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LGBTQ+ history: how the legal profession can be a better ally

updated on 31 January 2022

The laws surrounding lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ+) rights have been changing for decades. But how do we ensure the revisions to laws are reflected in peoples’ attitudes towards LGBTQ+ individuals? While there have been recent legal changes for the better, prejudices remain engrained in society.

It takes no compromise to give people their rights… it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression – Harvey Milk

Reading time: 20 minutes

People who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community still face daily challenges and barriers – whether that’s at work, online or simply while out on a walk – which indicate that amending laws can only do so much in creating an inclusive world where everyone is free to be their true, authentic selves.

So, what is the legal profession doing to promote a diverse and inclusive culture where LGBTQ+ lawyers and clients feel accepted and supported?

A very brief history

These are just a few major milestones and cases that have and continue to impact the LGBTQ+ community:

  • In 1972 the first Gay Pride march was held in the UK.
  • In 1986 Mark Rees, a trans man, brought a case to the European Court of Human Rights stating that UK law meant he was unable to gain legal status recognising him as male – he lost the case.
  • In 1992 the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
  • In 2001 the UK lifted its ban on lesbian, gay and bisexual people serving in the armed forces.
  • Until 2003 employers could legally refuse to employ someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • It took until 2014 to legalise same-sex marriage in the UK and until 2020 to do the same in Northern Ireland.
  • In 2021, Freddy McConnell, a trans father, started a petition to recognise LGBTQ+ parents equally on birth certificates.

It’s important to recognise and celebrate the progress that has been made over the years while also reinforcing just how many obstacles remain to be removed. With previous laws having prevented lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people from being open about their sexuality and identity for many years, new LGBTQ+ histories are being discovered and retold all the time. So, as we celebrate the progress, it’s just as important to remember the fight for equality that was happening long before we were even born.

Educating ourselves about these untold histories is vital to understanding and supporting different communities. As Christine Burns MBE, activist and author of Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows, says in an interview with Newsbeat: "We cannot understand our place as a community of similar experiences in culture, unless we understand where we've come from".

For aspiring lawyers looking to enter the profession, there is an awareness of how – much like in other workplaces and environments – the law maintains a traditional and conservative history, from lawmakers of old to the first commercial law firms established in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These understandable anxieties beg the question: just how much legal talent is lost to the archaic prejudices that haunt the legal profession?

To understand this further, we spoke to solicitor and director of The Modern Family Law Company Deborah Baxter about her experience working in law as it has evolved with a clearer focus on diversity and inclusion, as well as the work she undertakes at The Modern Family Law Company and her reasons for creating the firm.

LGBTQ+ in the law: introducing Deborah’s work

Throughout Deborah’s career, her mission was to set up a firm “designed to represent the interests of LGBTQ+ people” – which is where The Modern Family Law Company comes in.

Deborah’s work involves “helping LGBTQ+ partners to create their families, surrogacy, adoption and dispute resolution” to name a few aspects. “In the past year, I’ve worked on cases that involve parents who are having difficulties with social services because they have transitioning children. There are often discussions about puberty blockers because social services have taken the view that they’re harmful for the child. Conversely, I’ve also worked on cases where social services have taken the view that the parents are not being supportive enough of their child’s wish to transition.

“It’s been quite an interesting year in that respect. Lots of the issues that have arisen were inevitable following the decision of Bell v Tavistock – there was always going to be a point at which social services began to show an interest in these types of family situations.”

There are so many areas of existing law that “need challenging because it doesn’t properly reflect what’s going on on the ground for lots of LGBTQ+ people and families,” Deborah explains.

Deborah also mentions the case of Freddy McConnell, who wanted to be registered as the father on his child’s birth certificate after giving birth to the child, however “under current UK law this is not possible.” Deborah explains that there will be shifts in the law in this context: “It’s fascinating to see the law changing and this particular area of law offers the opportunity to work on cases that might alter the law. Most of the time the work of a lawyer involves working with and applying the existing law, rather than changing it so it is exciting to be in a situation where you can make a difference.”

Read ‘Following the rainbow – 30 years as an LGBT lawyer’ for more insight into Deborah’s journey from studying law at university to creating The Modern Family Law Company.

LGBTQ+ in numbers

According to the ILGA Europe Rainbow Map the UK ranks 10th in Europe when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights protection, with Luxembourg ranking third, Belgium in second and Malta first. According to ILGA Europe’s most recent annual review “of the human rights situation of lesbian, gay bisexual, trans and intersex people” in the UK, in 2020 the Employment Tribunal, for the first time, ruled that non-binary people are protected from discrimination based on their gender identity, by the Equality Act 2010 in Taylor v Jaguar Land Rover.

  • What does this ruling mean for the LGBTQ+ community?
  • What impact will it have on law firms as businesses and their clients?
  • How does it impact the employment law landscape?
  • Is such a ruling enough to spark serious change?

