The air was unseasonably warm and the night dark as a 27 year old Scott Johnson ran along the White Cliffs of New South Wales. He was panting and terrified. In the darkness, shrieks of laughter and taunting from teenage boys erupted across the open field. They had found their prey. Surrounding Johnson, the boys continued their jeers. No doubt threatening to beat him senseless. The reasons for the hunt are unclear. It could have simply been teen rowdiness spurred on by toxic masculinity, or it could have been an initiation into the gang through “poofter bashing”. Whatever the reason, Scott Johnson – an American mathematician and a gay man – was the target. Any gay man would do, but Johnson happened to be the poor bloke at the wrong place at the wrong time. As the boys drew closer to the frightened man, someone instructed Johnson to strip naked. Perhaps promising him freedom if he complied with their humiliation. Scott neatly placed his clothes and belongings into a pile. What happened next we do not know. But we do know that Scott Johnson was forced off the cliff to his death. Over the next decade at least 27 gay men would face the same death after being hunted on the White Cliffs by the homophobic gangs. No weapons were needed. As one assailant later admitted, “The easiest thing with a cliff is just herding them over the edge.”
Though Johnson’s body was found within a few days, police ruled the death a suicide. Which were not uncommon on the White Cliffs, even to this day. However, even if there had been ample evidence of murder, it is unlikely the New South Wales police of 1988 would have done anything. This is partly why hunting gay men became such a popular sport. The police hated the queers just as much as the other residents of Australia during this time. Just a decade earlier, the gays and lesbians of the Gay Solidartity Group had attempted a march down Oxford Street in what would eventually be known as Sydney’s Mardi Gras. However, they were cut off by police. Who arrested 53 people and dragged them to the city’s prison. Once inside, the police beat several of the organizers. Before releasing them the next morning without charge. After all, the protesters had obtained a legal permit and had done nothing to violate the law. Regardless, the city newspaper published an account of all 53 arrested individuals, outing them and costing many their jobs and livelihoods. But Mardi Gras would become the Stonewall of Australia. Sparking a continental revolution.
Now 10 years later, while several states had passed laws decriminalizing homosexuality, the attitude of bigotry still rang high. In Australia, a commonly used term is Moral Panic. Themes of these panics have been seen throughout various Western Cultures for centuries ranging on a wide assortment of societal fears. And the most common triggers of moral panic stem from minorities gaining a voice and taking a place in mainstream culture. In the late 80’s and early 90’s Australia was in the throes of a deep moral panic over gay rights. It is estimated that up to 20 attacks a day were brought against queer individuals and LGBTQ organizations. The justification for this violence was blamed on the AIDS epidemic -in the same way violence against queer Americans was perpetuated and ignored. And – just like in the States – police in Australia rarely ever investigated crimes and against queer Aussies and therefore LGBTQ citizens rarely reported their abuse.
Of course, the roots of homophobia ran back centuries. Linked to the white, European settlers who claimed the continent for their own in 1788. The British captain who first colonized the country wrote to London’s Colonial Secretary a year before his discovery:
… there are two crimes that would merit death; murder and sodomy. For either of these crimes I would wish to confine the criminal till an opportunity offered of delivering him as a prisoner to the natives of New Zealand and let them eat him. The dread of this will operate much stronger than the fear of death.’
As writer Robert French put it – Australia was quite literally founded on homophobia. The prison colony was meant to confine the most egregious criminals. And as the Captain stated, the sodomites were right there with the murderers.
Many people were executed for the crimes of sodomy while on the Island. Others were forced into more inventive forms of death. Such as two former sailors who were caught in the act. They were placed on separate, smaller islands and left without food or water. Women too suffered under the “illicit acts” laws. Being sent to the Female Factories where weathered and rundown buildings housed approximately 1000 prisoners at any given time. The area around the housing was frequently flooded creating swamp like conditions. The houses were divided into three classes of women. Those in the top class were considered little threat and were soon sent off to work as slaves for government officials and wealthy citizens. The second class were kept on the grounds; however, they received lighter work details and provided better housing and better meals. The third class were considered the true criminals. These women were often drunkards, thieves, harltos, insubordinate females, and lesbians. The third class women were overworked and underfed and many never left the prison alive.
