A Hong Kong (search) judge ruled Wednesday that laws against gay sex — including one that demands a life sentence for men under 21 who engage in sodomy — are unconstitutional and discriminatory.

High Court Judge Michael Hartmann made the judgment after William Roy Leung, a 20-year-old homosexual, launched a legal challenge against what he considered discriminatory anti-gay laws.

Hartmann said the laws "discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. (They) are demeaning of gay men who are, through the legislation, stereotyped as deviant."

Existing laws prohibit "gross indecency," or sexual intimacy, between men if one or both are aged under 21, while heterosexual and lesbian couples who are 16 or older may do so lawfully.

Men who engage in consensual sodomy with another when either is under 21 face life imprisonment.

Although a similar law also applies to heterosexual sodomy, Hartmann said the law is discriminatory toward gay men. He said in the case of homosexual sodomy, both men are criminally liable, but in the case of heterosexual sodomy only the man, not the woman, is liable.

The judge ruled the laws are inconsistent with Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law (search), and the Bill of Rights (search), which provide that all Hong Kong residents are equally protected by the law. He determined the laws are a "grave and arbitrary interference with the right of gay men to self-autonomy in the most intimate aspects of their private lives."

Leung told reporters after the ruling: "The difference is I can finally have a loving relationship without being scared of (being) thrown into jail for life imprisonment. That would be what we've been asking for."

Gay activist Roddy Shaw also welcomed the ruling. He said police have arrested 65 men under gay sex laws in the past five years and 26 were convicted.

"It is a landmark case and a long overdue judgment. It's the first time that sexual orientation has been upheld as a protected ground against discrimination in a Hong Kong court," he said.

The ruling comes as debate over a proposed law prohibiting discrimination toward homosexuals rages between gay and religious groups in the former British colony.