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People say you have to hear something seven times to remember it. In my opinion, it does not take seven times for people to remember you’re gay. They hear it the first time you say it. And sometimes there is still some judgment when they do.
I remember vividly the first time I self-censored around a client. I had been working with the client for a number of months and talking to them on a daily basis. We had built a good rapport and had discussed many sensitive issues in his life. Whilst whiling away time in each other’s company waiting for a court hearing, he asked me something completely innocently about my upcoming holiday. At that moment I felt panic set in:
What was I going to say? If I told him that I was going with my partner, would he judge me? Would he respect me less? Would he still want to work with me? If he no longer wants to work with me, will my colleagues judge me? If I censor my life, am I being dishonest? Am I preventing our relationship from growing? I know my supervisor would have told him about her boyfriend. So, maybe it’s fine, what am I panicking about? But is it worth the risk?
All those thoughts happened in approximately three seconds and after (what seemed like an awkward pause for me), I left it ambiguous and avoided gendering my partner.
I am not alone in feeling uncomfortable coming out to my clients. According to Stonewall’s 2017 Workplace Equality Index, only 37% of the legal sector felt comfortable disclosing their sexual orientation to clients and service users. Despite working at a firm where I feel very comfortable being “out”, it is unsurprising that this sector wide issue has a lasting effect on us all.
That feeling of self-censoring is uncomfortable. It feels like you are not bringing your whole self to work, that you are always slightly on edge and that you are weirdly paranoid about any sort of innocent questions (Do you live with friends? What does your boyfriend do? What are you doing this weekend?). Coming out to your clients is not about waving a rainbow flag every time you meet a new client; it is merely having the same type of conversation with your clients that is completely normal for my colleagues.
After five years of working in the legal profession, this year I came out to my first client. She asked me a direct question about my fiancée which I could not avoid. Despite knowing that her best friend was gay, it was a nerve-wracking experience and I felt slightly sick as soon as I had said it. I could not have been luckier with her response: perhaps unsurprisingly, she responded “normally” – delighted to hear about our upcoming wedding and, if anything, the conversation strengthened our relationship even further.
I have no doubt that this trend is changing for the better and I am sure that in my career-life time this will no longer be a consideration. That is in a large part thanks to all my brilliant allies around me supporting me every step of the way. But to all those allies out there, please don’t be swept away in the progress we have made. Please be gentle and allow us to jump out of that closet when we feel ready. And when we do, you can throw the glitter.
Kingsley Napley are publishing a series of blogs to celebrate Pride and to raise awareness about the issues facing LGBTQ people in our communities. You can view our other blogs here.
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