CANBERRA, Australia — A government inquiry began hearing evidence on Wednesday of unsolved deaths resulting from gay hate crimes over four decades in Australia’s most populous state where police were notoriously indifferent to such violence.
The Special Commission of Inquiry into LGBTIQ Hate Crimes in New South Wales is the “first of its kind anywhere in the world,” a lawyer assisting the inquiry, Peter Gray, said at the hearing’s outset in Sydney. The acronym in the title refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people.
Responses from Australian society and its institutions including police to violent LGBTQ deaths had been “sadly lacking,” Gray said.
“All these lives, of every one of these 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 shining a light on everything that is known and can be found out about what happened, will aim to provide some recognition of the truth,” he added.
Violence against gay men in Sydney was particularly prevalent from the mid-1980s until the early 1990s due to increased hostility and fear stemming from the AIDS epidemic, a previous report by an HIV support group, ACON, found.
Almost half of the 88 “gay hate” and “anti-gay bias” deaths in New South Wales between 1976 and 2000 occurred in that period, the report said.
They include Scott Johnson, a 27-year-old Los Angeles-born mathematician whose fatal fall from a Sydney clifftop in 1988 was initially dismissed by police as suicide.
His killer, Scott White, 52, was sentenced in May to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to murder.
White last week appealed in the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal against that conviction, which was based on his guilty plea that surprised his lawyers during a pretrial hearing in January.
The trial judge rejected the defense lawyers’ application to withdraw his plea.
Gray said because Johnson’s death was still before the courts, his case would not be part of the new investigation.
Johnson’s murder was one of several suspicious deaths highlighted in Australian media since the early 2000s in reports on violence against LGTBQ people.
Australian attitudes toward LGBTQ people changed rapidly in the late 20th century.
In 1958, then-New South Wales Police Commissioner Colin Delaney described homosexuality as the “greatest social menace” in Australia.
The state decriminalized gay sex in 1984 but allowed a so-called “gay panic defense” to charges of murder and other violent crimes until 2014. Also known as the “homosexual advance defense,” a criminal could use the victim making a sexual approach 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 published in 2018. ACON considers 30 of the 88 deaths still “unsolved.”
The police report only considered 86 deaths, excluding a death that occurred interstate and another that was under active criminal investigation. The police considered only 23 of the 86 cases to be unsolved.
A parliamentary inquiry then widened the timeframe by examining what it described as “gay and transgender hate crimes” between 1970 and 2010. That inquiry found the police force “failed in its responsibilities to properly investigate cases of historical gay and transgender hate crime,” undermining LGTBQ confidence in the criminal justice system.