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A voice for the outsiders

26 November 2011 1,535 views No Comment

WHEN he retired from the High Court of Australia in February 2009, Michael Kirby was our longest serving judge, and his retirement marked the beginning of assessments of his life and influence.

It’s important that we have Kirby’s personal side of the story and this memoir affords a fascinating insight into the career of a one of Australia’s most controversial figures.

As his great teacher, Professor Julius Stone, taught him at Sydney University, to pretend that the law was wholly objective might be “a comforting fiction to which many (particularly conservative) proponents of the vocation adhered. But it was not what actually happened. In fact, judges, including those in our highest courts, have considerable scope for discretion and for choice.

A PRIVATE LIFE traces Kirby’s career from his school days to more recent years in which his ‘coming out’ as a high-profile homosexual subjected him to virulent attacks on his character.

In what he usefully calls these “fragments of memory, Kirby’s collection of reminiscences ranges far and wide. But central to all his finely honed essays is Kirby’s acute awareness of acts of discrimination perpetrated against the outsiders of Australian society, be it on the grounds of race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual preference. Kirby’s own experiences as a homosexual made him acutely sensitive to all forms of discrimination. As he explains: “If you have tasted irrational discrimination, you do not like it. And you do not want others needlessly to be on the receiving end.

In 1957, when Kirby was 18, the report of the ‘Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution’ was released in the UK. Usually known as the Wolfenden Report, after the chairman of the committee, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading, Sir John (later Lord) Wolfenden, it recommended that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence. The Report powerfully reasoned thus: “Unless a deliberate attempt is to be made by a society, acting through the agency of the law, to equate the sphere of crime with that of sin, there must remain a realm of private morality and immorality which is, in brief and crude terms, not the law’s business.

In two touching chapters, Kirby’s remembrances of his unrequited infatuation with 1950s film heartthrob, James Dean, whose hometown he visited in the year 2002, morphs effortlessly into the great love of Kirby’s life.

He met his long-time partner, the young ex-mariner Johan van Volten who had migrated to Australia from the Netherlands, at the Bottoms Up Bar of the old Rex Hotel, near the El Alamein fountain in Kings Cross. During the 1970s, a regular highlight of their time together was to frequent in suburban Kensington, the famous gay venue the Purple Union. There, the hugely talented drag queen, David Williams, would perform as Carmen – “hilariously flashing those long eyelashes as he went through his (outlandish) paces.”

A PRIVATE LIFE is a reflective, generous, and eloquent book, which ranges far and wide. Simply written, it also canvasses Kirby’s advocacy for human and civil rights as well as essaying his support for those, throughout the world, who are dealing daily, not just with HIV and AIDS, but with systemic poverty and disempowerment.

At once a committed Christian and a strong supporter of the Salvation Army, Kirby is certainly right on the money when he says that anyone, male or female, straight or gay, who has managed to maintain and nurture a long-term loving union is fortunate and blessed indeed.

A PRIVATE LIFE, Michael Kirby Allen & Unwin, 200pp, $35
Ross Fitzgerald, Sydney Morning Herald, November 26-27, 2011, SPECTRUM, p 33.