These are all questions aspiring lawyers should consider.

There have been many victories and small wins over the years for the LGBTQ+ community in the UK. Laws have been challenged and passed, following years of campaigning to create a more progressive and inclusive society for LGBTQ+ individuals. That’s not to say everything is at it should be when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights – there’s still a fair way to go. And, as LGBTQ+ activist Barbara Gittings once said “[e]quality means more than passing laws. The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really counts.”

So, does the legal profession support and promote an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ lawyers?

The most recent data, sourced from the 2019 practising certificate holders survey, highlights that just 5% of solicitors identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual, while the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s Diversity data tool found that 2% of solicitors declared that they had a gender identity different from their sex registered at birth.

In addition, surveyed 64 firms in the UK to find out how many lawyers (at all levels) had disclosed that they identified as LGBTQ+. US firm Boies Schiller Flexner reported the highest number of UK lawyers (14%) and partners (13%) who identified as LGBTQ+. Morrison & Foerster UK (LLP) reported that 13% of its UK lawyers had disclosed they were LGBTQ+, Cleary Gottlieb & Hamilton reported 12.7%, while UK firm’s Herbert Smith Freehills LLP, and Slaughter and May revealed data to show that 12% and 8.8% of their UK lawyers identified as LGBTQ+, respectively. Further, the first UK firm to appear in the rankings for firms with the most LGBTQ+ partners was magic circle firm Allen & Overy LLP (in fifth) with 6%.

As is so often the case, the firms that appear on these lists or take part in such surveys are the “big City firms” who Deborah explains are more likely to “have a conscious emphasis on equality and diversity, making it potentially easier to have role models in those particular firms. A lot of young solicitors are employed in smaller firms that are often more traditional.”

Meanwhile, an InterLaw Diversity Forum study on Career Progression in the Legal Sector 2021 highlighted that “gender differences in pay were even more pronounced when controlling for sexual orientation”. While all women earned less than men (regardless of sexual orientation), according to the findings, gay men reportedly earned half that of their straight male counterparts. At the top end of the scale, straight men earned on average around £600,000 to £700,000 per annum, followed by the top 10% of gay men who earned on average around £300,000 to £400,000 – while high, it is still significantly less than heterosexual men. 

Equality means more than passing laws. The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really counts – Barbara Gittings

These statistics demonstrate the barriers that LGBTQ+ lawyers face in getting to the top of their field, and even when they’ve arrived, they’re still not treated equally to their heterosexual counterparts. There’s a clear pay gap issue, but what other experiences have been reported in the past year?

Pride in the Law

In 2021, the Law Society launched a survey – Pride in the Law which was open throughout LGBTQ+ History month, to LGBTQ+ legal professionals and non-LGBTQ+ colleagues who consider themselves to be allies. Non-LGBTQ+ respondents were asked separate questions. Of the 617 individuals who responded, 62% identified as LGBTQ+. 

In recent years the focus on diversity and inclusion, as a collective, has jumped to the forefront of businesses across all industries, including solicitors’ law firms and barristers’ chambers. But it has not always been this way. “I haven’t always felt confident to be myself at work,” Deborah says. “Part of the reason for this is that when I started working in the 1980s society was a lot different to the way it is now. When I started at the junior level, it was difficult to be ‘out’,” Deborah explains.

The Law Society’s Pride in the Law report demonstrated a shift from the early days of Deborah’s legal career to today, with 97% of the LGBTQ+ respondents saying they felt able to be their authentic self at work, either sometimes (44%) or always (53%). A smaller number (44%) of bisexual respondents said they felt they could be themselves at work. In addition, 82% of LGBTQ+ respondents said they were ‘out’ to colleagues at work, with the Law Society reporting that not all respondents felt ‘being out’ at work was necessary. According to the report the “language and behaviours experienced within the office, around sexuality and gender identity, influenced how open respondents were.” This is a positive reflection of the ongoing work in the legal profession and demonstrates significant progress in the way that LGBTQ+ individuals are made to feel in the workplace.

LGBTQ+ role models

That said, the survey also highlighted that there is still much more to be done. For example, of those who responded, more than 50% cited a lack of visible LGBTQ+ role models as a pressing issue, indicating that the LGBTQ+ community is still underrepresented and supported in the legal workplace. Further, the InterLaw Diversity Forum’s Career Progression in the Legal Sector 2021 reports that “lesbian women provided the lowest ratings of their workplace culture and climate compared to other groups” and lesbian and straight women were less likely to suggest their workplace was free from unconscious bias.

For many, having role models in the workplace that represent who you are is crucial to good wellbeing and success. Deborah considers how individuals can make a difference in this way, she suggests: “You either stand firm and try to make a difference where you are, or you leave to work somewhere that better represents who you are.”

