Coming out at work


An image of UQ graduate Luke Furness at work at commercial litigation group at Clayton Utz.

Image: Clayton Utz

Image: Clayton Utz

As an openly gay lawyer working in the world of commercial litigation, UQ graduate (Bachelor of Commerce / Bachelor of Laws (Honours) ’13) Luke Furness has experienced first-hand the anxiety that can come with being stuck inside the closet at work.

And as a director and former CEO of Out for Australia, he works widely with charities and initiatives that mentor young LGBTIQA+ people to help them be themselves in the workplace.

Contact spoke to Luke about diversity issues at work, what people can expect when they come out, and how middle managers may need more support today than those at other career stages. He also shared his advice for young LGBTIQA+ people starting university.

What do you hope to achieve with your advocacy work and everything you do for the LGBTIQA+ community?

Performance is the ultimate goal, and I see that as the overarching principle.

The first part of this is identifying areas of disadvantage. We can then work out how to assist those people to reach their full potential, and see how we can get them out of disadvantage.

The second part is assessing them fairly. I would like to see us working towards the ‘even-playing-field goal’.

The way I think about it is that LGBTIQA+ inclusion is part of a bigger principle that we need to achieve, which is true equity and equality for all groups. LGBTIQA+ inclusion is just one application of that, which is why we put it under the ‘diversity inclusion’ umbrella.

When you look at disadvantage it can be related to sexuality, colour, socio-economic status, disability – it has a lot of faces. But the overarching principle is to help people that have been historically disadvantaged or marginalised.

Is there anything missing in terms of support for LGBTIQA+ people in the workplace today?

The issue that sticks out at the moment surrounds the demographic of middle managers in the workforce.

Particularly in LGBTIQA+ inclusion, we’ve noticed that the ‘young’ folk seem to be getting access to all these visible signs of inclusion, and so they are coming out and joining the crowd. The experienced organisation leaders are pretty far advanced in terms of their approach, and are taking inclusion seriously.

But we are still missing people.

People who are still shy about being themselves today are the people who haven’t quite made it to the top executive just yet.

They are the people who still have that residual worry that they need to keep their head down and not make a big fuss about their personal diversity issues.

So, I think we really need to keep providing the message that it’s good for you to be yourself. It can be good for your career, but at the very least it won’t be bad for your career if you come out and become part of the dialogue.

What kinds of changes can people typically expect when they come out at work?

After you do come out at work, in the typical case, I think there is a lot more relaxation, obviously relief. There is a building of trust, a lot more ‘humanness’ and often an increase in your productivity.

I want to reiterate this is ‘typical’ – I have seen it not go well in all cases, but I think that relief and relaxation are the most common outcomes.

For me, I am a guy who likes to be able to talk about what you did on the weekend. I like to have those conversations with people, and it’s quite hard when you can’t be yourself and you don’t talk about these things. So, that element in the office was much better in my experience.

As an example, I know a bank manager who was not out to any of her staff. So, to her team, she had this weird social life of doing everything by herself – like touring the world to romantic destinations on her own. Of course, she was actually going on these holidays with her female partner, but everyone just thought she was really enjoying her own company!

Are there any issues, positive or negative, in the legal profession specifically that you think has an effect on LGBTIQA+ inclusivity?

I think law is generally a good news story, compared to a lot of other professions.

I guess the impression of law is that we are generally a very stuffy, old profession. And in some respects, we are risk averse and a little bit conservative.

In law, however, you typically have very big organisations. We have ethical obligations, we need to compete for clients, and we need to compete for graduates.

There is a market standard now where you must have something on diversity and inclusion at your law firm. We are even getting to the stage where it can provide firms with a competitive edge. This can lead to organisational change: if three of your four competitors are doing one thing, it is quite a persuasive tool to convince people to do something new.

This is only one motivator, for some people this is the right thing to do, but for other people, it’s what their competitors are doing that drives progress here.

