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Barrier breaker

Published on Thursday, 27 Jun 2013
Barrier breaker

Anshuman Das is leading the way for LGBT rights

Being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) in Hong Kong is certainly a little easier than it was a decade ago. A number of LGBT organisations now exist, while public events such as Mr Gay Hong Kong and the Pink Season help raise awareness in the city. Even “W”, a transgender woman who was born a man, recently won a Court of Final Appeal case allowing her to marry her boyfriend.

Within the workplace, the situation has also improved – certainly within international firms, at least. The work of non-profit organisations such as Community Business, meanwhile, shows that productivity increases when people are allowed to be themselves and don’t feel they have to lie to colleagues about their personal lives.

Anshuman Das, a 36-year-old business analyst at IT company Fidessa and longtime LGBT activist, has worked particularly hard to break down barriers and increase awareness.

“The understanding has definitely increased in Hong Kong and has been particularly embraced by the younger generation,” Das says. “The trouble we face is mostly with the older generation. But LGBT has become quite fashionable in Hong Kong.”

Born in Cuttack in eastern India, Das studied a degree in engineering at Bhopal University before joining Merrill Lynch in New York City in 2001 as an IT developer. During his three-month stint in New York, he witnessed the 9/11 terrorist attack from an office opposite the scene and his eyewitness account was later recorded by the BBC. He moved to Hong Kong later that year.

In 2007, he nervously attended his first meeting of the bank’s LGBT Pride employee network. “I wasn’t really that ‘out’,” he says. “But then I thought that if I went [to the meeting], were people going to perceive that I was gay?” After battling with his thoughts, he eventually decided he would attend, but he would stand inconspicuously at the back of the room.

He was astounded to find, however, that the meeting included the president of Merrill Lynch, as well as department heads, project managers and other senior employees, all giving their top-down support.

The same year, members of an inter-bank LGBT forum, consisting of Nomura, UBS, Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs, marched in the Hong Kong Gay Pride Parade, which Das sees as a turning point in awareness.

That’s not to say there isn’t a long way to go. “It has always been a challenge to involve local and Asian companies. There are issues of awareness. There are also issues of equal rights. You can be fired for just being perceived to be LGBT – it doesn’t even have to be really said. While the Equal Opportunities Commission supports legislation against discrimination, the government says society here is not ready yet,” Das says.

But Das disagrees with this official view, saying that surveys show many people in Hong Kong support LGBT rights.

From 2007 to 2011 Das was the Asia-Pacific chairperson of the LGBT Pride employee network at Merrill Lynch (later Bank of America Merrill Lynch) Hong Kong. In 2009, he was given the Merrill Lynch Leadership in Diversity and Inclusion Award.

Part of Das’s success as an LGBT proponent is that he is always full of ideas. In 2011, he founded Pink Season, Hong Kong’s first LGBT festival involving more than 30 different events. He is also a director of Mr Gay Hong Kong (MGHK), while his first book, The Memory of a Face, raised proceeds for an anti-bullying project run by MGHK.

He is also now a filmmaker. This year, he has produced anti-discrimination videos in support of LGBT, including The Pantry, which has received more than 10,000 hits on the internet.

Das is very keen on LGBT employees being able to be themselves at work. While he concedes it is difficult to quantify productivity, he says it is common sense that if a person can be 100 per cent honest about themselves in the workplace, they will be happier and likely to be more productive. “Otherwise, you’re acting all the time. It’s like playing the piano while doing a presentation,” he says.

“People normally fear what they cannot see. Once you lift this fear, then they see that people who are LGBT are just like them.”

Das has also worked with Community Business, a Hong Kong-based not-for-profit organisation which, among other activities, conducts research on diversity and inclusion in the region. It’s time to really push the lobby, he says, and for people to come together and ensure that local corporations are on the same page.

“LGBT is the latest fashion,” he says. “There are all these ‘pink dollar’ opportunities in Hong Kong.” Insurance and real estate companies in particular need to wake up, he says, because they are missing out on a whole customer base by making adverts that target straight people.

Das believes in inspiring others, and not just on LGBT issues. The recent loss of his partner at a young age inspired him to write a book about him, and he speaks publically of the depression that followed and how he overcame it in order to give hope to others.


DAS AGENDA: TOP FIVE THINGS TO DO

LGBT ISSUES  Continue to focus on producing films to highlight outstanding LGBT discrimination issues
DEPRESSION  Use his experiences to help others break the cycle
POLLUTION  Clean up the city’s environment to protect Hong Kong’s younger generations
AUTHORSHIP  Publish more Asian books via his Typhoon Media outfit
ADOPTION  When the rest of his to-do list is ticked off, it’s time for parenthood


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