The unveiling of The Bondi Memorial: Rise on June 4 drew more than 150 members of the LGBTIQ+ community, including survivors of gay hate crimes and their friends, lovers and family.
Designed by artist John Nicholson, Bondi Memorial: Rise is situated on the headland of Marks Park in Tamarama and is dedicated to the victims and survivors of deadly homophobic and transphobic violence perpetrated on the LGBTIQ+ community from the 1970s to the 1990s in New South Wales.
An estimated 88 gay men were murdered and many people were assaulted during this period. The real number of murders is probably much higher, as many did not go to the police for fear of homophobic reprisal.
Greg Callaghan, author of the book and podcast series Bondi Badlands told the gathering that, as Sydney became an “international gay beacon” during the late 1980s with the promotion of Mardi Gras, “because of stigma surrounding HIV-AIDS and criminalisation ... anti-gay violence was taking place all over”.
Callaghan said the headland at Marks Park “became a deadly epicentre” where “at least three gay men lost their lives”.
Gilles Jaques Mattaini, a 27-year-old Frenchman went missing in 1985; Ross Warren, a 24-year-old TV presenter was murdered in 1989 and John Russell was murdered in 1989, aged 31.
Marks Park was a gay beat — an outdoor area where gay men have casual sex or meet gay friends. “The gay haters knew where to go,” Callaghan said. Bigoted young men and women in gangs hunted in packs: some threw men off cliffs, entrapped and beat them to death in public toilets and murdered them in their homes.
Kritchikorn Rattanajurathaporn, a 31-year-old Thai man who had only been in Sydney for four months, was set upon by youths using a claw hammer. He was murdered in at Mackenzies Point in Bondi South in July 1990.
Callaghan wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald last October that Rattanajurathaporn’s murder was a “watershed moment for Australia’s LGBTQ community”. A large protest was organised outside NSW Parliament and buildings were “splattered with red paint”.
Former NSW Deputy Coroner Jacqueline Milledge, who led the 2005 inquest into the deaths of gay men inadequately investigated by police, told the memorial: “The police response to the murders was dismissive. They said suicide, accident, misadventure.
“Ross Warren’s mother had to plead for a death certificate from the police for closure for 10 years,” she said. “I was a police officer in the 1970s [when] homophobia was [rife] in society and the sentiment of the police force reflected this.”
Survivor of a gay hate crime David McMahon whose experience is recounted in the SBS documentary Deep Water: The Real Story told the gathering: “I was jogging in Marks Park when a gang started bashing me. There were women in the pack. They dragged me towards the cliffs and said they’d throw me over where they did the other one”. McMahon escaped and went to the police who placed him in a cell, while jeering at him.
There have been various attempts to investigate gay hate crimes, including “Operation Parrabell” in 2016, when NSW Police reviewed 88 possible gay-hate deaths. Criminologist Stephen Tomsen criticised it in a submission to the 2018 NSW Legislative Council, saying the operation expressed “views that most victims were ‘paedophiles’”.
The “gay panic” defence was also deployed to deliver lighter sentences to perpetrators of homophobic and transphobic violence. South Australia became the last state to outlaw the common law defence of provocation to murder only in December 2020.
Rick Feneley in the SBS investigation The Gay-Hate Decades: 30 Unsolved Deaths reported that police failed to check even basic details for some of the men who had been murdered. “The NSW Police Force has admitted its officers may have made serious mistakes while re-examining potential gay-hate murders among a list of 30 unsolved deaths,” he said.
The NSW Parliament’s report Social Issues inquiry into Gay and Transgender hate crimes between 1970 and 2010, released in April last year, found that “the NSW Police Force failed in its responsibility to properly investigate cases of historical gay and transgender hate crime and this has undermined the confidence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGTBIQ) communities in the NSW Police Force and the criminal justice system more broadly”.
The report recommended that parliament investigate 40 years of unsolved gay hate deaths. NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet appointed Supreme Court judge John Sackar to lead an inquiry into 88 unsolved murders committed against LGBTIQ+ people from 1970 to 2010. Such an inquiry was a key recommendation of a 2018 parliamentary committee into gay and transgender hate crimes, which found NSW Police were indifferent to such crimes and failed to properly investigate them at the time.
[Rachel Evans is a long-term LGBTIQ rights campaigner. Rallies for LGBTIQ rights are being organised on June 25 in Sydney and Brisbane.]