But even as Australia evolved into a land of free colonies during the 1800’s, the stigma and fear of homophobia still rang clear. During London’s 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde, one Australian paper reported on the evil of sodomy:
“the state of things in London as regards this horrible vice is also the condition of affairs in Sydney. It is idle for people to shut their eyes to this fact. It has been planted here by the English exiles. The men who escaped the Cleveland-street prosecution found shelter in Australia, and there are many of them at present in Sydney.’
The fear generated by the Wilde trial carried on well into the 20th century. As police honed in on known gay crusing sites and regularly patrolled the areas. And of course, they often had the public’s help in tracking down the poofters. As in other parts of the world during this time, killing a gay was considered a public service.
But despite the uphill battle, queer Aussies still fought on. By the late 50’s they had begun to form coalitions. And by the mid 1960’s groups such as the Homosexual Law Reform and the Australian Lesbian Movement were openly campaiging to end sodomy laws. However, because of the intense danger of being openly queer, these groups were all led by heterosexual allies. Then in 1970, gay activists burst out of the closet when the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) was featured in Australian Magazine. Along with a picture of gay founders Jonathan Ware and Christabel Poll. This was the first time a major publication had shown homosexuals in any kind of favorable light. In fact, it was the first time two men had been open and unashamed of their sexual orientation on such a public forum. Usually the papers only carried pictures and articles of disgraced queer people after they had been arrested for “illicit acts”.
With this new wave of openness came a fresh sweep of Moral Panic. As some members of the public began to take it upon themselves to shut the queers up. Through any means necessary. It is the culmination of centuries of homophobia and public officials rejection of the queer community that inspired the extreme violence perputrated against LGBTQ individuals during the 1980’s and early 90’s. And that is why stories such as the Gay Gangs Murders came to fruition. That is why teenage boys took it upon themselves to hunt and kill at least 27 gay men. The gangs hunting the men varied. There was no stated conspiracy to rid the world of queer men. No secret meetings between these hunters with drawn plans on how to achieve their goals. It was simply an innate hatred towards what society had deemed “ill”, “diseased”, “sinful”, “unnatural”.
The hunting grounds were near the notorious cruising grounds of Marks Park in Bondi. It has been reported that during the 80’s one could find anywhere from 50-100 men in search of a quick hookup. And because it was known that the park was a such a popular cruising area – or beat – it was also known that police would avoid the area. Making the cruisers easy prey for the gay bashers. As one gay man put it “‘[They] know of and hunt in the same territories as the fags they want to bash and kill’. And if the coppers did show up, they were there for the same reason as the gangs. Hunting in Marks Parks and along the cliffs of Bondi Beach was considered a public sport. At least that’s the literal terminology used by one basher when he told detectives. ‘Something to do mate … It’s not fun … It’s a sport in Redfern,., Oh it’s a fuckin hobby mate. What are you doin’ tonight boys? Oh just going fag bashin”.
A year after Scott Johson was herded off a cliff that December night in 1987, TV anchor Ross Warren disappeared on a pathway in Marks Park. His body was never found, though his car keys were found at the bottom of the cliffs. However, it is highly possible evidence of Warren’s kidnap and murder could have been discovered. But police could not be bothered to form any type of real investigation. Even the smallest procedures such as crime scene photos and area canvassing were not performed. The Bondi police quite literally ignored the disappearance of Ross Warren. Which given his public prominence shows just how deeply the homophobia ran. Even though Warren had not been out, the mere fact that he was in Marks park was enough for officials to ignore his disappearance. Eventually, the entire brief on his case was “lost”.
