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Following the rainbow – 30 years as an LGBT lawyer

updated on 22 December 2020

I came out in my first year at university, while I was studying law at Durham. I think I caused some consternation in my all-female college by holding hands with my girlfriend in the dinner queue! And so, an LGBT lawyer was born.

Fast forward to 1984 when I began my articles (aka training contract) at a small high street solicitors firm in North West London. Although I started my job with a small pigtail (tied with a pink ribbon) at the back of my otherwise short hair, I was not out to my employers or my colleagues. Looking back, though, it must have been quite obvious and, as I discovered later, it had been! Fortunately, I was accepted, and my female partner and I were invited to work events just like all the heterosexual couples. It turned out that I was pretty good at the soliciting business and I quickly rose through the ranks and was promoted on merit, qualifying as a solicitor in 1987 and later becoming a partner in the same firm.

To put this era into context, the controversial “Clause 28” (Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1986) introduced by the Thatcher government came into force on 24 May 1988. This prevented local authorities from “intentionally promoting” homosexuality and schools from teaching the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. This was completely legalised homophobia, that had all of us looking over our shoulders. Lesbians were losing care of their own children as they were deemed to be unfit mothers because of their sexuality and irrespective of their parenting skills. It was also the decade of the AIDs epidemic. I think I was lucky that my sexuality was accepted at work. I don’t know what people might have said behind my back, but I certainly don’t remember anything homophobic being said to me or in my presence. There was plenty of racism and sexism though, and a culture of what would probably now be regarded as bullying – none of which was acceptable – but all of which was difficult to confront and I am ashamed to say I did not really confront it.

Fast forward again to 1998. I had been at the same firm all this time and by now I was a partner. I had begun to see that the firm’s culture was dysfunctional and aggressive, with staff being bullied, controlled and regarded as disposable. So, I set up my own family law firm in January 1998 in Reading and thus commenced a period of 22 years running my own practice, and finally ending up as the owner of a Legal 500 firm in Essex. These were 22 years that included huge developments in terms of LGBT rights. When I set up in 1998, I did not hide my sexuality and again cannot point to any overt homophobia that I suffered. However, I did not volunteer information about my sexuality, particularly to clients because I was working in family law and was involved in cases about children where I represented and met the children and young people themselves. Ironically, it was my own internalised homophobia that silenced me, for fear of being seen as some kind of risk to children because of my sexuality. What rubbish – but I am sure I was not and am not the only person to think like this.

Clause 28 was repealed in England and Wales in November 2003. For me, the biggest LGBT milestone was the Civil Partnership Act of 2004 (which came into force in 2005); ironically brought in by David Cameron who had voted for Clause 28 and criticised Tony Blair for promising to repeal it. However, the tide was clearly turning or Cameron had experienced some kind of epiphany. The Civil Partnership Act did not give equal rights to the LGBT community, as civil partnership was never the equivalent to marriage. However, for me, it was a fantastic and liberating moment when there became a law on the statute book that made Lesbian and Gay relationships “legal”. It felt much safer to be out after that.

When you run your own firm, it is much easier to set the tone and to be out when you are “the boss”.  Then same-sex marriage became legal on 13 March 2014 and there was definitely no looking back. It felt like the liberation of the Civil Partnership Act and then some. My wife and I were married in September 2016. It was a fantastic day and a standout moment in my life. I felt and feel enabled to be assumptive that my gay relationship – my marriage – is as valid and equal to anyone else’s and that has affected every area of my life including my work. I am unapologetic and have all but lost that internalised homophobia.

I became involved in some of the seminal LGBT family cases, involving the concept of parenthood and how the increasingly diverse models of LGBT family life were challenging the existing law. Single women were having babies by donor insemination. What was the role of the donor? What about his partner? I was involved in one long-running case where a lesbian couple and a gay male couple were at loggerheads for years about the role that the men should play in the life of two children created in this way. Gay men began having children by surrogacy, but you had to be a couple to do that. Then a single gay man challenged that requirement as being discriminatory and forced a change in the law. It was and is such an exciting area of law to be involved in. More recently, transgender men have given birth to children, which has posed the question how the person who gave birth is to be described on the baby’s birth certificate. As mother? As father? As parent? At the moment there is no provision for a person who gives birth to be registered as anything other than “mother”. That can be changed only by parliament, but that law is being challenged.

LGBT family law has become my passion and when my now business partner, Melissa, suggested that we start a new “modern family law” firm designed to meet the legal needs of modern families I knew that was what I was destined to do. And so, The Modern Family Law Company was born; family law for 21st-century families, cutting edge, modern and specialising in LGBT family law matters. (Take a look at our website if you want to know more.) I feel like I have really come home.

I just want to say one more thing for those doubting themselves. I came from a working-class family. I was the first in my family to go to university. I was gay when it was really not fashionable. Whoever you are and whatever your background, aim high. Remember how Ruth Bader Ginsburg started out and where she ended up.

Deborah Baxter is a solicitor and the director of The Modern Family Law Company.