Michael Kirby shares his mum’s amazing reaction to his coming out


michael kirby gay same-sex marriage high court judge johan van vloten
Photo: ABC

Former High Court judge Michael Kirby has shared the moment he came out as gay to his mother just days before her death, and her heartwarming response.

The 82-year-old spoke to comedian and artist Anh Do on this week’s episode of ABC program Anh’s Brush with Fame. Kirby opened up about the struggles he faced sharing his sexuality to his parents.

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He said he brought his longtime partner Johan van Vloten home for a Sunday roast in 1969, three weeks after they met, at a time when homosexuality was illegal.

Kirby wouldn’t explcitly tell his mother Jean they were together until just before she died in 1998.

“When my mother was dying, I felt an obligation to verbalise it,” he said.

“I’d never verbalised it with her. I felt I couldn’t let her die without having been completely honest with her.

“So I said, ‘Mum, there’s something I’ve got to tell you.’ She looked at me with her lovely eyes and I said, ‘I have to tell you that I’m homosexual’.

Kirby said she replied, “Michael, you’ve been bringing Johan here for 30 years, every Sunday night. I didn’t come down in the last shower.”

A few days later, she died.

Kirby described his mother as “intuitive, accepting and loving”, but said his father Donald was more “complex” and struggled to accept his son’s sexuality.

“My father was always worried that this would bring me down and would cause misfortune to myself,” he said.

The 82-year-old explained he sadly never got the closure with his father that he got with his mother.

Kirby dedicated his 2012 book A Private Life to his father. He recalled the moment his dad phoned him at 2am, a few days before he died.

“He rang up and said, ‘Why did you dedicate that book to me? Talking about these issues of your private life and your relationship with Johan. Why did you dedicate that to me? Why couldn’t you have kept me out of that?'” Kirby recalled.

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“That showed me that, at the end, he was still struggling with that aspect.

“I realised from that intervention – virtually on his deathbed – that he still was troubled.”

Michael Kirby shares ‘secret code’ used to hide relationship

Michael Kirby and Johan van Vloten, originally from the Netherlands, have been together for 52 years. They met at the Rex Hotel in King’s Cross.

He told Ahn Do about the great lengths they went to at the time to keep his sexuality secret to safeguard his legal career.

“When I was chairman of the Law Reform Commission, [Johan] would prepare the Christmas party at our home in Rose Bay,” he recalled.

“He would remove all the photographs and other things and get it all ready and then he would disappear.”

Kirby explained, “When I rang him, I would telephone and then let it ring [twice] and then I would ring again.

“That was a code so he knew that this wasn’t a judge ringing up the phone or somebody in the law of importance.

“He could then lift the phone and he knew it was me or one of my brothers or somebody else who was safe.

“This is what gay people had to do in those days.”

New South Wales decriminalised homosexuality in 1984, when Kirby was in his mid-forties. Kirby went on to serve as a High Court judge from 1996 to 2009.

Michael and Johan married in 2019

Michael Kirby and Johan van Vloten married at their Sydney home in 2019.

The couple tied the knot on their 50th anniversary, two years after Australia legalised marriage equality.

Anh’s Brush with Fame is streaming on ABC iView.

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