By Jess Clarke
Carolina Law Professor Holning Lau first visited mainland China in 1988, a year before the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, in which government troops killed some of the student protesters who demanded democratic freedoms.
The trip and the horrific violence in Beijing the next year heightened Lau’s interest in human rights and also shaped his research as a law student at the University of Chicago, his career path — and his scholarship as Carolina Law’s Willie P. Mangum Distinguished Professor of Law.
Now, Lau’s research plays a role in shaping policy discussions, advocacy and public education about LGBTQ rights in Asia and countries around the globe. “The notion of a shared humanity really undergirds my work on human rights across the world,” he says. “As a scholar, I identify interesting questions that surface in discourse about LGBTQ human rights and then aim to do research that helps people think through those questions with better facts and better analytical frameworks.”
One of Lau’s most impactful recent accomplishments was a project in Myanmar in which he was a consultant to the International Commission of Jurists and Danish Institute for Human Rights Joint Venture in Myanmar. He helped design the research and led the fieldwork, talking with LGBTQ victims of police brutality. His research contributed to a report on systemic violence against LGBTQ people in the criminal justice system.
“Listening to individuals discuss the tragedies they suffered was deeply moving…It’s so meaningful for me to step outside the classroom and apply my expertise on the ground,” Lau says. “I’m glad to be at a place like UNC that is very public-spirited and values engaged scholarship and having our work make a difference in the real world.”
The Myanmar report, which drew international media attention, recommends policing reforms and the repeal of discriminatory laws. It also calls on the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission to make LGBTQ rights a priority. Lau participated remotely in the report launch in Yangon in 2019.
In another project, Lau’s scholarship had a role in a trail-blazing occasion in Taiwan in 2019, the day before the country’s inaugural Pride celebration after becoming the first Asian nation to legalize same-sex marriage. His presentation on same-sex couples’ parenting rights was part of a symposium in Taipei on same-sex marriage. Lau’s paper will be published in English in the National Taiwan University Law Review and republished in Chinese in a book to be released by National Taiwan University Press.
Lau has a strong personal connection to his scholarship: he is gay and the son and grandson of immigrants from Hong Kong, which he frequently visited with his family growing up.
As an internationally recognized LGBTQ rights scholar, Lau is involved in other ongoing projects.
He is co-investigator on a team that won a $2 million grant from Canada’s federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to study LGBTQ rights in certain Asian nations. He is engaged in the third wave of survey research with an interdisciplinary team, studying public opinion about such rights in Hong Kong, to gauge “the overall climate of people’s attitudes and levels of understanding,” Lau says.
“My research has found that public support for LGBTQ rights fluctuates depending partly on how questions are framed and presented to people, a finding that has implications for advocacy and public education efforts,” Lau says. “Hopefully that will lead to better public discourse about LGBTQ rights in Hong Kong.”
The book Lau is writing, The New Global Vanguard of LGBTQ Rights, may lead to better public discourse in many nations.
The book will examine how an increasing number of African, Asian and Latin American countries are challenging the assumption that developed Western nations are more protective of LGBTQ rights. “Very little attention has been paid to the shifting composition of the global LGBTQ rights vanguard,” Lau says. “My book fills this gap by spotlighting groundbreaking developments outside of the developed West and explaining how a better awareness of these developments can help improve LGBTQ rights protections globally.”
As global as his reach is, Lau’s multifaceted scholarship has important impacts right at Carolina Law because his research informs his teaching. “I can’t bring students with me to Myanmar, but I can give life to our classroom conversations by giving students a first-hand account,” he says. “They ask good questions. It transforms the tenor of the class. It’s not just issues in the abstract anymore.”