Reflecting on the impact of section 28 and the fight for LGBTQ+ equality

Jonathan Wheeler, Law Society Council member for LGBT+ Solicitors, explores the impact of section 28 on the legal profession, the progress made by LGBTQ+ solicitors and the work that still needs to be done.
A diverse group of people holding up flags at a Pride march.
Photograph: Pyrosky

2023 marked 20 years since section 28 of the Local Government Bill 1988 was abolished in England and Wales. Section 28 prevented local authorities from “intentionally promot[ing] homosexuality”.

It had a particular impact in schools, as teachers were prevented from discussing gay families, educating about LGBTQ+ issues or challenging homophobia.

In addition, LGBTQ+ people reported a threefold increase in harassment.

Section 28 was the government saying that being gay was wrong – it was state sponsored homophobia. This prevailing attitude had a detrimental effect on many LGBTQ+ people, many of whom were members of our own profession.

Helen Randall is a colleague of mine on the Law Society’s LGBTQ+ Solicitors Network committee. She shared her personal experience of living under section 28 with the Law Society Gazette.

“What about the personal cost of section 28? Disguising our partner’s gender, editing our social lives, and never getting too close to our colleagues or clients for fear of being found out?” Helen asks.

In some cases, it prevented LGBTQ+ solicitors from progressing in their careers.

“Everyone had two separate lives,” Helen remembers. “Being LGBTQ+ at that time was something everyone I knew hid from employers, as section 28 blighted the public’s view against LGBTQ+ people.”

“For many LGBTQ+ people, this resulted in lots of mental health issues, including depression, loneliness and, sadly even suicides – plus, of course, the constant fear of being fired.”

Section 28 was officially abolished in England and Wales in November 2003.

Since then, LGBTQ+ solicitors have continued the fight for progress.

20 years on, we must encourage our LGBTQ+ members to be their authentic selves and celebrate their identity.

What does the profession look like now?

The Law Society's 2022 practising certificate (PC) holder survey collected demographic data on the sexual orientation of our members.

Collecting this data allows us to see how diverse the solicitors’ profession is, shine a light on potential inequalities and help us build initiatives to improve equality.

The results found that:

  • 85% of solicitors surveyed identify as heterosexual
  • 4% of members identify as gay/lesbian
  • 3% identify as bisexual
  • 8% prefer not to say

This echoes data from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) which shows:

  • 89.3% of solicitors identified as heterosexual
  • 3.5% as lesbian or gay
  • 0.3% preferred another description
  • 6.9% preferred not to disclose their sexual orientation

For the first time in 2021, the UK census collected data on gender identity.

93.5% of respondents identify as the same gender as their sex registered at birth, with 0.5% answering no.

Again, this reflects the SRA’s data – 1% of lawyers have a gender identity that is different from their sex registered at birth. 2.7% preferred not to declare their gender identity.

This is relevant, because transgender and non-binary members of the LGBTQ+ community are facing new challenges threatening their hard-fought rights.

Stonewall founding chair Lord Cashman identified striking similarities between homophobia in 1988 and transphobia today. “The arguments against self-ID are exactly the same as those used to enforce section 28: protecting children, protecting family life, protecting others”.

Justin Farrance, Global DE&I Ambassador and senior manager at A&O Shearman said: "I see lots of people from my friendship group and my community that still aren’t safe, it’s not a society in which they can be their authentic self. Especially if I look to my trans friends and colleagues."

As we continue to collect data about Law Society members’ sex and gender identity, we will gain new insights into the number of trans and non-binary identifying solicitors.

This will give us a more accurate picture of the makeup of our profession. It will also allow us to focus our diversity initiatives on improving equality for trans and non-binary solicitors.

Workplace culture and wellbeing statistics

The PC survey highlighted the positive experiences of LGB solicitors at work:

This echoes our Pride in the Law research, which revealed:

  • 97% of LGBTQ+ solicitors felt able to be themselves at work
  • 82% indicated they were out to colleagues
  • 38% were out to clients

The survey also highlighted some challenges:

  • 69% said they felt comfortable to express themselves at work, compared to 75% of non-LGBTQ+ solicitors

LGBTQ+ members also reported good levels of wellbeing.

  • 48% expressed they had low levels of anxiety the day before
  • 53% reporting feeling high or very high levels of happiness.
  • 70% expressed they felt the things they do in life are worthwhile
  • 71% said they are satisfied with how their life is

The results also show more needs to be done to improve wellbeing:

  • nearly 40% felt low or medium levels of happiness the previous day
  • nearly 30% reported they didn’t feel the things they do in life are worthwhile

We welcome the positive results and celebrate LGBTQ+ solicitors but we still have progress to make.

"Pride to me means standing up, being more than just an ally, being active in what we do to advocate for others and remembering who came before us to make it possible for me to stand here today," said Justin Farrance.

LGBTQ+ Solicitors Network committee chair, Luke Williams, shared this view. He spoke about the relationship between mental health and his identity, including the need for effective allies.

"To some extent, the LGBTQ+ community is expected to fend for itself and to look after its own," said Luke.

Explore resources for those struggling with stress and mental health

Read more from LawCare about dealing with microaggressions and discover resources for LGBTQ+ lawyers.

Find out more and get involved

We’re pushing for change and progress towards diversity and inclusion because, like you, we believe that a diverse and inclusive profession is a resilient one.

Create lasting change with our diversity and inclusion framework.

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Join the LGBTQ+ Solicitors Network to get involved, stay connected and learn from your peers and leading experts.

Contact Jonathan to let him know you would like to hear about the work he is doing as a Law Society Council member.

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