The era of Sydney from the 1970s through to the end of the century is the tale of a city emerging as a vibrant economic, social and cultural powerhouse.
And yet for all the glittering images of the Harbour City and its world-famous landmarks, there was also a dark edge to Sydney throughout this time, as an epidemic of homophobic violence and suspected gay hate murders were rife across the city.
It’s estimated as many as 88 gay men were murdered and many more members of the LGBTQ community assaulted during this crime wave, but the true number will possibly never be known. Many of these crimes were either misreported or not reported at all.
The victims ran the gamut from schoolteachers, university students and barmen through to TV newsreaders and recent immigrants. The thing they all had in common was they were gay and targeted as a result. Some victims were also trans women.
The murders took places far and wide across the city; in Marks Park and the clifftops o Bondi, the coastline of the eastern and northern beaches, the inner-city, northern suburbs and inner west.
A number of violent gangs were responsible for this lethal wave of violence, driven by the intense homophobia of the times when the blood sport of 'poofter bashing' was considered a rite of passage for many young men.
This was also the era when the AIDS epidemic was having its great impact with fear fuelled by daily headlines about the deadly virus and media campaigns like the ominous 'Grim Reaper' TV commercial. As a result, homophobia was rife and stigma was pervasive.
Homosexuality had been de-criminalised in NSW in 1984, which led to distinct cultural shift in attitudes towards gay people in the years that followed. The early years of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras played a vital role in the call for civil rights and equality, but tragically, violence was also part of the changing of the times.
Many attacks occurred at gay beat cruising areas, most notably at Marks Park and along the coastal path to Tamarama. One of the first recorded cases was in September 1985, when French immigrant Gilles Mattaini went for a walk along the path and was never seen again.
Four years later, TV newsreader Ross Warren disappeared in the same area. Despite a spate of attacks on other gay men, including David McMahon who had narrowly escaped being thrown off a cliff by a gang of 18 teenagers, there was no comprehensive police investigation. Warren’s disappearance was quickly dismissed as a suicide.
Months later, John Russell made a late-night visit to Marks Park, and was found dead the following morning, his battered and bloodied body at the bottom of a cliff. The scant investigation into Russell’s death concluded it was a case of ‘misadventure’.
In mid-1990, Thai immigrant Kritchikorn Rattanjurathaporn was savagely attacked while at Marks Park, with his remains later discovered wedged between rocks.
Meanwhile, numerous other attacks had been taking place across Sydney. In December 1988, the body of US student Scott Johnson was found near the base of Blue Fish Point – another popular gay beat – at North Head. His death was initially treated as a suicide, but after the 2017 inquest, it was deemed he had been the victim of a hate attack.
This crime wave continued for almost three decades, and yet, NSW Police often failed to sufficiently investigate with due diligence the extent of the cases. There was also systemic failure in terms of respect and appropriate support to victims who had escaped and reported the crimes, and to the bereaved family and friends of those who had been killed.
A climate of fear of the police existed among many in the LGBTQ community, particularly as less than a decade before, people were still being arrested for being homosexuals. Within the force, there remained a belief among many that homosexuals were criminals.
As a result, a significant number of cases were never reported, and often those that were encountered a distinct lack of care and inaction. Some murders and disappearances were incorrectly categorised as suicide or an accident, with little or no follow-up investigation. Crucial evidence regularly was either lost or dismissed.
Only a few of the culprits have ever been brought to justice. While all unrelenting in their savagery, the attacks do not appear to have been co-ordinated between the various gangs responsible. They instead appear to have been random violence perpetrated by assailants who all shared a vicious hatred of homosexuals.
The pursuit of justice continues, as does the quest for acknowledgement of the extent of severe historical violence against gay men in one of the darkest periods of our city’s past. The painful legacy of this epidemic has had long-term emotional and physical effects on the many lives that were impacted.
The Bondi Memorial ‘Rise’ artwork in Marks Park, Tamarama has been created in an act of remembrance. It is to honour the lives that were lost, the unknown victims, the brave survivors and all those whose lives were targeted in the homophobic and transphobic attacks in Sydney. And to never forget them.