‘You are old and straight’ is not how most people are asked to write their Pride story, but this is what happened to me, so perhaps a little context is required.
As a white, straight guy of a certain age (okay, 59) I have been fortunate not to have ‘knowingly’ suffered any prejudice, either in my personal or professional life. Sadly I have witnessed a lot against the LGBT community. And while much progress has been made, there is still much more that can and needs to be done. However before looking forward, let me take a step back.
My formative years were the 1970s and 80s – the Thatcher years. At school I cannot recall anyone being openly gay (the term LGBT didn’t exist then). I certainly didn’t have any gay friends. Homophobia was common place in society and, in my experience, in the legal profession too.
Then came AIDS. This only reinforced the negative stereotypes in many but, for the first time, it opened my eyes to the suffering of the male gay community. A more enlightened colleague whose partner worked at The Terence Higgins Trust, started my education. However, I am embarrassed to say that I showed little interest in, or tried to understand the LGBT community, until 2009.
That was the year that my middle child (and youngest daughter, Gabbi) came out. She was 17, had known she was gay for at least three years, but felt unable to tell her parents. When I asked her why, she explained that because she had such a torrid time at school, she didn’t want any more of the same at home.
As a parent, my first reaction was to say that her mother and I loved her unconditionally and that would never change. Selfishly I felt slighted. After all, I was a good father, wasn’t I? Then I realised we had not done anything whatsoever to create an environment where Gabbi felt able to share this with us. Sexuality or the LGBT community and issues were not something we ever discussed. I used to think this was generational, although now I tend to think it was probably more cultural and educational.
If it were not for Gabbi, I would not be writing this, or what followed.
While I became much more interested in LGBT issues and I think I was a supportive father, I didn’t do half as much as I could or should have done, generally or within the profession. Looking back I was also part of the problem.
I was running the UK arm of an international IP firm, so had the power to make a difference. I didn’t. We were a hugely diverse firm in terms of colour, religion and culture. Two of my male partners were openly gay, but we never discussed LGBT issues. I was too passive or thought it was too difficult. Perhaps both.
In 2017, when my firm decided not to offer regulated legal services in the UK, together with my fellow partner, Arty Rajendra, we took our team to Osborne Clarke, not least, because of the great culture we had heard so much about and experienced in our initial discussions. And yes, we do have a wonderful culture and, under Ray Berg’s leadership, we have made great strides in diversity, but we didn’t have an LGBT network. For a firm of our size, this seemed wrong.
Around the same time I became aware of IP Inclusive, an organisation that promotes diversity and inclusivity among the IP profession. I attended its LGBT network inaugural event and was one of probably only three allies in a group of 70. It reinforced my view that if things were to change, preaching to the choir was not good enough – we needed the people in power, who still tended to be white, straight males, to be on board and really on board.
Ray is a brilliant supporter, as were many others in the firm, but it took a young associate Gavin Williams, to create the network. His energy, dedication and effort now means we have a thriving LGBT network, OC Pride.
As for me, I feel I have helped a little. I was extremely proud to be appointed the firm’s LGBT champion earlier this year and indeed to be asked to write my Pride story. I sometimes suffer with a little imposter syndrome, but then, we probably all do at some stage.
So my message to all the old straight guys (and girls) out there is – don’t be passive; even small changes in your biases, language and behaviour can make a real difference. And it transpires it’s not that difficult!
We can’t celebrate Pride in the normal way this year, but are running a number of events inspired by the words of LGBT campaigner Brian Webb, ‘Pride isn’t a mass gathering, it’s a spirit. A spirit that unites us as a community. It’s who we are – beautiful, strong, resilient.’
And I can’t think of a better way to describe my daughter Gabbi – beautiful, strong and resilient.
Mark Foreman is director of trade marks at Osborne Clarke
Mark – an inspiring article – we can all take steps to be less passive and be heard as a Pride ally.