Michael Kirby - Law Can Be a Hindrance but Also an Opportunity

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Oct 09, 2015
by Heather Jaber
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Michael Kirby - Law Can Be a Hindrance but Also an Opportunity

Michael Kirby, former judge of the High Court of Australia, discussed using the law for the inclusion of LGBT people

Participants at the third annual Salzburg Global LGBT Forum had the chance to gain rare insight from the first Australian High Court judge to come out as gay. Michael Kirby spoke with Fellows about his experience coming out and the law as both an obstacle and opportunity for the LGBT rights movement.

At this year’s instalment, Strengthening Communities: LGBT Rights & Social Cohesion, Kirby shared his personal experience growing up as a homosexual in suburban Sydney, knowing that societally, “it was not a good thing.” He adhered to social norms, thus missing out on significant life experiences. “I was playing the game in a way that society had imposed on me,” he said to the Fellows. “I was the one that deserved an apology. I was the one that was forced to hide reality.” 

The former judge came out in 1999, he has spoken openly about growing up in a society unaccepting of homosexuality. He has since been an advocate for not only gay rights, but human rights in general. Most recently, he was appointed chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea.

Kirby, who is also vice-president of vice-chair of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association, spoke with Dr. Klaus Mueller, chair of the forum, about LGBT rights from a legal perspective. “The law has often been an oppressor of LGBT people…but as we discovered with the HIV epidemic, law can also be a supporter of new thinking and new directions.” He touched on the HIV epidemic and reaching out to engage with people to overcome hostility.

The former judge also discussed his own experience growing up with the knowledge that the laws and attitudes at the time were discriminatory, but that change has occurred at a surprising rate. “The attitudes were irrational; they were unscientific,” said Kirby. “They had to change, but the pace of change has been extraordinary.”

In many countries, said Kirby, the law is not making the same strides. Although there are significant movements taking place, Kirby urged movement leaders to recognize that not everyone will share their concerns. Still, it’s important to remain grounded and gain from others’ strength, he said. “This is therefore a kind of globalism, but with a reality check.”

Kirby has worked with various United Nations agencies and is a longtime Fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar, having attended sessions on biotechnology, telecommunications, and international crime response. 

To read more about the life stories of Kirby and other Fellows, check out the session report below.


The Salzburg Global program Strengthening Communities: LGBT Rights & Social Cohesion is part of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum. The list of our partners for Session 551 can be found here. For more information, please visit: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/551