Mr Gay Hong Kong 2013, Michael Morrill leaves HK after suffering discrimination

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Arthur Tam talks with Mr Gay Hong Kong winner Michael Morrill, as he leaves our city due to prejudiced views on the HIV virus

 For those who may not know, we came fourth in this year’s Mr Gay World competition about a month ago. The dashing, bearded figure of J Bridge Hudson impressed the judges ahead of most of the 32 gay delegates from across the globe – and we rejoiced. But we also noted that Hudson has never actually been Mr Gay Hong Kong at any time. In fact, he was runner-up back in 2011. So shouldn’t we have seen American schoolteacher Michael Morrill up there on the podium? After all, he was Mr Gay HK last year. Well, he couldn’t compete, it seems, because this year he’s been out of work and out of visa – all because, he claims, he is HIV positive. In fact, he’s just left our city because of some people’s prejudiced views on the subject.

We interviewed Morrill last year after he became our Mr Gay Hong Kong. And everything seemed to be on the up and up. His career as a teacher was going well and he had big plans to start up his own English tutoring space called the Rainbow Learning Centre. Morrill had no qualms about disclosing his HIV+ status either. Instead, he felt that as Mr Gay HK, he was a good role model in making people aware of the stigmatised disease. However, he claims that as soon as people at his place of work found out about his HIV status, following our interview, the stigma, the trouble and the discrimination ensued.

According to Morrill, a colleague said his HIV status is like having SARS. “Working there became a nightmare,” says Morrill. “After the school knew of my status they strictly enforced a protocol where an assistant would sit in my classes to make sure I was never alone with the children. Mind you, the school already had this policy – but it wasn’t enforced. Only when they knew about my status did they place it into action.” Morrill claims there were fears from his some colleagues that he would ‘contaminate the kids’. So, unable to stand it, Morrill decided to quit and focus his energy on building his learning centre with his business partner. That plan, however, soon unravelled as his partner pulled out only a few months into the venture after voicing worries over how society would perceive his HIV status, which, of course, was well out in the open. He claims some people said they ‘wouldn’t enroll their kids with an AIDS teacher around’. Without his partner, Morrill couldn’t absorb the operational costs, so he decided to close the centre.

Without a job or his centre, Morrill’s HK visa situation was in jeopardy, so the American tried getting a job with AIDS Concern. But that too fell through, so Morrill could no longer be considered as a Hong Kong representative and could not compete at this year’s Mr Gay World competition. (Due to other circumstances, the second, third and fourth runner-ups from Mr Gay HK 2013 also couldn’t compete, hence Hudson taking part).

“The LGBT community did let him down,” says Mr Gay HK organiser James Gannaban. “People could have rallied harder to help him because it is a loss that Michael had to leave. I admire, applaud and love Michael, but in Asia and in Hong Kong, you have to be gay in a way which accommodates families and society. Michael is very transparent and he brought his issues to society and society responded in a deplorable manner.”

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” says Morrill. “I just always admired people who had the courage to speak up about their HIV status. Career-wise it wasn’t a good choice – but I don’t regret coming out with my HIV status. I still think people need to own up to it and talk about it more.” Morrill has been a remarkable figure in Hong Kong for the past six years. He has worked with micro-finance fundraising charity Wokai, he’s been with InterNations and Vision First – helping many asylum seekers – and he’s been an ambassador for AIDS awareness. On top of that, he’s been an educator for the past 13 years. “I suppose I can find a teaching job again but it’s kind of sad to go back to that, especially after I started my own business. I need to reassess what I’m doing. I feel like a letdown as I wasn’t able to go to Mr Gay World and I wish there could have been more of a movement from coming out publicly as HIV positive. I got some support – but it was the bare minimum. A lot of people in the community practice ‘slacktivism’ more than activism.”

It may not be the last we hear from Morrill. He has left us with a heavy heart but we hope he returns again one day. In the meantime, applications to enter this year’s MRGHK competition have just gone up online – and we’ve also had news that Hong Kong is bidding to host Mr Gay World 2016. If you think you’ve got what it takes, join in. Perhaps, as society grows up, you can help stop prejudice and increase awareness in Hong Kong just like Michael Morrill tried so hard to do.

Mr Gay Hong Kong Apply at mrgayhongkong.com.

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