It’s All About Johan
Essentially, however, the book deals with Kirby’s coming to terms as a young man with his homosexuality, particularly at a time when its very practice, even between consenting adults, was illegal. The social mores of growing up a teenager in a religious household in the 1950s would have presented homosexuality as a matter of great shame and, harking back to our convict past, as the ultimate taboo. Accordingly, he suppressed his worrying desires by devoting himself to study and the interminable committee life of a student politician. When he started life as a barrister, Neville Wran QC found him to be one of the hardest working members of the junior Bar. As a consequence the briefs came in by the barrow load. Kirby’s repression of his nature only revealed itself in a fixation for the film star James Dean, whose film East of Eden he saw on innumerable occasions at suburban cinemas around Sydney. It was not until he briefly met the “classic Spanish beauty” Demo and then later the love of his life, Johan van Vloten, that he accepted himself. However, Kirby’s relationship with van Vloten for years had to be a secret except amongst family and immediate friends. Their secret life continued after homosexuality was legalised in New South Wales and continued up until Kirby started to venture out during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s,finally revealing it in Who’s Who by announcing his domestic partnership with van Vloten. Up to that time, work social functions held at their home in Rose Bay were in van Vloten’s absence. Van Vloten did attend but was not mentioned at Kirby’s official welcome to the High Court Bench. This “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy must have been trying for both of them, particularly the cultured, well-read van Vloten. From the time of his “coming out”, Kirby has proved to be a tireless, erudite and energetic supporter of gay equality in Australia. He has been a role model for young people accepting themselves for whom they are. The book, an exposition from the Kinsey report and the United Kingdom Wolfenden report onwards, recognises that the choice of one’s sexuality is not the subject of governmental or indeed society’s concern or regulation. The book is a tribute and perhaps an apology to van Vloten for all the years of being the silent partner of what has proved to be a deep and enduring relationship. I trust this is not the last we see of Kirby in print. A more profound treatment of his life on the Bench, its challenges, its rewards and his judicial colleagues would be a welcome addition to anyone’s library.
The book is dedicated to his late father, Don Kirby, who recently died aged 95,with all his faculties. Clearly there are longevity genes in the Kirby family and Kirby’s frenetic pace and scholarship guarantee more works to come (one hopes). To paraphrase the words in the title of the recent film, I Love You Phillip Morris, starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, perhaps this book should have been called, I Love You Johan van Vloten.