Michael Barnett, long-time co-convener of Aleph Melbourne, was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1969 to English-speaking immigrant parents of Eastern European Jewish (Ashkenazi) tradition. At the age of six months his parents Merv and Naomi returned to his father’s adopted home of Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe). Due to an increasingly unstable political outlook there they took advantage of Michael’s Australian citizenship and his mother’s New Zealand citizenship and decided to resettle in Melbourne, together with his younger brother Garry. The two-week return journey on the Galileo Galilei ocean liner departed Cape Town, South Africa and arrived in Port Melbourne in August 1973.
Thereafter he lived in a number of suburbs around Melbourne including the haymishe Jewish neighbourhood of Balaclava (c1974-1978) and later (1978-1996) outlying East Doncaster and Doncaster, both in close proximity to the North Eastern Jewish Centre (NEJC).
Michael attended a number of government and Jewish day schools, including Mount Scopus Memorial College (1974-75), Caulfield North Central School (1976-77), East Doncaster Primary School (1978-80), Bialik College (1981-83) and Balwyn High School (1984-86). He completed his Higher School Certificate (HSC) in 1986. Outside the day schools he also attended Sunday school classes run by the United Jewish Education Board for many years. He was raised and educated with a traditional perspective of Judaism, tending to the more Orthodox side. He had his Bar Mitzvah in the Yeshurun Synagogue at the NEJC under Rabbi Adi Sultanik in March 1982, having been taught by Kurt Rathner whilst at Bialik College.
Michael also attended the now defunct Jewish scout troop 3rd Doncaster West at the NEJC, going through Cubs, Scouts and Venturers, leaving in 1985 to focus on his schoolwork.
Attending the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) from 1987 he completed the first year and part of the second year of the Applied Chemistry undergraduate course, choosing to transfer to the Computer Science course in 1989 which he completed in 1991. He graduated in 1992 with a Bachelor of Applied Science, majoring in computer science. He began a long professional career in the Information Technology related roles, first working at the newly formed RMIT University until 1996 and then in various specialist technical support roles to present day, with two major periods at Compaq/Hewlett-Packard and IBM.
Despite Michael identifying an attraction to boys, but not girls, at the age of 10 he felt sufficient pressure from heteronormative societal and cultural expectations and attempted relationships with women through his teens and twenties. Having suffered badly from anxiety in social settings for many years, at the age of 26 in September 1995 following a period of emotional maturation Michael felt sufficiently confident to identify as a gay man. An advertisment in the Austalian Jewish News newspaper lead Michael to contact a nascent social and support group for gay men called Aleph Melbourne, where he talked to them about his journey and desire to come out publicly. The initial advice he received was just to read a book on being Jewish and gay before rushing into coming out, but he felt so charged with enthusiasm for his new-found freedom that he simply told everyone he knew, starting with family and close friends, that he was gay and in return was overwhelmingly shown support and love. Life for Michael took on a fresh and exciting outlook, now that he was unshackled from the burdens of trying to be something he wasn’t.
Michael felt a sense of safety and connection with the Aleph Melbourne community and became increasingly involved with the small but growing group, which held meetings and events in private homes and cafes around the Caulfield/Prahran area. In 1998 he became President of Aleph Melbourne, later to become co-convenor, and has continuously and forthrightly led its efforts to raise awareness of the marginalisation and vilification he and others faced from within the Jewish community, along with wanting to provide a safe space and a voice for LGBTIQ+ people within the Jewish community.
Michael has used his skills as a photographer, radio announcer, blogger and technologist to become active in campaigns for equal rights for LGBTIQ+ people, combating youth suicide and challenging religious oppression and influence in government. He was an announcer on Melbourne’s gay and lesbian radio station JOY Melbourne from 1996-2003.
Michael has helped coordinate the Aleph Melbourne, and in recent years “Jews of Pride”, contingents, in the Melbourne Pride March since 1997, as an effort to break down stigma in the Jewish community and help reduce rates of suicide due to isolation and intolerance of LGBTIQ+ people. In addition Michael is a frequent letter writer and contributor to the Australian Jewish News, where he challenges toxic attitudes coming from conservative religious forces from within the community.
Michael has been in a relationship with his husband Gregory since November 2008. They registered their relationship as a Domestic Partnership in Victoria in April 2010 and got married in New Zealand in January 2014. Their overseas marriage was recognised under Australian law in December 2017 following the successful passage of marriage equality legislation in November that year.
Michael remains committed to equality and inclusion for LGBTIQ+ people in the Jewish and wider communities.
(This biographical statement provided by Michael Barnett.)
Biography Date: March 2020
Jewish (ethnic, Reformed, Reconstructionist, Orthodox) | Australia | Activist (religious institutions) | Aleph Melbourne | Melbourne | Author/editor