Gay judge shatters 'pink glass ceiling'

Law Editor,Robert Verkaik
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:14

It is often said that the "pink glass ceiling" which holds back the promotion of gay and lesbian people in British society is double glazed when it comes to professional mobility among the higher echelons of the judiciary.

So the achievement of a 58-year-old barrister and former Olympic fencer in winning a place on the Bench of the Court of Appeal is all the more remarkable.

Sir Terence Etherton, pictured, will be the first openly gay judge to be sworn in as Lord Justice of Appeal when his appointment is confirmed later this month.

Sir Terry's promotion to the 36 judges of the second-highest court in England and Wales, on the formal recommendation of the Prime Minister, was welcomed yesterday by gay rights campaigners. It also means that Sir Terry is a leading contender to become the first openly gay law lord. Friends described him as the "epitome of a modern judge" who ensured that both sides always got a fair hearing in his courtroom.

His appointment is also recognition for the work he has done over the past two years as chairman of the Law Commission, the Government'slegal reform body. In that time the commission has been responsible for showing "enlightened thinking" on some very sensitive and important areas of the law.

Sir Terry said: "It is a great honour to be appointed to the Court of Appeal. My appointment reflects the high standing of the Law Commission and the quality and importance of the reports we produce. My appointment also shows that diversity in sexualityis not a bar to preferment up to the highest levels of the judiciary."

The judge, a Cambridge graduate, was a member of the England sabre team which won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Fencing Championships in 1978 before qualifying for the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

In 2001 he was appointed to the High Court, becoming one of only two openly gay judges to hold such office – the other is Sir Adrian Fulford, appointed in 2002. Two years ago, Sir Terry was the first High Court judge publicly to announce his own civil partnership.

Welcoming Sir Terry's promotion, Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the gay rights group Stonewall, said: "This is not before time. We have been in contact with the Judicial Appointments Commission for the past 18 months about our concerns about the invisibility of people from minority groups on the Bench."

Recent Stonewall research found that 25 per cent of all gay and lesbian people interviewed felt they would be treated worse by a judge than if they were heterosexual and charged with a major offence. In the family courts the perception of bias is even more serious. Two in five (41 per cent) expect to be treated worse than a heterosexual if they were to appear before a family court in a divorce or custody case. "People say it doesn't matter whether the judge is a straight white guy or not because the system is basically fair," said Mr Summerskill. "But what people forget is that the common law has been developed over the years by a group of people with a particular outlook, namely white, heterosexual men from public schools. So the idea of what the reasonable man or reasonable point of view may be in legal terms may be very different from someone who comes from a very different background."

Gay rights landmarks

*The idea of coming out was introduced in 1869 by the German homosexual rights advocate Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, right, as a means of emancipation.

He claimed that invisibility was a major obstacle toward changing public opinion.

*Chris Smith, below left, became the first openly gay MP after being elected for Labour in 1983, and later the first gay cabinet minister when he became Culture Secretary after Labour's 1997 election victory.

*Alan Duncan, centre, is the first openly gay Conservative MP, having come out in 2002. He is the Tories' business spokesman.

*In 2004, The Right Rev Gene Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire, below right, became the first openly gay, non-celibate priest to be ordained as a bishop in a major Christian denomination.

*On 21 December 2005, Debbie Gaston and Elaine Cook from Brighton entered the gay rights history book when they became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in Britain.

*Two decades after the first gay character moved to Albert Square and 13 years after Anna Friel's lesbian kiss on Brookside Close, The Archers achieved a soap-opera first by featuring a gay civil ceremony in 2006.

*In June 2008, two male priests exchanged vows and rings in a ceremony seen as blasphemous by conservatives. The Rev Peter Cowell and the Rev Dr David Lord, had registered their civil partnership before the ceremony.

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