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‘You don’t get a choice about whether you’re a role model’ – shifting the LGBTQ+ dial in law

Gatehouse Chambers property and probate silk Brie Stevens-Hoare KC on coming out, fitting in and how the profession needs to continue to push back against toxic narratives

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

In my teens and twenties, I’d only had relationships with men. I must’ve been just over 30 when I had my first relationship with a woman. She was in chambers with me.

My approach to life generally was always openness. If someone asks me a question, I answer it. My parents always had gay friends, so even though it was the 1990s, I had a very secure, gay-friendly base. My partner’s family was not gay friendly, and she had real fears about the implications of our relationship, both personally and professionally. I would’ve been out from day one, but it was not only my information and my life, so there had to be a negotiation about coming out to each person because we were in chambers together. That really complicated matters. We quickly told four key people in chambers who we were close to and were all influential and popular. They were incredibly supportive from the get-go, making it clear that ‘chambers’ didn’t have a problem with our relationship.

Fairly quickly I moved to a point where I was out socially and with professional friends, in the sense that I wasn’t editing anything when I talked about myself. What I really had to navigate on my own, and I didn’t think to discuss with anyone, was clients. It’s that constant double blind – ‘I don’t know what your response is going to be until I’ve said it, but once I’ve said it, I can’t take it back’. And then, ‘if you’re fine with it, I feel like a heel for ever thinking you would be anything other than fine, but if you’re not, then too late!’

I was very conscious of the need for clients, particularly lay clients, to have trust and confidence in me, so I was concerned about being unedited and that disrupting the professional relationship. Over time I settled down to openness with professional clients and lay clients that I had had some contact with, so probably not the first time I met them. In the first 10-15 years, I’d rather let them get comfortable with me first, and then have it come up as a natural reference in conversation.

There have been clients where I have made an assumption, because I know something about their characteristics, most often religion, which has caused me to think there’s a pretty good prospect this won’t go well. Now, generally, I’m very upfront.

What I did learn after coming out to about five people was not to talk about myself or the fact I was in love in a way that suggested I was apologising for that, or assuming there was a problem.

In terms of the challenges you faced, were there others?

Nowadays, you don’t have to do very much to be visible and I would be gobsmacked if any of my professional clients were unaware of that at this stage. Nevertheless, I had a blinding flash of realisation after attending a few of the early events held by Freehold, a property professional LGBTQ+ network.

I had told my partner I was going to a Freehold event. She had commented that I would likely be home later than the usual BD events I attended, and I considered why she had that impression. Now, in the scheme of challenges, this is minor, but it hit me. I had been unaware of the impact that constantly considering whether to edit myself depending on the space I was in had had. Even if it’s just 30 seconds, it makes a difference, and the degree to which that had impacted me surprised me. Going to an LGBTQ+ professional event, I am so much more relaxed and therefore stay longer.

With that in mind, I have a sense of the acute struggle I see other minoritised groups have trying to work out if ‘this’ – whether you’re talking about the profession or a specific situation – is a safe space for them. Grappling with that sense that you don’t know until you’ve come out. It’s surprisingly exhausting and distracts from what you are trying to do, impacting your performance.

Do you feel an obligation to use your voice and experience to be a role model for younger people in the sector?

Someone said to me early on that you don’t get a choice about whether you’re a role model – you only get a choice about what sort of role model you are. That really hit me and made me think. So yes, I feel a huge responsibility, particularly having established sufficient safety by virtue of seniority and acceptance in my chambers, to shift the dial, throw a light on safe spaces and challenge what is not right.

I think of it as metaphorically getting out my elbows and pushing to open space for others to come through. I understand that being visible means being conscious of the situations where I have influence, safety etc, and being prepared to actually say the things that need saying, whether for a group or community I am part of or to support and promote the voices of other groups.

Role models as such are complicated. They are fantastic if you are admiring traits or the behaviours they exhibit and trying to learn from their actions and their stories. But they are just humans. None of us get all of it right all of the time. We shouldn’t see a role model and try to emulate them as such.

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

It has improved immeasurably. At the start of my career, no one was out. The feeling that you must hide and how that can distort your connections with people – that’s horrendous – and I know there are some chambers where that still happens. At least now there are identifiable parts of the profession including the Bar Council and the Bar Standards Board that are very clear in their acceptance by going to Pride events and so on. That is valuable, it does send a message, particularly those coming into the profession.

Speaking as a cis pansexual woman, improvement in future has to focus on our trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming siblings. The current narrative around them is hideous. It’s a horrible, toxic environment to navigate, particularly in the media and online. There are people with diametrically opposed views who contribute to that toxicity. No one, in my view, deserves to be threatened or abused for who they are or, for that matter, for their beliefs.

I know from some of my trans friends that being part of a small community where the daily narrative is about being a threat to women and children, or cheating at sport, or prisons, or toilets is so corrosive to people who want to quietly go about their professional and personal lives. So much of it is straight out of the 1980s narratives about gay people. While there are some difficult and sensible issues, we seem to have lost the ability to discuss them as adults with compassion. However, I do think most people see the media and political rhetoric for what it is.

Creating an inclusive culture within an organisation is not easy – everyone (and I do mean everyone – both the trans community and those with gender critical beliefs) needs to be able to feel comfortable and safe at work. Doing the right thing requires difficult and constant work to create a profession where we don’t bring that toxic messaging in when it doesn’t need to be there. We should keep those discussions for appropriate places, with people who are willing to have the discussion, and conduct it in a balanced, calm and grown-up way.

I know that in some ways that currently feels like a fantasy, but I won’t stop wishing for it and trying to move towards it wherever I feel I can have an influence.

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