Dr. Haim Abraham, Professor of Law at the University of Essex
Tell us about yourself and what you do?
I am a Lecturer at the University of Essex School of law. My main research and teaching areas are in tort law, private law theory, and liability of public bodies and officials. I have a few projects that I'm currently developing, one is about articulating a way in which we can see that tort liability can apply during warfare, which is something that currently is not really possible in most common law jurisdictions. You can't have remedies in tort for losses states inflict during war. So through this project, I'm trying to find ways that civilians are going to be able to find some remedies for the wrongful losses they sustain, so they're not going to be left shouldering them themselves. Another project is a way to try and think about what's the theoretical framework that makes one state able to impose its authority over another state in tort. During the COVID-19 virus initial breakout, we had so many people saying that we should sue China for spreading the virus, or the US when it snagged up PPEs. I’m thinking about whether that is something that's possible to do through tort law, and what would be the mechanism that could justify that. We already have certain acts of legislation in the US and Canada, and some other jurisdictions as well, that allow states to impose all sorts of different kinds of tort liability for or find all sorts of different acts as wrongful acts that would constitute a cause of action in tort even including an imposition of punitive damages. So, I’m trying to see whether those are legitimate forms of assertion of authority by the domestic state over foreign states.
In your experience, what is it like being out in the legal profession, or in academia specifically?
All in all, my personal experience and my professional experience, both in academia and in practice, are of indifference to my identity as a gay man. I was working at the State Attorney's Office in Israel at the Civil department, mainly working on cases where the state was being sued in tort. Working there was very interesting and generally fine in terms of the way LGBTQ+ colleagues were treated. It was indifference to the fact that we were gay or lesbian, more than anything else. But then there was one time closer to the Pride parades that one colleague started asking all these questions that are clearly homophobic, like why do you need that parade, why do you have to show so much body and nudity, why do you have to do all those things? That was a little bit surprising because I've never come across that behaviour in a professional setting, let alone in one that is generally familiar with the community. So there were a lot of discussions and trying to explain things and why the LGBTQ+ community needs a Pride parade whereas straight people don't really need a Pride parade. Everyday is their Pride parade, every commercial, every billboard, almost every show on TV. So, there was an attempt at discussing things and reaching that person. But I think that otherwise in the legal profession, everything was fine. The difference in academia is that being out is common. You have lots of colleagues, you have lots of role models, and it was never a hindrance in my experience. Nobody ever batted an eye.
Well, there was this one interesting incident during an academic meeting. Someone made a reference about his son and his son was running away from girls, and how that's awful you should try and run towards girls not away from them. I was there and my partner was there, and another gay colleague was there, and we're all like, "Hmm", and then he backtracked as much as he could, but it was quite clear. It's all of these tiny things that are clearly not okay. But it's also something that you kind of know that there are ways to communicate around those incidents and try and improve the situation. But with all that said, the professional sphere is in my mind an inclusive, diverse bubble, whereas everyday life is something completely different.
You mentioned the point about indifference. Would you say that that would be the same as support? Is there a difference between people being indifferent to their identity and being supportive of the identity with networks and support?
I think they're definitely different. I think you can even add to that equation, the idea of tolerance. You had mentioned before the interview that you don't really like children. So you might tolerate their existence if they are playing loudly next to you, and you don't really like them. But you tolerate the fact that they are there, like "ugh, fine, whatever". Indifference is in a way a step forward, because it's just a non-issue. You wouldn't say anything to anyone if they chose to wear a blue shirt or a white shirt or a black shirt. You just don't care. You don't care if they have glasses or if they don't have glasses, it's just, you're indifferent to those factors. That doesn't matter. So, I think that's a step forward from tolerance and tolerance is, of course, a step forward from whatever form of homophobia that you can encounter.
Support could be, in a way a double-edged sword. It really depends on the way it's delivered and the context because support could be given while at the same time it is used as a means of preserving power and lowering the other person if it's done in a condescending way, or if it's done in some kind of manner that has that effect. But then you also have other forms of genuine support, which will lift you up towards your end goal of fuller, more substantial equality.
Yeah, that's quite an interesting point because you often see, particularly in private practice with barristers and solicitors, who are talking about all the networks that they have, but it's then a question of, are they genuinely positive, or are they just lip service?
I think that networks play a really significant role. You can get your name out there so people know who you are, they know what you do, they know what you can do. That's really significant and I think that, in a way, academia plays a very big part in these networks. You know that if you go to this school or that school, then you might become friends with your fellow students and their personal background and networks that they have from home, or that you might rely on the alumni that used to go to that school, or on the networks that the academics that work in that school have to offer.
So when you were in practice and even when decided to switch over to academia, were you ever advised not to disclose your sexuality, or was that a concern that you had, about disclosure?
Regarding academia, absolutely not. I think that even if I tried to hide it, unless I sit perfectly still and I don't speak, and I know exactly what to wear, for everyone except for my parents it would be clear that I'm gay. I don't see any point in trying to hide that. Say that I hide it well, somehow, and then I reach a position that I wanted and then everyone soon thereafter finds out that I'm gay, and that environment is really negative. What do I have to gain from that? So that was never something that I tried doing, and I don't think that I’ve ever heard that advised to anyone. In terms of legal practice, I don't remember any particular advice about sexuality but there's always advice about how to dress. You need to dress the parts. So that's something that's really difficult, if you're a queer person, and people expect you to dress in a particular way. You can't really do that, or you don’t want to do that, and if you dress like your usual self then people might have all sorts of perceptions about who you are and what you are and if they want you in their firm or not. I think that in that context, that's one of those minor things that could come across as microaggressions. I think that we're losing a lot by having these notions that are really restricting, and they're not really allowing other people to come in.
