We are proud to launch our IRIS campaign: a series of stories showing Who We Are. Colleagues from across our global network share their journeys as members of the LGBT+ community or allies. They have focused their reflections around something or someone they consider an important part of that journey.
(He/Him) | Of Counsel, Paris
Sharif Abousaada, Of Counsel in our Paris office, shares how he and his husband navigated complex practical and legal challenges as part of their journey to becoming parents.
It took me a long time to reconcile all of the seemingly irreconcilable parts of my identity. Once I had accepted, and was comfortable with, each and every part of who I am, I still struggled with the thought that would not include being a parent. At the time, I didn’t realise the options and possibilities that would be available to me.
I first moved to Paris in 2005 as a student and it didn’t take me long to fall hopelessly, completely and unconditionally in love with Paris (and maybe a few Parisians along the way…). I moved back to London in 2007 to complete my studies and qualify as a solicitor, but knew I was biding my time until an opportunity arose to return to Paris. That opportunity came in 2012 and nothing (and no one) has been able to prise me away since.
In 2013, I fell hopelessly, completely and unconditionally (well, almost) in love with the man who was to become my husband, Thibaut. Thibaut and I married in 2017. It was clear from an early stage in our relationship that we both want to explore options for having a family and once we were married we started to seriously consider our options. Following the legalisation of gay marriage in France in 2013, it became possible for gay couples to adopt in France. At least in theory. However, in practice, gay couples continued to face a number of barriers and there had been no (or very few) adoptions by gay couples.
In parallel, we started to consider surrogacy. This was not something that I had seriously considered as I never thought I would ever be able to have access to this option financially. In addition, surrogacy is illegal in France and so gaining access to information was difficult. However, the more we looked into it, the more it seemed that this was going to be the right option for us.
First step was to check that we were both fertile and involved going to a clinic and explaining how long my wife and I had been trying to conceive… awkward. . Once we had the all clear, we travelled to our clinic in San Diego for the 'deposit' (I can't really think of an elegant way to describe that…). We then had to find an egg donor and to decide on the type of potential relationship (if any) we wanted with her. Did we want to be able to contact her, and for her to be able to contact us? Did we want it to be completely anonymous? We decided we wanted to give our children the largest possible options to trace their origins (if they wanted to, in the future). We finally agreed on a donor and the clinic worked its magic. The clinic allows the embryos to grow over a period of 5-6 days before reaching the optimum state for freezing (blastocyst).
During this time we were also looking for the superstar who would be willing to carry our baby(ies). After some struggles we were introduced to the most beautiful human being I know. She is a young, single mother who somehow found time whilst working a full-time job and raising her own son, to help us build our family. There were lots of difficult question to work through, but the two that hit me the hardest were (i) what happens if both Thibaut and I pass away prior to birth- who was going to get the baby and (ii) what would happen if Thibaut and I fell out and both demanded that the surrogate hands the baby to us? Not things you want to really consider, but important to work through nonetheless.
Our surrogate became pregnant and we decided to take a first trip over to Canada in February 2021 to meet her in person for the first time and attend the 20 week scan. It was magical. And cold (very very cold). I remember seeing our baby boy on the scan for the first time and it hitting home that miracles can happen.
We returned to Canada and our surrogate gave birth to Gabriel on 27 June 2019. He was perfect. I remember holding him in my arms and never wanting to let go. The moment that I had thought was so far out of reach, had arrived. I honestly don’t remember it being hard (honeymoon period I guess, there have been plenty of hard moments since), I just remember it feeling so natural and I can't comprehend how anything could feel any stronger than the feelings I had for Gabriel in that moment.
The next day we had a meeting with our Canadian lawyer to sign the relevant court papers to have Gabriel officially and unequivocally declared our child (under Canadian law). Until then, we had no idea who was the 'biological' father (we didn’t feel like it was important during the pregnancy, but was required as part of the court papers). I had for some reason convinced that I was the biological father - I was wrong! I had wondered whether I would feel any differently if I was (or was not) not the biological father. I didn’t feel differently at all and I still don’t.
The Canadian process all went very smoothly and we were on a plane home when Gabriel was three weeks old. Then started the process of having Gabriel recognised as our child under French law (which involved seeking recognition in France of our Canadian judgment) and English law (which involved applying for an order to rebut the under English law assumption that the legal parents of Gabriel were (i) the surrogate and (ii) if the surrogate were married, her husband!). Those processes were less smooth and much less speedy but 18 months later we had finally got to the end of it all … just in time to start over again for round two.
