Category Archives: LGBTIQ Equality

‘A litany of separation and rejection’: The shameful shadow behind Sydney World Pride

OPINION: They say timing is everything, but there’s a stark irony about World Pride happening throughout Sydney at the same moment as an inquiry into some of the harbour city’s darkest and most shameful years.

Away from the rainbow strip, just off Macquarie Street in a sandstone building raised from the city’s bedrock, the New South Wales special commission of inquiry into LGBTIQ+ hate crimes has been holding public hearings since November. 

It’s been described as a world first, but this inquiry is unlikely to make global news right now. There’s no way to spice up hours of former and current NSW Police and academics being questioned about historical deaths that were possibly driven by gay-hatred, and the multiple internal police reviews around them.

A pragmatic process is called for, yet the monotony pervading the lengthy daily hearings is amplified by the sense that we’ve been here all too many times before. It would be easier to just file away all the evidence (some 220 boxes of paperwork and 77,000 electronic files) and head to the beach to enjoy what’s left of the warm weather.

North Head, Sydney Harbour

But we won’t escape it there. Sydney’s seaboard was the location of many of these untimely deaths, where mens’ bodies were either discovered at the foot of the sandstone cliffs standing like ramparts above the mighty Pacific Ocean; or they disappeared without a trace. 

Were they pushed, did they fall, or jump? The question gets tumbled around by the white-topped breakers in a constant search for certainty. Adding to the lack of clarity is that many of these deaths happened in places where marginalised people were finding solace on the margins: the gay beats scattered around the quietest corners of Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong.

It’s partly why crime is often hard to discern from misadventure or something else, since such places are also where some go to end their lives. 

Stunning escalation

Most compelling are the life stories starting to emerge from the gloom. Unlike others before it, this inquiry is allowing us to look beyond names on lists of cold cases by sharing details about the partners, families and careers of the long dead. We’re getting to see many of their faces for the first time.

A splash of case reviews earlier this year threw up an unexpected submission that evidence of homophobia had been overlooked by police investigating the brutal 1992 murder of John Gordon Hughes. 

It was a stunning escalation in an inquiry that is yet to find a lightning rod of justice.

The commission has also tabled evidence that many men on the list of cases were likely not homosexual and probably didn’t die at the hands of others, yet had their unsolved deaths caught up in the ongoing saga of the gay-hate ‘crime wave’.

To its credit, this inquiry is not underlining the difference. As their cases come up for submission, the dead are being remembered equally regardless of sexual orientation or gender, insofar as these things can be ascertained at such a distance. Families and friends across the state have been waiting for answers regardless, and this inquiry is looking back to times when policing standards – particularly around homicide investigations – was very different to today’s expectations. 

Wollongong newsreader Ross Warren, who went missing at Bondi in 1989

Relatives were not always kept informed about the progress of cases that proved difficult to solve. Some submissions have highlighted the lack of effective police communication with family and friends of victims. These connections might have been a source of leads and useful information, such as the sexual orientation of the deceased and thereby the possible context of the death, if only they’d been asked.

For other cases, sadly, there appear to be no family members watching. With terms of reference stretching back five decades, this inquiry sometimes feels like a litany of separation and rejection in which there’s little hope of snatching much from the jaws of time.

But one persistent parent can arguably be credited with bringing about the whole reckoning. Kay Warren, mother of 25-year-old Wollongong newsreader Ross Warren – who went missing near Bondi in 1989 – just wouldn’t let up about exactly what police were doing to investigate her son’s disappearance. 

She didn’t live to see this inquiry, but we should spare a thought for her determination and that of so many other family, friends and allies of the dead and missing, including the police who paid heed. 

We must also applaud the likes of Les Peterkin, who fronted the inquiry to give his courageous warts-and-all account of life during some of the toughest times in this state’s response to gay men.

Once World Pride has left town, this inquiry will turn the spotlight on further unsolved deaths that we’re still waiting to know about; but commissioner Justice John Sackar doesn’t have long. 

