The right to be open at the Bar

BLAGG provides both a social group and a support network for gay barristers. It also campaigns for equal rights, writes Christopher Rogers.

Unlike other minorities it is not immediately apparent whether someone is gay. Most minorities, whether women, ethnic minorities or the disabled, have spent decades battling for equal access to the Bar, whereas there have always been large numbers of gay barristers; the difficulty many have faced is in being comfortable being open about their sexuality.


The reaction of some is to say either (a) that the Bar has always been full of theatrical characters, which shows that there is no problem, or (b) that because sexuality is irrelevant to people’s work there is no reason for them to flaunt it in chambers.

In answer to the first point, there is a difference between expressing one’s personality (and perhaps in some ways compensating for not feeling able to be open about one’s sexuality) and feeling able, for example, to take a partner to an event without it being a big issue.

I have a lot of sympathy with the second view: of course sexuality should be irrelevant, but simply to be open about one’s identity is not to flaunt it; a gay barrister should be able to feel as comfortable introducing his or her partner as anyone else, and until that is the case we have a problem.

The role of BLAGG

16 years ago the Bar Lesbian and Gay Group (“BLAGG” – our slightly inelegant acronym) was formed by a group of students at the Inns of Court School of Law in order to provide both a social group and a support network for gay barristers, along with campaigning for equal rights. We now have the latter (save arguably for gay marriage).

The Bar has changed as much as the rest of society in being far more open and accepting of others’ sexuality, but BLAGG still fulfils a vital role in helping people realise that they don’t need to hide who they are or, to use a horrible euphemism, be “discreet” about it.

Everyone has to come to terms with their own identity, however they wish to define themselves, and work out quite how they want to represent that to colleagues. Many will be quite happy getting on with this by themselves, but BLAGG provides an informal network which helps students, pupils and barristers work through these issues, and hopefully realise that hundreds of perfectly well-adjusted people have gone through the same process before without major discomfort or awkwardness.

Most City law firms now have gay, lesbian and bisexual networks which fulfil a similar purpose, and indeed large corporate clients often demand information on them as part of the procurement process. Given the size of the average set of chambers, networks could not function at that level – which is where BLAGG steps in.

A question of perception

While in most of our experience there are few difficulties in being open at the Bar, many have different perceptions. I frequently come across people who have been in practice for years, but still don’t feel able to let on to colleagues that they have a same-sex partner at home.

Often people pretend to themselves that again it is not relevant; yet there comes a point, say for example when being asked what one did at the weekend, when, by not mentioning it, it is all too easy to slip into hiding one’s sexuality.

I make no criticism of those who take this approach, but all too often people are led down this path by false assumptions about the Bar in general and their colleagues in particular. It is also possible that these assumptions, perhaps linked with the still slightly stuffy image of the Bar, put some off even entering the profession in the first place, preferring what is seen from the outside as the more modern (and therefore liberal) environment of a City firm. We know that this is nonsense, but cannot afford to be complacent about how we are perceived.

It is all too easy as a profession to take the view that because we are inundated with good candidates we do not need to address the image that we project.

Aside from ensuring that we get the best candidates however, we must remember that the Bar, like the judiciary, should be broadly representative of society: this is partly so that our clients can see us as real human beings, but constitutionally it is also important that justice is seen to be administered by people who are not separate from the public they serve.

Marching with Pride

This year BLAGG marched at Pride for the first time in our wigs and gowns. I, like many, was wary about this, and sceptical about the value of Pride in general. Ultimately we took the view that the positive message this would convey outweighed such scruples.

The reaction we received was incredible: cheers all the way down the route, and over and over again people asking “But you’re not real barristers are you?”

I hope that for the crowds of teenagers there they went home thinking of the Bar as something which is not quite as far removed from their lives and unsuited to their lifestyles as they might have, and that any involved in the justice system will see us as slightly more representative of all communities than our image might have led them to believe.

The goal

BLAGG operates on an informal basis, with an e-mail circulation list of a few hundred, and between 30 and 50 coming to most of our parties.
While we will always be weighted to the more junior end of the Bar, we are keen to become more mainstream and to balance our multi-coloured cocktail drinking in Soho with more civilised dinners. Last summer we had the first of these, with a High Court judge speaking and a number of Silks attending.

The more people can see senior members of the profession, whether gay or straight, supporting this sort of event, the more those entering the profession for the first time will realise that no one cares whether you are gay, straight or bisexual at the Bar.

Ultimately I hope everyone will feel comfortable about being open at work, and we will have achieved our ultimate goal: there will no longer be any reason for us to exist.

For more information about BLAGG or to join the organisation visit the website, www.blagg.org, or e-mail contactus@blagg.org

The right to live openly and freely

One of the last bastions in terms of political campaigning has been in immigration and asylum law, but the Supreme Court decision in HJ (Iran) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2010] UKSC 31 made it clear that it is not enough to be safe if one has to hide one’s sexuality. As Lord Hope put it (at [11]):

“To pretend that it does not exist, or that the behaviour by which it manifests itself can be suppressed, is to deny the members of this group their fundamental right to be what they are – of the right to do simple, everyday things with others of the same orientation such as living or spending time together or expressing affection for each other in public.”

This point was also made powerfully, if slightly more idiosyncratically, by Lord Rodger of Earlsferry (at [78]):

“In short, what is protected is the applicant’s right to live freely and openly as a gay man. That involves a wide spectrum of conduct, going well beyond conduct designed to attract sexual partners and maintain relationships with them. To illustrate the point with trivial stereotypical examples from British society: just as male heterosexuals are free to enjoy themselves playing rugby, drinking beer and talking about girls with their mates, so male homosexuals are to be free to enjoy themselves going to Kylie concerts, drinking exotically coloured cocktails and talking about boys with their straight female mates. Mutatis mutandis – and in many cases the adaptations would obviously be great – the same must apply to other societies. In other words, gay men are to be as free as their straight equivalents in the society concerned to live their lives in the way that is natural to them as gay men, without the fear of persecution.”

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