In honor of Pride Month, we spoke to Venable partner Colin Vandell about how the firm’s LGBTQ+ affinity group got started and continues to evolve; the difference dedicated affinity groups like LGBTQ @ Venable make to their members’ lives and careers; and the important role law firms have to play in the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights.
Q: Colin, you were involved in the foundation of LGBTQ @ Venable. What led you to getting the group started, and what kind of support did you receive from the firm?
Colin: Yes, I co-founded LGBTQ @ Venable in 2018, a few years after I joined the firm. There had been an LGBTQ community in the firm at that time, but not an affinity group dedicated to LGBTQ issues. So, we started the group to create a space where LGBTQ individuals and their allies could have a place to talk and interact with the rest of the firm about issues that are relevant to this community. We got enormous firm management support from the very beginning, which meant that we could form the organization right off the bat and that there were ample financial resources to hold events and so on for the group.
Q: Is the group’s membership mostly made up of younger attorneys, or is there a mix?
Colin: One of the really nice things about the group is that we have a collaboration between the partner and associate perspectives. This is important because things are changing so rapidly for the LGBTQ community, that the perspective of an LGBTQ individual who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s is going to be different from that of someone who grew up in the ’90s and 2000s, even though they are not so far apart in age. One of the nice things about having a non-monolithic group like ours is that it brings together a variety of perspectives and helps us realize how much progress we have made.
Q: What kinds of events and activities does the group host?
Colin: The first big event that we had was with Jim Obergefell, the named plaintiff in the Supreme court same-sex marriage case, at our DC office in the summer of 2018. That event, which was attended by colleagues firmwide as well as clients, really signaled the start of LGBTQ @ Venable. Since then, the group has continued to sponsor large events on a regular basis that highlight issues of relevance to our community. Some of our recent events have included a conversation with author and activist Keith Boykin, who addressed intersectionality through his own experience as a gay man of color. Another was with transgender fashion model Geena Rocero, who spoke about the challenges facing the trans community, particularly transwomen of color. Because these events are attended by allies across the firm, from senior management down to junior associates, we are exposing people to perspectives on issues that might not have been on their radar.
Q: How has the pandemic affected these events and other activities?
Colin: Prior to the pandemic we would have happy hours with members in the same office and occasionally connect with other offices over video. Since the pandemic, all of our meetups have been virtual, and it’s been interesting how that has actually facilitated more intimate connections. In many ways, the virtual meetups have been a great leveler in that it has actually allowed for one-on-one discourse with people in other offices with whom we wouldn’t normally have much contact. In terms of events, we have continued to host influential speakers with stories of interest to the LGBTQ community – our most recent being Judy Shepard, whose son Matthew was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime – but of course we have moved those engagements online for now.
Q: This year, LGBTQ @ Venable has stepped up its efforts to celebrate Pride Month. Why do you think it’s important to do that?
Colin: I think it’s important for a number of reasons, starting with the LGBTQ community’s need for recognition. We sometimes forget that this is an often-overlooked community, with many members who are not out and who essentially live their lives in secret. So, to have the firm really celebrate them for a month and really recognize their worth is quite impactful. This year, we’ve expanded our programming to explore issues that don’t get a lot of attention, gender identity being among them. We are also flying the Pride Flag over our DC office for the entire month, which seems like a small gesture, but in fact it is very meaningful for many people.
Q: And, of course, law firms have played an important role in bringing about real change.
Colin: Absolutely. The legal community – from nonprofits like Lambda Legal to big law firms – has been involved in advancing LGBTQ rights every step of the way, and the pace of change is really picking up. For example, we went from having Prop 8 passed in California in 2008, which by vote of the people barred same-sex marriage in the state, to having the Supreme Court legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states in 2015. Now, the focus is on the transgender community, an underrepresented and often ostracized group. The fact that legal organizations are turning their support to that group is very meaningful and important.
Q: Do you believe affinity groups like LGBTQ @ Venable are making a difference?
Colin: When I was a summer associate at another large law firm in the early to mid-2000s, I was not out at work because it just felt more comfortable – it seemed like a much easier route not to have to deal with all of that. But now at Venable, because we have an affinity group to connect with, a significant number of lawyers and staff are openly out at the firm, especially in the younger classes. Half of this year’s summer associate class in Los Angeles is LGBTQ, which is a huge increase over previous classes. To have such a shift in a relatively small amount of time has been very gratifying. It’s important to remember that there are still many people in the industry who are not yet comfortable with expressing who they are. So, part of our goal with LGBTQ @ Venable is to let people know that there really is a support network here at the firm.
To learn more about LGBTQ @ Venable events and programing, please click here.