Sexuality and the ‘Credible’ Barrister

In 2016, Marc Mason and I began a project looking to explore the experiences and attitudes of LGBT+ barristers. We launched a report on our research (a survey of 126 barristers and Bar students, plus 38 follow-on interviews) in September 2017. Last week, the academic paper from that study was published in the Journal of Law and Society. The time difference was partly due to the pandemic, partly because trying to make thoughtful claims from qualitative and quantitative data can (and should) take time, and partly because of work and life getting in the way.

The academic paper is ‘open access’, which means anyone can read it. There’s no need to have access to the journal or to pay a fee. Which is great, as we hope barristers and others will engage with what we have to say. The 2017 report told the story of the bare facts of our research, and focused in part on experiences of homophobia at the Bar. Our 2023 paper takes a different approach. Here is the abstract:

This article constitutes the first account of sexual minority barristers’ experience of and relation to professionalism at the Bar. Drawing on survey and interview data, it presents the Bar as a site of heteronormativity, where masculinist heterosexuality is pervasively assumed and publicly valorized. The ‘credible’ barrister – authoritative, respected, competent – is constructed as heterosexual. In this context, sexual minority barristers risk a loss of credibility in coming out or being out in the workplace. Our data presents mechanisms by which these individuals manage the public expression of their sexuality. Some – in contrast to heterosexual colleagues – deny entirely the professional relevance of their sexuality. Others adopt assimilationist strategies, curating a ‘credible’ public persona: out, but otherwise conforming to heteronormative expectations and values. While the data includes exceptions that give cause for hope, many sexual minority barristers experience professionalism as pressure to render their sexuality effectively invisible, at significant cost personally and professionally.

Our sexual minority interviewees suggested to us that what was at stake in coming out was, in part, a loss of credibility – the idea being that (homo)sexuality is something personal and not professional, and that other people (clerks, instructing solicitors, lay clients, judges, other barristers, and so on) want to assume a heterosexual subject. In the paper we explore the subtle and complex ways in which professionalism at the Bar is constructed and how those sexual minority barristers who fall outside of that construction, but who seek to succeed in the mainstream, have to find strategies to conceal those parts of themselves that do not fit the mould and to highlight those parts that can be presented as a simulacrum of the standard credible and professional barrister. As one barrister told us:

If you just happen to sleep with someone of the same gender but actually don’t necessarily display some of the more traditional qualities that might be associated with gay people, you’d probably fare a lot better. Which is completely screwed up, but I suspect it’s probably true.

What we saw from our data was that adopting, as far as possible, the forms and modes of heterosexual culture (acting macho, not being camp, being in relationships, those relationships being monogamous, and so on) represented a strategy of normification by sexual minority barristers to avoid stigma and the associated loss of professional credibility.

Despite this challenging heteronormative environment, there were a handful of sexual minority barristers in our study who appeared to have been able to retain or reclaim a vision of their sexuality as holding value for themselves, their clients, and the profession. 

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