Australian inquest investigates 40 years of gay hate killings

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CANBERRA, Australia — A government inquiry began on Wednesday hearing evidence of unsolved deaths resulting from gay hate crimes spanning four decades in Australia’s most populous state, where police were notoriously indifferent to such violence.

The New South Wales LGBTIQ Hate Crimes Special Commission is the “first of its kind in the world”, lawyer assisting the inquiry, Peter Gray, said at the start of the hearing in Sydney. The acronym in the title refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people.

The responses of Australian society and its institutions, including the police, to violent LGBTQ deaths had “sadly been lacking”, Gray said.

“All of those lives, of every one of those people, mattered. They mattered to them, to their loved ones and ultimately to all of us. And their deaths matter,” Gray said.

“This special commission, by shedding light on all that is known and can be discovered about what happened, will aim to provide some acknowledgment of the truth,” he added.

Violence against gay men in Sydney was particularly widespread from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s due to heightened hostility and fear resulting from the AIDS epidemic, according to a previous report by a support group at the HIV, ACON.

Almost half of the 88 deaths linked to “gay hatred” and “anti-gay prejudice” in New South Wales between 1976 and 2000 occurred during this period, according to the report.

Among them is Scott Johnson, a 27-year-old mathematician born in Los Angeles, whose fatal fall from a Sydney cliff in 1988 was initially ruled a suicide by police.

Her killer, Scott White, 52, was sentenced in May to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to murder.

White last week appealed to the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal against the conviction, which was based on his guilty plea that surprised his lawyers at a preliminary hearing in January.

The trial judge denied the defense lawyers’ request to withdraw his plea.

Gray said that with Johnson’s death still before the courts, his case would not be part of the reinvestigation.

Johnson’s murder was one of many suspicious deaths highlighted in the Australian media since the early 2000s in reports of violence against LGTBQ people.

Australian attitudes towards LGBTQ people changed rapidly at the end of the 20th century.

In 1958, Colin Delaney, then New South Wales Police Commissioner, described homosexuality as the “greatest social threat” in Australia.

The state decriminalized gay sex in 1984, but allowed a so-called “gay panic defense” for charges of murder and other violent crimes until 2014 as a partial defense.

The ACON report was mirrored by a police report on the same 88 deaths between 1976 and 2000. Both reports were released in 2018. ACON considers 30 of the 88 deaths to remain “unsolved”.

The police report only considered 86 deaths, excluding one death that occurred interstate and another that was the subject of an active criminal investigation. Police considered only 23 of the 86 cases unsolved.

A parliamentary inquiry later expanded the timeline by looking at what it described as ‘homosexual and transgender hate crimes’ between 1970 and 2010. That inquiry found that police forces ‘failed in their responsibilities to properly investigate on historic cases of gay and transgender hate crimes,” undermining LGTBQ confidence in the criminal justice system.

Last year, this inquiry recommended the creation of the current judicial inquiry with the power to compel witnesses to testify.

The new inquest, led by NSW Supreme Court Justice John Sackar, will review the 86 deaths during the 24-year window and determine which remain unsolved.

The inquest also looked at New South Wales records of more than 700 unsolved murders and more than 500 missing people from 1970 to 2010 for potential murders linked to gay hatred and anti-gay bias.

The inquiry is due to report by June 30 next year. Gray called on anyone with information about suspicious LGTBQ deaths to come forward.

“Justice in these cases has been long delayed and long overdue,” Gray said.

“This may be the last chance for the truth about some of these historic deaths to come to light. We need to hear from everyone who can help us do that,” he added.

The police have made efforts in recent years to restore relations with the LGTBQ community.

Police apologized in 2016 for violently arresting and beating 53 activists who marched on Sydney’s first gay and lesbian Mardi Gras in 1978. Police now officially take part in the iconic annual event.

“Our relationship today, I would say, is positive and progressive. That certainly wasn’t the case in 1978,” Police Commissioner Tony Crandell said in 2016.

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