At a networking event a few years ago, a fellow solicitor asked me if I had a girlfriend. It was the first week of my traineeship and my impulsive reaction was to say no, rather than correct his mistake – because at the time, I had a boyfriend.
When assumptions like this come up in a professionalised environment, I have found that without an immediate response, those assumptions go uncorrected, especially in times of stress. The longer this goes on, the more awkward it can feel to eventually ‘come out’. Imagine, if you will, having to potentially go through this process with every new client, colleague or fellow networker you come across, every day, forever more.
This is what it can feel like for the LGBT+ community (either individuals you’ve yet to meet, or those who may already exist within your workplace without you knowing it) who are met with these assumptions on a daily basis which, no matter how innocently they are made, they then have to go out of their way to correct.
But as a person identifying as LGBT+, that approach states that a fundamental aspect of who I am as a person, my experiences in life and the reasons I might say and do certain things, simply aren’t relevant to my colleagues or my clients, and in fact, cause them discomfort to discuss. It’s also an approach that has the inadvertent effect of forcing people back into the closet, making them at best inefficient, and at worst, developing problems with their mental health.
Try this: think about what you did at the weekend. Now try and tell someone about it without using any pronouns or place names. Think about how much energy is expended on weaving (and maintaining) a web of unsaid truths, and how much energy is redirected from the task at hand. It is clearly incredibly inefficient and, more worryingly, it is anxiety-inducing.
When we learn that, as part of a Human Rights Campaign study, 62 per cent of Generation Y LGBT+ graduates who are out at university go back in the closet when they start their first job, we can see how staggering the problem really is. So how can we make this change?
It’s fair to say that many LGBT+ rights in the workplace have been achieved through a raft of legislation prohibiting discrimination, and a rehashing of the Equality Act as part of corporate policies. What we can’t do will only take us so far. We need to think about what we can do.
Rather than simply edit your behaviour to not offend, actively show your support to welcome people, no matter how they identify. Often, our straight and cis-gendered colleagues understandably think LGBT+ events and initiatives are not relevant to them. On the contrary, we need you. As the majority, the power lies with you to help us actively create a positive environment.
Actively supporting the LGBT+ community empowers us to be the best we can be. Encouraging diversity can help us flourish in our work, rather than focusing all our energy on pretending not to be the people we really are. We need visible actions from the majority to stop my aforementioned instinctive reaction – ensuring our legal profession is using its energy (and billable hours) on being the best it can be, not hiding ourselves from those around us.
I’m proud that DLA Piper took the opportunity to get involved in the legal profession’s first LGBT+ YouTube campaign, #TheseAreOurPrinciples, organised by The Glass Network in conjunction with the Law Society of Scotland, and presenting an opportunity to show LGBT+ legal professionals that they are safe and welcome to share who they are at work.
However, empowering your LGBT+ colleagues to be their whole self doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a YouTube campaign, but can start small with your own individual actions. The next time you ask a person if they have a girlfriend, make that question gender neutral. After all, we all know what they say about lawyers who assume.
Chris Rennie is an associate in DLA Piper’s Intellectual Property and Technology practice