My Pride Story: “I’m a trans QC – I dreaded telling people but have had amazing support”

2 Temple Gardens’ Caroline Harrison QC concludes our ‘My Pride Story’ series with her experience of joining the Bar as Michael to taking silk as Caroline.

What is your background?

I was born and brought up in a Lancashire mill town in the 1960s. I had a close and supportive family, but not an emotionally ‘literate’ one, so was not able to converse or relate on an emotional level. Perhaps this was a function of the period and the region?

I was aware of identifying with girls from about three or four years old; but was completely unable to share this with anyone. As I grew up, it felt wrong and bad to want to be a girl, and it must be my ‘fault’. There was something wrong with me, and it had to be my fault.

Caroline Harrison QC
Caroline Harrison QC

In hindsight, in Lancashire in the 1960s, if I had said anything (my parents must have known, certainly by my teens, but nothing was ever said), at ‘best’ I probably would have been referred for some awful psychiatric treatment that would have left me scarred for life. As it is, although it took me 40+ years to be myself, I hope I am a reasonably well-adjusted and content person.

Also in hindsight, but a profoundly important insight for me: growing up with the knowledge that there was something fundamentally wrong about my life was not ‘fair’. It was not ‘just’ or right. This gave me a very deep sense of the importance of fairness.

Justice runs through me like a word runs through a stick of Blackpool rock. But I was unable to do anything about it. I was powerless to fight for my own fairness. I did not know how. I had no tools. However, I could argue on behalf of other people, because this was ‘legitimate’.

So I think my internal conflict, and impotence to resolve this (episodic secret cross-dressing merely brought temporary respite), directly led to my interest in philosophy, genetics and was fundamental in creating the drive to become a barrister. I might not be able to fight for my own fairness, but I could try to fight for other people’s fairness. As it turned out, I seemed to be able to do this reasonably competently. As to philosophy – I always wanted to get to the bottom of any argument and to understand. The question I asked myself for over 40 years was why did I feel like I did. It was a pivotal realisation a year or so before I began my new life that the only question that really mattered was not “why”; but “what was I going to do about the way I felt?” I may never know the answer to the “why” question. Indeed, there may be no sensible answer.

When I did ‘come out’, in my mid-40s, my mother struggled with the idea initially, but she really wanted to support me and she continued to love me. She never rejected me, and this was really really helpful. My siblings have likewise accepted Caroline without any difficulty, and now, about eight years after making the change, it is as if I had always been a girl.

As to my friends, professional colleagues and staff in chambers, Lincoln’s Inn and Middle Temple, I have met nothing but positive support. People have gone out of their way to affirm my female identity. I could not have dreamed of such support, and it makes all the difference in the world. It doesn’t prevent the dread before first telling people, but it really helped with establishing and consolidating my new identity, and enabled me just to get on with life.

Have you always been out in the workplace?

No! I was at the Bar for over 25 years before I felt able to be open.

Would things have been different if I’d been in a different profession? This is very difficult to answer, because I also had to be personally ‘ready’ to make the transition. For me, I think partly that personal readiness was forged in the failure of a second marriage. I simply couldn’t continue to masquerade as a man. However, if I had been in a workplace where it was widely accepted that gender identity was not binary, I might have had the courage to accept who I was, before entering that relationship.

Did you have any anxieties about being LGBT?

Absolutely terrified! In making the decision that I had to live as Caroline because I could not continue to pretend to be a man, I genuinely believed that I might be forced out of the Bar, and have to try and earn a living doing something much more mundane.

Without demeaning the work, I thought that stacking shelves in Tesco’s as Caroline would at least be honest and authentic, whereas continuing at the Bar as Michael would be profoundly toxic for me. I couldn’t have continued. However, the importance for me of being a barrister meant the dilemma/fear of not being able to be a barrister any more was particularly acute.

The present reality is that I am both the woman that I have always felt and also a barrister. That is beyond my wildest ever dreams. Even deeper personal and professional affirmation was to follow, because I was elected a Bencher at Lincoln’s in 2012, and took silk in 2013. Especially because these were honours conferred on Caroline, they mean more to me than it is easy to express. Truly I do not believe there are any barriers to trans barristers.

If you came out as LGBT later in your career, how did you do this a) with colleagues b) with clients?

