Gay lawyers locked in closet

Law school conference told fear of discrimination alive in legal workplaces

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

A chilling atmosphere within many law firms ensures gay and lesbian lawyers who have not made their sexual orientation public will never come out, a University of Toronto law school conference was told yesterday.

Judge Harvey Brownstone, 50, of the Ontario Court of Justice, who came out while a teenager, said that while he has enjoyed only support from his fellow judges since becoming a judge in 1995, gay lawyers today often feel discriminated against at work.

"There is a great fear that it is a career limiting move to come out," he said in an interview. "I know lots and lots of closeted lawyers. Certainly, a number of gay and lesbian lawyers tell me they are in the closet." Earlier, he told the conference: "Sooner or later, you build up a big wall around yourself, or you are going to lie."

Judge Brownstone, who was the first openly gay judge in Canada appointed to the bench, said that if lawyers are inclined to be open about their sexual orientation, they may receive subtle discouragement from their colleagues: "You get the message that they don't want to know," he said.

It is, he said, particularly precarious in law firms where clients - such as churches - are sensitive to such issues or where powerful associates have strong religious views. Judge Brownstone made clear he is not against freedom of religion.

Judge Brownstone gave the example of a case where a gay lawyer in a firm that deals with a construction company was told by a senior partner that if the client suspected the lawyer they would be dealing with was gay they would lose the business.

A black judge who also spoke at the conference - Ontario Superior Court Judge Michael Tulloch - said that outdated stereotypes of blacks persist in the legal profession. "In their interactions and experiences at firms and in the profession, there is not the same level of respect that is given to white lawyers," he said.

Judge Tulloch said black lawyers at law firms are not mentored and encouraged the way white lawyers are. This leads to them being more likely to move to another firm, to be denied promising work opportunities, or to miss out on judicial appointments. "It's a continuum," Judge Tulloch said, without giving specific examples.

Queen's University sociologist Fiona Kay told the conference that despite the fact that 56 per cent of new lawyers in 2006 were women, female lawyers are very underrepresented at senior levels of law firms. She said the picture is similarly grim for visible-minority lawyers, who remain "conspicuously absent from higher income levels."

Ms. Kay said the most recent survey of lawyers working in firms showed that 43 per cent of female lawyers were childless; the product of a culture that implicitly punishes women who go on maternity leave by sometimes curtailing their job opportunities and reducing their secretarial help. "Numerous lawyers commented on the stigma associated with maternity leaves," she said.