Michael Kirby, Supreme Court Justice (LGBT History Month)
Michael Kirby is a former justice of the High Court of Australia. He is the world’s first openly gay justice of a national supreme court. When he retired, he was Australia’s longest-serving judge. Bent Alaska presents his/her story as part of our celebration of LGBT History Month 2011, with thanks to the Equality Forum.
Michael Kirby (born March 18, 1939) is a former justice of the High Court of Australia. He is the world’s first openly gay justice of a national supreme court. When he retired, he was Australia’s longest-serving judge.
Kirby was born in Sydney, Australia. He attended Fort Street High School, which is renowned for the accomplishments of its graduates. He earned three bachelor’s degrees and a Master of Laws degree from the University of Sydney.
Kirby practiced law for 13 years. In 1975, he was named deputy director of the Australian Conciliation & Arbitration Commission. Subsequently, he served as judge of the Federal Court of Australia, chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission and as president of the New South Wales Court. In 1996, he was appointed to the High Court.
A pioneering AIDS activist, Kirby served on the World Health Organization’s Global Commission on AIDS and the United Nations Global Commission on HIV and the Law.
In 1991, Kirby received the Companion of the Order of Australia, the nation’s highest civil
honor, and the Australian Human Rights Medal.
In 2008, fellow judge Michael McHugh told The Australian about how he first learned about Kirby’s longterm partner, Johan van Vloten, in late 1997:
There were Court of Appeal Christmas parties held at his place and there was never any sign of Johan. I was at a wedding and (the late solicitor) John Marsden was there and came up and started talking about Michael and he said, ‘He’s had this partner for 30 years’. Frankly, I didn’t believe it.
When McHugh next talked with Kirby, Kirby told him he had been reading a book about coming out, and in succeeding months came out to his fellow judges before coming out publicly in 1999 by naming his Johan van Vloten as his partner in his listing in Who’s Who in Australia. The couple had been together since 1969.
Kirby came under attack in March 2002 by Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, who used parliamentary privilege to make a speech in which he accused Kirby of making improper use of Commonwealth cars “trawling” for underage male prostitutes. However, the document Heffernan produced in support of his claims— a driver’s log book turned in to New South Wales police by a Commonwealth driver two years previously, on Heffernan’s advice — proved to have been fabricated. The disgraced Heffernan was censured by the Senate for abusing parliamentary privilege, and later offered an unqualified apology to Justice Kirby, who accepted the apology in a written statement:
I accept Senator Heffernan’s apology and reach out my hand in a spirit of reconciliation.
I hope my ordeal will show the wrongs that hate of homosexuals can lead to.
In 2010, Kirby received the Gruber Justice Prize for his work on sexual orientation discrimination and international human rights law, including laws relating to privacy and HIV/AIDS. In 2011, his biography, Michael Kirby: Paradoxes and Principles by A.J. Brown, was published.
Kirby lives with his partner in Sydney, where he advocates for LGBT equality and for people with HIV and AIDS.
In 2011, one of the 10 questions asked Kirby by The Australian‘s Greg Callaghan was about his decision to come out publicly in 1999:
You came out as gay in 1999, by naming Johan van Vloten as your partner in your Who’s Who entry. Is it true you “sounded out” other members of the High Court first?
It is not true. Such a personal matter had to be decided by Johan and me alone. The idea of having a personal discussion with judicial colleagues on such a matter was unthinkable. In any case, I would’ve had a pretty fair idea about what the different justices would have thought. Some, a minority, were always a bit uncomfortable with my sexuality. I believe that my openness was a good thing for us, for my family, for the court and for the Australian community.
On May 22, 2010, Judge Kirby participated in TEDxSydney at CarriageWorks in Sydney, which featured a selection of Australia’s leading visionaries and storytellers sharing “Ideas Worth Spreading” in the tradition of TED Talks. Judge Kirby asks religious leaders & God botherers to change their messages.” Watch: