The first openly gay person to become a High Court judge in Australia has retied after 13 years on the bench.

The Honourable Justice Michael Kirby was praised at a farewell ceremony in Canberra earlier today. He will be replaced by Justice Virginia Bell tomorrow.

Australia’s Attorney General Robert McClelland said:

“You will hold a special place in the history of this Court.

“You have been tagged the Great Dissenter, but in reality you have played a vital part in the development of many areas such as the freedom of political communication.

“A right you described as belonging “as much to the obsessive, the emotional and the inarticulate as it does to the logical, the cerebral and the restrained.”

“Unlike one or two politicians who fall into the first category, you will be remembered as the Great Communicator.

“Your judgments demonstrated your strong commitment to explain the law. And your willingness to speak on a wide range of topics has shown a commitment to demystify and humanise the judiciary.”

Justice Kirby paid tribute to his colleagues and his partner of more than 40 years, Johan van Vloten, and said he still had a “naive” faith in the Australian legal system. He was legally required to retire by March 2009 when he turns 70.

In an interview in 2007 he said he took his partner, “along to dinners with the Queen and with the Governor-General and everybody’s getting used to it.”

A year before 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.”