With a reporting deadline of June 30, time is of the essence.

Michael Burge’s debut novel Tank Water (MidnightSun Publishing) deals with rural gay-hate crime.

Reading a lot into homophobia

IT’S NOT THE most pleasant of subjects, but when you’ve written a crime thriller about homophobia, it’s likely that you’ve done your research about this insidious form of discrimination.

Heck, you’ve probably even been on the receiving end!

When I was approached to nominate five Australian books related to the theme of my novel Tank Water, it was hard to go past the critical plot driver in my debut piece long-form fiction.

This novel was a deep dive into prejudice, which often took me into some pretty grisly territory, and even put me on the trail of a real-life suspected gay-hate crime in my home town.

One guiding light for me with this book was to never try to analyse what lies behind the ill will towards same sex-attracted people, but to explore how families and individuals so often dig very deep to overcome it.

So when self-described “bootstrapped underdog” international book site Shepherd offered to platform my choice of five books, it was the conquering of homophobia in Australia that informed my list.

“A century of prejudice is laid bare in these books, but within their pages are countless subtle and overt ways that gay Australian men have given homophobes the big middle finger,” I wrote in my introduction.

“We may not always have thrived, but through resistance, migration, verbal agility, notoriety, and sheer resilience, collectively we have conquered.”

Click through to Shepherd to read my selection, including Indigenous, migrant and pioneering gay voices, and check out their growing list of gay-themed books while you’re at it.

Blowing away Bob Katter’s bulldust

IN 2018 I WAS asked to give a paper at a Newcastle University conference – Surveilling Minds and Bodies. This was a unique chance for a non-academic, and I embraced the opportunity to present some of the research that went into my debut novel Tank Water (MidnightSun Publishing, 2021), which joined an embryonic wave of literature about gay men in rural Australia.

I was subsequently invited to submit an article based on that research for a special edition of the international Journal of Australian Studies.

Fun and frustrating, it was deep dive into the history of Queensland politician Bob Katter’s infamous claim about a minuscule “poof population” in the bush; a ridiculous assertion than needed further examination in the light of what impact it had on rural LGBTIQA.

Here’s the introduction to the article, with a link to read more…

Backwards to Bourke: Bulldust About Gays in the Bush

In his 2006 thesis, “‘Staying Bush’ – A Study of Gay Men Living in Rural Areas”, author Edward Green studied the lives of 21 gay men living in country New South Wales. Green described his subject as the “largely hidden and untold story of gay men living in rural areas”. This year, 2006, became pivotal for the visibility of gay men living in the Australian bush, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Network Ten distributed episodes about rural gay men on Australian Story and Big Brother. In the space of one 12-month period, this cohort went from “hidden and untold” to prime time. But this shifting narrative was contested. From as early as 1989, rural Queensland politician Bob Katter issued a series of widely broadcast public claims that he would “walk to Bourke backwards if the poof population of North Queensland is any more than 0.001 per cent”.

By analysing media, popular culture, judicial and police records, this article explores the visibility and portrayal of rural gay men in Australia prior to and after this 2006 milestone. It scrutinises Katter’s insistence on a minuscule “poof population” during his generation, from the 1940s to the present, locating the debate at the inland margins of Australia’s population. I argue that as rural gay men became slowly more visible in local popular culture as a result of social and political change, debate about their existence was clouded by a lack of research, reporting and inclusion.

“Scholars ignore the margins at their peril,” wrote the editors of Queering the Countryside in 2016, defining America’s rural queer studies as “an emerging field of inquiry”. A backward-facing walk to the Australian bush in search of the “poof population” feels like an intellectually marginal endeavour as most of the academic literature to date has focused on the lived experience of gay men in this nation’s cities. Yet in spite of Katter’s minuscule population estimates, made over three decades, I will argue that the rural gay cohort has always defied such assumptions.

For the rest of the article, head to the journal page.