After more than thirty years, a man has now confessed to the homophobic murder of an American named Scott Johnson in Sydney’s northern beaches in 1988. The crime, that was initially ruled a suicide, has brought his brother to Australia countless times in a long fight for justice. Mr Johnson was attacked at North Head, a place that was known as a meeting place for gay men — and a target for homophobic gangs.
For me, the news brings back surprisingly raw grief for another gay man, whom I loved and who broke my young heart, also in 1988. As a 17 year old girl, I was woken just before dawn on a cold July morning by a phone call I was loathe to answer. My beloved 25-year-old cousin Kevin had overdosed and was found unresponsive on the kitchen floor of his mother’s house where he was visiting. Kevin had made many attempts on his own life before, and we lived in constant and tender suspense in regard to his safety. His vulnerability was a topic of family conversations for many years, partly because AIDS was at the fore of social consciousness and fear in the 80s.
Young bucks considered these gay men a danger to public safety
Kevin was the oldest of my aunt’s children and I was the youngest of my mother’s children, so I looked up to this handsome boy as adoringly as anyone could. He was not just handsome, but clever and funny. Kevin taught me about style, sarcasm and the value of a dramatic performance in persuading a room. The grief I remember today, is not just because of the love I had for my cousin, but in the memory of the violence that was part of our lives as children, that was part of his life as a gay man and that hung over the culture in Australia in the years around his death.
My friend Brad (now in his mid 50s) is from Sydney and remembers the years when “gay bashing” was a pastime of young men in Sydney in the ‘80s. Brad told me that in his beachside area of Sydney, men were made targets for loitering around the toilet blocks, clearly seeking sex with other men.
These gay men were considered a danger to public safety by young bucks, who took it on themselves to protect the community from them. Brad knew some brothers that had gone to prison for brutally beating a young gay man. I asked Brad what he knew of the gay man. He said that he had been identified locally for hanging around the toilets and signalling to other men that he was available for sex.
It is difficult to explain the climate of fear that existed in those days around AIDS without reference to how some people now view “the unvaccinated”. There was a general disgust, not just for AIDS as a disease, but those who engaged in behaviours that would put them at risk. The fear wasn’t just for the men that were being infected by the “gay plague”, but also because heterosexual men were being asked to modify their own behaviour, as a result of what they considered the deviant behaviour of a minority.
The “free love” atmosphere of the ‘70s disproportionately catered to young heterosexual men
The new conservative attitude toward sex in the ‘80s was cooling off the “free love” atmosphere of the ‘70s, that disproportionately catered to the sexual desires of young heterosexual men. It is easy to look back now and call the climate “homophobic”, but the fear and disgust around AIDS in the ‘80s was not just moral, it was as close to a group hysteria as anything I have known, until now.
For our family though, the fear for our beloved Kevin was not just from the violence surrounding him but from the violence of what seemed to be his own self-hatred. For years I blamed “society” and the lack of acceptance for homosexuality. In reality, Kevin ended his own life for a complex range of reasons, and my own anger at the masculine sexual aggression that had been a feature of all of our lives was an easy target for my insatiable “why?”
Scott Johnson was a victim of male violence and homophobia, but we need to be mindful of the cultural and material circumstances that put so many homosexuals at risk in the ‘80s and now. Gay men, like women, have material as well as cultural requirements for their safety from male violence, and these two things are not unconnected.
In gender critical feminism, we frequently argue that if we define “woman” as a cultural personhood instead of a biological entity, we take away her ability to place legal boundaries around her body and her spaces. So it is with the gay men and women.
One wonders how homosexuals ever became targets, when determining a person’s sex is so complex
In Tasmania, sex is no longer a protected characteristic. Equity Tasmania have ruled that a meeting of exclusively same sex attracted people is discrimination against “gender identity and intersex variations of sex characteristics”. The Anti-Discrimination Commissioner of Tasmania, Sarah Bolt, has said that she cannot even understand how it is possible for lesbians to determine another person’s biological sex “without intrusive questioning”. One wonders how women and homosexuals ever managed to become targets of violence, when determining a person’s sex is such a complex and intrusive procedure.
Dennis Kavanagh of the Gay Men’s Network in the UK told me that spaces exclusive to same sex and same sex-attracted people are “paramount places of safety” for gay men and women. Apart from the material safety, culturally they are places of “release”. Kavanagh said that gay spaces are not just clubs or pubs, but places to “grow our culture, forge bonds and get a break from heterosexual world we inhabit”.
If gay spaces continue to be redefined by gender ideology, gay men and women will not stop meeting; they will just lose the ability to meet safely and legally. They will again face higher risk for social alienation and violence justified by ruling class ignorance.
Male violence is not so complex that it requires nuanced analysis about the secret motives of human hearts and gender souls; it is brutal and primal and perfectly understood by those of us who have been subject to it. I am not going into battle for gay men, but trying to send a broken-hearted letter from the ‘80s. I’d like to inform you that we are no better than we were then; we are not even any safer. We are in fact taking away the ability of gay men, lesbians and women to protect themselves against male violence and precipitating the kind of ignorance of sex, sexuality and gender that led to the societal and legal failures of the past. Maybe we couldn’t have saved all the gay men we lost to AIDS, murder and suicide in the ‘80s, but we need to be honest about how we lost them.
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