We knew we wanted to have two (or three … I am still working on the hubby!) babies and that we wanted them to be close in age. Then Covid happened and we thought our chances were compromised with all the travel restrictions and having opted for a mixed US/Canadian surrogacy journey. Our surrogate proved that she was even more amazing than we could have ever imagined and, despite strict isolation/ quarantine rules, agreed to fly down to San Diego for another transfer (this time being implanted with one of my embryos). She fell pregnant again and we found out that we were expecting a baby girl.
When the due date was approaching, Canada was still in a strict state of lockdown. We were lucky to have Gabriel who, as a Canadian citizen, was able to get us into the country. We knew that we had a two-week quarantine on arrival so left with plenty of time before the due date. On day 2 of our lockdown (still in a government approved hotel facility) our surrogate messaged saying she was heading to the hospital… Maya arrived overnight, in the early hours of 22 May 2021. It was tough not being able to be present for the birth, but we knew she was in good hands with our surrogate and favourite nurse (who was there when Gabriel was born and who had also promised to take equally good care of Maya for us). When we met Maya, the familiar, all-consuming emotions returned. My heart melted for a second time and this time we got the chance to see Gabriel take on his role as older brother. Our family was complete (or, perhaps, 'more' complete).
There have been highs and lows and it has truly been the most incredible journey. If I am being completely honest, I didn’t anticipate our relationship with the surrogate would grow as it has, but I truly feel that she, and her beautiful son, have become a very important part of our family.
Society has come a long way since in the past 10 – 15 years but still has a way to go and life in a gay family is not always easy. I have stopped counting the number of (i) forms I have filled in asking for the name of our children's mother and father, (ii) female toilets I have used to change my babies' nappies as there are no baby changing facilities in the men's toilets (iii) times I have had to explain that my children do not have a 'mother', etc. Families come in all shapes and forms and I couldn’t be prouder of my own.
The support I have received from my friends and colleagues at HSF has been incredible. When my babies were born, the position under French law was that fathers were entitled to 11 consecutive days of leave (ie weekends included). The French Bar rules provided for an extended period of paternity leave for lawyers of 4 weeks (better, but still not ideal when there is no mother who is entitled to a longer period). The regulatory framework in France simply didn't (and still doesn't) provide for a situation like ours. HSF Paris very generously offered me an extended period of paternity leave and will be forever grateful to HSF for those precious early months spent with Gabriel and Maya.
Associate, Dusseldorf | EMEA IRIS Co-Chair
Anne Eckenroth, Associate in our Dusseldorf office, shares why awareness and representation matter and how these factors shaped her way to coming out as Asexual.
If I had to pin it down, the two key factors that shaped my journey were: awareness and representation. Though truly, it was their absence that had the biggest impact. Like many in the LGBTQIA+ community, I struggled with my identity. My struggle, however, was less with my identity itself, but with realising that I had an "identity" in the first place.
That milestone took me the better part of a decade, but as they say: even a broken clock is right twice a day. And broken is pretty much how I thought of myself for the longest time.
But let's start at the beginning. I've often been told that I was always a bit of a late bloomer: slow to start walking, or reading, or generally warming up to other people. As far as I was concerned, it wasn't therefore all that surprising that I might be a bit late to the sexual-interest party either – German punctuality be damned. Yes, I wasn't interested in boys at 14 or 16 or 18, but so what? Everyone – my parents, friends, books and random rom-coms – told me it would happen eventually. I just had to meet "the right person", then everything would click into place. So, I wasn't concerned. Confused, yes. But concerned, no. At least not until my early twenties; because being a late-bloomer was one thing, but being a complete no-show was a totally different story. What I slowly started worrying about was not that I wasn't attracted to men, but that I wasn't attracted to women either. The difficulty was that despite my own experience telling me otherwise, everyone – you know, my parents, friends, books and random rom-coms – kept preaching that there was someone for everyone, you just had to put yourself out there, which I tried and still did not succeed.
By the time I was 22, I had managed to talk myself into a frenzy. How could it be that everyone excelled at this relationship game or even just casual hook-ups, whilst I was standing at the side-lines, thoroughly confused. Intellectually, I understood the rules of the game – or so I thought – but I just couldn't understand its appeal and that spooked me. Because post-20, you had better figure the basics out or were likely doomed to end up as an old spinster with a lot of cats. And my trajectory was looking very spinster-y indeed. Therefore, the only reasonable conclusion could be that if attraction – be that towards men, women or both – was the norm, then something was certainly wrong with me, something was broken. So, at age 22, I sent myself to therapy; if I couldn't fix myself, surely a shrink could.
