Australia’s most high-profile gay judge has said that only some of his colleagues have accepted his homosexuality and he is unhappy with the way relations between them have developed.
Michael Kirby, a Justice of the High Court, has also accused the Anglican and Catholic archbishops of Sydney, Peter Jensen and George Pell, of making it hard for people to adopt a more tolerant attitude to gays.
And when asked on Australian broadcaster ABC radio’s Sunday Profile if some of his fellow judges had yet made “the journey from tolerance to acceptance of your homosexuality”, he said: “We have our different values and our different life experiences, and they have theirs and I have to respect theirs. If I’d had a different life experience, maybe I would have been a bit different.”
Justice Kirby, who has lived openly with his partner for the last 38 years, said he enjoyed his time on the New South Wales (NSW) Court of Appeal, which he left in 1996 to join the High Court.
“I wouldn’t say (I was) happy with the way relations have developed. That would be putting it too high,” he said.
In the NSW court “there were judges of different philosophies, and that was a very beneficial thing because then you have an interaction and a frisson of opinion within the court,” he said.
“That doesn’t exist in the High Court of Australia at the moment. I’m off in a minority of one, not always but sometimes, and that really is different, and you can’t have as rich a human relationship with people in those circumstances.”
The judge said he took his partner Johan van Vloten, “along to dinners with the Queen and with the Governor-General and everybody’s getting used to it.”
He told ABC that he hoped his sexuality was not an issue in the current court “though it is true some of the justices perhaps have less liberal views than I have.”
Justice Kirby also said that he understands the discomfort of some people around gays.
“Often, it has to be said, it comes from religion,” he said.
“It comes from people’s religious upbringing, reinforced even to this day by religious instruction, and it has to be said, religious instruction from the two archbishops of Sydney.
“My partner, Johan, is not a believer and he constantly says to me, ‘I don’t understand how one of the most intelligent people in this country can take any of this stuff seriously’.”
The judge, who must retire in March 2009 when he turns 70, says he is a “Christian Anglican” and that he has “hung in there” despite his partner’s advice to “get out of it.”
In a speech last year, Justice Kirby called on all homosexual people to come out of the closet and fight homophobia.
He stated he did not believe that prejudice would be eradicated in his lifetime and he urged Australians to recall the formerly racist nature of their society, and realise that progress can be made.
He added that a fear of difference was behind prejudice against the LGBT community.
“Such forces include the childish desire to erase differences in humanity and to stamp similarity and identity on everyone around us,” he said.
“It was this desire that lay at the heart of the former White Australia policy and of apartheid in South Africa.
“Prejudices and dislike will, ultimately, only recede when gay people themselves break the spell of silence and stand up to be counted.”
The judge has always been forthright about his own sexuality, even mentioning his partner in Who’s Who. He faced criticism for admitting to a relationship with a man before 1984, when New South Wales decriminalised homosexuality.
In 2002, homophobic senator Bill Heffernan used parliamentary privilege to accuse Kirby of ‘trawling for rent boys.’
When the senator’s evidence was shown to be false, Justice Kirby responded:
“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.”