Lots of personal letters! Communication is critical, and in my view, you should be sensitive to the audience. Different people should receive different letters, appropriate to the recipient; or be told face to face (not necessarily by you). Timing of communication is also critical, and may need to be staged, depending on whereabouts you are in the transition process and/or your career.

I treasure the letters and cards that I received from people. Many made me cry because of their sheer honesty, depth of understanding and profound support. In my case, because I operated in several different contexts (Chambers; Lincoln’s Inn, where I sat on the Bar Rep committee, spent a lot of time and taught advocacy; Middle Temple, where I live; a member of the Department of Health Human Genetics Commission; as well, obviously, as numerous professional clients and ongoing cases), it meant I had to stage disclosure over a period, but also to write an awful lot of letters. Disclosure had to be staged because preparations for the transition take a long time, but I needed the support and understanding of my clerks and chambers colleagues before I was ready to make the transition and start my new life. My colleagues were incredibly supportive of me, and respectful of the need for privacy until Caroline ‘emerged’ properly.

The start of my new life was chambers’ Christmas party in 2008. I was sure we would all need a drink! I have never looked back. But it would not have ‘worked’ without the support of my family, friends, Chambers, Inns and clients.

What specific difficulties have you had to overcome?

I can’t think of any specific difficulties that would not also apply to other trans people. The issues that all transgender people have to overcome include the extensive time (and money) required to undergo many of the physical changes other than gender reassignment surgery (such as electrolysis, voice coaching, hair, gradual effect of hormone changes etc.). These are incredibly time-consuming, and in some cases very painful and can leave visible changes for a few days. This requires an understanding employer/firm/chambers.

Wardrobe is also key. A professional wardrobe is very different from a social one. Imagine at the age of 40+ someone burgled your home overnight, and stole every single item of clothing and accessories. Imagine also that at the same time, they wiped your memory of what ‘works’ for you in terms of colour, style, fit or where to shop. This is a bit like what it feels like, having to start a professional wardrobe from scratch. I had help from a style adviser recommended by a close friend. This was unbelievably helpful, and I think she found the process professionally satisfying, because she could see how important what she was doing, really was to me.

It really helps confidence to have a work suit that you feel good wearing. I wanted what I dubbed a ‘Court of Appeal’ suit. It helped! And still does, but at least now I have a better idea of what works for me; and I also now have a base wardrobe.

What can workplaces can do to help LGBT people?

Being understanding about the need for time for the many things necessary to make a success of transition (see above). Recognising the fear that the person is likely to be feeling. Acknowledging that for a period prior to, and/or during the transition, the person’s appearance will change from what they have been used to, but will not be that person’s final look. A US professor of English who underwent MTF transition described the three stages of transition as follows: “Stage 1: Wow, that guy looks weird. Stage 2: Wow, that guy looks really weird. Stage 3: Man that chick looks ugly!”.

Whilst you could dismiss this as a cheap jibe that is designed to get people onside by laughing at what we have to go through (it works!); at a deeper level, it encapsulates the fears that I believe many trans people feel about how they will appear and how they will be accepted in their new gender role.

Do you think the law is LGBT-friendly?

Yes. There was a recent article in the Times by Catherine Baksi, a freelance journalist, who wrote a sensitive piece about trans lawyers. I think the only reason for making an issue publicly about trans lawyers, is to show that being trans is not really an issue at all. The legal community is widely accepting of trans men and women.

Is having strong role-models important when it comes to being out at work?

Yes. Different people deal with their transition in different ways. Some become LGBT campaigners but many just get on with their life but choose not to discuss their past publicly (which is not the same as hiding from it, although some people do that too). I have come to realise that role models are important. I have been able to make the transition successfully from Michael to Caroline largely because of what previous trans lawyers and campaigners have done. They have blazed a trail. I recognise that as a Bencher and advocacy teacher, as well as a senior barrister, I do have a responsibility to be open and demonstrate especially to students and very junior members of the Bar, that you really can be free to be yourself. The law will not judge you simply for being yourself. So long as you have personal integrity, legal competence and drive, you can succeed in the law irrespective of your gender (or sexual) identity.

What advice would you give to junior LGBT lawyers?

Have the courage to be yourself! Life is short, and people will not judge you for being trans. All that really matters (professionally) is whether you are a good lawyer, and committed to your work and your clients. Support mechanisms are available (FreeBar being the new kid on the block for the Bar and all who work with the Bar), and do make use of these, because you will not be alone! Mentoring can be a valuable resource.