Spoilers: terrible plan. I lasted exactly one session, followed by a nervous breakdown. If that was the solution, I would much rather accept being broken and run with that. That seemed like the healthier long-term option than keep picking at the wound. As strange as it may seem, owning the "perceived defect" gave me the headspace to focus on the actual top priority on my list: I was about to move to the UK for my GDL and did not have a training contract yet. In short, my approach was that of every mature adult: ignore the problem, focus on something else and let future Anne deal with it.
Fast forward half a decade: I was happily working as an associate at HSF London, had queer friends, and liked to learn about developments in the community. One thing that particularly sparked my interest was that, since I had been a teen, the acronym kept expanding. It used to be LGBT and sometimes Q; now there were all these 'new' letters and I was naturally curious. P was for pansexual – okay, understood; I meant intersex – interesting; and A could stand for asexual – … wait. What?! You could basically hear the electricity crackle as my inner light bulb finally had its moment. Not broken, just statistically more unlikely.
Asexuality it is. No, I cannot self-reproduce – that would make me an X-Men with a frankly ridiculous superpower. It simply means not experiencing sexual attraction towards any gender (my experience) or only in rare circumstances. 16-year-old Anne would have been very happy to know that was an option. 18-year-old Anne would have pushed herself into far fewer awkward situations had she been aware asexuality existed. 22-year-old Anne would have saved herself a lot of inner turmoil had someone told her that "normality" was a spectrum and for anyone to fill with colour. As for current Anne, I have been "out" for a while now and am finally happy and at ease with my status quo. The thing that still sometimes baffles me though is how much difference a tiny piece of information could make.
And this – in a very roundabout way – is the moral of this story and hopefully a take-away for anyone reading this. Awareness and representation are essential to allow us to find ourselves, no matter who we are. That is one of the main reasons why legislation that would ban representation or discussion of anything other than the cis-hetero norm puts the well-being of so many (and predominantly younger) people in danger. This curtailing of information is not just a hot topic across the pond, but also within Europe. I was lucky to grow up and live in a number of very liberal countries with queer friends and parents who were unbelievably open-minded, but I still managed to fall down a spiral of anxiety because I happened to be part of a less represented minority of the LGBTQIA+ community and could not find my own experience reflected anywhere. I fear for all those queer (and questioning) people in less privileged circumstances. Therefore, even if a little bit more awareness may not help you personally – because you may have already found yourself (regardless of whether LGBTQIA+ or not) – it may be the missing piece of wisdom for someone else you might know and who is struggling.
(She/Her) | HR Director, London
Pam Fletcher is a London-based HR Director and a fierce LGBT+ ally. She shares what makes her so passionate, while reflecting on an experience she had as a teacher after university.
Why am I a proud ally? In some sense, it is just who I am, I think. It also is a bit "non-Pam" for me to talk about this because I don't want to sound too boastful or superior. To me, being an ally is being a good human. We are all, #oneteam in my world.
However, because being an ally is difficult for some people due to their own personal experiences, it is important for those of us who have moved beyond that barrier to be a bit loud. And, anyone who has spent more than five minutes with me knows – I am not quiet…about much of anything.
My LGBT+ ally story begins where I grew up, which was on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. My family moved there from Ohio when I was four. If you are from Ohio or perhaps the USA, you know that for some reason although I was only there for four years, I must claim Ohio as part of my DNA.
After university I became a teacher and was "that" teacher. You know the one that is the sponsor for Greenpeace or Amnesty International or any other afterschool social awareness group. We were seriously dedicated to saving whales or writing letters to some country on someone's behalf. One day a student asked me if I would be the adult representative for a demonstration being held at the CDC (headquartered in Atlanta) by Act Up and other organisations. The groups were challenging the then definition of AIDS, which did not actually encompass some of the realities of people living with HIV – specifically female AIDS patients. This meant that the data was incorrect, and, in some cases, individuals were not getting the treatment they needed. Of course, I was all in. I got the parents to sign permission slips and off we went on a cold December day. I did not chain myself to the doors, but I was amazed at how having allies there made the volume louder and richer and more powerful. This feeling of allyship resonated within me. I think that day was the beginning of my intentional ally spirit.
Since that day, I have been attuned to moments in time where one voice could make a difference, where one ally can be powerful. I hope that I have always been where I am wanted.
Several humans in my circle have come out throughout the years and I have seen first-hand where holding space and being a safe person is a comforting and empowering place.
