josh rosner

THE BURDEN OF CLOSETED CAUTION

In Book Review, Gay Rights on November 24, 2011 at 12:41 am

I recently reviewed Michael Kirby’s new memoir, A Private Life: Fragments, Memories, Friends, for the Canberra Times. Kirby has a simple message in this eloquent book: being gay is normal; as normal as being straight.  In A Private Life, Kirby discusses the people he’s known, the friends he’s made, and even some of his enemies. But mostly, this is a book about love; his love for his partner, Johan van Vloten, who has been by his side for 40 years. It’s an amazing partnership and and a beautifully written book.

A PRIVATE LIFE. Fragments, Memories, Friends. By Michael Kirby. $35

By the time I began to explore my sexuality as a gay teenager in the late 1980s, homosexuality was no longer illegal in Australia – with the exception of Tasmania, which shamefully retained its laws until forced to repeal them in 1997.

As a gay teenager in the late 1950s, Michael Kirby came of age in an Australia that was far more conservative on the issue of homosexuality than it is today. And yet, the experience of ‘coming out’ seems no more or less easy from Kirby’s time to today.

In his book, A Private Life, former High Court judge Michael Kirby writes with great humour and extraordinary warmth about his life, his loves, his career and even his enemies. He notes in his introduction that, “this is not an autobiography.” And so it isn’t. The subtitle gives some insight to Kirby’s approach: fragments, memories, friends.

As the title suggests, this book is a peek into the private life of a very public man. When he retired from the High Court in 2009, Michael Kirby was Australia’s longest serving judge. But A Private Life barely mentions his distinguished career as a lawyer and jurist. I recommend A. J. Brown’s remarkable biography, Michael Kirby: Paradoxes/Principles, published earlier this year by The Federation Press, for greater insight into Kirby’s extraordinary public life.

In interviews promoting A Private Life, Kirby has suggested the book offers glimpses from his life. I’d suggest he allows a little more than a glimpse into a life that has been lived – by necessity – in a deeply private way. I prefer to see this collection of nine essays as sketches of a life lived; beginning with his school days at Sydney’s Fort Street Boys’ High School – where Kirby nostalgically remembers kind and dedicated teachers – and ending with a poignant reflection on his decision to ‘come out’ in 1999.

There is a sense of urgency to A Private Life. At 72 years of age, Kirby is fighting a battle with the arrow of time we will all one day come to lose. But this book isn’t about Kirby’s legacy. His place in history is assured. It is, above all else, a deeply personal message to young people – gay and straight. Kirby’s message? Being gay is normal. Discrimination – whether against gays, refugees or anyone – is something he simply can’t abide.

Life was not always easy for Kirby and his partner, Johan van Vloten, as they traversed conservative Sydney in the 1970s. There is a sense of sad resignation coupled with deep regret that it was van Vloten who was frequently left unacknowledged as Kirby’s legal career went from strength to strength.

Writing about his appointment to the Arbitration Commission in 1974, Kirby says of the ceremony: “Johan … discreetly stayed away. In fact, he came to none of my judicial welcomes until February 1996 when I was sworn to the office of a Justice of the High Court of Australia. Even then, he was not named by me, or anyone.”

And then there’s this tale of a Christmas party at their house: “Every Christmas I would invite the members and staff of the Law Reform Commission to come to the home in Rose Bay that Johan had created after 1976. In the manner of the Dutch, he would work furiously to have everything flawlessly spic and span. Then he would disappear. He did not return until he telephoned to make sure that the last guests had departed. I imagine that most colleagues and many friends of those years guessed about, or heard rumours of, the mysterious Dutchman. But my personal life was forbidden territory. We all knew the rules. Don’t ask. Don’t tell.”

Kirby may have lived through a different time, when being gay carried legal consequences and living one’s life as a gay man carried with it the burden of closeted caution, but he and van Vloten made it successfully through the other side. As a couple, they are a shining example to young lesbian and gay Australians. What could be more ‘normal’ than two people, who love each other deeply, spending their lives together? In February next year Kirby and van Vloten will celebrate forty-three years of ‘normalcy’.

For those gay teenagers who feel ostracised and rejected by society, perhaps even contemplating suicide, Kirby’s message of ‘normalcy’ is one of optimism. No matter how vocal and irrational the opposition, the days of normalcy are upon us.

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