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Cheers for queers

Cover story
|Written By Naomi Carniol
Cheers for queers

For Chase Barlet, attending McGill University’s Faculty of Law was not just the first step in becoming a lawyer. During Barlet’s undergraduate degree at a Mormon university, he could have been expelled for having a boyfriend. Attending McGill’s law school marked the first time he could be entirely open about his sexuality. “I went from having to be almost completely in the closet to being able to be completely out in a matter of months, which was incredibly liberating,” says the second-year law student. “At McGill, people have been nothing but welcoming and accepting.”

Queer law students, faculty, and young lawyers describe Canadian law schools, for the most part, as welcoming and supportive spaces for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. Many of those interviewed share Jennifer Lau’s opinion that “there are still challenges unique to LGBT students,” including questions of whether and when to come out — to the law school, to other students, and to potential employers. Lau, a 2010 call, co-founded a club for LGBT law students while attending the University of British Columbia’s law school, where she is now associate director of career services.

Preston Parsons, a UBC law school graduate currently articling at Bull Housser & Tupper LLP in Vancouver, notes the question of whether to be out in law school presents itself long before the first day of class. When registering for the LSAT, there is a checkbox where applicants can choose to self-identify as LGBT. Law School Admission Council spokeswoman Wendy Margolis explains it’s not a requirement for anyone to check the box. The information is used by the Candidate Referral Service that allows law schools to search for and recruit candidates based on certain attributes to diversify their student population. After considering the pros and cons, Parsons checked the box.

Then there’s the question of whether to come out in the personal statements that are part of law school applications. LSAC devotes a section of its web site to this question, with advice provided in an online video and pamphlet.

Once law school begins, students then face the question of whether and when to come out to students they’re meeting for the first time. For Ryan Edmonds, a final-year Osgoode Hall Law School student, the first few weeks of law school were a bit annoying because classmates kept assuming he was straight. Edmonds, 30, wishes the law school had provided a gentle reminder in frosh week that students not make assumptions about each other.

Gay and lesbian students say they took a casual approach in coming out to their classmates. Lisa Nevens, who is in third year at UBC, says, “I think some people didn’t know for a long time because I didn’t say, ‘Hi, I’m gay.’ I just would mention my girlfriend or an ex-girlfriend.” Nearly all of those interviewed say when they came out to other students, the responses were positive. “I have a wide, diverse assortment of friends and the gay thing is a complete non-issue,” says Edmonds, in a response echoed by other LGBT students.

Parsons, who came out at 19, was elected valedictorian of his law school class. In his speech, Parsons said for years he had wondered if he would be accepted when he came out of the closet. He thanked his classmates for their acceptance. “‘To have this huge show of support and for me, to bring a male guest to the graduation ceremony,’ I said, ‘That to me was something I was very, very excited and proud about.’”

There’s no doubt law schools are more diverse, accepting places than they once were. But it wasn’t that long ago less tolerant attitudes were around. University of Manitoba’s Robson Hall professor Donn Short graduated from UBC’s law school in 2003. Short says when he was a law student, many of his peers were supportive of the fact he was out, but his class also had a group of homophobic students “who made lists of who they thought was gay and who they thought wasn’t.”

University of Toronto Faculty of Law professor Brenda Cossman says she’s seen a shift in law students’ attitudes. Cossman teaches family law. Twenty years ago, when same-sex marriage was discussed, some students would say things “that today we would just think that’s horrible, and homophobic and terrible but at the time . . . it was part of the discourse,” says Cossman. Today, when same-sex marriage comes up, “it’s completely uncontroversial to students, which is a pretty remarkable change.”

Cossman and Short are part of a growing number of out faculty at Canadian law schools. According to an LSAC survey, it’s rare for a Canadian law school not to have LGBT faculty — though not every Canadian law school participates in the survey. At UBC’s law school, queer students and faculty meet for drinks. Cheers for Queers gives students “a casual opportunity to talk to somebody who has been successful and is queer,” says Nevens. “They can create a role model relationship.” The LSAC survey also shows nearly every Canadian law school has a club for LGBT law students. Nevens co-chairs UBC Outlaws. Edmonds co-chairs Osgoode Hall’s OUTlaws. Barlet is the co-ordinator of OutLaw McGill.

For Vancouver-based lawyer Annabel Kim, coming out began when she was a student at the University of Victoria law school, where she joined the LGBT law students’ club. Socializing with other queer law students was comforting, says Kim. “It was just nice to identify and know that there are other queer law students and other supports.” In addition to offering queer law students a chance to meet and socialize, the clubs often discuss issues such as whether to come out in job applications. “Every year we have a lunch, where we invite members of the faculty and other students that have been through the [application] process and been open about themselves to talk. For me, that was incredibly helpful my first year,” says Barlet.

