June was the month of Pride celebrations in the UK. Across legal London, solicitor firms changed their firms’ logos to rainbow versions and the Law Society is currently flying a rainbow flag from its main building on Chancery Lane.
This is great to see and shows a marked change in the legal profession since even the limited time I’ve worked in it. We need as a mediation profession to celebrate pride too.
In our recent CEDR Foundation report on Diversity in the Commercial Mediation, we found that there are a similar number of mediators who report as being LGBT as the general population. However, my perception is that although these statistics are positive, there is a lack of out LGBT mediators and role models. As far as I know there are no LGBT mediator groups, no discussion of mediators who are LGBT and very few articles on this subject.
Therefore as a gay man and active mediator, I thought I’d actually bite the bullet and write about my experiences of being a gay mediator. If we are going to get change and normalise the profession to be fully diverse, we need to share our experiences.
The rest of this article are my reflections on what it means to be an LGBT professional, how it affects being a mediator and the challenges that we face, and how I feel we can improve in the future.
What’s it like to be a gay mediator?
As a starting point, one of the things that I find separates LGBT people from other “minority” groups is that, to an extent, it is possible to hide LGBT status in a way that other minority groups cannot. Many gay people will be familiar with being asked to “play down” their LGBT status to get ahead or encouraged to “focus on the job”. “Why does anyone need to know?” and “it’s none of anyone business” are common phrases that get bandied about. I was certainly told this at the start of my career by well-meaning people. At its most extreme, I know of professionals who have been advised to hide their sexuality in order to work in certain countries. The upshot of all this is that as a professional, it is easy to pretend that “doing the job” means that it is irrelevant about your sexuality and that therefore it doesn’t matter who you are, as you just focus on doing the job.
The issues with this attitude are multiple, however. Not only does it obviously mean that you are denying a key part of your self identity, but it can make the LGBT professional who is acting in this way feel like they are delivering every activity in their working lives, in the same manner as taking a driving test. You are having to be bland, perfect and inauthentic. Spending energy whilst working to hide your identity is exhausting and is not something that any worker should be asked to do.
The other factor, however, is that doing this also hinders your ability as a mediator. One of the fundamental elements of mediation is the ability to build rapport, trust and empathy with the parties and them with you. Being closed in any way, even if by omission, can cause real problems for the effectiveness of the mediation.
My clients routinely bring in their personal lives to the dispute – they tell me about how they’re going to explain a settlement figure to their wife or husband; they talk about how the stress of litigation has affected their home life; they talk about their hopes and dreams for the future. In building rapport and empathy with them, in understanding them and their understanding me, I need them to know that I have been through life as well, that I have had struggles, battles and overcome them (as has everyone) and that I have dreams for the future. I need them to know that I get it. A neutral is not a bland robot who lacks emotions and lives their life perfectly – rather we need to empathise, support and guide. To do this, I need to be open and therefore I don’t hide. My clients need to know that I won’t lie or hide from them and that is what I do.
This may all sound very easy and obvious, but as any gay person will tell you, it’s all fine until you meet the person or group who is not ok with it: The individual who distances themselves from you because of this. Or the particular kind of competitive macho atmosphere that you can encounter in business where it can seem easier as a LGBT person, just to go with it. At the start of my career I found that I would just go along with this – normally by being totally silent – and then beat myself up about it afterwards.
As I’ve got older and more experienced, I’ve realised that actually there is no need to do this. Being different actually can help and the difference of life experience, tone and style can deflate not only the machismo, but also allow more critically for the tension of the case to deflate. You also realise that these groups normally only have one or two lynchpins in the room who are dictating the style and you can see a visible relaxation and happiness in the room as the atmosphere changes. Being authentic encourages authenticity. Kindness generates kindness. Empathy begets empathy. As mediators we are bringing our own tone, confidence and truth to the room and this can bridge the gap between those in conflict.
This is not to say that I bring up being gay all time or randomly. The difference is that if it comes up naturally or is relevant, I don’t fear saying it. It is a topic that I am happy to talk about. It is this comfort that I want all LGBT mediators to have.
But does being gay affect how you are as a mediator?
For me, being gay also gives you a certain interesting perspective as a mediator. One of the first principles that you learn on a mediator training course is the ability to understand people’s motivations for their legal positions and the ability to see alternative perspectives. This concept of understanding alternative hidden motivations and seeing a different perspective is not a difficult proposition for an LGBT person. We’ve had to understand and reconcile different viewpoints all our lives. Devising a different way of doing something to solve a problem is not a novel concept or a challenge.
Further I’d argue that the very act of coming out itself can be shown to demonstrate introspection, respect for drivers, and courage – all vital skills for mediators. LGBT people are resilient innovators. We are frequently natural mediators.
So you may ask, do you actually face any difference in being gay compared with being straight and what can straight allies do? My response would be that there are differences – they are improving – but still they exist. I have found the main issues come with stereotyping and mentoring.
Stereotyping is frustrating as it conflates the gay experience and makes legitimate issues seem harder. I have found that it is easier for some to dismiss complaints by any minority group as someone “acting up” rather than as a legitimate grievance in the same way they would with a straight person. Similarly there are unhelpful stereotypes with people assuming that all LGBT people are the same or will deal with situations in the same way.
With regards to mentoring, it is my experience that a lot of people like to mentor people who remind them of themselves when they were younger. The more points of difference however between two people in terms of gender, race, sexuality, class, educational background, life experience, etc, my perception is the less likely that the mentoring is going to happen. . This needs to change and we should make active strides to mentor not only those with whom we identify but also those we don’t identify with.
So to conclude, I would argue that we need to support our colleagues, parties etc who are LGBT and start from a position of openness. As LGBT mediators, we should also do more to support each other. We have a lot to give and it is an important thing to do. Finally most widely, I would encourage diversity of mentoring and support. Think about who you mentor and how many characteristics they share with you? Race, gender, class, sexuality etc? How are you actively trying to mentor different people?
Finally I am happy to be a mentor and role model to others. If you want a chat about being a LGBT mediator or mediation more widely, feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com
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