Dr. S. Chelvan, Barrister at No5 Chambers
So, tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
I’m Dr. S Chelvan and I am a Barrister at No5 Barristers’ Chambers in London. I was called to the Bar by Inner Temple in 1999, so I’ve practised for over 20 years, bar an academic sabbatical year in the States. I specifically work in the field of LGBTQ+ rights, immigration, and refugee law. Particularly with respect to asylum claims and protecting human rights claims based on sexual identity, gender identity, or expression (‘SOGIE’). I was appointed to the Government Equalities Office’s LGBT Advisory Panel in March 2019. In October 2019, I was appointed an Independent Reviewer by the Independent Advisory Group on Country Information. My report, reviewing UK Home Office Country of Information SOGIE reports hopefully will be published by the Home Secretary this year. I’m also the International Rights Officer for UK Black Pride. I do a lot of academic work, lecturing and training both here in the UK and Internationally and I act as an advisor to various international NGOs, governments and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. My USP? –‘To be the mouthpiece for those who know the words, but have no voice’.
Being ‘out’ and my journey through the legal sector
I came out 24 years ago. On the 31st of May 1996, I came out to my family and was kicked out, a week before my first-year exams at Southampton. It was a completely different world at that time. It was 1996, we didn’t have an equal age of consent, the age of consent was 18 for gay men, compared to 16 for straight men and women. There was a ban on openly lesbian and gay people serving in the armed forces and they didn't even mention trans identity at that time. There were no anti-discrimination measures in employment law and not even a hint of civil partnerships or same sex marriage.
I knew I was ‘different’ when I was growing up as a child – I just didn’t conform to expected norms. I was born in Sri Lanka and I came to the UK in September 1978 as a first-generation immigrant when I was four years old. I’m Tamil, we were fleeing the anti-Tamil riots in Colombo in 1977. Luckily, my mother was already in the UK as an Anaesthetist, so we were able to ‘piggyback’ her immigration status. From 1984, I grew up in Worthing, Sussex and when I was 14, I did a week’s work experience at a local Magistrates Court, shadowing a Barrister and I knew I wanted to go to the Bar. The following year in April 1989 I realised that I’m attracted to people of my own sex. I was living a double life and when I went to University in Southampton, I first studied Civil Engineering, and then I went into Politics and Law, I then quickly realised I couldn’t lead that double life any longer because my straight friends accepted me for who I am. I started having relationships in 1995 and ‘coming out’ 25 years ago. It then got harder to lie to my family and when my Mother asked me ‘Chelvan, are you gay?’, I said yes.
The following morning on June 1st, having not accepted an ultimatum to ‘live’ and ‘prove straight’, I ended up leaving home. All my belongings were packed into 18 cardboard boxes and 19 dustbin bags, with a letter from my Mother’s solicitor saying that I had been disowned and disinherited until I recounted my behaviour and practices delivered a few weeks later to my Halls of Residence in Southampton. From 1st June 1996, I was totally out
This rejection drives my passion to be a change-maker - I believe if you want to change the world, you have to be part of that change. I very much believe what the author Armisted Maupin describes as having your biological family, and you have your logical (chosen) family – my chosen family in Southampton were brilliant. I had no money and I was given financial assistance by the University, completely driven by my friends and especially my lecturers Natalie Lee, Caroline Thomas, and Paul Meredith. Whenever I felt down, Caroline kept repeating ‘you’ve got so much more to give. You need to go out there and change the world.’. I always knew I wanted to be a changemaker - I came to know the Bar would provide me the platform to drive change through the law.
The reason why I love the law is the ability it gives me to empower myself. I came to the law for this single selfish reason - and if change benefits others, all the better. Therefore, because I had no money, I had to apply for scholarships at the Inn and following interview at Inner Temple I was awardeda Major scholarship and, in those days, this paid for Bar School. I was completely out in my Inn interview. Lord Justice Schiemann was the chair of the interview panel and I talked about being gay, gay rights, and what I wanted to do. So, for me, I’ve never been ‘in the closet’ whilst at the Bar.
