Michael Kirby- A Private Life | Sydney Writers' Festival 2023

interview by Jade Psihogios

Date- May 9, 2023

Location- Phone Call

Ahead of former High Court Justice Michael Kirby's talk with two-time world champion debater and writer Bo Seo at the 2023 Sydney Writers’ Festival, I spoke to Kirby about his 2011 story A Private Life

The talk, which will take place on May 26th, debates how to better listen and disagree with each other in an era of increasingly diverse discourse. Kirby's help in launching Bo Seo's new book, Good Arguments, comes twelve years after his book was released to the public. 

“The book urges us to challenge our thinking, upbringing and the prejudices inherited from life,” Kirby said.

“His message is to listen carefully to arguments and be open for new thoughts, and when you disagree, to stick to your guns. But to express disagreement in a way that respects people's rights to different opinions."

A Private Life is described not as a novel or an autobiography but as 'a story of [his] life.' Each chapter chronologically orders into different segments of his life, following his education and upbringing to his achievements as a human rights activist. 

Kirby was born on the 18th of March 1939 and grew up in Strathfield. Despite attending only public schools, Kirby grew up at a time when ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was the expectation of homosexual men and women. Having the first official Mardi Gras undertaken when Kirby was in his thirties, Australia's hosting of the Sydney World Pride this year revealed how far acceptance has come in Australian society.

"I see everything in the context of the improvements we've made, the context of our society and the ways we've developed our society into a kinder, more accepting place,” Kirby said. 

“We’ve come a long way, especially when I look back on my childhood, the animosity, hostility and hatred that existed in those times." 

A significant aspect of his life which became more publicly renowned after the book was released, was his 54-year relationship with partner Johan Van Vloten. They met at the Rex Hotel (now called the Rex Bistro) when it was one of the only gay bars in Sydney. 

“I remember looking out of my window in my apartment in Kirribilli and looking at all the lights of the Sydney suburbs, thinking there must be someone out there who I could meet and share my life with,” he said.

Kirby's writing and speaking of his partner convey the deep love and connection they have for one another. For many LGBTQIA individuals, this love feels almost out of reach, but Kirby believes it's more than possible. 

"You have to remain optimistic. You don't need a marriage certificate to have a loving relationship. You need human empathy, love for another person and others, and outreach to contribute to a better world. That doesn't only include sexuality but includes rights of women, migrants, refugee applicants, the rights of people of different faiths, or no religion at all," he said. 

In chapter four, Kirby recounts asking his partner Johan to marry him while staying in London in 1999. However, whilst so many countries have leapt forward to 'open up' marriage to same-sex couples, Australian governments have refused even to contemplate civil union or civil partnership. 

Kirby was initially against the polling system for gay marriage rights in December 2017 but decided to vote to avoid providing a free vote to the opposition. Now, six years after Australia achieved marriage equality, he sees the change as a positive step in the country. 

“My partner, Johan, who grew up in the Netherlands and of German occupation, was strongly of the view that you should never do anything to support payments of equality and freedom,” he said. 

“Imposing a precondition of an extra hurdle that LGBTIQ people had to get over to have equality was very wrong, but that’s how our system works, and it went in favour of change. And that has been a positive step in our country.” 

Since retiring from the court 14-15 years ago and the release of his book, Kirby has been active in human rights activism and protestants. He carried an inquiry on the United Nations Human Rights Council in North Korea, serving on a body that recommended the charter of the Commonwealth of improving the situation and the treatment of women, minorities, and people of different races and sexual orientations. 

84-yo Kirby thanks his healthy body and relationship with his partner for his long journey. 

“I have enjoyed good health, but above all, I’ve had a strong partner. Love is good for your physical health, mental health, and society, and it ought to be supported by all people, gay or straight,” he said. 

When asked about advancement in gay and lesbian representation, Kirby is confident that Australia will progress through civil society. If young people grow up in a good environment with human empathy and love for one another, they are bound to develop Australia and neighbouring countries. 

"'I've been listening to the speech by Prince William at his father's coronation concert, and he emphasised the path that the king had played throughout his life. To protect our planet and minority communities and talk about the pride we must have in ourselves," Kirby said. 

"That is an important message for the LGBTQI community and leaders of our society, to take a stand against hatred, discrimination and to make life easier for young people in schools and educational institutions. Making the world a better place is never-ending, and we should be engaged in it.”

Jade Psihogios is a 3rd year studying for a Bachelor of Media, majoring in Journalism. She consumes all forms of media, including niche Korean-pop girl group releases and Oscar-nominated feature films. You will either find her studying with ASMR no-talking in the background or trying to buy VIP concert tickets in class.

Blitz Editor

Anandi Ganguly

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