I was 14 when I came out. I was, I think, at that point, coming to terms with the possibility that I might be gay and how that might alter (and perhaps diminish) the catalogue of opportunities open to me in future. There was no doubt in my mind that my parents would accept me and be happy for me regardless of my sexuality, and my school was an environment where overt acts of homophobia, if witnessed, would have been punished. But it was still a place where “gay” was a throwaway term commonly used by people my age to describe something mildly irritating or otherwise unwelcome, and any kind of “otherness” was a weakness which risked being exploited.
Weighing up these factors, and testing the waters, I confided in one of my closest friends. I was ready to take back the statement that I was gay, to frame it as a joke, but his response was (unexpectedly!) entirely positive. With newfound confidence, I soon shared my secret with several others. Gossip spread quickly at school and a few hours later, everyone knew.
As an out teenager at school, I was generally supported and felt that I could be myself. Being “straight acting” held some currency though, and I would have had a harder time had I been less straight presenting. At university, I realised these things do not matter, and I learnt to admire the many ways in which the more fabulous members of the LGBTQ+ community I encountered were able to express themselves.
It was during my time at university that I recognised that, for me, being gay was not simply something I happened to be but, inevitably, a fundamental part of my identity. It influenced the music, films, art and literature that spoke most to me, the nightclubs I went to and in which I have so many memories, and the people I felt most comfortable around and who I most naturally identified with as role models.
Beginning professional life as a trainee solicitor, it was important for me to be out and to be able to be myself in the workplace. This didn’t (initially) come as naturally as it did at university, but within a month or so, it had come up organically in conversation with enough people for me to feel that I could be my authentic self – and not worry too much about keeping certain aspects of my personal life separate from work.
At the time I joined, the firm I trained at – like a small number of other similarly-situated firms in the City back in 2014 – didn’t have a dedicated LGBTQ+ network. This was an omission which the firm’s management were working to fix. I also became involved in this project, and one thing that really struck me in the discussions we had about the set-up of an LGBTQ+ network was how robust the business case was for having strong diversity, inclusion and CSR credentials.
On the one hand, there are clients (particularly those that are listed or otherwise more institutional in nature) who expect this and for whom it often forms an integral part of their appointment and panel selection processes. The idea behind this is that these are issues which are important to their own stakeholders and through expecting high standards in this regard from their service providers they can, through a trickle-down effect, bring about positive change more widely than simply within their own businesses. On the other hand, fostering an environment where people feel that they can be themselves tends to help in attracting and retaining the best talent and increasing productivity more generally (as putting on a façade for most of your waking hours can be draining!).
After my traineeship, I began looking at the options of qualifying into another firm, and interviewed with two competitors that were hiring in my practice area. In my applications, I made a point of including my involvement with my previous firm’s LGBTQ+ network within my CV. This was picked up on positively and formed a discussion point in both interview processes. In particular, the interviewers were interested in the fact that I’d been involved in and cared about non-client related initiatives within the firm, and work life more broadly outside the billable hour.
I moved to Proskauer almost five years ago. In my discussions before joining, it was clear that the firm was continually evolving and looking at an integrated approach to attracting, retaining and advancing a diverse workforce. When making the decision where to move to, one of the partners I now work with stressed the importance of choosing a workplace based on where you feel most comfortable, can be yourself, and feel supported by your colleagues and peers. That resonated strongly with me at the time as it still does now, and it would be inconceivable for me at this stage of my career to ever work somewhere where I would have any hesitation in doing these things.
I would encourage all people reading this, especially those early on or yet to start their careers, to have confidence in themselves and to base their decision-making on their employers and their workplaces along similar lines. My pride story started early and with some trepidation, but things have only got better and, in my experience, are continuing to do so.
Duncan Evans is an associate at Proskauer