Professor Daniel Monk, Professor of Law at Birkbeck, University of London
So tell us about yourself and what you do?
My name's Daniel Monk, and I've been a legal academic for about 25 years, although I qualified as a solicitor. I started off at Keele University. Then I moved to Birkbeck, the University of London where I'm currently a professor in the Law Department. I'm also the Careers Tutor for law students so particularly interested in this initiative. I teach criminal law, family law and the English Legal System. My research is about sexuality, education, and children and children and looks at a wide range of issues from siblings in the public care system, inheritance conflicts and home education to the Civil Partnership Act and homophobic bullying. It all vaguely fits under the heading of family law.
In your experience, both as being qualified as a solicitor and in academia, what is it like being out in the legal profession?
Well, my experience now is a very positive one. Partly because I think legal academia, as sectors within the legal profession go, is probably one of the more welcoming parts of the profession. I've been very lucky to work in academic departments, where I haven't been the only one, and where there have also been people openly researching issues about sexuality. So I've probably chosen places to work where I can be out. And that's probably why I've then had a more positive experience of it. I can't speak for everybody in legal academia, but it has certainly changed for the better. When I was an Articled Clerk (which is what you were before they introduced trainee solicitors), I wasn't out at all, and I would have been very nervous and a bit scared to be out. Whether that was a justified fear, I'm not sure, you never know with coming out, you don't know what the consequences are going to be. But certainly, then I was very anxious about it. There was nothing on my CV that would have outed me. So that wouldn't have given anybody an impression. But maybe everybody there knew I was gay! I think perhaps the wider context didn't help - it wasn't a very encouraging time for people to be out. It was in the late 1980s, so the debates around Section 28 were raging, and the AIDS crisis was desperate, and there was a lot of fear and stigma around gay men. Much has changed; there is a different atmosphere. That doesn't mean everything's resolved, but it certainly is different from the 1980s.
Yeah, it's very much context-driven, isn't it? I feel very comfortable being out and sort of just mentioned in conversation, but it was very different even ten years ago.
I think the way I dealt with it then was by leading a double life. I was certainly very overtly out in the rest of my life. Work was about wearing a grey suit as a cover and adopting the classic skills: being very careful about talking about what you did at the weekend and clever about avoiding questions about partners etc. and subtly changing the conversation. I think you learn those tactics almost unconsciously. And I think that probably might have been part of the move to legal academia, an environment I thought I could probably be a bit more myself.
When you're applying, like you said, in the 80s, or even now, in academia, were you ever advised not to disclose your sexuality on your application form? Or is that something you're concerned about?
Well, when I applied for my Articles, there was no advice about that. Nothing. I don't remember ever having a discussion about that at all or being aware of anywhere to go to ask. And as I said, there was nothing on my CV that would've outed me. You know, I wasn't the chair of the local GaySoc at university or something like that, which would have been something that I would have had to think, oh, should I put this on the CV? I think what's changed now in subsequent jobs, because I've written quite a lot about issues relating to sexuality, about homophobic bullying, the law about civil partnerships, gay wills etc. And I think when you write about sexuality or LGBTQIA+ issues, people always assume you are one of them! That's different from other areas. But the assumption is probably right, I mean I can think of one person who wouldn't define in that way who writes about that stuff, but it's very unusual. So it's a pretty fair guess on other people's behalf!
That's problematic in some ways, but it avoids the problem of worrying about coming out, my CV does that for. But for other legal academics, where their research has got nothing to do with sexuality, it's a different question. Just as an example, about academia and sexuality": when I submitted an article about homophobic bullying to a prestigious journal I was told, "Well, this isn't gonna be very interesting for the general readership, why not try a specialist journal?" So I think there is the idea that if you're writing about sexuality, a) that's your identity, and b) it's probably a marginal interest for other people. But I think to a certain extent that is probably changing.
This sort of leads on to the next question, but is it difficult that now you can't choose who to come out to? Because that's something that a lot of people struggle with this like, understanding is this a person I can come out to safely?
Yeah, I think for academics there is a distinction between your colleagues and your students. And I do know, particularly for younger colleagues, and perhaps more for younger lesbian or trans colleagues being open with students can be complicated. There's always that concern about what students think of you. I think everybody remembers being a student and talking and gossiping about your lecturers and having preferences, and that's of course, fine. Outing yourself in a class when you're dealing with specific issues about sexuality is particularly complicated. You have to choose whether to be open about it or just deal with it in the abstract and say 'from the LGBT perspective, people might think this'. There is quite a lot of literature about that for school teachers where I think it is much much harder.
We discussed this at university on queer geographies, and how much would individual lecturers be comfortable outing themselves and it only really got to at of the third year level where they were very small classrooms, and you knew everybody would be accepting view where lecturers were like, "Oh, do you remember that thing I did all the way in the first year, that was me trying to figure out whether it was a comfortable space for myself as well."