Microaggressions and dealing with complaints

Meanwhile, other pressing issues that were highlighted in the report include microaggressions, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. Of the LGBTQ+ respondents, 37% reported having experienced homophobia, biphobia or transphobia in their workplace – 37% of lesbian women said they had experienced these negative behaviours, as well as 36% of gay men and 32% of bisexual individuals.

While there were reports of organisations dealing with reported complaints quickly, there were also instances cited where organisations refuted the claim or dealt with it poorly. These negative behaviours often went unreported. Those involved in the survey provided reasons for not reporting, with 40% saying they didn’t feel the behaviours were “serious enough” and 26% didn’t believe the issue would be resolved effectively.

Talking on this matter, Deborah says “a lot of this is about education but law firms must also have robust procedures in place for reporting or taking action.”

On top of the above negative behaviours, the respondents also indicated microaggressions as a pressing issue, with 53% of bisexual respondents reporting they had experienced it, alongside 35% of lesbian women and 26% of gay men. Deborah mentioned the work that the Law Society is doing in this area to educate the legal profession, while also emphasising the importance for the “conversations and training that should be in place to improve the situation” to be “regulated and regarded seriously by the SRA and the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal”.

It’s critical that we really try to understand what it’s like for each of these groups – for example, I’m a lesbian and I don’t have experience of what it’s like to be a trans person Deborah Baxter

Harvey Milk, a US politician who made history in 1977, after being the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, once said “[…] it takes no political deal to give people freedom” and, as we witness changes to the law, it’s important to remember that these revisions aren’t enough to improve the overall experience of LGBTQ+ people in society or at work. Microaggressions are still an issue; homophobia is an issue; biphobia is an issue; transphobia is an issue.

Deborah reiterates this feeling when she talks about the milestone of the Civil Partnership Act: “It is sad that we need legislation to make us feel comfortable and respectable within our relationships. The Civil Partnership Act did make it much easier to be open about my sexuality than it had been previously. Many of the same emotions came with the legislation of same-sex marriages in 2014. It was a fantastic step to be able to take. Talking about your relationships or marriage at work became that little bit easier.”

But the work doesn’t stop there.

How to be an ally

What does it mean to be an ally?

I believe that no one should have to choose between a career we love and living our lives with authenticity and integrity – Selisse Berry

Allyship has been defined as “the act of using one’s power, position or privilege to uplift others” by global leadership consulting firm DDI, while the Law Society states that “[b]eing an ally means consistently acting to support people from marginalised or underrepresented groups and working to build a more inclusive working environment.”

It adds: “Allyship is an opportunity for us to have a greater understanding of our society and how other people experience it, allowing us to develop greater compassion and empathy in tandem.”

Educate yourself

The emphasis on developing an understanding of the experiences that marginalised and underrepresented groups – in this instance, the LGBTQ+ community – are met with daily is significant. Reiterating this point, Deborah says: “It’s critical that we really try to understand what it’s like for each of these groups – for example, I’m a lesbian and I don’t have experience of what it’s like to be a trans person.

“We all have an obligation to make ourselves aware and better ourselves in this sense.”

There are many ways that individuals can use whatever privilege they might have to support these groups. While law firms should continue to introduce formal training to help the learning process and demonstrate an active commitment to creating an inclusive and supportive environment, individuals must also be actively engaging themselves too – it’s a continual lesson for everyone.

The Law Society says that the role of an ally should include, among other things, “educating yourself on the inequalities and obstacles faced by minority communities” and “listening without judgement to perspectives and experiences, ensuring people feel heard.” Deborah mirrors these actions in her thoughts: “As with other underrepresented groups, you can’t have an expectation that others will educate you, you have to make it your obligation to educate yourself and understand what it might be like to experience transphobia, homophobia or biphobia.”

Call out discrimination and advocate for change

As well as educating yourself, we should also be informing others and calling people out for unacceptable behaviours – whether that’s for repeatedly interrupting someone during meetings, covertly or overtly discriminating against someone because of, in this case, their sexual orientation or gender identity, or not offering the same opportunities/progression to LGBTQ+ individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Calling out covert and overt discrimination” and “questioning decisions and behaviours which exclude people or promote discrimination or stereotypes, for example, a lack of diversity in your team or organisation” should be practised by those who can offer “the advantages” of their “privilege to others”.

Deborah agrees that “it’s important for allies to call out homophobic, transphobic and biphobic behaviours.” Responding to discrimination should be done in a productive way, which is part of the learning process. Allies should identify who they should report these behaviours to, as well as how to approach a situation and have that conversation with someone – these are all things that can be taught via training modules that employers should be offering.

