Dr. Reuven (Ruvi) Ziegler, Associate Professor at the University of Reading

So tell us about yourself and what you do?

I am Ruvi, an Associate Professor in International Refugee Law at the University of Reading, School of Law, where I serve as the Director of Postgraduate Taught Programmes and co-Chair of the LGBT+ staff network. I am also an Associate Academic Fellow of the Inner Temple. On the civil society activities side, nationally, I chair an organisation called New Europeans UK which champions the rights of EU citizens in the UK and of UK citizens elsewhere in the EU. Locally, I chair the Oxford European Association. So, I have got my hands in a few pies…We can come to that theme a bit later, but I believe that, especially as an academic, anyone in the legal profession, broadly, has a degree of social responsibility to be active in the community; whether it be in the local, national, or international community. Whichever one someone feels comfortable with, because we have the privilege to have a voice and status and so need to make use of it.

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In your experience, what is it like being out in the legal profession?

I will narrow this down to academia, though I have obviously had interactions with people beyond academia. I think that academia, or UK academia, I should say, is a welcoming space, broadly speaking. Institutions have come a long way from a history of discrimination: of course, as matter of law, they cannot discriminate on sexual orientation grounds, but also as a matter of fact they are less likely to do so.

I have mentioned that I co-chair our LGBT+ staff network at Reading. Just as an illustration, in the third week of November, we had a virtual flag raising event for Transgender Day of Remembrance. Additionally, we ran an ally information session where we talked about the importance of having allies in community and transgender inclusion training hosted by a trans speaker. The university has also been recognized by Stonewall as one of the top 100 employers for LGBT+ inclusion and advancement. So, I feel I am very, very fortunate to work in a welcoming space where my identity is something I can celebrate as opposed to something which is just tolerated.

But, and there is always a but, that does not mean that one does not find themselves, still, facing dilemmas around the extent to which one is ‘out’ in wider academic circles. This is because when I engage with people I’ve never met from other institutions and/or from other countries where the level of acceptance of sexual orientation and gender identity is different, you’re wary as to how they might react. Those are interactions that, as an academic, you inevitably find yourself in and in my case very much willingly because my work, especially on refugee law, takes me there. Then you are faced with a dilemma. Do you ‘double down’ and actually take the position that you are not just ‘out’ but you are also there as a representative to some extent also for the minority community that is still suffering persecution and discrimination, or do you try to minimize or downplay that component of your identity. It is a very personal decision, but my view is that, if you are able to be confident about who you are and what that entails for you personally, and you take all of your professional commitments and duties and aspirations within that frame, then people will respect you for it.

Coming back to academia and wider British society, I think there is still latent discrimination, and stereotypes are present and affect people's lives. It is also the case that the LGBTQ+ community is not homogenous; there are members of our community that are subject to more challenging conditions, even in the UK and even in academia(especially, the trans community). Relatedly, this year, Stonewall decided to focus on bi inclusion; I think the reason is that there is a sense that it is a bit of a hidden minority within the LGBTQ+ community. Ultimately, there will be different experiences of people within the LGBTQ+ community, something that we need to be very aware of and attentive to.

I agree. One of the things that's come up in a lot of our conferences as well is that there needs to be a much more intersectional approach to inclusion.

Absolutely. On that note, as I said before, at my own institution, alongside the LGBT Plus staff network, we also have other diversity & inclusion networks: Women @ Reading, Staff Disability, BAME, and parents and family. What we are trying to do is work across these networks within the university to overcome the effects of the double whammy or triple whammy of being a member of different minority groups within society. As I already mentioned, even within the LGBTQ+ community, there will be people, even within UK academia, in a more challenging position because of their ethnicity or race or disability or sex or otherwise. In a sense, because the UK is generally a much better place for LGBTQ+ people than it was previously and is objectively one of the better places globally in terms of equality in law and in fact, the next step is to realize that that's not enough. We need to look beyond just the interest of the better off members of our community and make sure everyone is included.

When you apply within various positions in academia, or when you are making applications for grants, things like that, are you ever advised to not disclose your sexuality or is it ever a concern you have?

