The 70 Unsolved Sydney Gay Murders

by Phelyan Sanjoin

A dark shadow hangs over the upcoming community forum on the policing of Mardi Gras. Will the police move to lift it?

On the night of the Mardi Gras parade there were several troubling incidents of violent police handling and general disrespect shown towards revellers. Next week the police will face their critics in a public forum.

That symbolises the uneasy but mainly co-operative relationship the GAY community has with the police. Nowadays we are prepared to work with one another.

It wasn’t always the case. The NSW police of a former era stand accused of something like indifference, or worse, to a wave on queer-bashings and anti-gay hate crimes, including murders, that swept through Sydney between 1985 and 2000.

  • Thousands bashed
  • Hundreds hospitalised
  • As many as 70 murdered – maybe more

The scale of the violence is staggering. The first gay and lesbian client consultant to the NSW Police, Sue Thompson, originally estimated that 46 gay men were murdered in NSW in the ten years from 1989 to 1999 alone. Now she thinks there may be many more.

Peter Sheehan in the Sydney Morning Herald reports:

After recent publicity, the NSW Police has decided to reassess the pattern of violent deaths involving gay men in the 1980s and 1990s. Detective Chief Inspector John Lehmann, of the Unsolved Homicide Team, has opened reviews of several cases classified as accidental death or missing person.

That’s not strictly accurate. NSW Police Media told me that only ONE case is being reviewed, the case of Scott Johnson. No other cases are being reviewed, and there are no plans to review more unless they receive fresh evidence. Yet as Paul Sheehan says:

A lot of people are having second thoughts about gay men who went missing or whose deaths were classified as suicides or misadventure in the 1980s and 1990s. The more we look, the more we learn and discover the scale and violence of the gay bashing and killings in the 1980s and 1990s were much greater than the wider community realised.

The number of gay men murdered in gay-hate crimes between 1985 and 2000 in NSW may be as high as 70. Hundreds were hospitalised after assaults and thousands of gay men and lesbians were attacked.

But NSW Police have ‘no plans’ to reopen any of those cases. No plans to look at the original investigations, especially those carried out by officers still on the force. 70 murders will stay unsolved.

You can understand the reluctance to spend time and effort on old and long forgotten crimes when they have so much on their plates here and now. You also have to wonder if they would feel the same way if they had, say, 70 unexplained schoolgirl deaths on their hands. Or 70 grandmothers.

What about the ONE case they are reviewing? What makes Scott Johnson different? Scott has a family that refused to believe he had killed himself, a family with enough money to hire a private detective and an investigative journalist to look into his death. That has finally forced a second inquest, an open verdict, and finally, police action. Money, it seems, can buy the family justice.

All these deaths seem to have been poorly investigated, with many wrongly written off as misadventure, missing, or suicide, thanks to the police culture of the time, which had “an overt and institutional distaste of gay men.”

I hope the police take the upcoming community forum seriously, and don’t treat it as just a PR exercise.

I hope they will also pay proper respect to those 70 individuals they wrote off so casually 25 years ago, by reopening their cases and attempting to track down their killers. Justice should not come with a time limit. Or a price tag.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)