As Pride month rolls round once again, I find myself reflecting on progress made in LGBT+ rights over the years: from the Stonewall riots of 1969, to the establishment of UK charity Stonewall in response to the pernicious s.28 in the late 80s, and then to civil partnerships and eventually the enactment in 2013 of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act.
We have come so far.
This has also led to a degree of introspection on my part. On the whole, I do not think I have had things too bad. The bullying at school is something I would like to consign to history; however, when it has come to my career, I certainly have never felt that my sexual orientation has ever held me back in any way. I think I was fortunate to be starting out in the legal profession at a time when things were starting to get better. I am aware many gay lawyers who have gone before me might tell a different story.
I have always been ‘out’ at work; this is no doubt due to the fact that both the firm in which I trained (a small firm in the City) and my present firm in which I have spent getting on for 14 years, have been very supportive places in which to work, replete with intelligent, open-minded colleagues. I have also taken some comfort that, since the early noughties, sexual orientation has been a protected characteristic, and have rather assumed that those who disapproved of my sexual orientation in any way would have the good sense to keep quiet. Thinking about it though, those falling into the latter category have been few and far between. As time has gone on, and I have become more confident in myself, I am also ‘out’ to my professional contacts outside the firm.
We have come so far. But have we come far enough?
The answer to that question is ‘not yet’.
It is true, LGBT+ rights have advanced enormously over recent decades, but there are still gaps. For example, it is only this month that the screening questions asked of potential blood donors were changed such that men who have had sexual contact with another man in the last three months can donate. Social attitudes take time to catch up with laws.
And this leads me to my dilemma.
I struggle to come out to clients.
When I tell people this, I often get a similar response: “why does it matter?”; “why would your client need know?”; “Your sexual orientation is none of your client’s business…”.
On the face of them, all these responses are valid; but scratch beneath the surface and things are not quite so simple.
As I mention above, I am ‘out’ at work: while I do not go around advertising my sexual orientation, I also do not hide it. This should not be an earth shattering revelation; I can think of very few heterosexual people I know who go around proclaiming their sexual orientation.
Or don’t they? One doesn’t have to listen for very long to idle small talk in the office, or at a networking event, to hear references to one of the interlocutors’ opposite sex spouse or partner.
The vast majority of my clients are private individuals, and small talk is a necessary part of developing rapport and maintaining client relationships. But when the friendly enquiry comes up on a Monday morning call with a client as to whether I did anything nice over the weekend, I have two choices: I self-edit, or I come out. Each comes with its own considerations.
Self-editing is in some ways the easy option: an omitted reference to a partner here, a vague reference to dinner without mentioning who you went with there, and no-one is any the wiser. This option is not ideal though in the sense it prevents one being authentic at work, which in turn impacts on giving one’s best performance.
That leaves option 2. ‘Coming out’. Most people are familiar with the concept of a gay person telling friends, colleagues and family about their sexual orientation. Fewer may have given thought to the fact ‘coming out’ is not a one-off event. It is something that happens over and over: every time I mention my husband to someone I do not know.
And each time, this is accompanied by a mental assessment of what the likely reaction will be: is the reaction more likely to be positive or negative? If the latter, what might the fallout be? While not as anxiety-inducing as telling a family member or close friend, it can nevertheless be exhausting.
So, why do I distinguish between my colleagues and contacts on the one hand, and my clients on the other? This is tricky and perhaps not entirely rational. It also has not escaped me that a handful of my clients may read this! The only way I can really rationalise it is that my colleagues and contacts are more of a known entity. With clients come a greater number of unknowns. In all likelihood the client would have no issue, but at the back of my mind is always niggling questions: “what if they react badly? What if have deeply held religious convictions which condemn homosexuality? How will their reaction affect my solicitor client relationship?”
I am hopeful that in years to come I will not agonise over coming out to clients in the same way as I have done. A step in the right direction for me, is writing pieces such as this. I equally recognise that I am in a privileged position as a partner in my firm, and also the firm’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion partner. As such I have a responsibility to lead change, rather than just hoping for it to happen.
We have come so far, but until everyone has caught up, I do wonder if there will be a small part of me that wants to be both “out at work” and “in”.
Gareth Ledsham is a partner at Russell-Cooke