A Sydney academic and gay historian has told NSW’s LGBTIQ hate crime inquiry about three assaults he experienced across three decades in Sydney.
The Special Commission of Inquiry, the first of its kind in the world, is investigating suspected gay and trans hate crime deaths between 1970 and 2010 in the state.
Witnesses are addressing public hearings this week to give evidence on social, cultural and legal factors affecting the LGBT community in that 40-year period.
Warning: distressing content and language
Garry Wotherspoon was among the first witnesses to give evidence on Monday (November 21).
He recalled the first time he was assaulted, in 1970 by a group of men after he left a camp dance in Petersham in inner west Sydney with a male partner.
Wotherspoon suffered facial injuries and his partner’s nose was broken when a group of young men attacked them.
“The intriguing thing about it was when the bashing of me ended, the guy who was doing it said ‘no hard feelings, mate’,” Wotherspoon said.
“What did that mean? It meant it was sport or something to them. A bit of brutal activity.
“I’ve pondered for years and years and years on the meaning of that, for him and me.”
Wotherspoon told the inquiry the beaten and blooded pair drove away to find the police.
But officers they found turned the pair away, telling the men they were “busy” and they needed to go to a police station instead.
“Given the cavalier attitude of those police officers, we didn’t even bother going to a police station,” Wotherspoon recalled.
NSW Police officers returned Garry Wotherspoon to camp dance
Wotherspoon did, however, detail the assault in a news report, without mentioning that it was “obviously” a gay hate crime outside the gay event.
Police later reached out to him and told him they might “have found people who might be instrumental” in the incident, he told the inquiry.
“Two uniformed officers took me out to the camp dance and walked me through the [hall],” he said, which was crowded with gay men and women.
“I think it was done discretely to humiliate someone who’d brazenly spoken out against them and to show everyone there, ‘We know you’re here. We know what you are’.”
He said he was never invited back to the camp dance.
Garry Wotherspoon then recounted a second attack in the late 1980s, while he was walking with his partner on Oxford Street.
The two men “weren’t damaged all that badly” in the incident and didn’t report it to police.
“It was just another night in the life of a gay man in a Sydney street,” he told the inquiry.
A ‘major difference’ in 30 years
Then in 1997, a group of men again bashed Garry Wotherspoon and his partner on Oxford Street before running away. But he told the inquiry the aftermath of that attack was very different.
As well as help from bystanders, within minutes two young police officers attended and were “very helpful” and “very sympathetic” to the pair, Wotherspoon said.
“I think there really was a major difference in those years between [1970 and 1997] in how police training had taken place,” he told the inquiry.
“These young policemen would have joined the police force in an era when Australia had become a more multicultural society and ‘difference’ was not perceived in such a negative way.”
Wotherspoon said cultural change was “very gradual” and “generational change does take a long time”.
In 2018, NSW Police acknowledged “without qualification both its and society’s acceptance of gay bashings and shocking violence directed towards gay men” in previous decades.
A parliamentary report preceding the inquiry found NSW Police “failed in its responsibilities to properly investigate” gay and transgender hate crimes.
AIDS epidemic ‘heightened’ gay hate violence
The violence and assaults continued after New South Wales decriminalised homosexuality in 1984.
But Garry Wotherspoon told the inquiry that the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s “turned back the clock” with regards to acceptance of gay people.
He said Australia’s infamous 1987 Grim Reaper AIDS advertisement “certainly heightened the overt abuse” and violence.
Media coverage and the resulting stigmatisation of gay men at that time gave gay-hate bashers “an extra reason” and “a justification for what they were doing”, he told the inquiry.
Inquiry urges anyone with information to come forward
The inquiry, led by Supreme Court Justice John Sackar, continues in Sydney.
Investigators have urged anyone with information on unsolved suspected gay-hate deaths to come forward.
Senior Counsel Assisting Peter Gray “everything that is known and can be found out” about the cold cases.
“Any recollections or pieces of information that you might have, however major or minor, could provide a vital link in understanding what happened,” Gray said.
“In some cases, it may ultimately lead to arrests and prosecutions.
“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.”
To watch hearings, read about the cases and provide evidence to the inquiry visit specialcommission.nsw.gov.au
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