It is a commonly stated key inclusiveness goal that law firms should allow their employees to feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. This will likely have particular resonance if you are someone who identifies as LGBT+.
It’s LGBT+ History Month and my workplace is adorned with LGBT+ inclusive flags: pink, blue, black and brown are now part of the familiar rainbow.
Our intranet is packed with queer content – key dates, resources, events, brain food and YouTube clips of favorite songs from our LGBT+ network.
All of this reminds me not only of our stories, a richly textured quilt of diverse lives, of struggle and pain, of challenge and joy, of subversion and freedom, but more prosaically of my personal journey. Much of that time was spent working in law firms and often enjoying the benefits of successful employers.
Go out – then get co-opted
When I was in college, it took me less than a year to come out as gay.
The early and mid-1980s were, of course, ferment: sexually ambiguous pop stars, the miners’ strike, AIDS, Thatcher’s Article 28, and the coalescing of coalitions that, within two decades, would see the UK move towards something like full equality.
I was active in the NUS (National Union of Students), I dyed my hair, I wore a pink triangle badge declaring “Gay Anger is Gay Power”.
We danced in many discotheques and we walked in many steps.
My path to working in the legal field was an unexpected diversion. It turned out that campaigning was not a career for me, but criminal law, and then later immigration, was something I could turn to.
I first worked for an independent practitioner. The clients were pretty good, although I remember working in defense of a man accused of ‘gay bashing’ from the bosses of Hoxton’s former gay institution, the London Apprentice, didn’t make me feel so good.
I stopped dyeing my hair, bought a suit and took off the badges. I didn’t tell my boss I was gay, and they didn’t ask me.
As hard as I think, I can’t remember what persuaded me to “release” these parts of my identity.
I had walked into a closet with my old self’s clothes hanging shyly beside me.
It got worse before it got better. I moved to a street practice where the occasional homophobia was assumed.
To my amazement, I was thought to be part of the team “directly”, and I found myself not only in the closet, but being co-opted.
I thank the heavens that I got out as fast as I could. I swore the days of the closet were over. A “whole me” again?
Find inclusive housing
I then trained at a progressive legal aid firm and one of my supervisors was gay himself, as was one of my fellow trainees.
The benefits of being able to train in an environment where you had no worries about acceptance by your colleagues cannot be underestimated.
Upon qualifying, I cut my teeth in street legal aid firms where the culture was inclusive.
I then spent over a decade in a niche immigration firm with a particular base acting for LGBT+ couples, and closely involved in developing support for LGBT+ refugees.
I had many homosexual colleagues and I really felt at home. Lucky, even.
And finally, a big leap to my current practice – a city practice – with some trepidation about the type of culture that awaited me.
It was a huge relief then that before I started, I was invited by my new team to attend Pride’s launch of the company’s LGBT-focused stream within its diversity and inclusiveness forum.
And seven years later, here I am, partner, LGBT+ ambassador and immersed in the firm’s inclusivity work alongside the leadership of the immigration team.
I am keenly aware that many others have not been as lucky as me.
I can look back and say that the industries I chose to work in, the pain of that early and thankfully very brief retirement in the closet, and my own determination to do things on my terms, combined to mean that I seldom felt that my sexuality was an obstacle to success.
It could have been so different.
I had big advantages – white, male and Oxbridge graduate, an unorthodox career path, access to work experience in a less competitive and regulated era.
The importance of authenticity
We have come a long way since the late 1980s, and legal equality requires non-discrimination.
It’s a tough but necessary step from there to do the hard work to foster inclusivity – building networks, cross-company and intersectional training, recruitment and retention, customer engagement and reviewing supply chains. ‘supply.
Above all: never take anyone’s identity for granted and, ultimately, let us all choose which parts of ourselves we want to bring to work, without fear of barriers breaking down.
There is, I think, a risk that the corporatization of LGBT+ inclusion – “pinkwashing” if you will – takes away authenticity.
A whole inauthentic self is not a self at all.
If we can be authentic ourselves, then we find happiness, and happy people make happy, productive businesses.