CANBERRA, Australia — A government inquiry began hearing evidence Wednesday into unsolved deaths resulting from anti-gay hate crimes over four decades in Australia’s most populous state where police have been notoriously indifferent to such violence.
NSW’s LGBTIQ Hate Crime Special Commission of Inquiry is “the first of its kind anywhere in the world”, counsel 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 response of Australian society and its institutions, including the police, to violent LGBTQ deaths has been “woefully lacking”, Gray said.
“All these lives, of each of these people, mattered. They were important to them, to their loved ones, and ultimately to all of us. And their deaths matter,” Gray said.
“This special commission, by illuminating all 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 rife from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s due to increased hostility and fear stemming from the AIDS epidemic, a previous report by HIV support group ACON found.
Almost half of the 88 anti-gay and anti-gay bias deaths in New South Wales between 1976 and 2000 occurred in that period, the report said.
Among them is Scott Johnson, a 27-year-old Los Angeles-born mathematician whose fatal fall from a clifftop in Sydney in 1988 was initially ruled a suicide by police.
His killer, Scott White (52), was sentenced to 12 years in prison in May after pleading guilty to murder.
White appealed the verdict in the New South Wales Criminal Court last week, which was based on his guilty plea that surprised his lawyers during a pre-trial hearing in January.
The judge denied the defense attorney’s request to withdraw the guilty plea.
Gray said that because Johnson’s death is still before the courts, his case will not be part of the new investigation.
Johnson’s killing was one of several suspicious deaths highlighted by the Australian media since the early 2000s in reports of violence against LGBTQ people.
Australia’s attitudes towards LGBTQ people changed rapidly in the late 20th century.
In 1958, then New South Wales Police Commissioner Colin Delaney described homosexuality as Australia’s “greatest social menace”.
The state decriminalized gay sex in 1984, but allowed the so-called “gay panic defense” for charges of murder and other violent crimes until 2014. Also known as the “homosexual advance defense,” a criminal could use a victim to make sexual advances as partial defense.
ACON’s report was mirrored by a police report on the same 88 deaths between 1976 and 2000. Both reports were published in 2018. ACON believes 30 of the 88 deaths are still “unsolved”.
The police report looks at only 86 deaths, excluding one that occurred on the interstate and another that was under active criminal investigation. The police considered that only 23 of the 86 cases were unsolved.
A parliamentary inquiry then expanded the time frame by examining what it described as “gay and transgender hate crimes” between 1970 and 2010. That inquiry found that police forces “failed to properly investigate cases of historic homophobic hate crimes and transgender people,” undermining LGTBQ confidence in the criminal justice system.
That inquiry last year recommended the establishment of the current judicial inquiry with powers to compel witnesses to testify.
The new inquest, led by NSW Supreme Court Justice John Sakar, will review 86 deaths over a 24-year period and make its own decision about which ones remain unsolved.
The inquiry also examined New South Wales’ record of more than 700 unsolved murders and more than 500 missing persons from 1970 to 2010 for potential homophobic and anti-gay prejudice killings.
The inquiry must be submitted by June 30 of the following year. Gray urged anyone with information about suspicious LGTBQ deaths to come forward.
“Justice in these cases is long overdue and long overdue,” Gray said.
“This may be the last chance to uncover the truth about some of these historic deaths. We need to hear from anyone who can help us with that,” he added.
In recent years, the police have made efforts to improve relations with the LGTBQ community.
In 2016, police apologized for the violent arrest and beating of 53 activists who marched in Sydney’s first gay and lesbian Mardi Gras in 1978. Police are now officially taking part in the iconic annual event.
“Our relations today, I would say, are positive and progressive. That certainly wasn’t the case in 1978,” Police Superintendent Tony Crandell said in 2016.