Shortly after arriving at HSF I was asked if I would join the IRIS Committee. I didn't think twice about it. I am now a co-sponsor and proudly tell people about our network. Being an ally to me is about showing up, being kind, being curious and not fearing failure because you don’t know what a word means (it happens), and not shying away from confrontation when your support is needed.
It doesn't sit well with me when someone is left adrift just because of who they are at their core. I will bring pom poms, a megaphone and my spotlight when needed. However, I am also a work in progress. All I can say is that I am trying to always be a good ally. I encourage everyone else to do that, too.
(She/Her) | Consultant, Disputes, London
Sophie Rich, a Disputes Consultant in London, shares her inspiring story of transitioning while at the firm and the support of an important role model who also became a life-long friend.
As many of you know, I began my career as a male associate called Andrew. The City was a very different place in those days; there were few female partners and lawyers in particular were a very conventional and uniform breed. I struggle to remember more than a handful of openly gay partners in City law firms and there were certainly no visible trans people.
So I knew that I had no choice when it came to my gender identity and that I had to continue to hide and suppress the inner turmoil that I'd felt since I was a young child.
But there comes a point in life when you just have to face your demons or be overcome by them and for me that day arrived in 2008. I'd struggled to live a "normal" life for so long but in the end, it felt like being trapped on the top floor of a burning building. I'd ignored the smoke for too long and now the fire was all around me. I realised then that I had to jump and hope that I'd survive the fall, even though I was desperately worried about my family and how the firm and my clients would react. Put bluntly, would I still have a job?
Transition was, quite simply, the hardest and most traumatic thing that I have ever done. It made me realise that we spend most of our lives on autopilot but that was no longer an option for me. I had to relearn all the things that we take for granted – how to walk, talk, dress and not put myself in danger by developing that sixth sense that every woman has. And of course I had my family to look after and a very busy practice to keep on top of, so each day felt like a marathon.
I vividly remember my first day back at work. I walked out of Exchange House on a sunny day in July as Andrew and returned in September as me. I'll always remember that day and the feeling that everyone was watching me from their windows as I crossed Exchange Square.
I could mention so many people in the firm who made such a difference to me during that difficult time of my life but I'm going to devote this piece to one in particular – Clare Fielding. Clare was a senior associate in the planning team and got in touch with me at quite an early stage of my transition to let me know that she'd transitioned in her twenties while working at the Bank of England (earning the epithet "The New Lady of Threadneedle Street"). She was such a wonderful friend and role model and helped me to understand that there was light at the end of what felt like a very dark tunnel (and to laugh rather than cry). She's now the managing partner of a leading boutique planning firm and she is still my best friend. And, in turn, our friendship led Clare to be much more open about her own journey.
The City has changed so much over the course of my long career and it's wonderful that we now recognise and value diversity in all its forms. But being true to yourself is so much easier when you can look at others who have followed the same path. Clare was that person for me and I'm eternally grateful to her and to everyone in the firm who supported me on my journey. We are fortunate to be part of a firm that places such a high value on diversity and inclusivity and I have never once felt that my career was impacted by the changes in my life. And I do hope that anyone reading this who is struggling with a difficult personal issue knows that they are not alone and that help and support are at hand.
(He/Him) | Office Operations, Tokyo
Keisuke Sakamoto, Receptionist in our Office Operations team in Tokyo, shares his experience of being LGBT+ in Japan and his professional journey which brought him to HSF.
I've been working at HSF for almost three years, as an office assistant and receptionist in the Tokyo office. I live in the city with my partner Louis, who is American and our dog Bruno, but I haven't always felt able to be as open about being gay – my 15 year old self couldn't imagine telling my story with colleagues – LGBT+ and ally, across the firm.
Living and working in Japan as someone who is gay hasn’t always been to be easy. I realised I was gay at 15 years old (almost 30 years ago) and at that time, Japan was so behind, and many people regarded LGBT+ people badly. Because of this, when I came to terms with my sexuality, I was worried and tried to hide it.
I'm also passionate about music and from a young age I strove to become an opera singer. I studied vocal music at the Tokyo University of Music while also completing postgraduate studies. After finishing my masters, I relocated to Italy for two years, where I continued my vocal training. The time I spent there was wonderful professionally, but it also allowed me to be more open and liberal about being gay. With the professional and emotional boost that my time in Italy provided, I moved back to Japan to work as a singer for about 10 years. It was a great experience, but back in Japan I still struggled with being open with my identity.