I have not been advised not to disclose it. In fairness, I don't think that is an issue that has come up when I was being advised. It is an interesting question more broadly about protected characteristics, to use the legal terminology. I am a (generally non-practicing) Jew and that's also not something you disclose in an application form necessarily. For diversity monitoring, employers will usually have a separate form where you are asked about your protected characteristics that does not go into the assessment but is kept for human resources to monitor employment patterns. I mention this because there are certain characteristics which are quite visible, whereas others are less so. For instance, if somebody has a visible disability. With sexual orientation, gender identity and indeed with religion often it is not as evident. If you do not disclose it formally, you are unlikely to get asked about it. But the question often I think is- are you feeling comfortable enough to work in a certain space, knowing that you are going to be a member of a minority within that space, that you would have to potentially fight to ensure your rights are protected, and that proper accommodation is offered without this being seen as a special pleading.

An example from a religious context is that institutions in the UK are having important events happening on festivals or holidays of the majority religion, which are reflected in the public calendar, whereas festivals of minority religions are often not recognised. A workspace which takes into account the effect on employees belonging to minority religions would be a much more welcoming place. Similarly, for LGBT+ people, if the workplace conveys itself as a space where it is very clear that there are ‘out and proud’ people, it would create a virtuous cycle.

In Reading, we have a project called ‘Faces of Reading’ which presents the stories – and faces - of members of the academic community from diverse groups. Seeing that would make it easier for people who belong to such groups to apply to work here. Coming full circle back to the question, I think it is often not whether you are anxious about disclosing your sexuality or gender identity, because you may not be directly asked about it, but rather a question of whether you feel comfortable enough projected in your workplace.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has fairly recently published global business standards which are worthwhile reading. Ultimately, however, we need to recognise that even if an institution is actually very welcoming, individuals may still feel uncomfortable disclosing their identity and that's fine. We should not expect everyone to be a champion or a global leader for their identity – rather, they should always feel that it is safe for them to do so.

Are you ever anxious to come out or is that like something that you're thinking about, a decision that you have to make, whether it's to students, or whether it's to fellow colleagues?

I do not try to plug it in just for the sake of putting my identity out there, but this raises another interesting feature of our public political discourse. You often see in public profiles of people a mention of whether they are married, if they have children, who they are married to etc. The absence of such information was often a hidden way of noting whether someone is gay. Now, because marriage equality has happened, it is perhaps less visible as a feature.

Ultimately, in an academic profile, it is not a ‘done’ thing really to include personal information. I direct our postgraduate law programmes, we have got students coming to Reading from all around the world. I teach several modules and because of my different affiliations in the UK and beyond, I appear on websites with my public profile. That public profile doesn't say that I am gay but neither would a public profile of a heterosexual academic indicate that, or if they are married, or if they have children because in academia that is not quite how it usually happens.

The reason for this preface is to say that, to ‘come’ out to your students would usually be a conscious decision that would arise in a context of a discussion on these sorts of issues, or if you're asked, rather than it being part and parcel of your public profile. In my case, because I took on the role of co-chairing the LGBT+ staff network, I think that's straightforward, if I may say so. I also wrote a public post about my recent marriage which anyone Googling would probably find…so, in my case, in effect, I have ‘come out’ to everyone in the workplace and beyond. I decided that it was the right thing for me to do. But I also think it's unnecessary for me to continuously ‘come out’ - for it to become a component of everyday conversation.

The full normalisation of LGBTQ+ people will be when it is just one other factor about a person. It doesn't define them. The problem we obviously face is that, even in the UK, roughly a quarter of people say that they would be ashamed if their son or daughter is gay or lesbian. We have countries backsliding towards homophobia, such as Poland and Hungary. In 70 countries homosexuality is criminialised. We are still a far cry from a notion that this is something natural, something that people have a right to identify with, and to talk about or not talk about, in the same way they choose to talk about other components of their identity. We are not there and thus, it's kind of an ongoing element in your life.

Also, it is not just the workplace. You live your life in a wider community. Even in the progressive liberal bastion where I reside, the City of Oxford, just walking with my husband has generated on a couple of occasions homophobic conduct towards us, so even here you can't really fully escape your identity even when doing the most simple things in life. But, ultimately, I don't wake up every morning thinking, oh I got you know a 12 o'clock meeting with somebody new. Should I come out? It's not the first thing that enters my mind.

Congratulations, by the way!

Thank you! We actually managed to do it the proper way before lockdown, with dancing and everything!

At any stage, whether right now, or when you were first starting, have you experienced any difficulties in your career, relating to your sexuality?

