The Honourable Michael Kirby has long been one of Australia’s most visible gay figures. He spoke to Jesse Jones about what should come next in LGBTI activism.

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Retired High Court Justice Michael Kirby has seen many advances in Australian LGBTI rights over the years leading up to the legislation of marriage equality.

“Naturally, I was happy that it happened—though not happy about the delay, and not happy about the process,” he says.

Kirby says marriage equality could never have happened without prior improvements to LGBTI rights.

“The most important was the gradual removal of the criminal laws, starting with South Australia in 1974, followed by other states including New South Wales in 1984, and finally Tasmania in 1997,” he explains.

“That also took quite a while to achieve, but eventually all of the criminal laws against gay people were removed.

“Until that was achieved, there really wasn’t a possibility of moving in other fronts, such as the provision of anti-discrimination laws, marriage equality, or other matters of equality under the law. While [homosexuality] was criminalised, it was difficult to argue for those reforms.”

Kirby believes the next challenge will be in relation to discrimination against LGBTI people.

“The tasks remaining in Australia include strengthening the anti-discrimination laws, and responding to the demands of the so-called faith communities for exemption from anti-discrimination requirements,” he says.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of this in the coming months.”

While we celebrate how far we’ve come in Australia, Kirby wants to see our focus expand to LGBTI rights in neighbouring countries as well.

“The countries of our region, which have a similar legal system inherited from Britain, continue to have criminal laws which stand as an impediment to securing the removal of all the other discriminatory laws against LGBTI people,” he says.

“We should, as informed citizens of Australia, who have gone through periods of discrimination that still continue in some respects, be concerned about and engaged with the countries of our region, which include some of the worst discriminators against LGBTI people in the world.

“In many countries in the world, they haven’t even got to first base—in fact, in several countries, things are getting worse, in respect of the criminal law, and violence, and hostility.”

He notes that Brunei has reintroduced the death penalty for gay sex, and LGBTI rights are being eroded in other places including India, Singapore, and Bangladesh.

“In these matters of fundamental human rights, you’ve got to be an internationalist,” he says.

“This is a really urgent task from the point of view of the global community.

“We’re talking not about discomfort and injustice and inequality, we’re talking about life, survival, and violent hostility.”

Looking to the future, Kirby sees LGBTI rights in Australia continuing on a positive trajectory, which should allow us to move towards global activism.

“The status and rights of young LGBTI people will continue to improve,” he says.

“I would say to young people who live a life in contact with the internet and with the global community that they should be more engaged with our region and with the world than their predecessors were, in particular with countries in Asia and the Pacific, because they are our neighbours.

“We have gone down the path, and we should be walking with them to ensure that they also secure the reforms that we have in Australia.”

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