After 10 years as a professional signer and seeking a career change to find a better work-life balance, I moved into hospitality, joining an international hotel in Tokyo where I was promoted to Chief Concierge. Whilst there were other LGBT+ people working with me at the hotel and despite it being an international hotel, we didn't have any activity or programmes designed to support LGBT+ inclusion.
I started at HSF, when Sonya Ito, a friend and HR manager in our Tokyo office, invited me to apply for a temporary role, covering a receptionist on sabbatical leave. From an LGBT+ and diversity point of view, I was very impressed with the idea of working in the Tokyo office as a male receptionist and I felt it would also allow me to use the skills I gained in the past – and I've always wanted to do something that makes people happy. I was then offered the opportunity to apply and interview for my current role and was (obviously!) successful. I feel like I was able to show my best in my interviews and each day because the accepting and inclusive office culture. I've never felt uncomfortable or ashamed of being gay here and working at HSF has made me realise just how important it is to be able to be yourself.
I am very grateful for the warmth and acceptance of everyone in HSF Tokyo and I feel lucky to work here every day. It's a difficult situation with COVID, but I hope that soon I can meet and interact with a wide range of people, including LGBT+ colleagues from other offices!
Things are changing, Tokyo now has a Pride Culture Fest and Parade, same-sex partnerships are recognised in several cities and wards, some large Japanese firms have begun to extend healthcare coverage to same sex partnerships, some banks are allowing joint mortgages and most recently the governor of Tokyo is promising to extend its partnership rules to all its wards.
I'm proud that HSF and my colleagues are working to be part of that change.
Sydney-based ESG specialist Tim Stutt reflects on becoming an accidental career lawyer, the wisdom of drag icons and how being a little different can go a long way at work.
People that know me well understand I am not a planner. But I have a good tolerance for change, and a general willingness to roll the dice and see how things pan out.
I do remember giving very detailed thought to how “out” I should be in the workplace when I joined Herbert Smith Freehills (then just Freehills) as an articled clerk back in 2008.
I didn’t have any lawyers in the family and I didn’t know what to expect working in a large commercial law firm. Ultimately though, I wasn’t wedded to the idea of being a “career” lawyer and I decided if the firm wasn’t an accepting place then it would be better to know sooner rather than later.
Each time I rotated throughout my articles, I would roll the dice by pinning a picture of my (then) boyfriend up on my office/cubicle wall – and wait to see what would happen.
Sure enough, what I discovered working at Freehills was that my sexuality was a lot less important to my success than my ability to write a decent memo, interpret legislation and know what was going on in the market. And with the benefit of hindsight, giving myself a bit of licence and space to be myself in the workspace (both as a gay man, but also as a bit of a weirdo) has turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.
I sometimes think about how my career would have panned out differently if I had tried to present myself in a more traditional way – ‘straighter’, more serious, better suits, more traditional interests.
What a disaster it would have been! We're in the people business. Our success depends on clients being comfortable to pick up the phone and ask us curly questions and team members pitching in to help us get work done together. This is also a career which would be lonely and boring if you weren’t surrounded by people you could connect with. For those reasons, dropping my walls and being unshackled by the idea of what a “normal” lawyer should say and do has been a big help in growing relationships and having more fun along the way. People like people who act like people – not robots.
It's not always been smooth sailing – and even now I sometimes feel out of place in certain groups, as someone who quotes (drag queen) Alyssa Edward-isms rather than follows the rugby. However, what I have realised as I have become more senior is that actually, not all clients like the rugby. Probably not even a majority. Lots of clients are more interested in reality TV, Mexican restaurants, or – dare I say it – drag queens. And besides all that, on the whole once people get to know you, they generally want you to succeed and will include you and actively help where they can.
This was apparent during the process for promotion to partner, where I was surprised by the offers of assistance and the level of backing I received, both internally and externally. Following my promotion, this has continued with partners, our business services teams, management and clients focused on helping me develop my practice. A good example occurred the week after I was promoted, when one of the firm’s strategic clients asked if I could step into a client relationship role for them. I hadn’t been on the shortlist put to the client as a relationship partner (given I was brand new), however, the client wanted to support my development and success, so they proactively asked for me to step into the role.
When I think back to where I started in my legal career, a lot has changed but also not much has changed. The profession is moving into the 21st century and a lot of firms are now consciously working to create inclusive workplaces. But it is still an anxious process deciding how much of yourself to bring to the workplace, and not all jurisdictions are as open as Australia. As a partner who can be out and proud in their workplace, I think I have a responsibility to be visible about who I am, including so that others know being a bit different can sometimes open more doors than it closes.