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‘When organisations aren’t intersectional, they ask people to leave parts of themselves behind’

Hogan Lovells commercial litigator and Legally Lesbians initiative founder Jacqui Rhule-Dagher talks coming out, representation, and the importance of intersectionality.  

When did you come out professionally, and how easy did you find it?

I started as a paralegal about a decade ago, and I was very much in the closet. I remember attending my firm’s annual Pride Lunch under the guise of being an ally. Before the first course had even been served, I fled the room, ripped off my rainbow lanyard in the style of James Brown shedding his cloak, and dumped it in a potted plant. I can laugh about it now, but at the time it wasn’t funny. I was hyperaware of the fact that I was the only Black person in my team and one of the few Black people at the firm, so I didn’t want to draw any additional attention to myself.

A major turning point came a year or so later. I was introduced to a senior associate at another firm, who explained that most of her experiences of being out in the workplace had been positive. She said something that stayed with me: ‘The important thing is that you are known as a lawyer who happens to be a lesbian and not the ‘lesbian lawyer’.’ Encouraged by her words, I made the decision to come out when I started my training contract at Clifford Chance a year later.

It’s no coincidence that I felt more comfortable being out after I had met and worked with other lesbian lawyers – that’s why visibility is so important. Also, I quickly realised that most people don’t care, they just want you to do a good job. That gave me a lot of confidence.

My coming out journey was not easy, but there is absolutely nothing I would change about it.

Do you feel a responsibility to be active and use your voice, or to be a role model?

I don’t really see myself as a role model. I would prefer people look at me and think, ‘If she can do it, so can I, but in my own way and my own time.’ Do I feel an obligation? No, but I do think it’s important to be active and visible so that others can see there are different types of lesbians in the legal industry. Everyone deserves the dignity of seeing their identities represented positively.

What was the motivation behind creating Legally Lesbians?

I started Legally Lesbians because I remember how exhausting, frightening, isolating and limiting it was to be in the closet, and I didn’t want anyone else to face those experiences. I wanted to reassure people that they can be part of the LGBTQ+ community and succeed professionally.

I am very lucky that I have had some very gracious and extremely accomplished people take part so far. Aderonke Apata’s journey is nothing short of miraculous. She’s originally from Nigeria and was almost forcibly removed from the UK when her asylum claim, which stated she would be in danger as a lesbian if she was forced to return to Nigeria, was rejected. In a wonderful turn of events, Aderonke was called to the Bar in 2022. Dr Keina Yoshida was one of the lawyers who successfully litigated the Rosanna Flamer-Caldera v Sri Lanka case before the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which was the first human rights case to establish that criminalising lesbian relationships is a human rights violation. Judge Dr Victoria McCloud (now Master McCloud following her retirement from the judiciary), the UK’s first trans judge and youngest person appointed to the Kings Bench in 2010 at age 40, was also included, and Baroness Brenda Hale and Baroness Helena Kennedy KC kindly provided the forewords. My hope is that people will see a diverse range of lesbians and be encouraged to consider a career in law. I also hope that people who are already in the legal industry, but who can’t come out for whatever reason, will be assured that they’re not alone.

How has the legal sector improved in your career and what can be done to continue that improvement?

It’s a lot better than when I first started in the sense that there are more LGBTQ+ lawyers and allies around. The Law Society has its own LGBTQ+ Solicitors Network and the Bar has the FreeBar. I think that many firms are also live to some of the challenges facing the LGBTQ+ community and, to varying degrees, are taking steps to remedy these issues.

However, there’s obviously room for improvement. One of the biggest areas is developing an understanding surrounding intersectionality – how characteristics such as class, gender, race and other personal characteristics combine, overlap and ‘intersect’ with one another. For example, I might experience lesbophobia differently to a white lesbian by virtue of my race, and I might experience racism differently to a Black man by virtue of my gender. When organisations fail to take an intersectional approach, they’re effectively asking people to leave parts of themselves behind. This erasure is likely to exacerbate the feelings of isolation and marginalisation experienced by those with multiple intersecting identities.

I tend to focus on four things firms can do on intersectionality.

First, organisations should properly utilise Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Typically, firms will have a distinct gender group, a pride group, a BAME group and so on, but the groups could collaborate better to support employees that straddle multiple groups.

Another thing is educating people more effectively. Most firms will have training on topics like microaggressions and unconscious bias, which is laudable, but such sessions only scratch the surface. You wouldn’t be expected to run a marathon after an hour’s training! A quote often attributed to Aristotle is, ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit’. A more deliberate, considered programme of regular training sessions would be far more impactful, particularly if they coincide with internal firm processes like employee onboarding, appraisals, trainee seat rotations, promotions, and so on.

Similarly, firms could be much better at gathering and analysing data, whether via surveys, focus groups, or interviews, and ensuring a high response rate from a diverse pool of people. This can help to highlight the varying needs of employees and recognise the importance of focusing on equity over equality.

Finally, we need to encourage people to be better allies. ‘Allyship’ is a verb and it is meaningless unless people are actually active allies. Also, when we think of allyship, we often think of people from a dominant group advocating for those from marginalised groups. Yet this is just one aspect of allyship. What is not always considered is that people from marginalised groups can be allies to each other.

However, allyship can’t be tokenistic. There can’t be a ‘Noah’s Ark’ approach to allyship with people patting themselves on the back and thinking we’ve reached the zenith of diversity, equity and inclusion simply because we have a certain percentage of female, LGBTQ+ or BAME people in the legal industry. Genuine diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are committed to ensuring that different perspectives are considered, which is unlikely to be the case if only a homogenous group of people are providing their views.

Are there any other challenges the industry should be addressing?

Generally, encouraging people to come out and be visible is something that could be improved on. Another challenge is ensuring that the entire LGTBQ+ acronym is represented. In particular, the industry needs to pay a lot more attention to how it can support its trans and non-binary lawyers. It would also be great to see more out female lawyers. I am extremely lucky that Hogan Lovells has two out lesbian partners, but this is the exception, not the norm. I do, however, understand why this might be the case. A lot of senior women in the City grew up with Section 28 in place. The internalised shame, stigma and fear from that period, along with having to deal with misogyny, would understandably make people reluctant to come out. The unfortunate knock-on effect of this is that younger female members of the LGBTQ+ community may feel unable to come out. If they can’t see others like themselves at the top, they may feel as though they can’t reach the upper echelon of the industry, or that it isn’t a safe space for them to be their authentic selves.

It is incumbent on organisations to ensure that they are welcoming places for LGBTQ+ people. What constitutes a welcoming space will look different at every organisation, but there will be common themes – ensuring that policies and procedures are well drafted, regularly updated and inclusive; that the firm has management buy-in when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, because senior leaders set the tone for the rest of the organisation; and that people are afforded the same opportunities.

What advice would you give to junior lawyers?

Try to find people you can connect with on a human level. These don’t necessarily have to be people who look like you. Although lawyers are notoriously busy, remember there are people willing to give up their time to mentor and support junior colleagues and act as sounding boards. I would also encourage people to make the most of the networking opportunities on offer as having a supportive community is invaluable. Finally, while your LGBTQ+ identity is very important, don’t forget that you have a lot more to offer the legal industry than this one aspect of your life.