When it came to applying for pupillage, one of the key issues for me was being a person with ’melanin rich’ skin, I can’t pass as anything but a Person of Colour . When they see me, even before I come out, they know I’m different. If I can’t pass for white, which is clearly something I would never want to do, why would I hide my sexual identity? I always advise anybody who’s applying for pupillage, a training contract or whatever, find your USP - what’s your Unique Selling Point? When I applied for pupillage in 1998, Martin Bowley QC (President of the Bar Lesbian and Gay Group) helped me pick my 12 chambers. When I applied, my USP then was ‘as a black, gay man with hearing difficulties and I understand the issues surrounding Civil Liberties’. I’m black in a political sense (there was no ‘brown’ identity in the 1980s/90s), and when I was a teenager, it was through the struggles with the Civil Rights movement in American that I was able to empower myself with my own sense of identity. When I came out to myself in April 1989, it was just after section 28, so I knew there was a barrier for me. My religious education teacher said homosexuality was a mental illness, but my English teacher knew about me and she gave me Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’ and a book by James Baldwin – she just knew, it was our unspoken conversation.
When I put a ‘Black, gay man with hearing difficulties’ on my pupillage application, it was to say, I’m not here as somebody who’s an ally, I’m somebody who has directly experienced the struggles – am someone whose experience arises from my various identities - am intersectional. One of my favourite political theorists is Iris Marion-Young and her work ‘The Politics of Difference’. She talked about those of us within marginalised groups being our own advocates and that’s what drove me, my fire in the belly - to change the world. I believe the Bar is very much a profession for people that are campaigners and I am proud to call myself an activist lawyer. Immigration, refugees and LGBTQ+ have always been part of my identity, so I knew I wanted to do that. I didn’t have the privileges a lot of people who enter the Bar have, but I was driven by my passion and motivation to succeed. Stonewall (28 June 1969) was a riot – we need to speak out and create lasting change.
Whenever I speak to students who are going through the professions or going through the junior ranks, I talk about drive and passion - you will get there. I had offers for pupillage, knowing I wanted to do work in LGBTQ+ discrimination law, immigration, and asylum
Anti-discrimination measures in the Bar
In 1994, the Bar was one of the first professions to include sexual orientation within anti-discrimination measures in the Code of Conduct. I was interviewed by 12 sets I applied for, and I got into the final rounds of seven and got four offers of pupillage. I remember in one of the rounds the discrimination occurred when one interviewer spoke very slowly as a token gesture having read about my hearing impairment. But conversely, the majority of my interviews was an attempt to bring out the best in me. The Bar is about spotting talent. I’m speaking from a position where I’ve been at the Bar for 20 years, I’ve been on pupillage committees and selection committees for quite a bit of my career and I’m a pupil supervisor as well. We want to spot talent because we want the best advocates to join our profession. I am proud to be part of FREEBAR who through our visibility project, launched next month, will highlight the diversity of our profession.
For me, it’s the issue that, as a person of colour, I can’t pass. If you’re going to accept me for the colour of my skin, then why the hell wouldn’t you accept me for the person I fall in love with if that person happens to be the same gender. Intersectionality is the key. We need to be able to understand that we don’t just come from one group, we come from a variety of groups within the spectrum - that’s what makes us human. We don’t just advance as one interest group and when we look at diversity and inclusion, we look at the whole spectrum, which is so important.
I don’t have the privilege of being somebody who is not identified as ‘different’. And the other thing, which I think is very important for anybody coming into any profession, is that if others have a problem with your sexual identity, why would you want to be there? It is a two-way process when you’re interviewed, it is not only them, seeing whether you fit, whatever that means, but also whether they're the type of organisation you'd want to be a part of.
For example, applying for pupillage is a very intense time. Lawyers and especially barristers are people watchers. If we know that you are hiding something integral to your identity, it affects the way you connect with us and we can read that, as we cross-examine witnesses all the time and we know when they’re not telling the truth. It will come across very quickly and it will affect the way you not only work but your wellbeing. It’s very important that people feel in a safe space in the working environment.
