TOUCH ME Interview Series - Lex Shu Chan
Lex Shu Chan (they/them/she/her)
Lex Shu Chan is a lawyer in the fashion publishing industry, a writer, diversity and inclusion consultant and co-founder of Sachiko & Shu. She was named number one on the INvolve OUTstanding LGBT+ Future Leaders list 2021.
In response to the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes, Lex co-launched Recipes Against Racism, a cookbook fundraising for two UK-based charities. Lex has also contributed op-eds for publications such as i-D on Transgender Day of Visibility and National Coming Out Day.
What does Pride mean to you?
This might sound a very trite answer but I guess it is having the ability to be authentically and fully yourself. I used to think this meant a singular “coming out moment” where everything would click into place and I would bring my full self into every single aspect of my life, but I now know it’s much more complicated than that. Many lgbtq+ individuals are unable to come out for safety’s sake, as anti-lgbtq+ laws and policies continue to exist around the world. Even for lgbtq+ individuals who are able to publicly disclose their identities without fear of persecution, they may choose not to do for fear of discrimination or rejection For me, my coming out experience has been a staggered, nonlinear process of being proud of myself in different contexts, whether it’s socially, with my family or even professionally - and in some ways this is still a work in progress.
To me, Pride is a gradual process where everything comes together. It’s really about congruence when it comes to identity, not having to compartmentalise, not having to show just a bit of yourself here and repress certain aspects depending on what’s socially acceptable. This doesn’t mean that lgbtq+ individuals who don’t live their queer lives as visibly are any less proud – the journey of congruence is not singular and is different for everyone.
What are the biggest challenges that the lgbtq+ community still faces?
Many writers and activists will have spoken and written about this in a more eloquent way but when we are talking about trans liberation, what does that mean? The exclusion of trans and non-binary folks from the conversion therapy ban shows how there still some huge challenges facing our community, and highlights how difficult it is to connect everybody and ensure that the focus is not just on liberating certain parts of the community. We need equity and inclusivity and allyship that’s consistent across the board.
The Trans Pride March took place on 9th July this year and some of my cis friends, although great allies to me individually, were perhaps less well-informed of the struggles that the trans community faces. They would look at me and think “oh, you love your career and you have great friends, so trans people must be doing alright”.
I think media visibility is never representative of the struggle that the community is facing, so I’m very happy that this Trans Pride, a lot of my friends who are trans allies marched with me and had conversations they might not have been comfortable having before.
What is your first recollection of a queer person?
I was born in Canada and I spent most of my childhood and teenage years in Hong Kong. I wrote a piece last year about coming out narratives for queer people of colour and how the process is not linear which made me reflect on this. In some cultures, even though queer people have always existed, it’s not spoken about. Films such as The Wedding Banquet (喜宴) by Ang Lee highlight these cultural nuances very well.
For me, there were some Cantopop stars in Hong Kong that would be quite theatrical and flamboyant in the way they presented themselves. At the time they weren’t out and it was only retrospectively that I reflected on their queerness. There was one signer called Leslie Cheung, and growing up he was very much in pop culture in Hong Kong. For me, even though I didn’t have the words to ascribe to his identity, the way he was presenting himself did not conform to HK people’s expectations of “masculinity” at the time. That’s probably my first recollection. Instinctively I felt the queerness and the sense of connection to his identity, and even though I didn’t understand why at the time, it all makes sense now.
How useful is it for brands, businesses and organisations to engage with LGBTQ+ creators and activists, as Begg x Co and QUEERCIRCLE are doing?
Even though I am around creativity quite often as a lawyer in the fashion industry, my role is more business and commercial-centric. I think that while some brands have done a great job creatively and externally – campaigns and more public facing representations of queer people or partnering with queer organisations like QUEERCIRCLE as Begg x Co have done – one important aspect is to look within the organisation too and ensure there’s representation at different levels, not just on the creative and external front. In the fashion industry specifically, engagement efforts should be extended to boardrooms, photographers, stylists, hair and makeup artists etc., and investing in education to equip creatives with the tools and knowledge to work with talent across identities and intersectionalities.
How do you navigate the very specific space that is the UK legal sector? And how is visibility important there?
