This article first appeared in The Advocate.
A special government commission created to examine the infamous murders of gay men in Australia starting in the late 1970s held its first hearing yesterday.
The Special Commission of Inquiry into LGBTIQ Hate Crimes in New South Wales will examine the 80-plus unsolved deaths from 1976 to 2000 that took place on the picturesque cliffs surrounding Bondi Beach and Manley in NSW. Both areas were popular meeting places for men looking to have sex with other men during the period.
In his opening statement to the commission, the senior counsel assisting, Peter Gray, encouraged individuals with knowledge of the crimes to come forward.
“If you have had something weighing on your mind for years about these things, now is your chance to do something to make some amends,” Gray said in his statement delivered Wednesday. “Now is the time to break your silence.”
Two previous reviews on the matter from 2018, known as the ACON report and the Parrabel report, examined the 88 unsolved deaths of LGBTQ+ folks between 1976 and 2000. However, these reviews resulted in different conclusions both regarding the number of cases that remain unsolved and those that could be classified as gay hate crimes. ACON considered approximately 30 of the 88 unsolved, compared to Parrabel which considered only 23 unsolved. ACON considered nearly all the 88 cases as gay hate crimes, while Parrabel determined less than one-third could be so classified. Both reports found that roughly half of these cases occurred in less than 10 years between the mid-1980s and early 1990s.
In his opening statement, Gray spoke directly about one of the most infamous murders of that period, American Scott Johnson whose naked body was found at the base of a cliff at North Head near Manly in December 1988. Scott White, 52, declared himself “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” of the crime during a pretrial court hearing earlier this year and was subsequently convicted of Johnson’s murder and sentenced to 12 years in jail for the crime. White, who now identifies as gay, is appealing his conviction and blaming his ex-wife for his declaration of guilt. Since the case is still before the courts pending White’s appeal, Gray said the commission will not examine that case.
The new commission is required to report its findings by June 30, 2023. In his statement, Gray highlighted the importance of bringing both closure and justice to these cases.
“Justice in these cases has been long-delayed and long-awaited,” Gray said, adding, “This may be the last chance for the truth about some of these historical deaths to be exposed. We need to hear from anyone who can help us do that.”