Just four months after Warren’s disappearance, a 31 year old gay man named John Russel was found dead on the cliffs. Hours earlier he had been enjoying himself at a local gay bar. Had authorities cared, they would have noticed the coroners evidence that Russel had been thrown from the cliffs and not jumped. And perhaps they did see the truth and simply ignored it. Either way, Russel’s death was ruled a suicide. As were the many other gay men found at the bottom of the cliffs over the years. Men such as Gilles Mattaine, who had been reported missing by his friends. Yet his report – like Warren’s – was also lost. As were countless others. Out of over 100 cases that were ruled a suicide during this time, 27 have since been identified as foul play. Of course, the cases weren’t forced back open until twenty years later. Shortly after they were reopened, State Coroner Jaqueline Milledge spoke to the press concerning the initial investigations posed 2 decades earlier. She stated, “Indeed, to characterize it as an investigation is to give it a label it does not deserve”.
The reality is that everyone knew what was going on at the parks. Locals reported that they dared not venture out to the cliffs at night for fear of the violence that went on. The gangs joked that their hunting was a public sport. Just something one did when they were bored on the weekend. And law enforcement held a strong record of ignoring crimes against gay men and queer presenting individuals. One chilling story tells of how a gay man escaped his captors and ran to a local apartment building, pressing the buzzers and begging someone to help him. A single, cold voice responded “I’m not going to help you. I’m not gonna help no poofter”. This mentality pervaded the Bondi area and really all of Australia at the time. While the gang members are most accountable for their actions, the public’s deliberate blind eye cannot be ignored. An air of silence will always feed the oppressor and never aid the oppressed.
The stories of the huntings are horrific. Showing how gay men were viewed as less than animals. Such as the hanging of one man before throwing his body over the cliffs. Or the teacher lured to a public restroom who was then stomped to death by a group of teens. The gangs became known as the “Bondi Boys” though they seemed very loosely associated. Two other groups were also identified and lumped in with the Bondi Boys – the Tamarama Gang and the Alexandria Eight. In all, there were about 20 teens from ages 15-18 who made a sport out of “poofter bashing”. And while boys made up most of the gangs, there was plenty of violence done at the hands of a few girls who were part of the tribes. A victim stated years later about the girls, ‘I remember seeing the girls … [they were] watching and laughing and still to this day it runs through my mind that they could sit there and do that’. One night several teens surrounded Alex Boxsell and beat him with a skateboard breaking his ribs. Another victim, David McMahon would later testify how a few of the boys caught him near Marks Park on a dark evening. They dragged him out to the cliffs with their girlfriends following and cheering them on. Then the young men began to beat McMahon. Kicking and cursing and threatening to “throw him off where we threw the other dude!”
For at least 6 years they terrorized the gay community of Bondi Beach. Most of the murders have gone unsolved. Even with the suspects interviewed, even with a few statements from survivors, sadly the evidence was long washed away by police. Boxsell had been brave enough to report his attack to authorities. He even identified assailant David McAuliffe. But the police shrugged off Boxsells assault, proving to be another very fatal and very public mistake. Seven months after Boxsells assault, in July of 1990, a final known victim of the Bondi Boys faced his fate. Kritchikorn Rattanajurathaporn was attacked by three men in Marks Park. One of the men was Davide McAuliffe, whom Boxsell had identified as a basher a half a year earlier. The boys beat Kritchikorn severely with a hammer, driving him back to the cliffs edge. The extreme brutality of the crime forced officers to open an investigation. There was no passing this off as a suicide. Eventually 3 teenage boys were arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to prison for their crimes. Though the sentences were relatively short in comparison to the fact that they murdered a man.
At the time, few people believed the boys had done anything truly wrong. Even to this day many of the known gang affiliates refuse to acknowledge the atrocities of their crimes. Dr. Adam Graycar, former Director of the Australian Institute of Criminology, concurs explaining that ‘Some of the perpetrators … do not believe they have done anything wrong, and in fact expect society to applaud them for what they have done’. But time has changed some of the former gang members. One of the Tamarama Three, the boys convicted of murdering Kritchikorn, confessed that he had deep remorse for his guilt. He told investigator Rick Feneley of SBS News that he regretted his actions and had wanted others to feel as miserable and lonely as he did. He also passed along this statement to the victims family.
