CANBERRA, Australia — A government inquiry began hearing evidence Wednesday of unsolved deaths from gay hate crimes spanning four decades in Australia’s most populous state, where police have been notoriously unresponsive to such violence .
The Special Commission of Inquiry into LGBTIQ Hate Crime in New South Wales is the “first of its kind in the world”, a lawyer assisting the inquiry, Peter Gray, said at the start of the audience in Sydney. The title’s acronym refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer.
Gray said the responses of Australian society and its institutions, including the police, to violent LGBTQ deaths had been “woefully lacking”.
“All of these lives, of each 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 shedding light on everything that is known and can be found out about what happened, will aim to give some recognition of the truth,” he added.
Violence against gay men in Sydney was particularly common from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s due to increased hostility and fear stemming from the AIDS epidemic, a previous report found of an HIV support group, ACON.
Almost half of the 88 deaths from “gay hatred” and “anti-gay bias” in New South Wales between 1976 and 2000 occurred in that period, the report said.
They include Scott Johnson, a 27-year-old mathematician born in Los Angeles, whose fatal fall from a cliff in Sydney in 1988 was initially dismissed by police as a suicide.
Her killer, Scott White, 52, was sentenced in May to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to murder.
Last week, White appealed to the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal against that sentence, which was based on his guilty plea that surprised his lawyers during a pre-trial hearing in January
The trial judge denied defense attorneys’ request to withdraw his statement.
Gray said that because Johnson’s death was still before the courts, his case would not be part of the new investigation.
Johnson’s killing was one of several suspicious deaths highlighted in Australian media since the early 2000s in reports of violence against LGBTQ people.
Australian attitudes towards LGBTQ people changed rapidly in the late 20th century.
In 1958, then New South Wales Police Commissioner Colin Delaney described homosexuality as the “great social menace” in Australia.
The state decriminalized gay sex in 1984, but allowed the so-called “gay panic defense” to charges of murder and other violent crimes until 2014. Also known as the “homosexual preemption 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 believes 30 of the 88 deaths are still “unsolved”.
The police report considered only 86 deaths, excluding one death that occurred on the interstate and another that was under active criminal investigation. Only 23 of the 86 cases were considered unsolved by the police.
A parliamentary inquiry then extended the time period by examining what it described as “gay and transgender hate crimes” between 1970 and 2010. This inquiry found that the police force “failed to meet its responsibilities to investigate appropriately undermining historical gay and transgender hate crime cases. 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 inquiry, led by New South Wales Supreme Court Justice John Sackar, will re-examine the 86 deaths over the 24-year period and decide which remain unsolved.
The inquiry has also examined New South Wales files of more than 700 unsolved murders and more than 500 missing people from 1970 to 2010 for possible homophobic and anti-gay bias killings.
The inquiry must be submitted before June 30 of the following year. Gray asked 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 to expose the truth about some of these historic deaths. We need to listen to anyone who can help us do that,” he added.
The police have made efforts in recent years to mend relations with the LGBTQ community.
Police apologized in 2016 for arresting and violently beating 53 activists who marched in Sydney’s first gay and lesbian Mardi Gras in 1978. Police are now officially involved in the iconic annual event.
“Our relations today, I would say, are positive and progressive. It certainly wasn’t the case in 1978,” Police Superintendent Tony Crandell said in 2016.