The ambition my brother abandoned because he was gay: why a 'yes' vote matters
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The ambition my brother abandoned because he was gay: why a 'yes' vote matters

My parents had five children. Michael was the eldest, born in 1939. Then came twin boys, Donald and David, born in 1941. David died on August 9, 1942, and I was born nine months later. My sister Diana arrived in 1946.

Michael was always the dominant older brother. The only perceptible difference from the rest of us was that he was studious and ambitious. From an early age he did little else than study. We all thought that one day he would be prime minister.

Michael Kirby with Johan van Vloten in the High Court chamber.

Michael Kirby with Johan van Vloten in the High Court chamber.

By the early 1960s, we were all at university. Michael had, by that time, accumulated four university degrees with high honours and held every conceivable office in student politics. He appeared to be on track to achieving his ambition. Often on a Saturday night, I would set out with my brother Donald for a party. As we passed Michael's bedroom, he would part the curtains as he sat at his desk, and would watch us without comment. On our return, well after midnight, he would still be at his desk working.

At the time we imagined that this solitary life was Michael's choice and the price of ambition. We were thankful that we were not afflicted by such. As we now know, the aching solitude of his life was the consequence of a dark secret. He was attracted to men. As he said in his Memoir, A Private Life, the message he received from his early teens was that his secret should be the source of deep shame.

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The Kirby family, circa 1952: Jean, Don, Donald, Michael, Diana and David.

The Kirby family, circa 1952: Jean, Don, Donald, Michael, Diana and David.

In 1955 Michael saw the movie East of Eden with James Dean. He thought that he perceived, as was the fact, that Dean was also gay. He then followed the movie all over Sydney, seeing it 24 times.

He was in love with Dean. Like the rest of us, he craved love.

But, unlike the rest of us, he was obliged to resort to fantasy.

At the end of his 20s, Michael determined that the price for his ambition was too high. He faced a life in which he would never know the intimate touch of someone he loved. He abandoned any thought of politics. Not long after, he met Johan. They are still together 48 years later. They are just like any other couple. It is a privilege to be in their company.

Michael Kirby and Johan van Vloten have been together more than 48 years.

Michael Kirby and Johan van Vloten have been together more than 48 years.

Heterosexual couples may, of course, marry, inside or outside the church. It is discriminatory to deny the same right to non-heterosexuals. Indeed, the churches would do well to recognise that human sexuality is not binary. It is a spectrum and each one of us is somewhere on that spectrum.

Michael and Johan are undecided as to whether they would marry, if the legislation were changed as a result of the postal vote. They joke that, "after 48 years, it is a bit late for the confetti". However, they believe that, like other citizens, they should have the right to marry, if that be their wish. Our family supports them in that view.

What rational objection could there be to such a marriage? What business is it of others? How would it in any way jeopardise the union that may exist between others?

The suggestion by Tony Abbott that such marriages amount to "such huge change" that it "would shake society's foundations" is absurd. The same change has been adopted in 24 other countries, with a total population of 760 million people. The gruesome changes predicted have not materialised. Such fears are a debating trick, aimed at diverting attention from the simple proposition that to deny the facility of civil marriage to a minority in our community is unfair. It is an injustice that must be rectified. Gays have suffered enough. It is definitely past time to turn the page.

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Although the postal survey is deeply flawed, it is important to respond by voting "yes".

David Kirby is a retired judge of the Supreme Court of NSW.

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