Are LGBTQ networks still needed in the legal profession?

The legal profession still has much work to do when it comes to providing a safe and welcoming space for LGBTQ members of the Bar, says Claire Fox

Its 2018; We are celebrating the four-year anniversary since the Equal Marriage Act was passed allowing people of the same sex to marry, marking one of the greatest milestones for legal equality and social recognition of same sex relationships. This year also marks almost 25 years since the establishment of BLAGG, the Bar Lesbian and Gay Group founded by individual members of the Bar.

Much of the original impetus of BLAGG was to provide a support network for lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender persons at the Bar, and for those entering the profession presenting a friendly face to those coming into contact with the Bar for the first time. This was especially important in the 1990s when LGBT visibility was low and there were genuine concerns that your sexuality if known could and would hold you back from being successful in this very traditional of professions.

Today BLAGG is a small committee of busy barristers who volunteer their spare time to organise events for our members, provide advice, support and mentoring and consult with various organisations to make sure LGBT members of the Bar and their agendas are represented.

A frequent debate at present is about whether organisations like BLAGG still needed given the shifting legal and social landscape. The answer still very much appears to be yes.

Last year, Marc Mason and Dr Steven Vaughan released the results of their research entitled Sexuality at the Bar, which unearthed some startling statistics. Just over half of the survey respondents had experienced some form of discrimination at work or in their professional studies on account of their sexuality.

Lets just pause for a moment to soak in that statistic.

Just over half.

This is an astonishing statistic in 2018.

Often the discrimination took the shape of homophobic comments, discriminatory language and the perception that their sexuality was something to be ashamed of and guarded. The fact that this feeling hasn’t gone away shows that there is still much work to do.

The overriding anxieties still prevalent are that your sexuality could well hold you back from being successful if you are open about it and that to succeed you have to be “exceptional” above your white male heterosexual counterparts. Many feel at a minimum apprehensive about being open about their sexuality particularly during their pupillage year for fear it will be held against them. Anecdotally other established members of the Bar have moved chambers perceiving their sexuality to be a reason which would hold them back in their current set. Often students do not know which chambers to apply to and whether they will be truly accepted for who they are.

It is easy to be complacent when you see so many flourishing numbers of LGBT members of the Bar and when happily many of us haven’t experienced our sexuality to be anything but a positive, but when you compare the statistics, the number of out LGBT judges, QCs and senior members of the profession remain very low.

The high turn out for diversity events at the Bar and BLAGG events shows that there is still a need for a safe space at the Bar and a need for visible role models, education and support. The Bar is fortunate to have a number of organisations such as the Bar Council Equality and Diversity Committee who offer excellent diversity training and guidance to chambers on how to tackle such issues through their practice and recruitment, but the truth is individually we all need to acknowledge the problems, challenge them and speak out. BLAGG provides a forum to do that and the hope is that in another 25 years we might therefore be having a very different debate.

We will know we will have succeeded when no LGBT member of the Bar fears coming out and has not experienced being open about his or her sexuality as a detriment. In the meantime therefore BLAGG will continue to provide advice, mentoring and support to students to encourage them to come to the Bar and to established practitioners and work with our partners at the Bar to raise visibility and keep debates and discussions ongoing about what more we can do. From our experience, the Bar is a great profession and this is due to the calibre of its members and because it is vital that we have a diverse and open profession which represents the society that we serve.

Claire Fox is co-chair of BLAGG and a barrister at Pump Court Chambers