Ben Henry is coming up to his first-year anniversary working at MinterEllison. The perfect time to reflect on his experience working for a top-tier law firm, and on a personal level, in the context of ‘Wear it Purple’ Day on 28 August, to reflect on how much has changed since his teenage years.
Like many businesses, schools and communities around the country, on 28 August, MinterEllison’s people will visibly acknowledge LGBTQ+ young people and their right to be proud of who they are, by wearing the colour purple to work; whether they’re in the office or working remotely.
A graduate in the Legal Operations team, Ben is at the forefront of taking a technology-based approach to the law. After graduating Melbourne University law school in mid-2019, Ben has made a conscious decision to be part of a ‘techno-lawyer’ team rather than pursuing a career practising traditional law. Ben is clearly not afraid to think differently and to see the upside of positive transformation in our profession.
He hasn’t always been in this position though. “Growing up in a rural community, it wasn’t an option to come out.” It wasn’t until he was at university, with the support of what he refers to as a strong queer community there, that Ben felt he could be open and proud about his sexuality. Now, as Co-lead of Community Engagement for PRIME, the firm’s LGBTQ+ network (Pride, Respect and Inclusion at MinterEllison), Ben is equally passionate about pursuing his career at a leading law firm, and playing a role in building an inclusive culture in the legal profession more broadly.
He’s quick to add however, that his experience is by no means universal. “Not everyone has had the same experience as me; they haven’t had the social capital to benefit from the changes that have been happening in our community.”
Naomi Graham, another graduate in the firm, feels that working at MinterEllison
“you really can bring your whole self to work; I have no anxiety about being myself.”
Naomi’s connection to ‘Wear it Purple’ Day is personal. Identifying as a lesbian, Naomi even worked for the cause before joining the firm as a summer clerk at the end of 2018.
Harking back to her first interview with a partner at MinterEllison, she remembers seeing a ‘Wear it Purple’ poster on the wall on her way out. “From the very beginning, MinterEllison has always been super inclusive. I’ve had some experience with other law firms, worked in hospitality and in other places, and it’s the most inclusive workplace I’ve ever been in.” It clearly factored into her decision to join the firm and stay on as a paralegal before starting as a graduate. For Naomi, awareness and education are key to continuing to build understanding in all workplaces.
For Gordon Williams, a Sydney-based partner, growing up in a small Welsh mining village some 40 years ago was certainly different and challenging (especially, as he says, before being the 'only gay in the village' was a thing!). “My parents didn’t know how to deal with it; they just knew I was different. There was no education, support or guidance back then – people didn't talk about having a gay kid. And if they did, it usually wasn't positive.” Gordon is keen for people to embrace ‘Wear it Purple’ Day and to reflect on how hard it can be for young people growing up and then “throwing gender identity and sexuality into the mix takes it to another level”.
When asked what he wants people to do differently, his response is simple yet powerful.
“Ask questions, be inquisitive, there’s no such thing as a dumb question. Just start a conversation; be respectful, listen, and you’ll build understanding.”
Being our true selves at work, “bringing energy and not holding something back” as Gordon puts it, is central to how we collaborate and bring solutions to our clients. “Adding value in this way is incredibly rewarding” Gordon says, as is helping clients in the early stages of establishing their networks and LGBTQ+ programs; another way the firm builds stronger client connections and lasting impacts.
This year’s theme for ‘Wear it Purple’ Day is ‘Be the change’ and for paralegal Diana Matthews, based in our Perth office, this has particular meaning. Four years ago, her son, Zachary, was in year 10 at an all-boys’ school when he came out. Recalling the emotion at the time, Diana felt relieved that a “burden was lifted off his shoulders”. Empowered by his parents, Zachary unleashed a wave of positive change throughout his school, including in health education, which up until then had been limited to heterosexual relationships. The school embraced him and his passion for equality, and has since made a raft of changes. Now in first year at the University of Melbourne, Zachary has a bright future ahead.
Things have certainly come a long way for the youth of today. With, for example, same-sex marriage equality being enshrined in law in 2017, and far greater representation in mainstream media, there is more awareness generally about the LGBTQ+ community. However, there is still so much to do to make our workplaces inclusive as well as diverse.
PRIME helps to break down formal structures in the firm and build relationships across practice areas, role types, and geographic borders. Diana calls it the “PRIME family” and encourages everyone to show their support on ‘Wear it Purple’ Day, and indeed every day.
“It’s about random acts of kindness. One day of the year doesn’t cut it for me really.”
Small things have the potential to have real impact.
“Being mindful of our language, our use of pronouns, and assumptions of the gender of someone’s partner are simple things everyone can do”
notes Gordon. After all, it’s in our everyday conversations and interactions where change truly happens.
About ‘Wear it Purple’ Day
Established in 2010, ‘Wear it Purple’ was founded as a response to global stories of bullying, harassment, and suicides of rainbow young people. Since then, it’s transformed into an international movement celebrating rainbow young people and has become a mainstay in the Diversity and Inclusion calendar of leading employers including MinterEllison.
This year, PRIME would like to acknowledge one of the most marginalised groups in Australia, LGBTQ+ Indigenous Australians. There is a clear need to raise awareness and create pathways for our First Nations LGBTQ+ youth and young adults.
Images below: Wear it Purple Day 2019