Ambassadors & Bridge Builders International (ABBI) celebrated its 10-year anniversary recently with a Gala Dinner at the Novotel Sydney Central. Greetings and congratulations came in from LGBTQ and faith leaders from around Australia and the world. The Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG send this message in his absence.

“I remember meeting and talking with Anthony Venn-Brown at the very beginning of the work of his bridge builder’s organisation. 

The fact that he came from a Pentecostal background made him especially valuable in reaching out to that community of Christians to appeal to their better natures and to understanding of the fundamental principles of our religion.

Anthony has been brave, strong and helpful.

I hope that he will continue, with many other friends, to help change the world for LGBTIQ people.”

The Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG

Our friendship began in 2004, when Michael Kirby kindly wrote the foreword to A Life of Unlearning. You can read that HERE.

Below is an extract from the final chapter of the second edition of A Life of Unlearning. The first edition became a bestseller in Australia and sold out.

“The week after the launch of the first edition of A Life of Unlearning, I invited the Honourable Justice Michael Kirby to lunch. This would be a simple way of showing him how grateful I was that he had taken time out of his busy schedule to read my book and write the foreword.

In Australia and overseas Justice Kirby is highly respected and in the gay community has become somewhat of a hero. His appointments in the judicial system have been noteworthy, but he is especially known as a Justice of the High Court of Australia. Justice Kirby received Australia’s highest civil honour when he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 1991. Being a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG), the United Nations Special Representative in Cambodia and the President of the International Commission of Jurists are other career highlights of note.

Justice Kirby has been open about his homosexuality since 1999, when he outed himself in Australia’s Who’s Who, naming Johan van Vloten as his long-term partner, now of thirty-seven years. He has often spoken publicly in support of gay rights and as an Anglican has expressed disappointment at his church’s stance on homosexuality. On 2 May 2002, Justice Kirby was quoted in the Melbourne daily newspaper The Age, The churches, especially, must accept much of the blame for the homophobia that still exists in Australia, as in all communities. This is both the puzzle and the challenge. It is a puzzle, because such attitudes seem so incompatible with the basic lessons of a spiritual belief. The challenge is to expedite a change of view and to reiterate the universality of spiritual outreach. In the past there was perhaps an excuse for ignorance about sexuality. Today there is none. Homophobia has to stop. Silence and shame are the means by which oppression continues. That is why people like me must speak up.’

Justice Kirby’s willingness to speak so openly has not endeared him to everyone. In 2002, one of his critics, Liberal senator Bill Heffernan, under parliamentary privilege, accused Justice Kirby of using government vehicles to pick up male prostitutes. It appeared to many that this was an orchestrated attempt at character assassination, and Heffernan’s evidence to support this claim was swiftly discovered to be a forgery. Senator Heffernan resigned his post as Parliamentary Secretary, and made a statement to the Senate in which he withdrew the claims. Even though the allegations were false, I imagine this would have caused the Judge personal hurt and stress and understandably deserved some justifiable retribution, but when Senator Heffernan eventually apologised, Justice Kirby simply responded, ‘I accept Senator Heffernan’s apology and reach out my hand in a spirit of reconciliation. I hope my ordeal will show the wrongs that hate of homosexuals can lead to.’ Obviously the title, The Honourable, is not just a title—he is a man of great honour.

We had been corresponding via email for some time and had spoken briefly when he and Johan popped into my book launch, preferring to stand in the background while my daughters launched the book. I’d never met a High Court Judge before and was unsure how to address him. Justice, Judge, Your Honour—all seemed  right and respectful, but, being a more informal person, I chose to call him Michael. I must admit it felt a little awkward, but he didn’t seem to mind.

We met for lunch at a café behind the Law Court building. We talked about the possibility of having been on a dance floor at the same time in 1972, before my Christian belief system drove me back into the closet for another nineteen years. I thought for a moment about the contrast between our two journeys and wondered if I’d stayed true to my sexuality from those early days, would I have found a lifelong companion as he had?

The conversation paused, and he looked at me seriously, straightened up, and his eyes became more intense and focused. ‘Now Anthony,’ I knew I was in for an important statement, ‘writing your book is not the end. Your role is to change the Pentecostals’ view on homosexuality.’ I thought it was a rather tall order and a tad flattering that he thought I could actually be that influential. I had already concluded that my work was done once I’d told my story. Now I could get on with my life, or so I thought. What more could I do?

Justice Kirby reminded me that people in Pentecostal churches are like most people in other denominations who are basically good, loving and Christian people. Something I had also come to understand and believe from renewed contacts with various people and my years in the church. Confronted with scientific facts and actual human beings that they are hurting, they will eventually come to appreciate that there is a need to re-examine the scriptural texts presently taken as adverse to homosexuals. Possibly we may never see the dissolving of extremists groups like the Reverend Fred Phelps of and others. Regrettably, we have seen too much hatred returned for hatred on both sides of the fence which continues to reinforce stereotypes and clouds rational debate.

Justice Kirby continued with further details and as I listened intently to what he was saying, I had a strong sense he was speaking prophetically. Deep down inside, his words resonated strongly with me and made perfect sense. As a former leader within the Assemblies of God, and having resolved my personal issues around the conflict between my sexual orientation and my faith, I was best qualified to speak into those spaces. But how was I to  do that?”