If your firm isn’t offering these tools to facilitate your learning and development, individuals should consider how they can “actively advocate for change for marginalised groups”, says the Law Society. Deborah understands that “it’s hard enough at times to call men out for being sexist, which is something we have been doing for years”, so if you do notice behaviours that should be reported or called out but you’re not sure on the best way to approach it, ask someone else who might know. The important thing is that you’re not ignoring it. Sweeping these behaviours under the rug is not helpful or acceptable.

Acknowledge personal biases and learn from mistakes

According to Imperial College London “unconscious bias is triggered by our brain automatically making quick judgements and assessments. […] Unconscious bias can have a significant influence on our attitudes and behaviours, especially towards other people.”

Recognising your biases will come with educating yourself. How do these thoughts influence how you impact the people around you? It can take some time to fully understand and be aware of this, but be honest with yourself. The Law Society says: “[…] recognise which stereotypes you hold, how affected your team is by group biases and participate in undoing these.”

Often, a lot of the negative experiences that the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalised communities, face stem from unconscious bias which, by its very nature, is often not recognised or picked up on by the perpetrator. While the Equality Act 2010 criminalises discrimination in employment, it’s the work of the individuals within firms that truly makes the difference. This further reiterates US LGBTQ+ activist Gittings’ statement that “[e]quality means more than passing laws. The struggle is really won in the hearts and minds of the community, where it really counts.”

Alongside this, it’s also important to accept, own and learn from your mistakes. Deborah explains that everyone, for example, “has a duty to make sure they’re away of peoples’ pronouns – and if you don’t know, ask.”

One way that law firms can help to develop this sense of inclusivity is to provide the option for those who feel comfortable to share their pronouns at work. This is an action that many social media platforms have taken recently – with LinkedIn and Instagram now both including the option to share your pronouns on your profile. At LawCareers.Net, we share our pronouns in our email signatures, in virtual meetings, and at virtual and in-person events, too. We also give the option for attendees to include their pronouns on their name tags at in-person events. We want to foster and maintain an inclusive environment in which our users and clients feel supported, and we hope that this step aids our goal.

Celebrating differences – yours and others

As we continue to dismantle many of the traditional and conservative ideas that potentially put some aspiring lawyers off pursuing a career in law, we must celebrate the differences of those already working hard in the profession and those working hard to enter it.

It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept, and celebrate those differences – Audre Lorde 

We asked Deborah what her closing advice would be to anyone in this position: “I would always encourage those who are keen to get into law but are feeling a bit apprehensive to just go for it. The competition is tough, so it’s important they get their heads down. Have a goal and aspire to it.”

She adds: “Meeting people who work at firms is a great way to identify what the firm is like because they will have experience of the organisation” and have often been picked to represent the firm for a reason.

The profession is continually evolving and responding to calls for action regarding diversity and inclusion. Most firms have internal networks and committees to represent and advocate for the LGBTQ+ community – Gowling WLG (UK) LLP’s OpenHouse networking “supports, educates and empowers employees, managers and allies on LGBT issues. It also engages and challenges our firm on workplace issues that are important to our LGBT community.” Meanwhile, magic circle firm Clifford Chance is open about its goal “to be the global law firm of choice for LGBT+ people”.

A lot of this information is online for free, so if you’re looking for a firm that shares your values and celebrates its employees, regardless of their identity or background, take some time to research and speak to representatives. Of course, the best way to get a feel for what it’s like to work at a firm is to speak to people who work there – from trainees to partners. Make the most of networking opportunities (both virtual and in person) to establish first-hand the values and culture of a workplace.

In addition, the Law Society’s LGBT+ Lawyers Division Committee “is committed to promoting inclusion in the legal profession, reflecting the diversity of our society”.

Want to know more about researching law firms? Read LawCareers.Net’s advice.

Ultimately, the few examples above demonstrate that firms and the legal profession are aware and acknowledging the severity of the situation through various committees and initiatives. But, how do we continue to make progress?

One way is to look back at the past work of LGBTQ+ activists and the legacies they left behind and continue in their footsteps. For example, having grown up in a society that was entrenched in discrimination towards the LGBTQ+ community, LGBTQ+ activist Harvey Milk’s actions and successful election put forward a glimmer of hope and possibility, creating a vision of a future that celebrated differences, rather than denounced them. His work centred on addressing prejudicial attitudes and creating a society where everyone was respected.

This work must continue in order to create a fully diverse and inclusive culture where LGBTQ+ lawyers and clients feel comfortable and supported – to echo Harvey Milk, “it takes no compromise to give people their rights”. While we can’t fix it overnight, we can celebrate the distance travelled by those who came before and continue in their footsteps. We must drive forward to build a legal profession, and society, that is not only supportive and inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community, but one that is also representative. We can be the change.

To stay up to date with the legal profession’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, visit LawCareers.Net’s Diversity hub, sponsored by Gowling WLG.

Olivia Partridge is the content producer at LawCareers.Net.