Our final guest contribution for LGBT History Month, Brie Stevens-Hoare QC (Hardwicke Chambers) shares her advice for navigating clients and colleagues at the Bar. Brie is recommended in the latest edition of the Chambers UK Bar Guide. She is a client-focused property barrister experienced at dealing with property litigation, property transactions, probate, professional negligence and franchising.
The Bar was not my natural home when I arrived in a common law set of chambers in 1986, even though at that point I identified as straight. As a woman determined to do civil work, not family, I was part of a small crowd. Add to the mix the fact I identified as feminist, with definite left-wing tendencies, was state-educated, vegetarian and teetotal. Eight years later, I added the label ‘lesbian’ to the reasons that made me different from the vast majority of my colleagues, opponents and judges.
On the face of it, I have now lived and loved, happily and openly, in both my personal and professional life under the shorthand label of ‘lesbian’ for 22 years. But is that analysis true? Or are we still a long way from people being able to identify authentically as whoever they are and live that part of their life without hesitation or fear of adverse consequences? In the early 1990s, my chambers was unusual. I could be reasonably confident, when I fell in love with a woman, that I would be accepted for who I was. But the rest of the Bar was not like that. Now I would be surprised if any established tenant in chambers felt that their chambers would be unsupportive if they came out.
I am confident that direct or conscious homophobia at the Bar is essentially a thing of the past. However, there still remains the issues of transphobia, unconscious homophobia and the general failure to understand the experience of those who are ‘other’, and how to make the Bar a more visibly inclusive profession.
With the benefit of language learnt, in part from teenage family and friends, I realise that I can be more accurately described as a pansexual cis female. However, mainstream society remains, by and large, uncomfortable with versions of ‘queer’ that are not simply gay or lesbian. Once you move out of those two increasingly accepted pigeon-holes, your risk of rejection or challenge increases and you feel that anxiety in your gut. Sadly, the risk of challenge or rejection can also come from parts of the gay community, as well as the diminishing part of society that rejects all versions of ‘gay’ or ‘queer’.
What about living ‘openly’? I am certainly not a naturally private person. Ask me a question and I answer it. I am absolutely ‘out’ with friends, family and colleagues, and publicly on Twitter and the like. What about with clients? Every time I meet a new professional and/or lay client and we start to talk, that question is there: do I edit? Do I go into that awkward use of neutral pronouns and phrases and walk the tightrope of truthful obscurity which will allow me not to be ‘out’, just in case it is an issue? It all feels unpleasant. It involves me making assumptions about people that I do not know, which may well be unfair. I believe that clients should be able to put their trust and confidence in me. If I am not ‘out’ to a client, are they trusting the authentic me? There are no easy answers to these questions, but fortunately these instances are becoming less frequent. I let the interests of the client determine the way forward and err on the side of authenticity wherever possible. I perform at my best when being authentic and my clients are entitled to my best. This has meant accepting that some may then conclude that I am not the barrister for them. However, if I have real concerns about a client’s response, usually on religious or cultural grounds, but a change of barrister would be damaging for the client, I will keep walking that tightrope.
What about living ‘happily’? I am acutely aware that I live in that fabulous, liberal, middle-class London bubble that could lead me to think that all is well. From my very privileged position, I feel very safe and secure in the belief that I am accepted and if someone has an issue with my sexual orientation, it is their issue and not mine. With that freedom comes happiness. But when you push at the sides of the bubble you realise it is just that. There is an outside world which is very different and, as we all know, bubbles can burst.
So, what can we do about it? Drawing on Stonewall’s phenomenal knowledge about building workplace networks, we have given birth to FreeBar. It is a loose collaboration between chambers and individuals who believe in ‘Acceptance without Exception’, and wish to spread that message across the Bar and to the wider public. FreeBar’s launch event featured a lively discussion concerning the need for change and suggestions for various things that could be done to bring about that change. As a result, FreeBar is now buzzing with ideas and now the hard work begins.
There are two key strands underpinning these ideas. First, making the inclusion that exists visible to all, including those outside the bubble. This involves celebrating the fact that there is an LGBT+ community within the Bar that is welcomed and successful. We do that by supporting and encouraging LGBT+ individuals, allies and inclusive organisations to stand up and be seen. We would encourage all to get involved in and sponsor relevant events, comment on issues and promote all that they are doing on their websites and elsewhere.
The second strand is to spread best practice. There is a lot of good practice out there and excellent examples of the Bar getting it right for LGB and even T barristers and judiciary. FreeBar will aim to collate the know-how from its member organisations to produce a toolkit for chambers management committees, senior staff, pupillage committees and marketing to utilise.
Unfortunately, my work with FreeBar has confirmed that the Bar still has a way to go before it becomes visibly inclusive. I still hear stories of students not applying to sets because they did not appear ‘gay-friendly’, as well as one set who lost their first choice candidate because he could not tell if he would be accepted. FreeBar will seek to increase the number of LGBT+ friendly messages coming from the wider Bar community and aim to encourage those who work in and around the Bar to become more visible.
It is also clear that, whilst many clerks and support staff have a good track record of supporting their LGBT barristers, LGBT clerks and other staff also need that same support. FreeBar aims to support and encourage not only those who practice at the Bar, but all those working with and alongside practitioners such as chambers, courts and inn staff.
On a personal note, it was not until I attended a professional LGBT network event that I realised what a difference it makes to me to network without any thought about whether I need to ‘edit’. The total freedom to be the authentic me, that even the bubble I live in does not provide, means that I can stay longer at events and truly enjoy networking, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by my partner.
What advice would I give to someone who is LGBT+ and coming to the Bar? I strongly believe that we all perform at our best when we are being true to ourselves. For those of us who are not naturally private at work, hiding or avoiding the truth is exhausting and distracting. In most situations, if you look and listen you will quickly find an ally and a clue about whether you will be accepted. When you find those people and clues take a deep breathe, be honest, start the conversation and ask for the support you need. You will get it and it will help ensure an open and happy professional future.