I haven't personally experienced difficulties. I think the only challenging element that I highlight is not my employer but is the fact that this relates back to an issue that I already raised, which is that we live in a wider community and a wider world. By virtue of the being quite publicly ‘out’ you are exposed to wider social norms, but also to the wider professional community. Having come out, it affects my ability to feel safe and comfortable traveling (COVID-notwithstanding). I haven't experienced difficulties, per se, in my career in the sense that, I can point to a conference I did get accepted to because of my sexual orientation, or to a position I applied for that I didn't get because of my sexual orientation. But is there a residual latent effect on how one projects oneself, knowing that they are part of the minority that is still suffering discrimination? Probably, yes. Even for people like myself who are obviously on the fortunate end of the spectrum, when it comes to where they are employed in the way society now operates with the kind of level of confidence and support, it is still a constant challenge. And it's a question of how one addresses those challenges in one's life.

As a much broader question, do you think the legal profession is doing enough for diversity and inclusion of LGBTQIA+ employees, or students, and if not, what do you think could be done and what do you think is the future of it?

That comes back to our earlier discussion. I think the ‘face’ of the legal profession is still not very diverse. To the extent that it doesn't include just heterosexual men and women and, in senior positions as we know, mostly men, if it includes people from the LGBT+ community, they probably look like me, white male and gay. It's a difficult issue to tackle, because it is a profession that celebrates meritocracy, hard work, and achievement, and rightly so. It aspires to help people to fulfil their potential and perhaps see beyond people's identities. But there is still a representative component when it comes to the way employers in the legal profession project themselves.

I come back to the Stonewall top 100 employers index. I think the reason this is a very helpful project that Stonewall has initiated is that, by creating a Hall of Fame, it has forced employers to internalise thinking around issues of inclusion and diversity to move beyond a box ticking exercise and actually, streamline processes around equality diversity and inclusion.

So I don't think the issue for the legal profession in 2020 in the UK is whether employers are willingly discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community: in fact, most employers are nominally supportive. But I think they have blind spots, especially about diversity. There are blind spots about how you make the workplace itself a more accommodating space for people who are not a part of the majority. I think the legal profession is not materially different than other professions in society, bar the fact that perhaps we rightly would expect the legal profession to be more attentive to issues around equality and diversity and to add to the significance and relevance of representation, because of the nature of jobs that we perform collectively as a society.

So as a final question, what are the three pieces of advice you'd give to aspiring LGBTQIA+ legal professionals?

The first piece of advice is that you should feel fully entitled to celebrate your gender identity and sexual orientation in the way you wish to. You shouldn't feel that it will be a bar to your advancement. So there is an element of persuading yourself and recognising your self-worth. And it is not just a case of not being ashamed of yourself, but actually to be proud of and feel comfortable with who you are, perhaps more in society and more broadly, but certainly within the space in which you work.

This ties in perhaps to the second piece of advice. We are all individuals, to quote Monty Python, but we are also social animals. It is more difficult this year, but hopefully only this year. At Reading, we have 150 staff members on the LGBTQ+ staff network, that's not an insignificant number, given the total number of employees. So, joining networks of other professionals, certainly in your organisation or workplace, is helpful in getting resources and links between people. There is power in community and one can tap in and out of smaller or local organizations and communities. Being a member of relevant networks is relevant, obviously for networking but also to give you the support you need, if you are feeling that you have been mistreated, that you need advice, or that you need to just share an experience with somebody who is more like you. That is something you may not be able to get from allies who are not experiencing a similar situation to you as somebody from the LGBTQ+ community so I would strongly advise joining relevant LGBTQ+ social and professional networks.

Indeed, for those who are more aspirational or innovative to set those up where they don't fully exist, if you go into a workplace and it doesn't yet try to get itself on the Stonewall list, try to do so and encourage them. If they don't have a staff network of sorts, try to encourage them to set it up and create that space.

The third advice is, I suppose, to be there for others as well. That's perhaps the more difficult advice to be given, because it's not about you and your self-interest but about the wider societal interest, making sure other people have access to resources that would facilitate having their rights protected. And you do it because you have a sense of social responsibility.

In my view, lawyers do have a social responsibility, and they sometimes show it: fairly recently, around 1,000 lawyers, barristers, academics, former judges wrote a public letter, calling on the PM to retract disparaging comments about "activist lawyers''. Lawyers stood for that worthy cause. I signed the letter, too. Similarly, you should be there for others in the wider LGBTQ+ community in the UK and beyond the UK, because they need your help.

Let me tie this to my area of work around refugees. If you decide to practice in a field like immigration law, be there for asylum seekers who are persecuted based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. If you work in other fields of law, there are ways in which you can help people from the wider LGBTQ+ community. You should try to do that by supporting campaigns. Be active, politically. Speak, organise events in your own spaces. So, the third advice is, be active, not just for yourself, but for the wider community.