John Marsden was a contradiction: an arrogant man who could turn on the charm; a heroic figure brought down by a fatal flaw; a champion for civil rights who could ruthlessly disregard the rights of others when it suited him.

Typically his death has brought out his admirers and detractors for one last war of words. But some of his admirers have given into typical posthumous clich?nd some of his detractors have marred very valid critiques with snide comments about his sex life that could rightly be called homophobic.

But some of what the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Sheehan wrote about Marsden this week was right: he was a bully and he probably criminally interfered with some of the potential witnesses in his defamation case. What struck me most about Sheehan’s assessment was this:

Whenever things got hot for Marsden, he and his supporters in the lavender mafia would raise the cry of homophobia, a cynical debasement of gay rights.

While I was editor of the Star, Marsden subjected me and other reporters to abusive, screaming phone calls and sent me accusative letters.

He and some of his mates expected the Star to be a one-eyed cheer squad during his defamation case. I believed our job was to report the news as it happened. But whenever coverage didn’t go exactly the way he wanted we were accused of playing into the hands of the homophobes.

At one point in the case he blatantly encouraged me to break the law, urging me to publish the name of one of the prosecution witnesses despite a suppression order.

The witness was a prisoner and the court had suppressed his name because it judged that the witness’s life might be endangered if what he said in court got back to other inmates. Marsden claimed the man had a homophobic past and should be exposed. This didn’t seem to me (or the court) a good enough reason to put the witness’s life in danger.

It was an example of Marsden playing the homophobia trump card for all it was worth. The man’s life was irrelevant to Marsden and, in this case, so were the principles of law he supposedly loved.

No matter what smart social cause he wrapped it up in, anything John Marsden ever did or said was essentially about John Marsden.

He called his defamation case a David and Goliath struggle. It was certainly that. Publicly he liked to link the case to his long commitment to gay and human rights.

To him, it became not just a personal suit but a heroic stand against the forces of homophobia. And there were undoubtedly vicious anti-gay elements to the case.

Privately, after the case was over, he told me the defamation suit was mainly a legal tactic. He thought the DPP was considering pressing criminal charges and he launched the defamation case as a way of staying the possibility of criminal prosecution.

But like most things Marsden said to me I have no idea whether this was any more or less true than anything else he said. Marsden probably didn’t even know either, he usually seemed to act first and if he thought at all he thought much later.

He was publicly out before many professionals of his standing and in that sense he was a pioneer. He certainly spoke his mind and was uniquely unapologetic about his sex life. He had a toughened street fighter’s sense of justice. These were all qualities I admired.

But what strikes me most about Marsden is how he fits the mould of the classic tragic hero: a man with great gifts and good intentions who is brought to nothing by a fatal flaw.

What his friends often chose to call Marsden’s courage could just as easily be dismissed as monstrous ego, and this was his fatal flaw.

He loved the spotlight and if cancer hadn’t intervened he said he would have gladly defended the brutal dictator and mass murderer Saddam Hussein.

Who knows if he was really asked to be part of Hussein’s defence team, but the fact that he would associate himself with such brutality just to get a few paragraphs of media attention sums up John Marsden’s fraught battle between ego and altruism.

He was a man of many achievements but let’s be a bit careful before we put him on the gay heroes list. There is too much about John Marsden I would never want young gay men or lesbians to emulate. Nor would it do the man himself justice to blithely canonise his bizarre and chaotic life.



Last Thursday morning my friend John Marsden died. He was in Istanbul, Turkey where he had gone on holiday against the advice of family, friends and doctors. Just weeks before he had been in intensive care but being incurably defiant, the more we begged him not to go, the more determined his resolve.

The gap left in my life is huge but the gap left in our community is even bigger. John’s contribution has been immeasurable, much of it behind the scenes rather than the high profile and flamboyant things for which many will remember him.

I first met John when I was co-convenor of the GLRL. John lobbied harder than anyone, he was always willing to pick up the phone and ring politicians or get us through doors we never could have gotten through without his help.

In those days he was President of the Law Society, and the Council for Civil Liberties, on the Police and Anti-Discrimination Boards and mates with the premier. No one was more influential and having him on your side was a huge advantage.

But he was also big, blustery and larger than life. He was far from perfect and ultimately his own worst enemy because he wore his imperfections as a badge of honour. When politicians and the media came to get him, it was all too easy to find examples of things that he had said or done that could be twisted.

During the Wood Royal Commission many of us turned our backs on John, in case accusations against him caused repercussions for the whole community. But it was during the defamation case against Channel 7 that we became firm friends.

Since then I have watched the steady deterioration of his body as he has fought one bout of cancer after another and the inhumanely harsh side effects of a bone marrow stem cell transplant. It is as if he physically could no longer bear the attacks on his character.

In the last few weeks John reflected a lot on the past and spoken often about the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic when he attended more than one funeral a day and of how many, many friends he had lost. I can only hope he is with them again.

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