“I’m sorry I took your son’s life that night. If I wasn’t there, then he would not have died. I denied him the opportunity to a full and happy life. I caused immeasurable pain and loss in your family. For this, I am sorry.”
Several other former bashers have spoken with regret about their actions. Many now have children of their own and see how horrendous their hunts were. Though few have ever faced justice for their crimes. Of all the known assaults, only the murder of Kritchikorn and the murder of the teacher by the Alexadria Eight have ever garnered any convictions. And we haven’t even touched on the racial aspect and the fact that of the 27 cases, only 4 of the white guys have gained attention. It is almost certain that race also played a factor in the hunting and murdering. Remember the man who was lynched before being thrown off the cliffs. As for others of the teen gangs, they still have expressed no remorse. In the same SBS report Feneley tells of how he tried to reach another assailant, now a man in his 40’s. The former basher refused to speak to the reporter, but his girlfriend took the phone.
“He’ll never talk, mate,” she said, “but I’ll tell you what he thinks. If you walk into a dunny and there’s a bloke chockers up another bloke, they’re gonna get bashed.”
Stunned, [Feneley] made another attempt. [He] suggested, and this is now. People change with the times. Perhaps he felt differently today…
“No, not then,” she answered. “Now! He’d do the same again today.”
The continued disdain for queer people shows how deep homophobia runs in a society. With all the advancements for queer rights in Australia, bigotry is still as strong for some people. And this further proves the point that these were not deranged, psychotic teenagers. These were normal teens taking part in what they believed society deemed fit. In fact, in what society DID deem an appropriate punishment for gay men. We see from the local communities refusal to address these crimes, from law enforcements deliberate mishandling of the cases, and from parents ignorance or encouragement of their children’s crimes that this was a cultural sickness. Not simply teens gone wild. It is important that we remember our children will carry on our hatred and bigotry. And in the process ruin their lives and the lives of others. Hatred is taught.
Your recommended resources for the day are Bondi Badlands by Greg Callaghan which seems to be one of the few books so far that has been published on the account. There’s also the film “Blood Sport; The Bondi Gay Murders” but we cannot say how accurate it is. While the Bondi Gay Murders have been sensationlized in the press, few substantiated and researched accounts have been published so far. We did add a link in our script to a thesis written by Kristen Lisa Davis which is a detailed record of the events and much of our source for this episode. Davis is very critical of the tabloid like way the investigations have been handled in recent years. And makes excellent points about the way the media and authors have “othered” the gangs. Making it seem as if ordinary people were not responsible for the violence against the queer community.
And if you’re an Aussie listener, we want to spread the queerness. Check out the podcast Queer As Fact. They do an excellent job and you can get some better Aussie queer history. As well as history from around the world. And for our listeners, we’d like to invite you to check out our Patreon page. We could really use your support, even if it’s just a few dollars a month. It really makes a difference. And if you’re listening and already a Patreon, thank you. It is because of you that we can keep this podcast going.
- Times (1) – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/30/world/australia/australia-gay-men-killed-suicides-sydney.html
- Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/jun/27/twenty-seven-sydney-men-were-probably-murdered-because-they-were-gay-police-say
- Mardi Gra – https://theculturetrip.com/pacific/australia/articles/the-history-of-sydney-mardi-gras/
- Australian Queer History – https://www.ogmagazine.org.au/20/4-20/australias-queer-history/
- Female Factories – https://www.utas.edu.au/library/companion_to_tasmanian_history/F/Female%20factories.htm
- Female Factories (2) – https://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/places/national/cascade-female-factory
- Thesis – https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/33f7/3b6f68bd6fe5334fddf46ef315f885634218.pdf
- Herald – https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/unsolved-homicide-investigation-reopens-into-sydneys-gay-killings-20160520-gozgyz.html
- SBS News – https://www.sbs.com.au/news/he-d-do-it-again-today-conversations-with-the-gay-hate-network