative Hong Kong highlighted the city's lack of progress on equality issues.
Hong Kong only decriminalised homosexuality in 1991 and while LGBT groups have become more prominent in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, conservative activists have also launched anti-rights campaigns.
Public libraries have recently hidden away LGBT-themed children's books in request only closed-off areas after pressure from conservative campaigners, sparking outrage among the LGBT community and supporters.
However, there are other signs that attitudes are changing.
A study published by the centre for comparative and public law at the University of Hong Kong on Tuesday said 50.4 percent of people expressed support for same-sex marriage last year, up from 38 percent in 2013.