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Legally Lesbians’ Jacqui Rhule-Dagher on her inclusive initiative: ‘Visibility is vital!’

Legally Lesbians
Legally Lesbians' founder Jacqui Rhule-Dagher (Image: Provided and Pexels)

When I first entered the legal industry, I was so deep in the closet that I was virtually Aslan from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Complete with the hair! I used to spend my Monday morning commute rehearsing answers to the much-dreaded question: “What did you do at the weekend?”. I was terrified of outing myself if I revealed too much. One day, I slipped up and told a colleague I had been to Dalston Superstore. Imagine my relief when they thought I was a DIY enthusiast! I remember how discombobulating, frightening, isolating, and limiting it can be to be in the closet. I don’t want anyone else to feel this way. So, I set up Legally Lesbians.

It’s an initiative I founded in April 2023 and involves lesbians in the legal industry writing about their careers and the importance of visibility. The inaugural feature was published by DIVA Magazine. The aim of Legally Lesbians is to show aspiring LGBTQIA+ lawyers that there is a place for them and to assure them that being a lesbian is not a barrier to success. I also hope that the initiative reminds people already in the legal industry, but who might be apprehensive or fearful about coming out, that they are not alone.

When I started looking for participants, I set myself a target of 10 lesbian lawyers. But I reminded myself that if Beyoncé could find 24 Black trombone players, I could find 25 lesbian lawyers. Fast forward to April 2024, and 50 participants have now taken part in Legally Lesbians.

“Everyone deserves the dignity of seeing their identities represented positively”

Having an initiative like this would have made a huge difference to me when I was starting out. I used to fear that I was too much of a lesbian to be embraced by the Black community and that I was too Black to be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. The lack of visible lesbian role models, negative stereotypes, and the portrayal of lesbians in the media, formed these views. It’s not a coincidence I became more comfortable being out at work when I met other lesbian lawyers. Visibility is vital! If you don’t see people like you, you can start to think that you’re the odd one out and that there is something wrong with you, as I did.

Indeed, since launching Legally Lesbians I’ve received messages from aspiring solicitors saying how the initiative has assured them that they don’t need to hide their LGBTQIA+ identity. The best message I received, came from someone who said it helped them come out to their family. Everyone deserves the dignity of seeing their identities represented positively. I am proud that we have become the visible representation for others that we needed entering the legal industry.

Years ago, I remember sitting in my office and two colleagues were talking. One of them said: “I probably shouldn’t say this, but that is so gay.” The other person responded, “Don’t worry, I say it all the time.” They both knew that I was a lesbian (although this shouldn’t matter). I felt really embarrassed. I have also been in situations where it has not been physically and psychologically safe for me to come out. Coming out is not a one-time event. LGBTQIA people constantly have to make judgement calls as to whether we can and should come out.

“Embracing intersectionality fosters an inclusive workplace culture where all employees feel appreciated, respected, and valued”

I think that two of the biggest barriers facing the legal industry are a lack of understanding around intersectionality and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) operating in silos. The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by the American academic Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Crenshaw considered the various ways in which characteristics such as class, gender, and race intersect to shape the multiple dimensions of Black women’s employment experiences. Understanding intersectionality helps leaders grasp the complex dynamics within their organisation. It allows them to understand the interplay of the different aspects of women’s identities and how this impacts employee experiences, hopefully, leading to more inclusive and equitable policies and practices.

ERGs play a significant role in making employees feel welcome. Yet they often operate in silos. An organisation might have a pride network, a social mobility network, and a multifaith network, for example. Yet what happens if you are a lesbian, from a lower socio-economic background and a Christian? When people feel like they have to hide parts of themselves, they often have to hide their best parts. Embracing intersectionality fosters an inclusive workplace culture where all employees feel appreciated, respected, and valued irrespective of their background.

My Black identity cannot be separated from my lesbian identity. Also, just because two individuals share the same characteristics it does not mean they navigate the world the same way. I might experience racism differently from a Black man due to my gender. I might experience lesbophobia differently from a white lesbian due to my race. Recognising the complexity of intersectionality is crucial in terms of understanding the diverse experience of individuals and communities.

“We must also remember that members of the LGBTQIA community can be allies to each other”

Despite challenges, change is happening. Several firms have made great strides towards LGBTQIA+ inclusivity. Encouraging employees to use correct pronouns, hosting events about issues impacting the LGBTQIA community, and creating inclusive policies are some examples of this. Training sessions on issues such as microaggressions and unconscious bias are also helping to change attitudes and, subsequently, change the culture of organisations. Notwithstanding this, things remain extremely difficult for our trans siblings. We must strive towards dignity, empathy, and equity for all.

If there’s a message for our allies it’s this: The best allies keep intersectionality at the heart of their allyship; and appreciate that championing one aspect of a person’s identity while denigrating and/or ignoring another aspect of their identity is not meaningful allyship. We must also remember that members of the LGBTQIA community can be allies to each other. I want to do everything I can to amplify the voices of, champion, and uplift vulnerable members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

The next Legally Lesbians article will be published during Lesbian Visibility Week (22-28 April). If anyone is interested in taking part in 2025 they can contact Jacqui Rhule-Dagher on LinkedIn.

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