I came out to friends and family at the age of 15. I was living in a market town called Macclesfield at the time where there was no visible LGBT community and although there were over 1,000 students at my secondary school, I was not aware of anyone who was openly gay at the school. This made coming out a rather daunting experience, as I felt like I was treading on unchartered territory – I had no idea how people would react.
Fortunately, my friends and family were very supportive and even my teachers and local parish priest went out of their way to make me feel welcome and at ease, which was rather unexpected. Not long before I came out I heard that a friend of a friend had been asked by his parents to leave the house because he was gay. He was only 16.
I had been subject to homophobic comments on the street from strangers regarding my sexuality, even before I knew I was gay. I therefore had low expectations and anticipated a difficult journey. I consider myself very fortunate to have had such an underwhelming coming out experience.
When I was considering a career in the law, I remember being concerned about whether it would be acceptable to be openly gay and work in the profession. I was not aware of any LGBT role models in law specifically, and at law school there were only a handful of openly gay men. I had big ambitions for my career: I dreamt of becoming a Law Lord (now referred to as a Supreme Court Justice), but looking at the bench, I could not see much diversity – after all, if they could only manage one female Law Lord in the history of the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court), I was not confident of my chances as a gay man.
For completely unconnected reasons, I eventually decided that the Bar was not for me and that I would be better suited to a career as a solicitor. When I was applying to law firms, I remember my dad suggesting that, to err on the side of caution, it would probably be best if I did not mention my sexuality on my application form, in case it did not work in my favour. But just like someone being told not to push the red button, I went ahead and disclosed my sexuality on my application form anyway.
In my mind, any law firm that would treat me less favourably because of my sexuality was not somewhere I wanted to work. Sure, I really wanted a career in the law, but I was not going to join a law firm that would not accept me for who I am.
Once I started working for Burges Salmon as a trainee, I had to decide whether to come out to my colleagues. Initially I decided against it, not because I thought anyone would react negatively, but because I felt like it would be too “personal” to bring up in conversation with my colleagues. But keeping up the façade proved challenging. I had a boyfriend at the time and I had to keep using gender-neutral pronouns in conversation to refer to him (“they” instead of “he”) and if I was asked what I had been up to at the weekend, I had to avoid using the names of particular bars/clubs just in case I got “caught out”.
This quickly became exhausting and I felt like it was creating an unnecessary barrier between me and my colleagues. So I took the decision fairly early on to be open about my sexuality and I have been amazed at how supportive my colleagues have been, right up to partner level.
Since coming out, I have been actively encouraged to attend LGBT networking events throughout the UK to meet other LGBT professionals and discuss LGBT issues. I now play an active role in furthering LGBT initiatives within the firm and in the local community. For example, I have recently facilitated the firm’s sponsorship of Bristol Pride where my colleagues and I will be formally sponsoring the event and promoting LGBT in the law and Burges Salmon’s diversity initiatives.
I hope that by being out at the workplace and taking part in diversity initiatives, I will encourage other LGBT lawyers within the firm to take the leap to come out and be themselves, as well as inspiring future LGBT lawyers to join the legal profession. I also hope I can be the visible LGBT role model to others that I wish I had when I was growing up.
John Smith is a solicitor at Burges Salmon.
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