Justice Michael Kirby on success and battling gay stereotypes
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Justice Michael Kirby on success and battling gay stereotypes

Former High Court judge Michael Kirby has questioned if gay and lesbian Australians can reach the highest levels of politics today, describing the fight against prejudice as a key to his professional success.

In an interview for a new web series The Thread, the retired openly gay judge and chair of the United Nations special committee on North Korean human rights violations says he might have considered a career in politics with a "wife and two children" but was not willing to spend his life pretending.

Former High Court judge Michael Kirby said the marriage debate "must be very painful" for Malcolm Turnbull.

Former High Court judge Michael Kirby said the marriage debate "must be very painful" for Malcolm Turnbull.

Photo: Justin McManus

"You know, my whole life has been battling against one stereotype, my sexuality, and poofters are all weak and soft and lovely and window dressers and so on," he said.

"Well, I am not. I am a tough and highly trained experienced lawyer so get used to it."

Justice Kirby chaired a UN panel on North Korean human rights violations.

Justice Kirby chaired a UN panel on North Korean human rights violations.

Photo: AP
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"A psychoanalysis of me would possibly say, 'Well, he spent a lot of years being put down. He was denied respect, and he was there keen and determined to command respect and to earn it and he will work very hard to secure it.'

"I acknowledge that might have been there deep in my psyche. But to be truthful, I was going to work at 6am every day solving the problem of the court that day as best I could."

The comments are from the 10-part online interview series produced by Hugh Minson and Jack Morphet, exploring the success of leading Australians in law, business, medicine, sport and culture.

"I am not so sure even now that a gay person could reach the top of the pops in politics but it will happen and I hope that perhaps my life has made it a bit easier for those that come later," he said.

Justice Kirby describes himself as a stirrer, a role which helped advance good causes and brought him professional recognition.

"One of the problems with say, if you're at the bar, if you're a barrister, you're in there working away, tedious cases, day by day, how do you get noticed? Who will ever hear about you?

"I became the king of the committees and all I did was chair committees and I became a very good chair, they were good causes but they got noticed and they stirred things up a bit.

"I am a stirrer. That's not a bad thing to be in a somewhat complacent society like Australia," he said.

The 78-year-old said some religious groups remain very hostile to gay and lesbian people, and that he might have given some political leaders a run for their money if he'd pursued a career in Parliament.

"But that really wasn't a feasible thing unless I was going to spend my whole life pretending and I just wasn't willing to do that."

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Tom McIlroy is a political reporter for the Financial Review in the federal press gallery at Parliament House.