Right, that's interesting you mentioned queer geography because there are queer perspectives on most subjects now, literature, geography, certainly in law. And, yes, I think a student who was asked to include that in the curriculum would probably fear outing themselves. As I said, I think the academics who are teaching them and putting that on their curriculum, in some ways out themselves to students by doing that. It's a bit like dealing with race or gender issues you know, who generally initiates those changes to the curriculum? Back to the idea about what is relevant general knowledge and what is deemed marginal.
One of the nice things about academia in terms of LGBTQ issues is that you have a role in constructing the curriculum. It's really exciting designing a module and choosing materials. Unlike school teachers, you have far more discretion. And I think that's an issue around being out as an academic; I might once have been anxious about what students think, but at the end of the day there is a power relationship there so a student might make you feel a bit uncomfortable in a seminar, but you're the one who's marking their exams at the end of the day. The academic/student relationship is very different from the lawyer/client relationship in private practice; there is a very different power relationship going on there. More generally, I think age makes a difference; the more experienced you have, the more comfortable you feel about your sexuality. As I said it's possible to think that historically and when I was younger, a generation or two ago it was harder to be openly out at work, and I think that's true, but perhaps it's always quite hard when you're younger anyway.
Again, this is both as an academic, but also when you worked as a solicitor, have you experienced any difficulties because of your sexuality? And then how did you work to overcome them?
Well, I gave an example before about trying to get an article about homophobic bullying published. I've not encountered any form of physical violence. I think I probably chose environments to work in, and academic conferences to attend, where I knew I'd be comfortable. So I think maybe an element of self-censorship and selection to avoid difficulties. I didn't experience any direct homophobia when I was an articled clerk, partly because I wasn't out, but I certainly heard homophobic comments being made, which probably helped keep me in the closet. You do have constraints in academia, and it can be stressful at times, like any job, but you have autonomy over what you choose to write about. And you have a large degree of autonomy over constructing the curriculum. So you can put a lot of yourself into your work, and that's great.
Another way in which academia is different from private practice, and this might seem a really funny thing to talk about, but I think it's sort of quite important, is dress. You can wear what you want. And that was actually one of the things that attracted me to be an academic rather than private practice. I didn't want to wear a suit and tie. It's quite a nice working environment where you can be more visibly gay by choice of hairstyle, facial hair, clothes, accessories. These are ways in which you communicate things. And I think private practice is probably quite difficult because of dress codes. I'm not saying, obviously, that all LGBTQIA+ people dress in the same way. But clothes and hairstyles are ways in which we express all sorts of aspects of ourselves, and that includes sexuality. And I always liked the 1970s gay clone look, and now the shaved head with a bear has a similar tribal feel. There's also the thing about badges. Wearing a red ribbon on World AIDS Day shouldn't but actually in some context might still be read as a way of outing yourself at work, people do make that association. And I know in some LGBTQIA+ groups, in universities, that they wear the rainbow lanyards. It's a nice option for people to have if they want to be visibly out at work.
I think as an academic there are lots of ways you can do that when you're teaching. For many students, it may be the first environment where they are able to talk about and question all sorts of things. It's quite a responsibility as an academic and a real privilege to be able to create an environment in which you can make people feel safe to be open. It can be challenging at times. The family law curriculum includes same-sex relationships and queer parenting, and seminar discussions can get very lively. Knowing that there may be students who aren't out, and they're hearing things that other students are saying, that might seem a bit prejudiced creates a tension. You have a responsibility as an academic, to make seminars a safe space for people not to experience oppression. But at the same time, you also have a responsibility to provide a safe space for people to express their own views. I want the traditional conservative, often religious, students who are ambivalent if not opposed, to gay rights, to feel comfortable expressing their views. I don't shout people down saying 'no, you can't say that'. I don't think that's helpful. But that's one of the challenges that you have to grapple with. I mean, it's quite fun to deal with, I quite like it, but it is a challenge. And again it's much harder for school teachers where you sometimes have parents to deal with. I mean, at university the students are adults, and the point of education at that stage is to debate ideas and to be exposed to different things so, in that way, it's quite a privileged environment because you don't have the restraints on you that some LGBT+ school teachers do
Do you think the legal profession is doing enough to support LGBTQIA+ employees and just diversity inclusion in general? And if not, what do you think could be done?