It's quite an interesting point you raised about clothing because it's one that comes up, surprisingly quite a bit from both ends of the spectrum of opinions. You've got people saying "Oh, I wish I could wear more outrageous clothes to work" and the other end saying that the fact that everyone's dressed in a suit means that nobody can immediately judge me on the way that I look. So, the dichotomy of academia and private practice and their difference, can be purely just on the way you look when you walk through the door. On that point about privilege you raised, do you think that there is some level of uniformity in terms of LGBTQIA+ representation?
That's a really difficult question, because in order to actually properly answer it you really have to know everything that's out there, or at least enough, and I don't think that I do. From the little that I do know, you can see that there are certain institutions and certain places where uniformity is present, regardless of your sexual orientation. It's more about your gender, your ethnicity, and where you obtained your degrees from. Then you have other places where you have such a big diversity of people from so many places, so many backgrounds, and quite a lot of them are members of the LGBTQ+ community.
It's a very complicated question. I will give you this because I wouldn't know the answer to this as well. It's difficult to see, you know, how is representation done on a more intersectional level, across the profession. So you touched on this earlier when you're talking about not showing your wedding ring or not actually talking about your identity, but is coming out in the workplace or coming out to new people, something that's still a concern or something that is still in the back of your mind?
No, it's not a concern. It's not in the back of my mind as it's something that I actually quite intentionally do, not just with my colleagues, but also with my students. So one thing that I do try and to in class and in tutorial groups, is to clarify that I'm a gay man. I mean, I talk about my partner and I refer to him as "him" because I think representation is really important. I also try to use a variety of pronouns, so it's really clear that you can have a wrongdoer who is a man or a woman or transgender to have those ideas exposed. So I think that in that sense, it's not really something that I find to be a hindrance. It is not really in the back of my mind in terms of fear, but it's definitely in the back of my mind in terms of empowerment and social change.
Throughout your career, and even sort of when you were at university did you experience any difficulties because of your sexuality and the fact that you are out, and how do you overcome them?
I did mention the two instances that I encountered. One was with a colleague who didn't know why we need LGBTQ+ pride parades, and again there was a discussion about that with her. The other incident was with the colleague who talked about his son running away from girls and we didn't have to do much, we were surprised and they backtracked. Other than that I have to say that I think that I have been fortunate because I haven't been exposed, within my professional career, to any negative treatment relating to the fact that I'm a gay man or to the LGBTQ+ community either in the legal profession or in academia. In both I was able to use my position, and try and do things to further and strengthen the legal status and legal rights of the LGBTQ community through workshops, through conferences, through associations for creating networks with the support of colleagues and institutions. But whenever such incidents of negative treatment or difficulties actually do occur, then, the main thing to do in my view is to try and engage in some dialogue or discourse and try and see if you can change things.
You've already mentioned this when we discussed how academia, in particular, gives support. What's the scope to expand the level of support in terms of the legal profession?
There's lots to do right. In terms of the actual legal profession itself and even within academia, you can have LGBTQ+ officers and you can have some designation of safe space or the fact that you're inclusive or positive. One example that I have, when I did my doctoral degree at the University of Toronto they had two really fantastic initiatives for the community. They had lots of stickers with pride flags stating that ‘this is a safe space’, and everyone who wanted to get a sticker and put it on their door, they can do that, and indicate that that person is not going to discriminate against you. So that was really great.
Second, in the university gyms locker rooms’ they had statements by people from the LGBTQ community, mainly trans people. It was their own personal story about how going into the locker room was difficult for them and a short blurb explaining that this space is for everyone. And if somebody is here, they're supposed to be there. There are so many things that you can do to try and encourage people.
You can always have training to try and explain things to people like, do this, don't do that. They are effective to a degree, but then you can have things that go beyond that, that are not educational. People might resist that because it is educational. Instead have workshops where you talk about different topics. Rather than train people into a particular framework, you just talk about things and then they develop their own understanding of a certain situation or scenario or, more generally. The very last thing that comes to my mind in this context is to broadcast to potential employers that hiring people from the LGBTQ+ community is not a detriment. It's actually a really valuable asset because you have people that think outside the box and outside the norm. That's fresh perspectives and that's an ability to find solutions and promote things in ways that other people that are not that keen or accustomed to thinking outside the box don’t necessarily have.
What are three pieces of advice you'd give to aspiring LGBTQIA+ legal professionals, both generally but also specifically who want to go into academia
My first bit of advice is be out. Be out for yourself, be out for other people. If you're out, then you're unlikely to find yourself in a place where being a member of the LGBTQ+ community is something that's a detriment. If you’re hiding that fact in the recruitment process, then you're more likely to face some kind of struggle. That can be avoided if you're out from the get-go and you know that you're coming to a place that wants to receive you as you. There might still be hurdles that are there to tackle but that's something that you can face, in every scenario in every workplace, even the most accepting and diverse one. It's really important to be out for other people as well because when you're out, then people can aspire to be in your position people know that they don't have to be afraid. They can see that it's legitimate to be who you are, so the first piece of advice is to be out.
The second piece of advice is reach out. Reach out to develop your network, to gain friends, to meet new people, to learn about new perspectives, but also to potential people who might want your mentorship. One of the reasons why I'm doing this interview right now is because that's really important to me. There are people out there that are really interested in mentorship and academia and they're members of the LGBTQ+ community, or even generally, and I'd be happy to provide that if I can.
The very last bit of advice is point out. If you face homophobic statements, if you face microaggressions, if you're talking with people that are saying things that are not the nicest things or the best things. You can change their minds, you can change their views. It's not about policing what is politically correct and what's not, but it's about making a space that is safe for everyone and open to everyone and allows everyone to pursue their own ambitions and provide protections in a substantially equal way.