Many LGBT+ barristers believe the Inns of Court are not doing enough to combat homophobia at the Bar, according to a ground-breaking study which suggested that “homophobia is stronger at the Bar than in the general population”.
The study found that just over half of barristers had experienced “some form of discrimination” because of their sexuality, while almost half had been on the receiving end of “homophobic banter”.
Stonewall research shows that, in the general population, 19% of lesbian, gay and bi employees have experienced verbal bullying from colleagues, customers or service users because of their sexual orientation in the last five years.
The joint study – by Marc Mason of the University of Westminster and Dr Steven Vaughan of the UCL Centre for Ethics and Law – was based on the views of 126 barristers and Bar students, who took part in an online survey and in more detailed interviews.
They said they were struck “by the level of criticism levelled at the Inns (for not doing enough to signal their support for LGBT+ members of the Bar) compared with our interviewees’ views on the Bar regulator (the Bar Standards Board) and the overarching Bar professional association (the Bar Council).”
The research found: “This criticism was particularly notable at both the most senior (QCs) and most junior levels (pupils).”
Mr Mason and Dr Vaughan said homophobic banter seemed to be “prevalent at the Bar”, with many barristers playing down their experiences of homophobia and failing to defend their rights and speak up “despite being fearless advocates in the pursuit of their client’s interests”.
One interviewee said: “Every time somebody got drunk at a party or a dinner I got some bloke coming up to me asking why I was a lesbian and hadn’t I ever considered having sex with men – really quite inappropriate comments.”
The study said a further feature of the report was the number of students citing examples of homophobia involving the Inns of Court.
One was quoted as saying: “One of my fellow students was at an Inns’ qualifying session and was talking to a bencher who sort of jokingly or flamboyantly said: ‘I don’t trust fags like you.’”
Although over 80% of respondents were “out” with all or most of their family, friends, and other barristers in their chambers, just under half (47%) were out with all or most of their instructing solicitors and even fewer (23%) with their lay clients.
A large majority (69%) had been out as Bar students, while only a small minority (just over 4%) were not out with any barristers in their chambers. A fifth of those who were considering applying for silk said they would not mention their sexuality in their applications.
“Interestingly, a number of interviewees shared that they ‘outed’ themselves by referring to their husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend and there was a suggestion that the ‘good gays’ (those conforming to heteronormative standards) were more acceptable at the Bar.
“Here, when we looked at the survey data in more depth, we saw that those who were in relationships were more likely than those who were single to be out at work.”
Researchers said they were surprised by “how few barristers saw the potential financial benefits of linking their sexuality and their practice” or the ‘business case’ for diversity.
“Only a quarter of our survey participants felt they have ever been instructed because of their sexuality. In the interviews, many seemed surprised when we asked them if they had ever sought to use their sexuality to win work (for example by networking with LGBT+ instructing solicitors).”
A number of pupil barristers and students told researchers that knowing that the chambers in which they undertook their pupillage was LGBT+ friendly was “an important matter for them”, and one said he would have chosen a different set of chambers if he had known about its attitude to homosexuality.
Half of those who completed the survey were members of the Bar Lesbian and Gay Group, just under a third were members of FreeBar and almost 12% were members of InterLaw.