Tag Archives: Homophobia

‘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.

Bad fairy at the wedding: the curse of marriage equality activism

I’D like to briefly hold your attention in this short period before marriage equality is legislated in Australia, because nobody will ever give a second thought to the years of struggle that led to this week’s resounding public vote for same-sex dignity.

The concept of marriage equality first hit me like a bullet in 2004, in the moment I realised I’d been completely and utterly duped by this ‘lucky country’.

My partner Jono had died suddenly just weeks before, and I was struggling with acute, identity-killing grief.

I had no idea that this profound amputation would come to be treated as though it was a paper cut. Unbeknownst to me, Jono’s blood relatives had severed me from his death certificate and disenfranchised me from my rightful place as his next of kin.

Left to work this injustice out for myself, after avoidance from the funeral director and denial from the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, it dawned on me in a flash that Jono and I had innocently allowed our relationship to remain ephemeral.

“Human beings know when we are being treated like shit, and this bitter war has left none of its warriors with clean hands.”

Without the foundation of marriage, we were the same as every other gay couple in the country: easy to sweep aside in the legal processes. I desperately tried to recapture us, but there was no definitive moment to hold onto, nothing that had been formally witnessed or solemnised. Jono had been silenced and without him I was gagged.

Up until that point, my 34th year, I’d been a ‘good person’. I’d closeted myself when my sexuality became painfully obvious, duly distracted people from the truth, and disappeared to the other side of the world for a decade, part of which I spent in a relationship with a woman.

I’d returned home and dutifully come out, glossed over the profound disappointment that caused in my community, and thrown everything into my first gay relationship. All my hope, ambition, and love was wrapped up in it.

But the night Jono died it should have become apparent that I’d never really had a home to come back to. Australia was still brutally colonial in its complete lack of legal and cultural support for the same-sex bereaved.

I have come to learn that statement means almost nothing to those who have not experienced the death of a partner. Death is hard enough for most to countenance, but gay death places the bereaved right out on the margins.

And I nearly disappeared completely. As the denial of my relationship peaked, I calmly decided to kill myself in a manner that meant nobody would discover my body. Having been forced to take in the inglorious state of Jono’s lifeless form in the emergency room, I wanted to leave no trace.

The plan settled in me far too easily. Dangerously at a loose end without work and prospects of any kind, I refined it over a number of days.

But my ultimate exit was stolen from me. I was encouraged, through counselling, to choose to be a ‘good person’, again. Instead of self-obliteration I began to channel my rage into fixing the lies that had been wrought on Jono’s legacy and making this country a better place for LGBTIQ.

My anger found expression in a live submission to the Human Rights Commission’s Same Sex, Same Entitlements hearings, which were instrumental in overturning 100 pieces of discriminatory legislation for LGBTIQ; but I went the extra mile and, with a voice stymied by grief, reminded the gathering that marriage equality was the ultimate solution.

That was 2006, and despite my appeal having no visible impact whatsoever since it was outside the report’s tight frame of reference, I simply haven’t stopped talking about the critical need for LGBTIQ Australians to have the same relationship protections as the rest of the population.

Had anyone told me that would require more than a quarter of my life to date, I would have prepared myself better for fourteen long years in the wilderness.

Had anyone warned me that I was effectively hitting the pause button on the trajectory of my prime years and my career, I probably wouldn’t have listened.

Had anyone told me I would find love again even as my tears were still drying, I would have laughed until I’d cried once more, but I let it in despite all the risks.

Forced to take our relationship recognition far from home, my husband Richard and I married in New Zealand a decade ago. The noblest person I know, Richard has reached his arms around my pain and loss. He’s also a rabid equality agitator who takes it up to politicians and naysayers without fear.

We are not your classic ‘Marriage Equality Activists’.  

My activism emerged from extreme emotional pain, the kind that is not given much currency in Australia, even among LGBTIQ.

I’ve upset dinner parties, taken on social media trolls, and assisted bereaved LGBTIQ to get their deceased spouses’ death certificates altered, because, fuck it, if I didn’t show them how, no one else was going to!

I’ve marched in protests, lobbied politicians of all stripes, written letters, boycotted, played nice, played nasty, door-knocked, given up hope and stoked my cut-glass anger to keep going.

I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words about the need for reform, from the mainstream media to the grassroots, and I’ve read a million more written by others.

I’ve seen editors’ eyes gloss over with boredom about ‘another gay marriage article’, missed out on publishing deals because my work was deemed ‘too gay’, and thrown stuff at the tele when activists with perfect media currency landed inadequate blows on populists and let us all down.

I’ve lived in the outer reaches of LGBTIQ ‘safe’ territory, in places where democracy is dead and gay issues a low-level priority. I’ve spoken out against homophobic belligerence among local representatives and reminded a generation of politicians that we are watching.

I’ve been a harbinger in activism circles, a ‘bad fairy’ at the wedding talks, furiously reminding equality leaders that a critical part of having a relationship recognised is enshrining it effectively when one or both partners dies or becomes incapacitated.

To ameliorate my vengeful harpy lashes, I’ve also been a defender of Australia’s marriage equality poster boys and girls, many of whom remained deeply closeted when I was struggling in the wake of Jono’s death.

I have witnessed the reality behind their media-friendly masks, their exasperation, their power games, their u-turns, their fears, their failures and their white-hot rage, and I have reminded journalists and commentators that the truth is not just ‘love is love’ and holding hands under media-friendly glitter clouds on Oxford Street; it’s that human beings know when we are being treated like shit, and this bitter war has left none of its warriors with clean hands.

Bereaved same-sex spouses don’t feature on the panel shows or the media spotlight in our own right. The energy it takes to fight on top of enduring grief is too great for the gay widows I have come across. Usually, we’re trawled out as exhibits for why the laws need to change, before returning to the shadows. 

I admit to being a shadow, and I am jaded as all hell, but this week I have sensed the finish line of this painful emotional marathon my country subjected me to.

If I’m honest, I really don’t care about a few religious exemptions in the Marriage Act. If people of faith don’t get out and protest, we’ll know what’s delivered by this parliament contains inequality, but match-fit LGBTIQ will survive.

If Malcolm Turnbull and Liberal luminaries want to play at being statesmen and own the reform as their legacy, I don’t give a shit. Those of us who lashed all politicians before marriage equality was a popular choice for power-mongers will always know who actually got the reform over the line.

The day the legislation passes I will have carried an inconvenient truth for far too long, and I will set it down in territory that is finally safe, to rediscover whatever identity I have left.

This country-born boy who was well-behaved, thought of others far too much, had no role models for equal marriage and has nevertheless forged faithful love with another country-born boy, will have come home at last. 


We’re thinking of a Tenterfield wedding to renew our vows and give this country the second chance it undoubtedly doesn’t deserve.

Lifeline 13 11 14.

© Copyright Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article also appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.