Michael Kirby grew up in Sydney and graduated from the University of Sydney. In 1975 he was appointed to his first judicial post as a Deputy President of the Arbitration Commission. Thereafter, he was inaugural Chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission; Judge of the Federal Court of Australia; President of the Court of Appeal of New South Wales and later of Solomon Islands.

In 1996 he was appointed a Justice of the High Court of Australia, a position he held until 2009. He has served in many United Nations and other posts concerned with universal human rights. In 1995 he was elected President of the International Commission of Jurists and in 2018, co-chair of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association, a position he still holds. Since 1969, he has lived with his partner Johan van Vloten and they married on the 50th anniversary of their first meeting, in February 2019. Since his engagement with national and international activities in the HIV pandemic, he has been open about his sexuality. He is associated with a number of international bodies that work for equality and justice for LGBTIQ+ people, not only in Australia but worldwide. His speech at the opening of the Sydney Gay Games in 2002 has been transcribed in music.

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