Posted on March 08 2021
TW // Crime, murder and death.
“Stop earning the right to be, you won the day you were born” – Søren Rasted (Aqua frontman).
Yes, Barbie Girl, that Aqua. While their debut album was reigning the world charts and Mattel gathered their lawsuit, an optimistic college student, Matthew Shepard was ready to start his first year of political science at the University of Wyoming. He was described as approachable and ready to accept new challenges. He also had a passion for equality and stood up for diversity.
On October 6 1998, Matthew accepted a lift home with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson from a local bar. These men robbed him, tied him up to a barbed wire fence in a rural area, beat him and left him for dead.
Matthew was found 18 hours later by a cyclist brutally beaten and covered in blood except for two lines cleansed by tears. He succumbed to his attack five days later. All because he was a target for being gay. McKinney and Henderson’s defence lawyers put forth the gay panic defense to receive a lesser charge, but two consecutive life sentences were handed down to the two men for felony murder.
More than 20 years later, how have the laws and culture shifted after the blissful ignorance of hate crimes ended the day Matthew passed away? Back when Netflix on demand documentaries were just a twinkle in the company’s streaming services, print and news media was responsible for informing the world of these turning points in crime. I remember back in ’98 this story featured in a magazine I was flicking through at the doctor’s office and I watched a Dateline special about the crime on YouTube some years later.
Matthew’s murder is one of the most renowned cases where the gay panic defense, also known inclusively as the LGBTQ+ panic defense, was used. The LGBT Bar defines the LGBTQ+ panic defense as, “a legal strategy that asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression is to blame for a defendant’s violent reaction, including murder.” This defense is now banned in twelve US states and are introduced, but not yet passed in twelve more. Ironically, none of which are the state of Wyoming. However, the judge in Matthew’s case deemed the defense inadmissible. The trial brought national and international attention to amend US hate crime legislation at both state and federal levels. Wyoming hate crime laws at the time did not include gender identity or sexual orientation in legislation, while other states had no hate crime laws at all.
Upon election, Barack Obama sought to expand the hate crimes at a federal level as hate crimes are statistically worse than crimes without a prejudiced motivation or agenda from a psychological perspective. On October 8 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed and signed into law three weeks later. The new hate crime law included crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. The bill also provides $5 million per year in funding to help state and local agencies to investigate and prosecute hate crimes and to track statistics on these crimes.
All hate crimes, including LGBTQ+ hate crimes, decreased to an all-time low after the bill was signed until 2019, with one in five being LGBTQ+ related. This damaging trend is also appearing worldwide, including Australia. It was only two months ago that South Australia – the last state to do so – banned the LGBTQ+ panic defense. But why did hate crimes rise after this culture shift of increased acceptance of different sexual orientations and gender identities?
We’ll start with the US – politics, more specifically Trump’s rhetoric and fervent remarks that enter an online feedback loop that also ends up in other discourses, both at, quote, “the water cooler and on television” (Brian Levin, professor at California State University). In the UK, the Brexit referendum divided the nation and caused a disruption in social norms. At the risk of making this a political piece, we may not have our country and predecessor’s behaviour branded as “an embarrassment” here down under but US experts say we don’t take hate crimes seriously. Quite a call, but it did draw my attention to the statistics:
The largest Australian study found 72% of LGBTQ+ people had experienced verbal abuse, 41% threats of physical violence and 23% physical assault.
For transgender participants, 92% of trans women and 55% of trans men had experienced verbal abuse; 46% of trans women and 36% of trans men had experienced physical assault.
– and then the facts:
Australia only possesses anti-discrimination laws, not hate crime laws. And not all states include sexual orientation or gender identity in their anti-discrimination acts. West Australian legislation not only does not address sexuality and gender but only racial written or pictorial information not verbal discrimination.
“Nothing changes until somebody dies,” (Matt Browning, an undercover officer with the Arizona Police). He was invited to share intelligence at a secretive conference in Sydney to discuss hate crime in 2016. The reaction: “it’s not that bad here” and “this isn’t America, that stuff only happens there”.
Well, as transpiring as events go, New South Wales police dredged up the cold 1988 case of Scott Johnson’s murder, just one in the group of Australia’s most high-profile gay hate crimes that occurred between 1987 and 1989 in the Bondi and Manly Beach clifftops. These unsolved cases are a violent piece of these otherwise bright and inviting attractions. Back then, there was no Grindr or the guaranteed refuge of gay night clubs, especially after Jeffery Dahmer shook the scene so gay or bisexual men in the Sydney area would meet at the clifftops late at night. Homosexuality was still illegal in Australia, but alfresco sex in a public place was more accepting to the community than being loud, proud, and fully clothed.
The killer’s modus operandi was attacking men who were suspected to be using the clifftops as a meeting place. Scott Johnson was found naked at the bottom of the cliff. His death was deemed a suicide, but family members insisted it was a gay hate crime.
In May 2020, New South Wales police charged Scott White from Lane Cove with the murder of Scott Johnson. The four other murders cases at Bondi and Manly have consequently been reopened and reinvestigated following White’s arrest. The late 80s and early 90s was a time when hate crimes were dismissive and excuses were made to move on. White will not be able to use the gay panic defense in his upcoming court case, as he would have been prior to 2008, a major shift in the Federal Law since the 1980s.
For my fellow true crime fans, these murders were featured on an episode of Crime Investigation Australia entitled Bloodsport – The Bondi Gay Murders (2008).
Recent small-scale research suggests that LGBTQ+ hate crimes have declined since the COVID-19 outbreak due to social distancing, business closures and lockdown laws. City officials are preparing for the resurgence of hate crimes and anti-social behaviours in 2021 with tensions running high in the wake of this pandemic. Some countries are starting preventive actions at the public-school level. The Human Rights Law Centre is calling for a Hate Crimes Act to be introduced in Australia and increased funding for research and support.
Society is now in this new, fractured normal so it is time to act. Same-sex marriage has been legal for over three years in Australia. We are diverse, we are accepting, we are culturally aware, we are working towards a unanimous agreement that love is love. Now, we need bring it up a notch to ensure every person is protected equally from hate crimes in these uncertain times. Love should never mean having to live in fear.