Our lawyers reflect on the past, the present and what’s to come for the LGBTQ+ community
Today Eric White lives in Singapore, working as a legal counsel for Allianz. But until 2017, he was at MinterEllison, where he was a founding member of its LGBTQ+ network, PRIME (Pride, Respect and Inclusion at MinterEllison). In the mid-2010s, he says, the idea of a major law firm like MinterEllison having a float in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras seemed ludicrous. So ludicrous, in fact, that Eric and his colleagues used to joke about it.
“Lawyers are inherently conservative,” he explains, speaking for himself as much as the industry. “We weigh up risks. And in those early days of PRIME, we were worried about pushing the envelope too far.”
So, Eric was surprised to learn that this year, MinterEllison was becoming the first major Australian law firm to have its own float in the Mardi Gras. “It’s amazing,” he says. “It’s like a dream to see this thing we once joked about actually happening.”
By the time of Eric’s tenure, MinterEllison had been supporting the festival in a pro bono capacity for about two decades. Why then did the idea of the firm having a float seem so far-fetched? “Well,” says Eric, “back then, Minters was in the closet itself.”
In 1985, young law graduate Duncan McGregor attended the Mardi Gras for the first time. “Sylvester performed and sang, ‘You Make Me Feel Mighty Real’,” the former MinterEllison partner remembers. “It was great.”
The festival had begun just seven years earlier, when a small group of protesters took to the streets of Darlinghurst to commemorate the Stonewall riots and call for an end to discrimination. Within hours, police descended with indiscriminate force and arrested 53 marchers. Although most ‘78ers’, as they came to be known, escaped without charge, the next day’s paper published the names, occupations and addresses of all those arrested – a move that ruined careers and lives.
Not only was it difficult to be out at work in 1978. Across most of the country, it was illegal to be gay at all. And the police had no problem taking the law into their own hands. Just six years earlier, a group of officers had thrown a respected legal professor into South Australia’s River Torrens, leaving him to drown. His crime? Being seen at a popular gay beat.
By the time Duncan, who is now a legal consultant at MinterEllison, first came to the parade, things were improving. Western Australia and South Australia had decriminalised homosexuality. NSW followed suit in 1984, after enacting laws to prohibit discrimination against gay men in 1982. Meanwhile, an Act of the NSW Parliament repealed the legislation that had enabled the 1978 arrests. For several years, Sydney’s LGBTQ+ community celebrated Mardi Gras without incident.
Life still wasn’t easy, though. In 1985, it would be a long time before gay men could serve in the military. And just that year, Queensland passed a law effectively barring them from being served in bars. AIDS was visiting death on gay communities around the world, and hysteria on the straight communities surrounding them. For their part, governments were doing little to help find a cure for the ‘gay plague’.
“The Mardi Gras theme that year was Fighting for Our Lives,” remembers Duncan. “And that’s exactly what it was.”
When he joined MinterEllison as a junior lawyer a few years later, bringing his whole self to work wasn’t an option. “The legal industry was hugely different in the 1980s,” he says. “The people I worked with most closely knew. But I never told anyone, really.” Duncan wasn’t afraid of getting fired, exactly. “I thought there might be more subtle ramifications, reflecting life in general.” He pauses, considering. “I think my experience was probably pretty typical.”
And typical it was. In 2002, Jennifer Veiga would make history as the first openly gay person in the Colorado legislature. But in the 1980s and 90s, she was leading a life much like Duncan’s, albeit on the other side of the world.
“It took many, many years before I was comfortable coming out,” says Jennifer, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in Colorado in 1997. “You just didn’t talk about it. You didn’t have out role models, and you didn’t see champions or allies or any of the things we take for granted today.”
Most of the gay judges and lawyers she knew back then were closeted. Jennifer, who now works at MinterEllison as Special Counsel, remembers one gay female litigator who would wear a wedding ring in front of jury trials – “just to avoid any questions”.
As she entered politics, Jennifer was aware of just one out lesbian who had run for office. “She was never considered a serious candidate – she was just, you know, the gay flag-bearer. And that made me really cautious. I didn’t want to be the gay candidate, or the gay lawyer. You just didn’t have examples of people who were successful in their careers and gay.”
“You’d be in court and you’d be one woman among 20 men. You’re already an anomaly, so it was just about trying not to create one more obstacle to your career progression.”
In 2009, Jennifer moved to Australia with her partner to be closer to her partner’s family. By then, a lot had changed. Same-sex adoption was legal in many states and support for marriage equality was growing. In 2009, the Rudd government legislated to remove discrimination against same-sex couples from 85 federal laws. Soon, amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) would make discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals illegal.
