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Opinion: Living out loud


Cite as: April 2014 88 (04) LIJ, p.30

At the recent launch of the LIVout network for LGBTIQ lawyers Fair Work Commissioner Leigh Johns spoke of his experience as a gay lawyer in changing times. This is an edited version of his speech.

I have been “out” for almost all of my professional career, and I have never before reflected on what it has meant to me to be gay in a conservative profession. I’ve had to reflect on whether my sexuality has mattered at all.

And I have concluded that it has.

I grew up in regional Victoria. The only person I knew who was gay (other than myself) was the local florist. Known as “Roxy”, he was flamboyant.

Roxy’s “I am who I am” attitude made me feel uncomfortable and challenged my identity.

My first experience in the legal profession as an articled clerk in 1993 also challenged my identity. This is because there was an openly gay first year lawyer at the firm. Stuart and I worked closely together and after another late night going through an endless discovery process he gave me a lift home and we were chatting.

He said, “It’s not easy being gay at work”.

I said, “I know”.

He said, very indignantly, “How could you possibly know?”

I said, “because I’m gay”.

And there it was, the genie was out of the bottle, and Stuart Kollmorgen is now a partner in that firm and co-chair of LIVOut.

In the 20 years since, I have had a blessed, discrimination-free career.

The only annoying (more than discriminatory) thing that has happened to me has occurred in the course of being vetted for security clearances as a part of the senior roles I have held in government. During that very invasive process and inquiry into every element of your life you have to disclose crimes committed (even if you have not been charged with or convicted of them). And so each time I have had to disclose that in 1996 I breached ss122 and 123 of the Tasmanian Criminal Code which criminalised all forms of sexual contact between consenting adult men in private. I have then usually had to explain those sections to the vetting officer. No straight person who had sex in Tasmania in 1996 has to make any disclosure about it.

Soon there will be legislation allowing men who have convictions for gay sex to apply to have their convictions erased.

Now there are openly gay and lesbian people in all areas of the profession. Courage, like Stuart’s, makes a difference – because courage is infectious.

Another person whose courage, conviction and dedication to human rights (particularly for the LGBTIQ community) has inspired me in my career, is lawyer Jamie Gardiner.

There was Jamie, out and proud, and his example has made an extraordinary difference.

I don’t see my own efforts as president of the Victorian AIDS Council/Gay Men’s Health Centre, as a governor of the AIDS Trust of Australia, or through Midsumma as courageous. I was merely following the lead of many before me.

However, I do see my experience as a gay parent as courageous. I was certainly the first gay guy to apply for paternity leave at Mallesons, Australian Business Lawyers, and in senior leadership roles at the Commonwealth government agencies I have been appointed to.

It is a courage that I have shared with my co-parents, Samantha, Tracey and Brendan. Our co-parenting model has enabled me to have the best of both worlds as a parent and very busy career-focused lawyer.

Like all families it has not been without its challenges (and those are private reflections), but they are more than outweighed by the enriching presence of my daughter in my life.

In his book A Private Life - fragments, memories, friends, Michael Kirby writes, “If I had not been homosexual, I would almost certainly have married, and had children and grandchildren. In the immortal words of the hero in Zorba the Greek, I would have had the “full catastrophe”.

It saddens me to read those words and to think that, because of when he careered (so spectacularly) through our profession, such a loving, kind and thoughtful man was denied the opportunity to be a parent and, therefore, also, now in his very busy “retirement”, a grandparent.

However, it is thanks to the preparedness of people like Michael to come out (as he did in 1999) and other out senior members of our profession like family friends Justice Jennifer Coate and Judge Judy Small, that the gift of parenthood was not denied to me.

Courage, like Michael’s, Jen’s and Judy’s makes a difference – because courage is infectious.

My personal reflection, therefore, is that being gay and out, has been important to my career in the profession –although not negatively so.

But I know many others who have not had so blessed a career free from discrimination. And that is why the LIVOut network is important and why it is important for successful people in our profession to tell their stories.

Things only change if people speak up. My congratulations to the LIV for its courage and leadership in establishing LIVOut.


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