I feel very privileged to have been given a platform in the legal field as a queer person, as the law firms where I began my career were not necessarily the most diverse or inclusive environments for lgbtq+ people. I do some mentoring as well and a lot of aspiring lawyers still think that the creative industries are probably a safer space and somewhere where they can progress because they can see more representation there. Some law firms have started a positive journey – getting boring and technical now: quite often contracts are drafted using very masculine language e.g. “chairman, keyman” - but some companies have started adopting policies to make drafting more gender-inclusive. These policies are important as they have the effect of affirming gender-diverse employees and clients, as well as signalling an organisation’s values and commitment to inclusion.
What we’re doing today here is about storytelling ultimately. And for me, when I was initially progressing in my career I really felt I had to leave my identity at the door. When I began my career, I did not see any visible trans and gender nonconforming role models in the legal profession, so I focused on conforming and rarely brought my authentic self to work. Things have thankfully evolved over the past few years, but I wonder whether if there had been more visible representation at the time, I would have had the courage to take bigger risks and to elevate my community earlier on in my career. It has only been in the last few years that I have started writing pieces about my identity, and at the time, I was worried about exposing my colleagues and professional networks to such personal and sometimes intimate stories. I asked myself: would I lose credibility as a lawyer or be seen as 'unprofessional'? I’m happy to share that my fears were unfounded, and that when I took the steps to allow my workplace to recognise all of me – my unique perspectives, my otherness, my power – everyone benefited. Of course, diversity metrics like as demographics, business cases and targets are important, but I believe that storytelling, the beating heart of the human experience, is one of the most powerful yet underused inclusion tools in business. After all, facts and figures don't drive change, people do.
How can companies ensure policies are in place that are truly inclusive?
When thinking about a gender identity and expression policy, companies should ensure that this not only covers how the company will support employees when it comes to social, procedural and medical transition, but also how to use language inclusively and sensitively, for example ensuring the use of a transitioning employee’s preferred name as opposed to their legal name, their pronouns and clarifying how they would like their spouse to be referred to (e.g. partner, husband, wife) rather than making assumptions. In order to make policies truly inclusive, rather than devising them and designing them for gender diverse people you have to do it with them. If a company doesn’t have any gender diverse employees it makes it much harder to get this right, so bring in consultants rather than trying to do it in-house. Whoever the policies are designed for should have a seat – and a voice – at the table.
Tell us about Sachiko and Shu, how it started and the ‘hyphenated communities’ it explores?
Sachiko and Shu was started by me and my business partner Claire Sachiko Fourel, a human rights lawyer whom I met in law school over15 years ago. Even though our backgrounds are different, she is Japanese-American-French, I am Canadian-Hong Konger, we are both “third culture kids” and ESEA minorities in the UK who knew what it was like to grow up in a country other than our parents’ homeland. We connected through our multi-layered cultural identities but also our love of food.
Before the pandemic, we would informally throw parties, supper clubs and music events for friends and family. The premise was that everyone was welcome, but people are expected to contribute, take pride in and enjoy the output. Creatives like Jeff (Hahn) and Rob (Storey) were involved too and we would invite people to lend their skills – a set designer to dream up the space, a chef to design the menus, a mixologist creating cocktails – a truly hyphenated community from allwalks of life with different identities and skills.
When the pandemic hit, we couldn’t host physical events any longer and the idea to launch Sachiko and Shu came to us during the sourdough and banana-bread craze and the spike in anti-Asian crimes. What could we do that used our legal skills for charities to fundraise for them but also activate and engage the community?
Then we came up with the idea to partner with restaurants and supperclubs on the Recipes Against Racism cookbook project. At first, they submitted recipes but actually we wanted to use it as a platform to tell stories so each chef sent a story about what food meant to them and their identity. Many of us had eaten alone, or with the same person, for the best part of last year, so Recipes Against Racism was a vehicle for everyone to break bread together by cooking the same recipes and connecting virtually. The pandemic also put huge financial pressures on the non-profit sector, and so we wanted to create meaningful change by directing the proceeds towards addressing the immediate needs of the ESEA community, as well as longer-term strategic aims which will benefit the community far beyond the life of the project.
Begg x Co + QUEERCIRCLE Supporting Pride
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UK’s first Pride march, Begg x Co has once again teamed up with LGBTQ+ organisation QUEERCIRCLE, this time on a capsule collection of lightweight summer scarves. Proceeds from this unique partnership will support the organisation’s ambitious LGBTQ+ arts, culture and social action programmes.