But as Kylie Quinlivan, another PRIME co-founder and MinterEllison alumnus, points out, these changes had their limits. By the time Kylie joined MinterEllison in 2010, the firm had been helping Mardi Gras on a pro bono basis for more than 10 years. When the ABC broadcast the festival for the first time in the early 1990s, Duncan was one of the lawyers who negotiated the broadcast agreement. He’s pretty sure he was the first MinterEllison lawyer to work on Mardi Gras. “But given that my involvement was largely secret,” he says, “who knows?”
As the decades went on, a growing number of Duncan’s colleagues joined him in offering their services to the festival. For more than 20 years, MinterEllison’s corporate, commercial, employment, tax and intellectual property lawyers have helped the Mardi Gras teams with every aspect of their operations, from governance to sponsorship. But some people expressed reservations when the question of how the firm could publicly demonstrate its support arose. “And that wasn’t necessarily a reflection of their own values,” says Kylie. “That was just the zeitgeist.”
As the marriage equality debate gained traction in the following years, that zeitgeist inflicted a lot of pain on a lot of people. For a young lawyer like Molly Thomas, who was studying at the University of Queensland at the time, watching the country debate her civil rights was a difficult pill to swallow. “It was one of those times where I was definitely grateful to have allies,” she says. “People who were willing to advocate to protect our rights. Because sometimes it’s really tough to have those conversations yourself.”
But aside from the wounds it inflicted – and reopened – the debate unearthed many friends who hadn’t been visible before. “It was really heartening,” remembers Eric. “A lot of people you didn’t think would be so supportive, turned out to be some of the most supportive people out there.” Duncan had a similar experience. “The quiet Australians,” he shrugs, “they sometimes surprise us.”
“The other thing the debate did was change the conversation,” Eric adds. “I remember once mentioning to a senior lawyer that I was moving to a new place. And he said, ‘oh, you’re moving in with your girlfriend?’ Which is obviously a legitimate question, but it was just that assumption. After the debate, though, people stopped just assuming everyone else was straight.”
Perhaps the debate – which culminated in the legalisation of same-sex marriage in December 2017 – was the turning point that helped MinterEllison to become what it is today. Because by the time Molly joined the firm in 2019, coming out was a no-brainer. “I just felt from the outset that this was the kind of environment where I was safe enough to do that. I wanted to get this established,” she says, “so it could become this boring background fact about me, rather than being some sort of baggage.”
Duncan sometimes feels a pang when he considers the difference between the industry he had to navigate in the 80s and the workplaces of today, where twentysomething LGBTQ+ lawyers like Molly can thrive. “Being normal – being considered to be normal – it provides all these opportunities that didn’t previously exist. It’s a big thing, being able to take your partner to a Minters function, and not having to make up stories about what you were doing on the weekend, or who you were doing it with, you know. It was a big thing, and it was tiring.”
All the same, he wonders if something has been lost. “There were some positives, in the sense of us having to create a sense of community among ourselves. People say it’ll be good when there comes a time when there’s no need for the Sydney Convicts” – the world’s most successful gay and inclusive rugby club, of which Duncan is a founding member – “but it’s not always a defensive, put-up-walls sort of a thing. As much as anything else, it can be a celebration.”
As LGBTQ+ lives have come out of the closet and into the light, the Mardi Gras has followed suit. Today, around 500,000 people attend the parade every year – not just LGBTQ+ communities but the growing ranks of their allies as well.
Overall, Duncan believes the festival’s ‘mainstreaming’ is a good thing. “Maybe you don’t have the same radical politics,” he says, “but it still means a lot.” Without corporate sponsors like MinterEllison, he argues, the festival couldn’t reach as many people. From the vantage point of a different generation, Molly agrees. “Our partnership and this float, it’s signalling to people, ‘we’re on your side, we’re fighting with you’.”
“There are people who are far more removed,” concurs Kylie, “like kids in rural communities, who really feel the impact of that public stance. It reverberates all the way down the line.”
“Firms are changing. They’re becoming more inclined to wear their values – not just their value propositions – on their sleeves.”
Even in her local community, Kylie sees the impact of the festival’s surging popularity. With her mum and grandparents in tow, she recently attended a ‘love is love’ day at her son’s preschool, hosted by a storytelling drag queen dressed up as a Minion. “These events are only possible because of those early movements that Mardi Gras celebrates.”