For LGBT History Month this February, Rob Marrs, Head of Education at the Law Society of Scotland, reflects on the progress made towards equality and inclusion in the legal profession, and the work still to be done.
Many in the profession now know that the first female solicitor in the UK was Scottish solicitor Madge Easton Anderson. The admirable work of the First 100 Years project has helped bring to greater prominence many of those who have chipped away at the glass ceiling across the legal profession.
We know who the first female solicitor, first female advocate, first female QC, first female President of the Supreme Court were. We know the senior positions in law that women have not yet held. To quote Lady Dorrian, we are still in the era of the "firsts, seconds and only".
Yet, change can come quickly. The Society’s presidency proves that. When I started work at the Society, there had been one female President in 60 years. In my 11 years here, that number has risen from one to five.
The focus in recent years on highlighting the important contributions of female pioneers has helped us understand that the history of the legal profession is not pale, stale and male. Our view of legal history is so much brighter for it, but it is only so bright.
We do not know – and likely will never know – the names of many other pioneers who have helped create the rich tapestry of the profession we have today. We do not know the name of the first Black solicitor or the first Asian solicitor. Nor do we know the names of many of the LGBT pioneers in the profession. We can though recognise where the profession has made a difference (both positive and negative) over the years to equality. It is these areas that I’d like to focus on today.
February is LGBT History Month. It should give us all an opportunity to consider the contribution that LGBT people have made to society and, for those of us in law, their contribution to the profession and legal world. We can consider how the law has been used to deny and latterly advance LGBT rights and the impact of those laws – both good and bad – on our families, friends and colleagues.
Scotland today prides itself on being one of the best places in the world to be LGBT. It has not always been so. Indeed, until recently Scotland was all too often late to the party. We were, after all, the last jurisdiction in Europe to abolish the death penalty for same-sex sexual intercourse (and even then the punishment was reduced to life imprisonment!). In the late 1950s, the Wolfenden report for the UK government recommended that "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence". The only member of the committee not in favour of the recommendation was the sole Scottish solicitor member of the committee.
A decade later, in England and Wales, same-sex sexual intercourse between men was decriminalised. Women weren’t mentioned in the law. It took another 14 years for legislation to pass in Scotland and that Act came into force on 1 February 1981. This year, therefore, when we consider LGBT History Month, that date perhaps should be one worthy of some reflection. Why were we so late? And how has Scotland gone from being a laggard to leader when it comes to LGBT equality? I am sure there are academic dissertations examining those questions!
To you whippersnappers just commencing in your career, I entirely accept that 1981 may well seem a different era (even I wasn’t around in those days), but in historical terms, it is very recent.
There are hundreds of solicitors practising today who were practising in 1981. It is quite a striking thought that any gay male solicitor qualifying before February 1981 was a criminal in the eyes of the law. Since then, and particularly since devolution, we have consistently seen legislation that advances LGBT rights. Some of the pre-eminent pieces of legislation include equalisation of the age of consent, civil partnerships, same-sex marriages, adoption rights, access to IVF for lesbians and a pardon for all men – living and dead – convicted of having consensual sex with other men before decriminalisation.
But what about the profession and the Society?
Across the profession, rainbow lanyards are commonplace, LGBT workplace groups are common, Pride events – when allowed! – are busy and organisations, such as the Glass Network, have added so much to the richness of the profession. Some will criticise that this isn’t enough and they have a point. It doesn’t mean equality has been achieved by any stretch, but it surely means that we are getting better at inclusion. Hopefully, that trend continues, but it only will if we want it to.
I’m sure that the idea of the Society attending and hosting Pride events would have seemed unlikely in the extreme in 1981. I’ve spoken to gay men who qualified in the 1970s and they cannot quite believe the journey that the Society has taken in recent years. This year, throughout our various lockdowns, we’ve promoted LGBT inclusion via a PrideInside event, articles for Bi Visibility Day, and a digital campaign for Pride month.
Also, this year the Society has a President who is openly a member of the LGBT community, Amanda Millar. She has spoken eloquently throughout her presidency on LGBT matters. You’ll notice again that word 'first', as the Lady Dorrian quote above notes… the era of first, seconds and onlys. I’m sure that will change.
Those of you who know Amanda will likely have heard her say that there is "still much to do". There is. We know that too many of our LGBT colleagues are not comfortable being out to anyone at work and we know of the impact that can have on their personal and professional lives. We know from Profile of the Profession that people have been bullied at work, because of their sexual orientation. LGBT History Month, therefore, can be an opportunity to look back at the progress that has been made and also a time to look forward and see which mountains still need to be climbed.
I can only speak for myself.
As someone who tries to be a good ally to my LGBT colleagues and friends, I look at what I can do to promote equality. I do not claim to be an expert, just someone willing to learn and speak out for equality. What I’ve found helpful has been to try and learn more about LGBT+ issues, attend Pride events, and try to learn more about the history of LGBT rights in the UK. I hope that in taking these steps, I can be a better ally.
I wonder what people who were criminalised because of their sexuality until 1981 make of the progress we have made since?
Looking back, there’s been a lot of positive progress. Maybe our goal this LGBT History Month should be to continue and deepen this progress as we go forward. There is still much to do.