Last month the Avast Foundation sponsored the National Diversity Award for Positive Role Model for LGBT. It was a memorable occasion for us when on the 17th September in Liverpool Cathedral our Executive Director, Shane Ryan was delighted to present that award to Laks Mann, and so recently we caught up with Laks to reflect on his amazing achievements.
Laks is a Metropolitan Police Officer and an activist specialising in Intersectionality and Community Engagement, an appointed Mayor of London Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Advisor, and listed in the UK’s Top 30 BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) Leaders of 2020. He is a pioneer in amplifying the lived experiences of the South Asian queer community and in building platforms for LGBTQ+ individuals in the UK and globally to advocate for recognition and equal rights.
In 2015, Laks formed an umbrella collective of artists, activists, charities, and organisations called Gaysians which soon became a national platform to “mainstream South Asian LGBTQ+ visibility” (the founding of which you can read about in more detail in his own words here) under the clarion call “Queer. Asian. Here.”. Laks then took that platform to London Pride in 2017, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the partition of India and the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK - an intersection of historical moments that was profound:
“This juxtaposition of anniversaries galvanised something within me, a British born gay guy of Indian heritage who enjoyed legal protections and social freedoms in the country of my birth, yet who would be a deemed a criminal if in my motherland, all because of laws inherited by my birth country!”
The founding of Gaysians was a game-changer for the South Asian LGBTQ+ community, both on and offline at events such as pride parades and community meetings. It helped to bring together disparate elements of the community to share experiences and collaborate on equal rights and awareness campaigns. The following year in July 2018 Laks returned to Pride in London and took the stage to shine a spotlight on the Gaysians movement and place it firmly in the family of the UK LGBTQ+ community. Later that same year in September, Laks was invited to speak at the Stonewall BAME Showcase on the day that the Indian Supreme Court decriminalised S377 of the Indian Penal Code banning homosexuality. While that moment felt very much like a landmark moment of invaluable recognition, it didn’t stop Laks. Even after last month’s NDA award, Laks is by no means finished and believes there’s still a great deal to do on the road to advance equality.
It's inspiring (and pretty humbling) to read Laks’ story and it's also hard to believe all of it could be accomplished in one lifetime. But beneath all the triumph and recognition lies a career of tireless advocating and campaigning requiring tremendous energy, courage and leadership.
We can collate, store, share and build our collective narratives.
We spoke with Laks about how safe social media is (or isn’t) for members of the LGBT community and whether there is anything his community can learn from the Black Lives Matter movement:
Congratulations again on your award, what does it mean to you to win?
It’s incredible to win the award, to be recognised for numerous achievements across multiple platforms. Making change happen in various organizations, communities and different spaces including within the workplace, policing culture, the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, and then specifically the South Asian LGBTQ+ community. It's amazing to have that recognition winning the most prestigious diversity award in the UK...it's massive! It’s a buzz!
What has been the biggest challenge that you have overcome in your campaign?
This was touched upon in my speech: “Brown, Asian, Queer, Here” - that representation and acknowledgement across those platforms. I am the founder of Gaysians [which] is all about brown queer visibility. It was a two-pronged strategy of saying to the wider, mainstream LGBTQ+ community: “you’ve been overlooking the South Asian queers for far too long” as though we aren’t part of the wider movement. At the same time making sure our narratives were centred and re-centred within the South Asian Community and to say: “Queer.Asian.Here”.
So you have that intersectional space where we have the barriers and challenges, but there are also the joys and the highs and that we created spaces of our own. The thing about the campaign was owning that space for the first time. It had not been offered to us, we had to claim it - that's what drives me.
To what extent is digital media an enabler of the work that you do?
Digital has allowed visibility - because it's based on text, images and videos - and having a digital presence has been a huge enabler during lockdown (for instance The South Asian Heritage Month Festival was curated virtually online, where I'm LGBTQ+ Lead). Social media enables you to connect across diaspora communities as well as globally with all. It enables you to connect and see what others are doing. It enables us to work together across boundaries and to get our work out there. It allows you to see a continuum of work and allows you to research. We can collate, store, share and build our collective narratives.
October happens to be both Cybersecurity awareness month and Black History Month in the UK. From your perspective, how safe a space is social media for you and your community? What is your advice for those who don’t feel safe?
In a wider LGBTQ+ community sense, social media allows you to connect - to have those digital conversations and have access to narratives so you don’t feel you’re the only one. You can protect your security because you can get answers to your questions, as opposed to feeling alone and vulnerable because you don't know who to ask or because you don’t have a community to reach out to. In that sense security comes from being able to access knowledge and be part of communities. There’s security in that.
But like anything else in society it does expose you to trolling, negativity, backlash and everything that goes with that - people can attack you from behind a screen, which sadly goes across the board. But just as the trolls can be anonymous, social media can allow you to be anonymous too in order to protect yourself from that hate speech.
I would say you have to both look after your own health and wellbeing as well others' - it's all connected. It's important to understand that you are in control. There’s a choice to go online and a choice to come offline - and it's understanding that. Also there are tools - you are able to block, to report, and you can collate and document what happens. There is that element of power and control and whatever is beyond your control - you can raise it, flag it, influence others and that is then the job of others.
But knowing that your community is there, and allies are doing their thing, gives you that source of inspiration - that oxygen; some can be doing, others can be supporting in terms of commenting, liking, sharing and retweeting. That is massive. For me winning the award, having people from my community congratulating me on my achievements and saying how important it was to see that recognition and my work getting acknowledged.
During Black History Month we’re thinking a lot about change and what it takes to achieve it. Are things changing for your community? Are you winning?
I take issue with the concept of “winning” because in this context it suggests that to win someone has to lose. It's not a zero-sum game - it’s about the advancement of human rights. If sections of our global community are silenced, marginalised and oppressed, then it is imperative that change must come to advance towards equality. There are many with power, privilege and influence which they use to maintain hierarchies and reinforce supremacies. They may feel they are ‘losing’, if others who they deem as lesser are seen to rise, and will often work to frustrate that advancement. So this should not be seen in the context of a competition.
In terms of change - we have not had it and we have not had progress in the way we need to have it. We have seen a change in the discourse but the structural and societal changes have not happened.
In the short term we need to acknowledge that there are many systemic problems and that change needs to happen. We need to have the willpower to make that happen, and if that means being uncomfortable then so be it. In the medium term we need to rally the effort, the resources, the sponsorship - and those with privilege, power and influence should cease being bystanders, confront their silences and ask: “what is it I can do and what do the silenced and marginalised need from me?” In the long term this work should not be needed because equality would have been achieved.
I will continue to march towards equality - with solidarity across the intersectional struggles. As I said in my winner’s speech: “One Love.”