There is obviously the factor that law can be high-pressure and competitive, therefore leading people to perhaps worry about what people think of them. But, I think we are fairly advanced compared to many other areas of work.

How was the climate for LGBTIQA+ individuals while you were at UQ, and did it change in the time you were there?

It was very positive. There was a big, open, comfortable LGBTIQA+ community and plenty to do.

The comparison I was drawing on when I arrived was high school. In that sense, university was a utopia for all different types of people. You have the opportunity to get there and explore who you are, and who you want to hang out with.

One great thing about the university environment is a lot of students are coming from backgrounds that are not necessarily LGBTIQA+ friendly. You will have a fairly large cohort, for example, who are coming to university and it is the first time they will meet a gay or lesbian person. That can be incredible, and a great opportunity to catch some students who need a little bit of support.

That is assuming the case of people who do identify as LGBTIQA+. For people who are not LGBTIQA+, it is a good opportunity to interact.

I have a little window into how universities have changed through my work with Out For Australia, and the diversity visibility has increased ten-fold. Even in terms of social media communications, and statements the University puts out about inclusion programs etc., which I think is fantastic.

What advice would you give young LGBTIQA+ people starting university?

Start exploring who you are and what you like. I guess that is advice for all university students. There are a million different clubs and societies that you can join, and that you should join, to work these things out.

The specific point, I suppose, for LGBTIQA+ people is that you have an opportunity to do that in a place that is very safe, and in a way that is very comfortable. There is university support as well, for those students who might be in need of it.

Whatever your interest, you can make diversity part of the dialogue.

I was very involved in the Law Society, and they were very LGBTIQA+ friendly. They made that part of their messaging, and what they said to students to make them feel comfortable and welcome.

A portrait image of UQ graduate Luke Furness.

Have you had any push-back or resistance on any of your diversity initiatives you have been involved in? Or, anything that didn’t roll out as you hoped?

Frankly, absolutely.

But I think in most cases it has been a really good thing, because people should ask questions, and they should be holding diversity initiatives to similar standards they hold others to.

It’s rarely the case that someone has resisted because they disagree or are homophobic, or anything like that. It’s just questions, push-back, and analysis of things.

People ask ‘how much is this going to cost?’ ‘Is this going to be effective?’ ‘What terms are we using? Why can or can’t we use those terms?’ Those are actually really good conversations to have.

I think there has almost been a hesitance to look with a critical eye on diversity initiatives to check they are effective, check they are respectful and that the messaging is good. That sort of push-back, and that sort of critical thinking is great.

Is there any diversity group in your opinion who might still fall through the net?

I think, honestly, women. There has been lot of work done on gender equality, but we are still quite a ways behind and perhaps the spotlight has been off gender equality for a little while.

In our practices, we talk about gender within LGBTIQA+ issues so that we can have a more detailed understanding of gender in terms of transgender folks, and gender non-binary folks.

But, I think gender equality needs to be part of that message as well, in terms of a principled approach to people who have been traditionally marginalised.

The other big group is people of cultural diversity. Universities, particularly, are often quite culturally diverse. I would like to see more of our fantastic, very high-achieving international students having seats at the table when it comes to getting job positions and being represented.

Learn more about UQ's award-winning UQ Ally Network.

About Luke Furness

A portrait image of UQ graduate Luke Furness.

Image: Clayton Utz

Luke Furness is a director and former CEO of Out for Australia and a Senior Associate in the commercial litigation group at Clayton Utz. He graduated from UQ in 2013 with a Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Laws (Honours), and from the University of Sydney in 2016 with a Master of Laws. He was a founding committee member of the Clayton Utz LGBTI Alliance and is a regular speaker and contributor to corporate and student diversity and inclusion initiatives. He is a previous finalist in the Lawyers Weekly 30 Under 30 Awards and the Brisbane Pride Festival Queen's Ball Awards.

A portrait image of UQ graduate Luke Furness.

Image: Clayton Utz

Image: Clayton Utz