INTERVIEW: A perspective on life as a gay in-house lawyer in Latin America, with Xavier Careaga

Contributed by
26 Feb 2020

A tough path to follow

We spoke to Xavier Careaga, an in-house lawyer at Facebook Mexico in charge of litigation, regulatory and other matters throughout Spanish-speaking Latin America. He has worked there for the past two and a half years.

Being an LGBT+ lawyer has been a tough path to follow for Xavier. He says “Usually, lawyers conceive themselves as guarantors of order, and might be wrongly interpreted as being conservative in diversity and inclusion perspectives.” He felt discriminated against by teachers and students during his time at law school – like most of them, perceived as conservative – but became the student association president, nonetheless.

Years before Xavier was suggested as a match to be part of Facebook’s legal team, something that changed his perception and his personal commitment with diversity in the legal field, he found the same challenging environment once he first got to the world of work. He started in a small law firm where, after a year, an associate warned him that his job could be “at risk” after a partner discovered he was gay. Just a week after that, Xavier lost his job because their managers “didn’t like how he worked”.

“Ten years ago, things were very different and diversity and discrimination were not common topics as today.”

“I considered filing a lawsuit, but it was just too hard,” Xavier recalls. “People that file employment lawsuits against a law firm tarnish their reputation forever. Ten years ago, things were very different and diversity and discrimination were not common topics as today. Also, I feared they would retaliate somehow.”

Same profession, different challenges

Following this experience, he joined a full-size law firm. Having been scarred by the previous incident he remained closeted at work. Xavier goes so far as to say that “I lived two lives: work and real life.” He was particularly concerned about the attitudes of some of his colleagues at the law firm. Despite this, he could already discern that a cultural change was slowly beginning to take place: “Some partners were OK with my sexual orientation, but still I was too afraid. I knew that being gay as an associate or paralegal was usually accepted, or at least tolerated, but I was not sure they would accept a gay partner,” said Xavier remembering his fears at that time.

Indeed, he suspected that the partner he worked for – one of the youngest and most innovative in the firm – would not only be OK with the issue but would even use it for showing cultural matching with LGBT+ friendly companies (such as Facebook).

“I decided just to be bold… Then I knew that it was possible to be authentic and truthful, without fear.”

After his stint at the law firm, he spent some time working in government for the Human Rights Ministry. Rather ironically, he says that despite the fact it had an LGBT+ rights protection unit, he never felt safe there. Quite the contrary: “I felt in even more danger there than anywhere else: in government, competition for climbing the ladder is brutal, and using someone’s homosexuality against that person could be, to my amazement, widely used.”

After his time in government, Xavier went on to do an LLM at Harvard Law School, where he joined the LGBT+ Student Association, Lambda. As he was finishing this, the partner he had worked for at the full-size law firm suggested that he join Facebook as an in-house lawyer. That is how he came to move in-house.

A bold approach

It also marked a major change for Xavier in another way: “I decided just to be bold. Facebook had slogans of being authentic, so on the first day, I told my boss that one week before I had got engaged to my boyfriend. She and my co-workers were completely natural when they excitedly asked to see pictures. Then I knew that it was possible to be authentic and truthful, without fear.”

This move to in-house really marked a sea change in his working life. Since moving to Facebook, Xavier co-created the local Pride team, joined Pride Connection and started working to improve the situation inside the office. As well as working to improve the situation internally, he has also been influencing his external counsel to improve their standing on diversity in general, including on LGBT+ matters.

“They truly believe that diversity of backgrounds create richness of ideas and creativity.”

Some of these external law firms, which are now led by another generation of partners convinced of the issue, even went on to certify themselves (as Facebook has) with the Human Rights Campaign certification for the best places for LGBT+ people to work. Other external counsel are on their way to do so. He has promoted diversity measures to all the law firms that work for his team in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Peru and Chile.

The in-house experience

When asked why he thought that moving in-house had led to such a change in him, Xavier says he is lucky to be working in a company that is keen on diversity. Law firms were traditionally very conservative, and their leadership saw no value in diversity and were lacking the impetus, as businesses do, to diversify. There are still relatively few women as partners, for instance. However, currently there are increasing numbers of law firms transitioning into welcoming and promoting diversity and inclusion. It all depends on their motivations, their leadership and their exposure to the outside market.

“There are several reasons a law firm would incorporate diversity and inclusion in their blood: either because clients are requesting so (money oriented), or because they are international law firms with global standards for diversity (international pressure), or the best reason: because they truly believe that diversity of backgrounds create richness of ideas and creativity (conviction). In any scenario their LGBT+ personnel will benefit, even if slowly.”

“Diversity of professions is the first kind of diversity of ideas.”

As for whether working in-house is better than working in a law firm for LGBT+ lawyers in Mexico and in Latin America more generally, he says that obviously it depends on the company and the law firm. Some companies, including large and international ones, promote themselves as having “family values”, which sounds nice unless it signals that they are not particularly diversity-friendly. Again, it is likely but not certain that in some of the larger international companies, such as Facebook, things are better.

In general, though, he suspects that working in-house will at the very least ensure that there is a greater diversity of outlook as, in his view, the perspective of law firms is narrower. “Law firms generally are not as open to possibilities as private companies. Very few people in law firms are not lawyers and the outlook is more closed. Diversity of professions is the first kind of diversity of ideas.”

An accidental activist

He also thinks that in business there are more opportunities to help others. As he says, “I never saw myself as an activist, but it seems most things I’ve done draw me close to being one.” Within Facebook he is especially proud of having launched – with an organisation called It Gets Better – the ‘Safe Hour’, a programme where specialised psychologists provide free advice and counselling to LGBT+ people across Mexico. Operating via Facebook and Messenger, the programme has had a great impact in reducing the suicide rate amongst young LGBT+ people who usually live in small communities where they cannot find support or solace.

“To effect change, be fearless.”

In terms of trying to improve the diversity of the legal profession itself, he has undertaken the mentorship of young LGBT+ students. “I try to show them that, although it is hard, they are living in increasingly tolerant times. Nonetheless they must be careful, since we are not sure if the improvement is temporary or definitive. The advice I give to them is to never quit their dreams.”

He has tried to contribute to the increase of diversity in the Facebook labour force by promoting the employment of more people who identify as LGBT+, women, differently abled and also those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. When chatting with people from the diversity spectrum, he advises them to be authentic and to be themselves all the time, but to balance their private and public lives. “Not to the point where you lie or have double lives, but to the point where you choose who knows what.”

Another piece of advice that he gives them is to build communities, not only with other people on the diversity spectrum but also with allies, as he has concluded that allies are paramount for success.

His final words? “To effect change, be fearless. The best way to encourage progress is to show that diverse people are valuable members of society, and that it is a social good.”