A lot more is being done in the profession than ever before, for example, this great initiative and others by Stonewall and the Law Society alongside older organisations such as LAGLA, the Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association. Inevitably people will have their preferences for different strategies at different times. But I think the more all these organisations do anything about it, just to raise the profile of gays in the profession, enables people to feel comfortable talking about it. So that has to be a good thing. But think when we speak about the legal profession, it's really important to emphasise how varied it is. And I don't just mean between barristers, solicitors and legal academia; even within those categories, things differ quite a lot. So there's a difference between being in, for example, the Government Legal Service and the City. There's a lot of LGBT people who work in the Government Legal Service, which is a fantastic career. And I think some people have attracted it because I think they feel comfortable being lesbian or gay in that environment, more so than they might feel in private practice. And when you talk about private practice, some of the big city firms have certainly instituted some initiatives. Pinsent Masons, for example, and some others, have really led the way in creating environments, which are openly encouraging LGBT people. So I think that's good, but it's not across the board at all. So being a solicitor in the Government Legal Practice in London, or in a city firm, or a small rural firm are very different. And I think what happens is people often choose the environment they want that suits them. For some people living a really open gay life, being visibly different, is just more important than it is for others. It was for me. If I had gone into another part of the legal profession, I would have had to edit myself in some ways.
I also think it is essential to break down the catch-all LGBTQ category because I think the experiences are very different. I think a lot of solicitors firms and barristers chambers are, probably much better now about lesbian and gay, but still, at best, anxious about T, and probably don't know what Q is. And I think it depends hugely on other characteristics too. So I think if you're in a big city firm if you're a gay, white, middle class, man, it's probably fine now. I've heard this first hand from practitioners saying that being gay at work was was easy, but that it was being working class that was the issue. So I think we have to think about which LGBT people are now welcome in the legal profession. And it's not going to be across the board, and I think class is a really key part of that. Some barristers, chambers, for example, are more diverse than ever before in terms of gender, sexual orientation, and race, but in terms of class they have gone backwards, and that's obviously really worrying. So in terms of allyship, we need to think about all LGBT people in a more intersectional way. I think the types of lesbians and gays who are openly being accepted in the professions are probably ones that aren't going to scare people. So it's not going to be screaming queers, it's not going to be ones that are very camp, gay men, or very masculine lesbians, you know, it's the ones that blend in. And then a law firm can say 'we're really welcoming, but our clients won't notice anyway'. That's probably a bit cynical, I know, but only a bit! The visible difference isn't spoken about as much as it should be. It's really important to recognise how much has been achieved, but a key question now is 'what are the subtle implicit, unwritten conditions attached to inclusion?'
Another aspect is the judiciary - at all levels - where one has a much more public profile. It's probably much easier to take on that sort of role if you're in a monogamous gay marriage and outwardly conforming to a conventional 'respectable' lifestyle. I know a few lawyers eminently eligible for the judiciary who choose not to apply because they like to go to leather bars or sex clubs and are in very open relationships and that stops them applying for fear of bad publicity; that they are just not the right type of gays for the bench. It's very sad because their experiences - all of which are perfectly lawful of course - would add greatly to the knowledge needed for making some of the decisions judges sometimes have to make. So I think, again, there's a lot of self-censorship going on, and subtle ways in which we need to break down what we mean by LGBTQ+ because of the differences within and not just between the categories.
I think it was one of the other interviews I've done how closely, despite being LGBTQIA+, are you fitting into this heteronormative idea of your gender. You might be a lesbian, but are you still, you know, wearing a dress every day and wearing heels and looking feminine?
It's quite interesting, a few years ago together with a few colleagues I tried to argue that Stonewall should include something about dress in their employment index. Unfortunately, they weren't very keen on that. I mean, the argument is, well, dress codes are applied to everybody. But I think that overlooks that dress and performance is particularly important for LGBTQIA+ people. As I said, it was certainly one of the factors that led me to want to go into legal academia rather than into practice.
What are three pieces of advice to aspiring LGBTQIA+ legal professionals?
Talk to as many people as possible, make the most of all the organisations and groups that are doing things, whether or not you agree with everything they do or not, try to get a sense of what is out there. Look on the internet for lesbian and gay legal professionals, gay lawyers, and try and talk to as many people as possible. Ask questions; often, the questions people are nervous about asking for whatever reasons are often the questions that other people are thinking, so be fearless and just ask! I think probably being honest with yourself, about how important being out and visibly out at work is, can be useful. It is just part of some people's identity; there may be other aspects that are more important. I think that's totally fair enough to think that it maybe doesn't matter that much.
Think about what to put on your CV. Putting something on your CV can out yourself, and then that avoids raising the issue. So you can just say you're a member of the GaySoc at university or you did an essay on a Queer thing or something, you know, there are lots of ways in which you could just put something on your CV. And then if they don't get an interview, you'll never really know if it was because of that. But if you do get an interview, you know that they read that on the CV, and it hasn't been a problem. Look at law firms websites carefully - there are lots of ways that they can demonstrate their openness to lesbian and gays. There are subtle ways in which you can read a law firm and chambers' websites. Don't suffer alone, that's part of talking to people. There are people you can talk to, and that's why I'm so happy to do this. Because if anyone is thinking of legal academia, they are welcome to contact me!