The very idea of a gay lawyer being able to be out at work without repercussions was almost unheard of, say, 35 scant years ago.
Of course, discrimination based on sexual orientation is not gone—26 states currently have no explicit laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation (or gender identity)—but the country has certainly come a long way since the 80s. There are many lawyers and judges who are out, proud, and making strides in the profession.
The Way It Used to Be
There are lawyers who are still working today who grew up in a time when homosexuality was illegal and widely believed to be immoral, and it was socially acceptable to revile, discriminate against, and even assault gay people. To be out and gay was rare; to be an out professional of just about any kind was nearly impossible. Singer & Fedun, LLC partner William S. Singer, whose practice concentrates on the creation and protection of non-traditional families—and who received the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Section of the New Jersey State Bar Association—recalls being expelled from his firm when he came out in 1981, an action that he responded to by simply opening his own practice.
When he came out to him in 1994, Connecticut Supreme Court Associate Justice Andrew McDonald’s father warned him that clients wouldn’t want to work with him and he’d never be able to hold a public position of trust, and urged his son to find a “Plan B” profession. These fears were not unreasonable given the times McDonald’s father grew up in, and what he had observed about the treatment of gay people for his entire life. (He was happy to be proven wrong through the years.)
Younger Lawyers Demand That Firms Adjust
People are coming out at younger ages, and many are enjoying overwhelmingly supportive environments at home and in school—there is no way they are going to live a closeted life at work. Many lawyers, especially those practicing in less conservative areas, expect to be able to be out without issue at the office, and will accept nothing less. They don’t want to hide their partners or worry about being able to take maternity/paternity leave no matter how a child comes into their life. And firms are responding: Some firms make it a point to recruit by leading with their inclusiveness credentials.
Gay Lawyers Can Thrive While Being Themselves
A unique situation that straight people never have to worry about is having to come out repeatedly to new people. Gay lawyers must master the art of casually coming out to colleagues and sometimes even clients at new jobs and when beginning new projects—usually by simply mentioning a same-sex spouse or partner. For those already used to and comfortable being out, this need not be a fraught occurrence, and is just something that comes up naturally in normal conversations we all have. Consider joining LGBT-friendly professional groups and associations to not only network and generate more business, but also to enjoy more environments in which you don’t have to bother coming out.
Lawyers who have mastered being out and successful at work recommend being unapologetic about who you are. Don’t hesitate to bring your significant other to networking dinners and other professional events. If your firm is truly a supportive, respectful place, the days of gay attorneys pretending to be perpetually single in order to make others comfortable should be long gone.
One of the smartest things an out lawyer can do for herself is to find a mentor—hopefully several different mentors throughout her career. Fellow LGBT legal professionals can prepare you for the unique experiences you might encounter, and allies will be helpful in finding new business and facilitating more welcoming environments. One of the kindest things an out lawyer can do for others is to be a mentor whenever he can, paying forward the support he received and giving tips learned along the way.