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Editorial: Another milestone towards glbti equality

Mon 8 Dec 2014 In: Community View at Wayback View at NDHA

Justice Matthew Muir is sworn in by Chief Justice Sian Elias. Sitting in courtroom number one at the High Court in Auckland late on Friday afternoon for the swearing-in of the first openly gay person to be appointed to the highest court in the land, a number of thoughts went through my head, once I had got over the “OMG, this is history in the making” awareness. It was, of course, very much history in the making. The High Court, or the Supreme Court as it was then called, was established in 1841 and in the following 173 years it has never been considered morally, socially or professionally acceptable to have an openly-gay man, let alone any other person identifiably of a sexual minority, on that body. We glbti folk have of course been in the High Court, occasionally as closeted judges or officials, as observers in the public or press galleries or, way too frequently, present in spirit as the silenced victims of murder trials. Today was rather grandly different As I arrived at Justice Matthew Muir's swearing in it immediately struck me that I was the only journalist there. A photographer was capturing the moment for the Law Society's records. And there was a camera operator whose job seemed also to be to make a formal record of the proceedings. No other media, gay or mainstream, seemed to think that this event was worth covering. Whether this was due to lax professional acumen, or some kind of post-gay product of increasing assimilation I don't know. But it was noticeable. The court surroundings are neo-Gothic; majestic with red and gold carpet, richly carved dark woods, a soaring ceiling, an ornate canopy at the business end bearing a gold emblem of the court's gravitas. More men than women packed the courtroom, perhaps due to the still-persistent preponderance of men in the upper reaches of the legal profession and branches of the judiciary, perhaps a little bit due to the new judge having more male than female friends. It was a sea of dark suits and sober dress, with clusters of smaller courtly wigs and black gowns. I spotted at least one gay person amongst the court staff and, though eminently professional, he seemed to be just a little bit aware that he was involved in making gay history. We all rose and in filed the High Court judges, impressive in red robes, white flap collars and long white wigs. Their appearance may be an anachronism but somehow it also adds an 'otherness' to their high office. “High court drag” chuckled a gay lawyer later at the after-match function. The eminent judges were inordinately human. They smiled to friends, checked they didn't step on each others' hems as they mounted the narrow stairs under the grand canopy, and settled in. Chief Justice Sian Elias, a barrier-breaker herself as New Zealand's first woman in that role, began the traditional and proscribed proceedings. She welcomed Muir and made particular mention of his partner James who was sitting nearby, looking quietly as proud as a man could be and surrounded by the couple's family and closest friends. Elias outlined the job ahead, paid tribute to Muir's skills and experience, and before passing on a few sage of words of advice acknowledged that Muir's appointment represented another homophobic barrier broken down. She minced no words in reflecting on the often terrible lives lived by gay men before Homosexual Law Reform in 1986 and voiced her approval at the legal and social progress society has since made in bringing glbti people in from the cold. Representatives of several legal bodies made appropriate but not startling speeches, and the Attorney General, openly gay politician Chris Finlayson, welcomed Muir onto the bench by speaking about his own deep concern regarding the court having to deal with self-represented defendants and vexatious litigants. Par for the course for this openly gay, but not rainbow flag-waving man whose political and religious conservatism restrain his public engagement on matters homosexual. But we all take different paths and live our own lives as best suits us. New High Court Justice Matthew Muir (r) and his partner James Peters immediately after the swearing in. Image: Muir then signed the formal documents and spoke rather well. He took us through his rural childhood, his grammar school experiences, early legal work including as the Automobile Association's house lawyer and his gradual but inexorable rise leading to his becoming a Queens Counsel and to this swearing in. He, too, reflected on his sexuality and it became clear through the ceremonials that he was determined not to be a token gay judge in order to pump up the court's diversity cred. He told a few good funny stories including a handful that only the lawyers present properly appreciated and was charmingly deprecating about aspects of his and James' life. He acknowledged the gay lawyers present, some of whom he had helped as they drafted the bill which would become the homosexual law reform legislation. At the stroke of a governor general's pen that legislation removed the inherited fear of generations of persecuted gay men from those who could now increasingly  live in the freedom other New Zealanders had always taken for granted. He spoke with sincerity, humour and restraint and will bring you his speech as soon as we can. And suddenly it was over, we stood and the red robes filed out. We all chatted and headed for the savouries and wines and coffee. There was laughter and much hand-shaking. The justices, now de-robed, appeared and mixed easily. The women were generally youngish and stylishly dressed. The men were on average older and more soberly attired. All looked at least ten years younger than they had in their court regalia. After half an hour the ranks had thinned and, turning down a much-appreciated last minute invitation to join Muir and his retinue for an evening function at the Northern Club, I slipped out into the cool evening and headed back to the office. It has been quite a year for glbti equality progress. For generations it was accepted wisdom that homosexuals were a liability in matters of state security. Marginalised and denigrated by the state apparatus of most countries we were considered to be weak, irresponsible, immoral and too prone to being blackmailed by the enemy's devious agents to ever be entrusted with the lives of others and the future of the nation. Too many closeted, often British, spies who became compromised due to their homosexuality reinforced that view. The now almost deified gay mathematician and World War Two cryptography genius Alan Turing was an innocent and tragic victim of it. And yet, a couple of months ago our conservative government handed oversight of New Zealand's most secret spying and intelligence operations to a homosexual. Attorney General Chris Finlayson, and Prime Minister John Key who appointed him to oversee the Security Intelligence Service, broke through that particular homophobic barrier. A gay man is now privy to, and the keeper of, the country's most closely-guarded secrets. And late on Friday afternoon Matthew Muir crashed through the final judicial barrier. For a gay observer who remembers the often fearful and sometimes blighted lives of most gay men pre-Homosexual Law Reform in the mid-1980s it was a singularly sweet moment to be present in Court Room number one when the country's first openly-gay Attorney General was the government's representative at the swearing in of our first openly-gay high court judge. That was quite something. Surely we've reached the end of the path to equality, I thought for a moment. Then I remembered glbti people's disproportionately high representation in addiction, depression, HIV and other STD stats, the path our trans brothers and sisters are still treading and the shockingly high suicide rates of our youth. Then I read this.     Jay Bennie - 8th December 2014

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Monday, 8th December 2014 - 4:26am

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