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Breaking out of the corporate closet

12 minute read  02.03.2020

LGBTQ+ rights and the law: What does Mardi Gras mean in 2020?

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.”
Jennifer Veiga

 

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.”
Kylie Quinlivan

 

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.”

The theme of this year’s Mardi Gras was ‘What Matters?’

With same-sex marriage enshrined in law, transgender rights making slow but steady progress, and – as Eric says – MinterEllison being “well and truly out of the closet”, what do the firm’s LGBTQ+ lawyers see as the next frontier?

MinterEllison partner Gordon Williams supports the idea of outlawing discrimination based on religious belief ¬– in principle. But like many Australians, Gordon is worried about the potential of the religious discrimination bill to threaten LGBTQ+ Australians’ hard-won right to bring their whole selves to work. “The principle is good,” he says. “But the devil is in the detail. As an employment lawyer, I can see this creating real difficulties for organisations trying to provide safe workspaces and appropriate cultures.”

Gordon has often wondered whether the law instigates social change, or simply responds to it. “Did the Sex Discrimination Act drive the change in workplace culture?” he asks. “Or was that legislation just symptomatic of something that was already happening?” These days, he’s pretty sure it’s option A. “There may already be a movement,” he says, “but legislation makes it mainstream. And that’s also why bad law can take us backwards.”

“Human rights aren’t guaranteed,” Duncan agrees. “They can move backwards. You can see the United States as an example of that. We want to make sure that any legislation here doesn’t have the same effect.”

When asked if she is worried about the bill, Jennifer is diplomatic. “It’s very sensitive,” she says. “It pits gay rights against religion, and that’s difficult.” Right now, Jennifer is focused on the women’s sub-network she and Molly are developing within PRIME. The Sapphire network is a way to tackle the intersections of disadvantage – the places where barriers pile up.

“It’s about the unique thing of having that experience,” says Molly, “of being a woman in the workplace – which has its own challenges – while also identifying as LGBTQ+.”

“There is still very much a glass ceiling, just as a woman,” agrees Jennifer. “And so, there’s this underlying feeling sometimes that you already have this uphill road, you really want to add something else that may turn someone off?”

Like a lot of LGBTQ+ women, Molly and Jennifer don’t always see themselves reflected in pride movements – sometimes, these movements seem dominated by young gay men. Molly expects that the firm’s Mardi Gras float began to change that: “It really put the diversity even within our community on show,” she says. “I think a lot of professional women would have seen that and thought, ‘This is great – this is a chance for me to identify with something that’s so visible and powerful’.”

Lady Justice stood at the helm of MinterEllison’s 2020 Mardi Gras float. Draped in gold organza, Molly did the honours, holding the scales of justice as she led 80 MinterEllison employees and partners through the parade. The spines of the books constructed next to her bore titles like Pride, Respect and Inclusion. One spine, however, read The Book of Simon, in honour of the late MinterEllison lawyer Simon Cooper, who was instrumental in bringing the float to life.

The festival is profoundly important to many people – and so was MinterEllison’s first float. “It was huge,” says Jennifer. “It was so symbolic for those of us who have been around a long time and never thought we’d see a day like this. Yet it still celebrated everything that’s new and young about our community.”

“It was a fantastic celebration,” agrees Duncan. “The festival is a safe place to really be yourself and have fun with people you love and respect – and frankly, people you’ve never seen before, too. It is a symbol,” he acknowledges, “but in some ways it’s also very real.”


30 years of progress: 1990–now

1992: The Keating government removes the ban on same-sex attracted men and women serving in the military.

1994: The ABC broadcasts the Mardi Gras for the first time, with Duncan McGregor, a MinterEllison lawyer, helping to negotiate the broadcasting agreement.

1995: After peaking at 764 in 1994, the annual number of AIDS-related deaths begins to decline.

1997: Tasmania decriminalises homosexuality, the last state in Australia to do so.

2003: Tasmania becomes the first state to abolish the ‘gay panic defence’, where a murderer who could prove they had been ‘provoked’ by sexual advances from their homosexual victim would have their offence downgraded to manslaughter.

2004: The Howard government amends the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) to formally exclude same-sex couples from the institution.

2009: Legislation introduced by the Rudd government removes discrimination against same-sex couples from 85 federal laws related to areas such as tax, social security and health.

2011: The Gillard government legislates to allow an ‘x’ gender option on passports, and gives transgender people the ability to select their own gender without medical intervention.

2013: Amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act outlaw discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

2016: A group of MinterEllison lawyers establish the firm’s LGBTQ+ network, PRIME.

2016: The NSW Government and NSW Police Force formally apologise for the arrests and beatings at the 1978 Mardi Gras.

2017: The same-sex marriage postal survey unleashes a nationwide debate, which culminates in enshrining marriage equality in law in December 2017.

2018: The Mardi Gras celebrates its 40th birthday, with the largest-ever festival featuring more than 200 ‘78ers’, who travelled from all over Australia to celebrate the occasion.

2018: The Northern Territory is the last state in Australia to legalise same-sex adoption.

2019: Simon Cooper, a leader in MinterEllison’s LGBTQ+ community, dies in September.

2020: MinterEllison becomes the first major Australian law firm to have its own float in the Mardi Gras.

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