The same topic comes up at Out on Bay Street, an annual conference for LGBT students in business, law, and consulting. In 2010, over 60 LGBT law students from across Canada attended the event where they networked with gay and lesbian law students, out lawyers, and representatives from sponsor firms like Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, McCarthy Tétrault LLP, Torys LLP, Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP, Stikeman Elliott LLP, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, Ogilvy Renault LLP, and Heenan Blaikie LLP. The conference builds a sense of community. It’s easy to feel isolated at law school when you are studying a new profession, in a new school, with people you don’t know, says Edmonds, a director of Out on Bay Street. But then you come to a conference and you see there are dozens and dozens of other LGBT law students, and you meet law firm representatives and out lawyers. “And that’s really encouraging.”

At the conference, firm representatives tell students, “‘We just want the best students. It doesn’t matter what acronym or letter you identify with,’” says Edmonds. But some worry not all firms are as open-minded. Parsons recalls being advised by a career counsellor that when applying to firms in Calgary to think twice about including his affiliation with LGBT organizations. Edmonds recalls a law firm recruiter asking what LGBT stood for.

In addition to the question of whether to be out to potential employers, LGBT UBC law students told career services they’d like a panel about issues such as the transgender experience and gender expression more broadly, such as clothing, makeup, and demeanour that may be expected and pressure to conform to heterosexual gender norms.

Brian Yuen, a 2008 call and University of Victoria law school graduate, says he feels law schools are a little more forward-thinking than the actual business of law, which can still be “a little bit more of an old boys’ club.” Not all firms are like that and time will help old attitudes disappear, says the co-chairman of the Canadian Bar Association’s British Columbia branch of the sexual orientation and gender identity conference. SOGIC B.C. runs educational and social events for out lawyers and law students.

U of M’s Short says there is no right or wrong answer for whether a student should come out to a potential employer. It’s a choice, he says. Students who choose not to come out for fear of being passed over might think, “Why should I not have what I want because someone else’s prejudices might keep me from it?” Asked whether students still feel pressure to hide their LGBT identity, Barlet says he believes some of the pressure comes from students who aren’t sure if recruiters would welcome them. “I think that fear kind of circulates into a rumour so it does still create pressure,” says the 22-year-old. “People have this idea that the recruiters might be of a different generation and they’re afraid that they won’t be received well.” Kim, a 2005 call and co-chairwoman of SOGIC B.C., offers advice to LGBT law students: “In the long term your co-workers, your employers, you’ll have to work with them and get to know them. If you are planning to stay anywhere in the long term that’s probably something you are going to have to face at some point.”

People come out to employers in different ways, says Kim. Some might not put their involvement with LGBT associations on their resumés. They might “wait to get to know their co-workers, and then they come out. And that’s fine too. It’s whatever way you feel comfortable. . . .”

Most of the students interviewed for this piece say they chose to be out in their job applications. Queen’s University second-year law student Aaron Wolochatiuk voices the opinion shared by many when explaining his decision: “If a firm wasn’t willing to accept me . . . then I didn’t really want to be there.” Like other students, he was pleasantly surprised by firms’ responses. In an interview with a firm known for being conservative, a recruiter noted Wolochatiuk is co-president of OUTlaw at Queen’s. The recruiter then invited the LGBT student club to the firm for a tour.

Barlet has had similar experiences. “I’ve interviewed at some firms I consider to be very conservative in places and by people that I might not have assumed would be very open and I’ve been tremendously surprised,” he says. Law firms have become much more welcoming over the last 10 years, says André Bacchus, director of professional development at Heenan Blaikie. Asked why, Bacchus looks to changes in Canadian society where same-sex marriage is now “part of our cultural fabric in Canada.”

Bacchus says he encourages students to include in job applications their involvement in LGBT organizations. “Employers do not look at any of those items in a negative way. It’s a very different time than it used to be.” For proof, he points to himself. “I’m the guy who is out there at the forefront representing the firm and I’m an openly gay man.”

Bay Street is a welcoming place where people who have same-sex partners and who are gay and lesbian are treated equally and should not feel that they have to hide who they are or change who they are, says Bacchus. “Diversity is something that makes all of us stronger. . . .”

As for Barlet, McGill not only gave the law student the freedom to come out of the closet. It gave the now-second-year law student a husband. Like other first-year law students, in Barlet’s first semester at McGill he was matched with an upper-year law student as a mentor. The upper-year student happened to be a gay man. The two hit it off. A year and a half later, on Dec. 28, 2010, they were married. “We’ve become kind of a novelty within the faculty,” says Barlet. They know of one other pair of mentee and mentor — a heterosexual couple — who are married. “We’re just the 21st century adaptation of that idea.”