Human rights lawyer S Chelvan has been honoured with an Attitude Pride Award for his work defending LGBT asylum seekers from being sent back to countries where they face violence, persecution, and even death.
Chelvan was 14 when he realised he was different to other children — a realisation that for many can be difficult to process.
Despite his acceptance of his sexuality, Chelvan couldn’t avoid the fact that much of society wasn’t so tolerating. He was at school when Section 28 was introduced, forbidding education professionals from discussing minority sexualities, and his Roman Catholic faith is still notorious for its anti-gay teachings.
With this knowledge, he took his first steps into the world of law, shadowing a local barrister for work experience, before going on to study at university.
His achievements include the adoption of the DSSH (Difference, Stigma, Shame, Harm) model by the UK Home Office and within the United Nations, created by Chelvan as a tool to enable asylum seekers to tell their story to authorities in a way that doesn’t discriminate from the outset.
Some of Chelvan’s most successful cases include Russian Danila Stepin, who came to the UK to study aged 17 and six years later was facing having to return to his notoriously homophobic home country.
He was introduced by a friend to Chelvan, who then spent three months putting together a case to secure his asylum claim.
“Asylum is a last resort, and I was in a situation where I had no other option,” Danila says. “What Chelvan does is heroic because he basically takes charge of make-or-break situations in a person’s life.
“Lives are on the line, so it’s quite a responsibility to take on those cases.”
Although he undoubtedly feels the weight of his clients’ lives on his shoulders, Chelvan looks at his work in a different way.
“I’m a storyteller, but I can’t tell my clients’ stories and interpret them into the language of the law unless they’re in a space where they’re able to share it with me,” he says.
“I want to be the mouthpiece for those who know the words but have no voice.”
Listen to Chelvan and some of his clients discuss his life-changing work below:
Read more about this year's Attitude Pride Award winners in our August issue, out July 16.