Explore the inspiring journey of Cai Cherry, a trainee solicitor at DLA Piper, as they share their accomplishments, challenges in representing intersectional identity groups, thoughts on improving acceptance, and the significance of being nominated as a diversity hero.

Tell us about your accomplishments to date?

When I look at my CV, I can see a lot of accomplishments: graduating with two law degrees, passing the New York Bar Exam, working in my dream job, publishing my debut novel, dedicating literally hundreds of hours of my time to pro bono and DEI work, and assisted in writing a book on Freedom of Speech with Lord Neuberger and Amal Clooney. I have a lot that I am very proud of.

But when I think about what actually makes me feel accomplished, it’s very simple: I survived.

I spent years as a teenager just completely terrified. I was scared to come out. I was scared to be myself. I was scared of failing, scared of living, and scared of growing up. My mental health was a mess, and then when I started university, my body began to fail me too. After I had finally found the courage to be honest about who I am, I lost the ability the walk. With that came an autoimmune disease, a neurological condition, and a rheumatoid syndrome. I spent days in hospital, refusing to admit I was once again scared and alone.

But by sticking my head not in the sand, but in a textbook, I managed to pass my first year of my law degree with fairly mediocre grades (although criminal law was never going to go to be my strength!) and through physiotherapy, patience, and pure stubbornness, I carried on. I learned to walk again. I graduated a bachelor’s, then a master’s in law. I learned to live with my disabilities, and, most importantly for me, I learned to be proud of who I was.

Some random person commented on a post about my nomination for this Diversity Hero award, saying just because I’m gay, disabled, and have a job, I get an award? He thought that was madness. I thought he summed it up perfectly. When I was a kid, I never thought I would come out. I never thought I would be myself. I never thought I would have the sheer force of will to simply exist. And to have my dream job not in spite of that, but because of that? That’s my accomplishment. I survived.

What are the barriers in representing many intersectional identity groups?

I know the value and importance of intersectionality. I also know I am useless at putting it into action. In my own mind, I separate things into my ‘queer’ self and my ‘disabled’ self. I find myself speaking at LGBTQ+ events as the ‘disability’ viewpoint, and at disability events as the ‘queer’ perspective. There doesn’t seem to be an event where I can talk about both, or a question that lets me be both at once. Intersectionality is hard because unless you are you, no one else knows what it’s like.

But that is also the value in intersectionality. I never found a book that summed up completely how I felt: being queer, being disabled, being loud, being mentally ill, being argumentative, being nostalgic, being alone, being loved, being happy, being sexually assaulted, being brave, and being me. So I wrote my own. And when I read books, listen to stories or music, meet new people, I find parts of myself in them, as they find parts of themselves in me.

I am not a member of many minority groups, but through my work on LGBTQ+ and disability issues, I’ve found allies and become an ally myself. There are so many cross-overs, so many intersections, so many commonalities, that intersectionality really does break us all down to the core of who we are, as cheesy as it sounds: we’re all human. The barrier is sometimes that we let ourselves forget that.

Do you think acceptance is improving?

A manager of mine once told me that I shouldn’t bring my full self to work. I didn’t know whether he was talking about me being queer, me being disabled, or both.

Life is full of so many micro- and macro-aggressions for people in minority groups. I’ve been followed home by people yelling at me, blaming me for world conflicts because I was wearing a rainbow pin on my backpack. I’ve been stopped in the street by people offering to pray for me, to ‘fix’ my disabilities or my queerness. I’ve been threatened, I’ve been called slurs, and I’ve felt unsafe walking alone and while holding someone’s hand.

But I’ve also been championed. I’ve had colleagues, even the most senior ones, open up to me about their own experiences of marginalisation, about racism, homophobia, or sexism, because they’ve heard me talk about mine. I’ve been encouraged, even been given constructive criticism that I should bring more of my queerness to meetings that I never would have thought it relevant, simply because they think my voice and my insight have value. And I’ve been supported by so many people, from almost complete strangers to my closest friends, to just carry on.

Is acceptance improving? A decade ago, I would have been an outlier. Two decades ago, I would have been in hiding. Three, four decades ago, I probably would have been killed by a deadly combination of apathy and violence. But today, the threats are still there, and we are reminded almost daily of how pressing they are. Acceptance hasn’t come, and won’t stay, without a fight.

What does been nominated in your category mean to you?

First of all, it’s an honour, and I’d like to thank the Academy, etc…

But seriously, this nomination caught me by surprise. After everything I have been through (bad and good) I have dedicated my life to simply doing things I love. People are so shocked when I tell them I wouldn’t be a lawyer if I didn’t love it, or I wouldn’t have written a book if I didn’t love it, and I wouldn’t have eaten every single last biscuit in the pack if I didn’t love it. Being nominated for being a ‘diversity hero’ feels like validation that I’m allowed to do what I love. I still have days when I feel like an imposter, or that I don’t belong where I am, or that I’m defrauding all my friends and family in some way that I can’t quite suss out. But this nomination is like going back to when I was a kid and giving myself a hug, and knowing that you can do what you love, and you don’t have to make sacrifices about who you are. People will even call you a hero for it.

I’m really grateful to whoever nominated me and to everyone who has supported me. I genuinely would not be here today, and definitely wouldn’t have been nominated for an award, without all of your help, encouragement, and kindness.