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Pride in Big Law: A Retrospective

Vinson & Elkins Pro Bono Legal Services

Chris Bacon, counsel in Vinson & Elkins’ Labor & Employment practice, talks with V&E+ about his experience as an LGBTQ+ attorney in the 1990s — and the firm’s strong support for the broader LGBTQ+ community.

It’s 1990. You’re living in Houston, and about to join Vinson & Elkins as the firm’s first openly gay attorney. Take us into your world then.

Well, 1990 feels like ancient history, and for LGBTQ+ lawyers, in many ways it is. As in much of the country, same-sex relationships were illegal in Texas, and the state had no employment laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

There were absolutely no openly gay lawyers at any of the major firms in Texas — or really throughout the south. Of course, I knew plenty of gay lawyers at the major firms in Houston, but none comfortable enough to come out at work.

How did you summon the courage?

Mental health was a major motivator. The idea of hoping not to be discovered at work sounded deeply stressful — and not a way I wanted to live. But more broadly, I’ve always believed that being out is one of the best things that LGBTQ+ people can do to help change attitudes toward them — and that changing attitudes would lead to changes in society and the law.

LGBTQ+ people are neighbors, coworkers, and friends. They commute, walk their dogs, go out to dinner, read, care for their families, and fall in love — everyday things that straight people do. That seems kind of obvious today. But back then, most people couldn’t grasp it, because so few LGBTQ+ people were public with their sexual orientation.

After you joined Vinson & Elkins, you became something of a community leader.

I’d like to think I played a role. In my early days at the firm, a few Houston-area lawyers and I established the Bar Association for Human Rights — an association of gay and lesbian lawyers that still exists today, under the name Stonewall Lawyers.

I also served as president of the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, the oldest gay and lesbian civil rights organization in the southern United States, and was the first president who worked in corporate America.

And the firm knew about this activity?

Absolutely. Eventually, it became hard not to know. During Pride Month in 1992, a local newspaper interviewed me for what I thought would be a minor feature. But they put me on the front page under the headline, “The New Image of Gay Power in Houston.”

Now, the firm had always given me all the support I needed, and I know that my colleagues respected me and my work. But the cover story caught us all off guard, and it projected a bolder image than the firm probably felt ready for. It ultimately became an instructive moment, though.

How so?

Well, I spoke very highly about the firm’s efforts to support me, and — to the surprise of leadership — it generated positive press.

In just a few years, we had at least 10 openly gay and lesbian lawyers. We had become the first law firm in the southern United States to expressly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and to offer domestic partner benefits to same-sex partners.

All of this burnished our reputation, and it wasn’t long before our competitors began to follow suit.

Those were some really trailblazing policies.

Yes, and it was only the beginning. In the years since, the firm established policies providing for gender-neutral parental leave, transgender medical care, and much more.

Eleven times, in fact, we’ve scored 100 percent on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s annual Corporate Equality Index, earning us a designation as one of the Best Places to Work for LGBTQ+ Equality. We’ve continued to earn this perfect score even as the Foundation has raised its standards over the years.

So, did the firm’s LGBTQ+ people have to advocate for policies to support them?

In the early days, the LGBTQ+ attorneys definitely had to take some initiative. And establishing those policies is a credit to them as much as it is to the firm itself. In recent years, though, the firm has taken the lead — pursuing endeavors to support the community, and actually asking people for advice on how best to support them.

The asking part — that’s big.

It is. When firm leadership stepped up their efforts to support transgender and nonbinary people, for example, they didn’t act like they knew everything. Instead, they listened, asked questions, provided space, and did everything they could to make people feel comfortable. That I think is the best way an organization can support underrepresented groups.

Especially the most vulnerable ones.

Right. I think it can be scarier for transgender and nonbinary lawyers today than it was for gay and lesbian lawyers in the 1990s.

With enough effort in those days, gay and lesbian lawyers could pass, so to speak. They could succeed at a law firm while keeping their personal life separate. But that’s harder for transgender and nonbinary lawyers, because their identity is generally easier to see.

The big challenge for the transgender and nonbinary community in general is that most people don’t know someone from it personally, similar to how most people didn’t know many openly gay people decades ago.

Can celebrating Pride Month help ease this challenge?

To a point, I think it can. As I was getting at earlier, I think visibility changes societies. But by visibility, I don’t necessarily mean marching in pride parades. I’m referring more to just being true to yourself in public — owning who you are, normalizing it — in everyday settings at work and in life. For me, that’s pride.

We also can’t forget that, even as the world has come a long way, these are still precarious times for the LGBTQ+ community. Anti-LGBTQ+ activity remains all too common, especially as it relates to transgender and nonbinary people, and it’s on allies to push back against this. That’s pride, too. And as with owning who you are, it’s more than a month-long mindset.

Many major law firms get this. Certainly, Vinson & Elkins does. I’m happy that the firm sees supporting our community as a moral imperative. And yes, as a business one, too. The stronger your support, the more appealing you’ll be as a career destination — not just to LGBTQ+ lawyers and law students, but to pretty much everyone.

Meet Chris Bacon

Some of my biggest interests: Languages is one. I am fluent in several and dabble in dozens. I enjoy watching movies in foreign languages, and perusing language textbooks and dictionaries. How words and meanings originated, how grammars differ, how languages evolved from one another — I love it all.

Opera is another. My husband and I love the theatre, and we saw nearly 50 live operas last year. I’ve actually had the opportunity to serve the Houston Grand Opera — one of the country’s finest operas — in a pro bono capacity. And my passion for the art has only grown since.

Best career advice I’ve received: Be responsive. A mentor used to often remind me: “Answer your phone, and if you absolutely can’t, return the call as soon as possible.” Law is a service industry, and outside of outstanding work, nothing demonstrates high-quality service more than being responsive.

A great book I’ve read lately: Timothy Egan’s A Fever in the Heartland — the story of the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in Indiana in the 1920s. It’s eminently readable, suspenseful, and very much worth your time. I think it’s important to know the history of your country, even — and maybe especially — the ugly parts.

A meaningful part of my law practice: Teaching. As a seasoned trial lawyer, I make a point to involve younger attorneys heavily in trial preparation, and encourage them to take on significant roles in court. This of course takes longer than preparing on your own, especially if it’s someone’s first or second trial. But the joy of seeing young attorneys grow — and the value of paying your knowledge and experience forward — is well worth the effort.

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.