Gay Pride Month
Bob Messerly is a Real Estate Partner in the Chicago Office.
As some of you may be aware, June is Gay Pride Month, usually marked by parades, festivals and other events in many communities across the country. So to help commemorate the month, I’ve been asked to write something about what it is like to be a gay attorney in a law firm. Yes, I know that’s not as fun as going to a parade or a festival, but hopefully this will at least be a worthwhile read for some of you . . . .
I’ll admit that my first reaction to the request was to scratch my head a little. It just seemed a bit odd to me, because being gay isn’t really what defines me, in the work place or outside of it. Also a bit strange because I think that life for me during my legal career has actually been very good, regardless of my sexual orientation. Of course, those musings would make for a very short (some might say “thankfully short”) article. It also wouldn’t be very illuminating. Because, in truth, gay attorneys – even successful gay attorneys – still have a lot of issues to deal with at large law firms.
Sure, we’ve come a very long way since I graduated from law school in 1987. I know that I sound like someone’s grandfather when I say this (sigh), but back then, no one openly identified themselves as gay. There were a few gay attorneys at my law firm, but very few people actually knew who was gay and who wasn’t. Not even all of the gays knew who else was gay. After all, there was no secret handshake or password so we could tell each other apart! But there was an overwhelming fear that if your employer found out that you were gay, you would be fired or exposed to your friends and families. Even working at a proudly liberal law firm in a big and generally-liberal city couldn’t dispel those fears. So I wouldn’t tell other people in the gay community where I worked and I definitely wouldn’t talk to people at work about anything relating to my personal life. I don’t think that many people can imagine what it’s like not to be able to talk about some of the mundane facts of your life simply because you fear what will happen if it is discovered that you’re gay.
Things have definitely improved since then in many areas of the country as far as tolerance and acceptance goes. And I think Quarles is way ahead of the curve on that front, or I wouldn’t be here today. But, to be honest, I think our society as a whole still has a way to go with respect to how we treat the homosexual minority. It seems like discrimination against gays is one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination in this country. If you don’t believe it, just look at the newspapers or watch TV. There would be widespread outrage if our elected representatives – from congressional representatives to senators to the president – said the same things about any other minority group that they say about gays, much less propose a state or federal constitutional amendment that would enshrine discrimination against that minority. In most states in this country, gays still worry about some of the things that most people take for granted: the right to visit your loved one in the hospital or the need to carry papers to prove your adopted children are, well, actually your adopted children. Gay men are still prohibited by the federal government from donating blood, regardless of their HIV status. And, of course, most states and the federal government still do not recognize a gay couple’s right to marry.
So I think it is important to understand that discrimination and fear are still there – in our communities as well as the places we work. Unfortunately, law firms aren’t always the exception that we’d like them to be. I’ve known attorneys who don’t come out – even to me or other gays – until they’ve been working at the firm for a long time simply because they don’t know how they will be treated. And I have certainly felt or seen the discrimination and homophobia myself over the years. The discrimination isn’t always overt and, more often than not, it isn’t intentional or mean-spirited, but it’s there alright. There’s the conversation with clients about going to strip clubs with all of “the guys” when you’re out of town at a convention – offensive in and of itself, to be sure, but pretty mind-numbing for a gay man. There’s the senior partner who doesn’t want the firm to sponsor an event for gay attorneys because clients might find out and wouldn’t like it. There are other diverse attorneys who tell you that being gay is somehow a less important minority than race or gender, simply because you can’t physically identify the gays in the crowd. There’s still the fear that if a client finds out you are gay, that somehow your orientation will affect your relationship with the client or the work might even get pulled.
Don’t get me wrong, though – for each story that I tell you about homophobia and discrimination in the work environment, there’s probably 50 stories to tell you that are heartwarming and reaffirming. And, as I said before, I consider myself incredibly fortunate. After all, I live and work in a major city that has had a law on the books for years that prohibits discrimination against gays. I live and work in a state that just passed a law that recognizes marriage equality, so I was recently able to marry my partner of 20+ years. I’ve benefited from the brave people at work who took risks -- long before anyone ever mentioned the words “diversity initiative” -- to try to obtain the rights and benefits for gay employees that many law firms consider standard today. I’ve had mentors and friends at work – both straight and gay, younger and older – who have watched out for me. My partner and I have made countless friends through work. That may not seem like a big deal for most people, but seems incredible to someone who started his legal career feeling like he needed to be guarded about sharing his personal life. But most of all, I am incredibly lucky to work at a firm with people who fundamentally care much more about the quality of my work or about me as a human being than they do about whether I’m gay or straight. Frankly, that’s exactly the type of mentality and culture that I think all law firms should be striving for with respect to all attorneys.
So for Gay Pride Month, I think maybe we all can be proud -- proud that we work for a firm that has worked hard for a long time to cultivate a climate of respect and acceptance. But we should also keep in mind that not everyone is as fortunate as I have been and that all of us need to continue to work to ensure sure that others are dealt the same – if not a better – hand than I’ve been dealt.