Now I would say my USP is to ‘be the mouthpiece for those who know the words but have no voice’. It’s really important to me as a Barrister, as I’m a storyteller and I tell the story of my clients. But I’m also an interpreter, just as the Court interpreter translates my client’s narrative from their native tongue to English, I interpret their stories into a foreign language called the law. I have a duality of roles, but the most important part of my core skills is not just the ability to talk, but the ability to listen.
I have a great connection with my Inn, Inner Temple. I joined as a student in 1997 and was called in October 1999. I have always found Inner a place where there is a clear commitment to diversity and inclusion. My husband and I are celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary on June 10th. We had our civil partnership at Inner in 2006 - we were the first-ever civil partnership to be held at the Inn. Five years ago, we ‘converted’ our civil partnership to marriage, returning to Inner to celebrate the occasion. My (non-lawyer) husband Mark and I have been together for 19 years this October (meeting in Heaven nightclub on his birthday). My only piece of ‘marriage advice’ I share with those coming to the Bar is, if you do not have a partner by the time of pupillage – get one - if they survive pupillage with you, then they are there for life!
Due to social media (twitter/LinkedIn) I acknowledge my role as an influencer. To me visibility is very important. When I was starting my career at the Bar, apart from Martin Bowley QC, there were definitely no LGBTQ+ mentors and definitely no LGBT+ BAME/POC mentors. I never had that senior person guiding me through my professional career, but I have an amazing team of juniors which I lead and am part of the Immigration team at No5, which is phenomenal. We all work brilliantly together. I feel my role is very important to be able to inspire others and so for me being visible is part of my role today and into the future. It is great to be the UK’s leading lawyer in the field of LGBTQ+ asylum. I’m on these various boards, advising the Home Office and advising the Government Equality Office. On that basis, yes, it’s tiresome to have to come out all the time, which you do. Ironically, I actually come out as much in relation to my hearing impairment, as I do with my visual identity within the professional workplace arena.
There have been huge cuts in public funding in the immigration and asylum field, but I will always meet with my clients, even pro bono, prior to the day of the hearing to ensure that they get to meet who’s representing them. They basically place their life in my hands. What I love about the work I do is the thank you cards, the cards that say, “thank you for saving my life”, and that’s what is so amazing about the ability to be a changemaker..
I'm a Hindu, by philosophy and religion. If you do good things in life, and you help people change their lives, you get good karma. Where I don’t get the vast amounts of income somebody on the Commercial Bar would get, what I do get is a thank you card, and that’s priceless
Are we doing enough?
It would depend on where you are. At No5 we have a very broad range of people and it’s wonderful to be able to speak to those entering chambers across the spectrum. It’s not just about being LGBTQ+ but how your chambers or firm approaches diversity and inclusion. One thing that has been brilliant during lockdown is to see how chambers are supporting each other. We have well-being mentors and a range of support services.
Clearly, there’s more to do and I’ve been on the Bar Council's Equality, Diversity, and Social Mobilities committee since 2008. I did a lot of work in relation to BSB (Bar Standards Board) rule change regarding reporting of sexual orientation, which was very restrictive. It’s all about getting involved - if you’re not involved, you’re on the outside.
I was always taught that there are two types of barristers, the first instance barrister who goes to that first instance tribunals and wins the case of a client, and they never see their client ever again. Then there are, like me, appellate Barristers, continually seeking the novel point of law – to change the law.
Advice for aspiring LGBTQ+ lawyers
Firstly, find your Unique Selling Point (‘USP’), sit down and find what drives you. Like a Contract Law question, you have the implied term, that’s the headline -that’s your USP. Then you have to evidence the answer, with cases to support the legal answer, with evidence of skills to support your USP. Think of it as footnotes, that’s the way I have always worked. When you're reading an application form, you want something to jump out from the paper. What makes them unique? That is one of the first questions I sometimes ask in an interview, what is your USP? And it’s amazing that so many people have never even thought about who they are – and what drives them.
Be yourself and live in your own skin. I'm very lucky to know that I'm 45 years old and I love, and I am loved. My relationship with my mother has now completely turned around. She apologised for rejecting me when we spoke last year. She's in a care home in Northumberland and we Skype call her every week. A few weeks ago she said to her carer having pointed to my husband and I - ‘they look good together’. Life is a journey, not a destination.