Macho masculinity and the alignment of what is generally considered professional at the Bar with heterosexuality, is creating problems for sexual minority barristers, according to a paper published recently.
LGBT+ barristers are under pressure to conform in order to be seen as ‘credible’ members of the profession in a macho climate in which heterosexual masculinity is assumed, the research started in 2017 and published formally this month said.
The authors, three law academics at London universities, concluded the sexual minority barristers risk substantial loss of credibility by coming out publicly. Many of them do so but conform to “heteronormative expectations and values”, at a personal and professional cost.
The research involved a survey of 126 sexual minority barristers and Bar students at a range of stages in their careers, together with 38 interviews.
It found widespread beliefs both that sexuality was personal and not professional and that people barristers have to work with – such as solicitors, clerks, and lay clients – associated heterosexuality with the authoritative, respected, competent attributes supposedly amounting to credibility in a barrister.
“What we see in our data is that a homophobic construction of homosexuality haunts and constrains sexual minority barristers and their possible forms of professionalism,” the authors – Steven Vaughan and Benjamin Weil of University College London and Marc Mason of the University of Westminster – said.
One interviewee described the strain of feeling they had to conceal their true orientation: “It’s a constant thing that’s ticking away… you’ve got the stress of pupillage, but you’ve now got the stress of not putting a foot wrong and giving away something you think is going to be discriminated against…
“[M]y mental health went completely, completely downhill… You can’t do your job properly if you’re worried about hiding who you are. It’s a trite thing to say, [but] unless you bring your whole self to work, then you can’t put your whole self into the job.”
However, another saw their identity as giving them “an appreciation of being the other”.
They continued: “Being able to look at things from a non-mainstream point of view… [is] probably assisted by personal experience. If you have some understanding of what it’s like to be singled out or discriminated [against]… [It] helps [clients] relate.”
The authors concluded: “Homosexuality is discrediting in a Bar culture where heterosexuality, and in particular masculine heterosexuality, is regarded as integral to the ‘normal’ or ‘credible’ performance of law.”
This was not unlike Black and minority ethnic people feeling they had to ‘act white’ or women feeling they had to appear more masculine to succeed at the Bar.
Finally, the authors took comfort in the fact that a few sexual minority barristers saw value in their identities for themselves, their clients and the profession.
“Through them, we can see the value of bringing the whole of oneself to the Bar, the effectiveness and enlivenment of camp aesthetics, and the value of community, solidarity, and empathy that these barristers found emerging from their minority sexual identity.”
They added: “Homosexual sensibility at the Bar can also queer and challenge the pervasive macho culture and the assumption that the tacit masculinity of the law begets credibility and, vice versa, that the most prudent approach to practising law is the masculinist way of doing things.”