Jonathan Cooper OBE, International Human Rights Lawyer at Doughty Street Chambers
So, tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
I am an International Human Rights Lawyer at Doughty Street Chambers. Most of my work is in relation to advising on matters relating to human rights. That could range from anything from self-determination, to the laws of armed conflict, to counterterrorism and LGBTQ+ rights.
Most recently, I've been in Kazakhstan looking at the relationship between international human rights laws and the laws of armed conflict. I have also been involved in a few cases involving LGBTQ+ rights, including a whole string of cases in relation to decriminalisation and marriage cases.
That's really interesting! In your experience, what is it like being 'out' in the legal profession?
I was called to the Bar in 1992. I know other people who were called around the same time who felt very much that they needed to be in the closet and really did keep their private lives to themselves, and would not share anything with their colleagues, Chambers or Law firms they were in. I was at Doughty Street and to be honest, I just found it impossible to be in the closet, I am just not sure how you can. I mean you try but how do you sustain it?
Doughty Street is the leading, and always has been, the leading International Human Rights Law Chambers, they didn't care – the opposite, so it wasn't an issue for me. I was very lucky in that way. But I do know how difficult it can be, and because I'm self-employed and I do a lot of international work, I'm quite conscious of some of my clients, that they might not instruct me if they knew I was gay. I wouldn't lie, that would be ridiculous, but sometimes I'm less open than other times. But If somebody asked me, I wouldn't say I'm not gay, I just keep my private life to myself. I don’t like doing that but it’s sometimes the easiest way forward. When people go back into the closet or go back into the closet to a degree, I understand that. We all want and need work, and I want interesting work. So, I suppose you could accuse me of double standards or hypocrisy at times.
That's understandable, especially when you work internationally, in countries where LGBTQ+ rights are quite minimal. At the time of applying for your pupillage etc. Were you ever advised not to disclose your sexuality on your application form or were you afraid to?
Yeah, definitely, back in those days you could apply to as many chambers as you wanted to. I was aware that there were some places where I was applying that I might have to be less open. But I'd done all this work around HIV and AIDS so it was quite hard to cover up, as that was part of my experience and one of the reasons people were interested in me. It doesn't take much to put two and two together, but obviously just because you work in HIV and AIDS doesn't mean you are LGBTQ+.
I probably was reticent, and I would have been. I was starting a new career and a new profession, and you don't want to rock the boat. I absolutely, 100% get not being upfront about sexual orientation and gender identity, It's very different now, and the whole point is back then there was no positive encouragement, not even at Doughty Street, to be honest, when I applied. Now there is that positive encouragement for people to be LGBTQ+. Doughty Street has an amazing LGBTQ+ network in Chambers which is really fun and includes all who are interested, including members of staff, and it's great. But that didn't exist before. It was set up by relatively recently by new members of Chambers, and you just realise how much we've missed not having it and now that we've got it, it's such an important factor. If places have an LGBTQ+ network, I would encourage people to join it.
You have kind of answered this question beforehand when you previously mentioned about having to 'tone it down, whilst working internationally’, but if you have anything more to add. Were you ever anxious to come out in the workplace? And do you feel anxious about coming out to new people?
I was at a big event once where I said to people "I do go back into the closet" because in a sense you are going back in the closet because you are denying your identity and I hate myself for it, but I don't beat myself over it. But you know, if you're working in jurisdictions where it's a crime to be LGBTQ+, and you're not doing LGBTQ+ related work, and you think it might affect the way people react to you, you might choose to be circumspect. Of course, it's much better to come out and be proud, but also sometimes I just want to be pragmatic and get on with the job. I know it's a cop-out, and I deserve criticism for it, and I try not to do it. But what happens when you want a particular job and you know it might affect whether you get it or not? I once worked with the Palestinian Authority. I really believed in the work I was doing. I know it's terrible and I can be accused of internalised homophobia, but I didn't want our discussions to get distracted by the LGBTQ+ issue, and I thought it might. I am guilty of that sort of denial of my own identity and I am embarrassed about it and it was only a couple of years ago.
Apart from the difficulties you've just mentioned, have you had any other difficulties with your sexuality, and if so, how did you overcome them?
Certainly, working in the UK it never occurred to me to deny my sexual orientation. Sometimes I mind if I get pigeonholed as a queer lawyer as opposed to a lawyer who happens to be queer. I do mind that because I consider myself to be an international human rights lawyer above all. Obviously, a part of that will include LGBTQ+ stuff, but I consider my expertise to be as good on LGBTQ+ rights, as it is on counterterrorism, and as it is on the relationship between the laws of armed conflict, and human rights law. Occasionally, I've noticed that people will seek out my opinion on LGBTQ+ stuff and not all the other areas of law that I am qualified to speak about, which is frustrating. Again, I'm not going to worry about it, as I get enough interesting work. But, no, I don't think I've come across any particular hostility.
Do you think, in general, the legal profession is doing enough to support the diversity and inclusion of LGBTQ+ employees? And if not, what more could be done?
That's interesting because, probably, if you would have asked me a year ago, I would have said I think things are ticking along nicely, and it is a completely different world than it was 30 years ago. Absolutely, 100% different. But since Doughty Street set up this new group, I've realised how good that group is and how important it is to have that group. It's a bit like you setting up Queer Lawyers of Tomorrow. You're providing people with a platform and a space, and opportunities to be the next generation of Queer lawyers or LGBT lawyers, or however people may define themselves. We have a positive duty to encourage people to feel comfortable in every aspect of being LGBT or Queer in the workplace. We also encourage people to be part of the Doughty Street LGBTQ+ group, who may not define themselves as LGBTQ+ and that's interesting.
Finally, what are three pieces of advice you'd give to aspiring LGBTQ+ lawyers?
1. I think it's all about happiness and you won't be happy unless you are at peace with yourself. If you’re not happy, it will affect everything you do. You may have moments where you have to go back into the closet, just like I do sometimes, but you will not be happy if you think that the closet is the only place for you. Even though coming out is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do, it’s in everyone's best interest that you can come out and that you live a proud 'out' life.
2. We do need to call out homophobia. If you feel that somehow you are being required to put up with something, even if it feels like a minor difference in treatment such as banter and mocking, call it out and make the authorities that be in your organisation aware of it and why it's undermining you. There is that idea that somehow we have to be able to take a joke, or that we need to ‘man up’ or 'toughen up' and it's really unpleasant to be subjected to that low-level sort of discrimination. People are unlikely to be blatantly discriminatory, but people can be made to feel slightly different or exceptional – not the norm - because they're LGBTQ+ which does undermine us and we do need to call that out.
3. Whether we like it or not, we are part of a group who are persecuted. We may not be particularly persecuted here in the United Kingdom but our Sisters and Brothers across the globe are persecuted. It’s important to remember that. We are part of a bigger picture and we need to support each other. It might be that when people start earning, they make donations to organisations that support the interests and welfare of LGBTQ+ people globally or they do some of the work themselves. We are part of a big global movement and to be honest, whilst LGBTQ+ people are being persecuted across the globe, it undermines us all. When something happens in Russia, it affects us in the United Kingdom as Queer people. So, we have our own self-interests in trying to stamp that out.