The last 20 years has seen significant progress in LGBT+ rights, including legislative change that has given LGBT+ people the right to adopt, affirm their gender, and marry. These are important victories for those campaigning for laws protecting and improving LGBT+ lives, including many at the Bar (see LGBT and the law: what’s it like to be “out” in the legal profession?, Chambers Student).

The UK has some excellent inclusive legislation, but tackling the challenges LGBT+ people still face requires additional work, not least in the workplace. The pandemic has not helped, with many Pride events cancelled and many LGBT+ people isolated or feeling trapped in unsupportive households.

Looking at the workplace specifically, across the UK, 62% of LGBT+ graduates go back into ‘the closet’ when entering work and 26% of lesbian, gay, and bi staff and 20% of trans staff are not ‘out’ to anyone at work. The figures increase for LGBT+ disabled people and LGBT+ people from ethnic minority backgrounds (see LGBT in Britain: Work Report, Stonewall). LGBT+ people are also at particular risk of harassment, including sexual harassment, at work. The TUC has found that 68% of LGBT+ people have been sexually harassed at work, 42% of LGBT+ people who responded to the survey indicated that colleagues had made unwelcome comments or asked unwelcome questions about their sex life, and 66% did not tell their employer about the harassment, with a quarter of those saying they did not report because they were afraid of being outed at work (see Sexual harassment of LGBT people in the workplace – a TUC report).

The limited available research suggests similar patterns for the Bar. In 2017, academics from the University of Westminster and UCL researched the experiences of 126 LGBT+ barristers in England and Wales (Sexuality at the Bar: an empirical exploration). The research found:

  • Over half had experienced discrimination at work or in their professional studies on account of their sexual orientation including some harrowing stories of homophobic ‘banter’ at Chambers and Inn events.
  • A number of pupil barristers and students made it clear that knowing that the chambers in which they undertook pupillage was LGBT+ friendly was an important factor for them in their choice of chambers.

FreeBar was formed in this context as a network of LGBT+ people and allies who work at and with the Bar and have a common desire to improve its culture. FreeBar is managed by a diverse group of volunteers from a range of organisations and aims to ensure the Bar becomes a supporting and inclusive professional environment for all LGBT+ people.

The law and the Bar

Anyone who interacts even occasionally with LGBT+ people and those who use social media will be aware there are current legal issues around the law as it affects LGBT+ people where there is little or no consensus. The law can and should be debated (preferably in more than 140 characters at a time), to enable it to evolve to reflect our changing society. And of course, the Bar will and should participate in those legal debates.

What should not be up for discussion, is whether all people (barristers, staff and clients) regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or sex should be treated equally and with respect. To state the obvious, no-one should be discriminated against on the basis of their protected characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender reassignment. Beyond that, it is hopefully uncontroversial to assert that all people should feel safe and feel able to be themselves in the workplace in order to thrive. It is not a stretch to say that enabling everyone to perform at their best in this way will be beneficial to individuals, their organisations and to the Bar as a whole.

Moving from theory to practice

The FreeBar Charter seeks to provide Bar organisations with some guidance as they move from theory to making it work in practice. The Charter contains 11 commitments covering topics including recruitment and marketing, providing support to LGBT+ colleagues and tackling LGBT+ phobic language and behaviour. The Charter is deliberately designed to focus your organisation on a commitment to improve and develop best practice suitable for your particular context. It is not overly prescriptive and it is applicable for organisations that have few changes to make, as well as those just starting out. We recognise change is not going to happen overnight. It will be incremental and your organisation will need to set its own goals and timeframes for achieving them. The Charter is designed to start and continue the conversation, not end it.

The FreeBar Charter highlights the importance of creating a welcoming atmosphere for people of all backgrounds, including by being inclusive of those with multiple or intersecting identities. Signatories are therefore expected to consider how they reflect, respect and accommodate diversity within the LGBT+ community and, just as importantly, beyond. That means thinking about how policies and initiatives aimed at LGBT+ people will impact women, Black, Asian, and minority ethnic people, disabled people, and people of different faiths.

Making the difference

In the spirit of diversity, creating the Charter itself was a collaborative exercise that embraced the input of a range of people and organisations. The Charter went through various iterations and consultation in open meetings, before it was launched at the end of 2020. It is a living document and part of the monitoring process includes the ability for signatories to suggest changes to the Charter itself in order to ensure it remains up to date and relevant.

A year on from the launch, the first signatories are now approaching the point when they are expected to report publicly on their progress with regards to the commitments made. Even the fact of signing up is a positive step which could be hugely impactful. Put yourself in the shoes of a potential pupil, whose understandable anxieties about applications and tenancy are compounded by a fear of how their sexual orientation or gender identity will be perceived by the organisations they are trying to join. (Remember those 62% of LGBT+ graduates who go back into the closet when entering the workplace?) Being a signatory to the Charter is a visible statement of your organisation’s values. It offers reassurance to candidates that your organisation is a welcoming place for them to join and thrive in.

While signing up is progress in itself, simply paying lip service to LGBT+ inclusion will soon be clear. The commitment must be genuine, have senior support, and be followed up by action. Point 11 of the Charter commits signatories to annual monitoring of, and reporting on compliance with the Charter, making it a self-regulating system. The reporting requirement provides additional motivation for organisations to act and additional evidence to potential applicants of a truly inclusive culture. Organisations are unable to obtain the next year’s mark until a brief progress report is provided to FreeBar.

So, if you’re wondering what you can do today to improve LGBT+ inclusion in your organisation, consider signing up to the FreeBar Charter. And then put your money, and your time, where your mouth is. FreeBar is ready and willing to help any organisation who is contemplating signing up to the Charter and welcomes any questions at