I have not been to a Society of Legal Scholars conference for some time. I was looking forward to it. I was particularly excited to be able to go to all of the conference rather than just the half in which my paper was scheduled. I am doing 2 papers in the Legal Education section – more on those another time.
Travel to London was uneventful. I like uneventful. I got a fair bit of work done on the train in spite of the supposed quiet coach being the noisiest coach I have been in for a long time. Is it the thing where you’re told you’re not allowed to do something and therefore immediately want to do it? I got the tube out to Mile End and found the campus and even the right building very quickly. I also managed to get a ticket for the dinner at the end of day 1. I hadn’t booked because I wasn’t going to go but then the opportunity for a catch up with Richard C arose so I really wanted to go.
I had arrived in time for lunch – a rather ordinary pasta with a veggie sauce (I think there was a chicken one too) and then I headed to the first session. The first paper was great. I expected it to be. It was a paper by Marc Mason (Westminster) and Steven Vaughan (UCL) reporting on their research with LGBT+ barristers in England and Wales. Bonus points if you ‘get’ the title ‘Going to the Gay Bar, Gay Bar, Gay Bar…’ (if you do, your taste in music is as horrendous as mine!). The paper was fascinating and sort of heartbreaking and a little puzzling…. For a start the survey Marc and Steven did shows quite clearly that the Bar Standards Board statistics on sexuality at the Bar are hugely underestimating the number of LGBT+ barristers across the levels. That in itself means that there is something going on there because some are clearly happy to take part in surveys and interviews for research purposes but are not happy to declare their sexuality as part of the BSB statistics reporting. I wonder why that is. The paper’s sections on homophobia and on the performance of being out were fascinating. The data shows that homophobia is quite common but also that barristers play it down as nothing serious and no big deal. I’m really interested in this lack of advocating for themselves. Where does this come from. Is this a professional thing? Do they advocate for each other? This is fascinating and I’m not sure how we’d get to the bottom of this fully. I’ll ponder this.
I loved the notion that came up in one of the quotes about challenging or disrupting the ‘normal rule of engagements’. So men (mostly) finding it difficult to work out what exactly is going on when faced with a powerful lesbian QC, knowing something is slightly ‘off’ and not being able to work out what the rules of engagement now are. I like that. The section on performance of being out (or not) was depressing because there was lots of evidence of concealing sexuality and lying and because clearly there is a huge amount of the ‘bleached professional’ going on. Where barristers are ‘out’ they are often out in relation to their partners only – so they build their professional gay identity around having a same sex partner rather than on being gay – playing the ‘good gay’ game and performing heteronormativity albeit within a same sex relationship.
The second paper was by Ben Waters (Canterbury Christ Church) on ADR and Civil Justice. I also enjoyed this paper although it’s not really my thing and I was still reflecting on the previous one so drifted in and out.
Anyway it was a fabulous start to the conference. Next I was going to hear more legal education/legal profession stuff and listen to Nigel Duncan (City) on teaching legal ethics but over coffee I realised that I was really flagging. I decided to check into the accommodation and have a little power nap so that’s what I did. Then I headed back to the publisher exhibition area and spent a lovely half hour looking at books (sooooooooo many books, so little time to read….) and then people started filtering in from the sessions for the drinks reception. At the reception I met up with Richard C and we spent the evening talking about well being and anxiety in the legal academy and it was lovely. I left dinner when Richard did and then I went to bed early and fell asleep almost immediately. A good day and a sensible one! I have a blog post started over a year ago on conference self care and I think maybe now is a good time to look at that draft and finish it. I’ll see if I get to it today.
I have just finished John Browne’s ‘The Glass Closet – Why coming out is good for business‘ and I am irritated. I don’t like the book. I am irritated by it and I am irritated that it irritates me and at the same time I can’t quite pin down why I am so irritated.
So what’s it all about. John Browne resigned from BP where he was Chief Exec in 2007 because he was about to be outed by the press. The book is about his story and about why gay employees should do what he didn’t – come out; and why business should encourage and embrace diversity.
I feel like I’m missing something. And maybe I am. I don’t work in business. I’m also a fair bit younger than Lord Browne and have made any decisions about coming out or being out in a different context. I’m also a woman. I get that for some people coming out is a really difficult and painful journey/experience and it certainly seems to have been that way for John Browne. The fact that he didn’t come out on his own terms but was outed compounds that pain. I agree that people should be able to come out on their own terms (sort of anyway). I agree with quite a lot he says in the book actually. Hm. Still irritated.
So, here’s the thing, well two things. I don’t think anyone should have to come out of any closet. The whole idea of coming out suggests that heterosexuality is the norm and we need to announce that we are not normal. How many straight people come out? When straight people feel the need to come out as straight I’ll happily announce my sexuality right along with them. Until then, I’m just me. But even if we think people should come out then I don’t give a toss as to whether that’s good for business. In fact, saying ‘come on you gay lot, get your backsides out of that closet of yours, business needs a bit of a boost and needs to be able to get the most out of you’ or ‘come on gay people, your leaving too much of what you should be committing to your employer in the closet, get out of there’ makes we want to punch something.
Lord Browne addresses his audience well and tells his story well. I am assuming that his intended audience is other business leaders and he speaks their language and maybe it will make a difference and create more welcoming environment. Maybe. But I wonder how many gay and lesbian young people, still in education or emabarking on their business career, read his book and reconise themselves in the stories. The stories he tells, including his own, start from an incredibly privileged position which brings with it its own set of problems but mostly is just, well, privileged. I think I am irritated by the privilege and the lack of recognition for other stories. It seems that if you want a business career now it might be ok to be gay but it porbalby still isn’t ok to be from inner city Bradford with a strong West Yorkshire accent. I’m not sure that helps much, I am not sure business is really anywhere near to really valuing diversity – just privileged diversity.
I want to be able to celebrate this book, to say: read it, listen to the message, diversity is important, gay people should be able to come out (oh hang on, that’s it in’t it, should be able to – not should) and if you create an atmosphere where difference is valued, people will be happier but I can’t quite bring myself to say that. I know I should like it more than I do. I know I should admire John Browne for telling the story and trying to drive change; I know that maybe business can be a real driver for change but I am struggling to get past the feeling that it’s always the privileged that get to tell the story, define it and set the agenda. While we are distracted by a former BP Chief Exec, what storeis are we not hearing? Let’s not allow this book to be the only story we hear about coming out in business or at all, let’s listen, let’s talk and let’s come out if we want to – for us, not for business!