I flew to Sydney, Australia, from the U.S. several days after my gay brother’s death in December 1988. A constable led me on a trail above a cliffside parking lot in the city’s northern suburbs and pointed to where my younger brother, Scott Johnson, had leapt to his death, like so many others had from that spot. The local newspaper ran a two-inch story with the headline “Body on Rocks,” noting that police found “no suspicious circumstances.” Police said there would be no investigation, and soon afterward a coroner’s suicide verdict closed Scott’s case.
During the subsequent 25 years, I’ve learned that nearly everything New South Wales police told me about Scott’s death was untrue: The constable had taken me to the wrong spot; no suicides had ever occurred where Scott actually died; and there were plenty of suspicious circumstances. Once I learned how thoroughly I had been misled, I set out to find the truth.
My decades-long search for justice has revealed many horrifying truths. Around the time Scott died, violence targeting gay men was an epidemic in Sydney. During the decade 1985 to 1995, hundreds of gay men were assaulted and dozens died, with little police action or media attention. This “silent scourge,” as one Sydney newspaper columnist recently called it, is now receiving attention in Australia. Yet it has been almost completely unreported in the United States.
This month the U.S. public can learn about Scott’s death and our quest for justice when Australian Story’s powerful documentary On the Precipice airs on World Channel. When this program aired last year in Australia, it spurred NSW police into offering a $100,000 reward and announcing that Scott’s death would finally be investigated.
I have never believed Scott killed himself. Scott was one of his generation’s brightest academic stars, with a promising future. He was out to our family and living happily in Australia with his Australian partner. The day before he went missing, he had received news that he had finished the final proof for his mathematics Ph.D — a day for celebration, not suicide.
It wasn’t until 17 years after he died that we received a shocking clue about what may have happened to Scott. In 2005 a coroner’s inquest into suspicious deaths of gay men in another area of Sydney revealed that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, youth gangs, in almost businesslike fashion, had routinely assaulted and robbed gay men. Victims were bashed, raped, and sometimes killed. Chillingly, several had been run off of cliffs to their deaths by baying bands of thugs who cornered their prey at secluded meeting areas called “beats.”
We have been surprised that it has been so difficult to convince authorities of the obvious parallels to Scott’s death. It took another six years of family-financed investigation and campaigning to instigate any action in Scott’s case. NSW police refused to investigate even after a coroner overturned Scott’s suicide verdict in 2012. Not until the 2013 exposé on Australian Story did police reluctantly accede. Their investigation is still under way.
We are grateful that police have at last responded. However, much more is at stake than finding Scott’s killer. Just as the brutal murder of Mathew Shepard in Wyoming illuminated homophobic violence in the U.S., Scott Johnson’s death has begun to raise awareness Down Under. After the Australian Story broadcast, The Sydney Morning Herald published an extraordinary 10-part series about “Sydney’s gay hate shame,” reporting that as many as 80 men met violent deaths during this vicious chapter in Sydney’s history.
The NSW justice system failed hundreds of families and victims of violence. It is time for an independent inquiry into what went wrong. An authentic acknowledgement of past mistakes is the only way to avoid repeating those mistakes. But we also believe that a broad investigation is the only way to connect the dots among these unsolved crimes that were linked in fundamental ways. Assaults were carried out by groups and were done repeatedly. In some cases police turned a blind eye — or worse. An investigation that views these crimes as part of the same “wave” and honestly considers all possibilities — including police complicity — has a chance for bringing justice even today. It will certainly bring much-needed solace to many families like mine and assurance to the gay community that they are indeed equal citizens with equal protection under the law.
I hope that Americans will tune in this month and watch On the Precipice and see the story of the gentle, brilliant American man who died tragically, and how this family’s love and search for truth has led to a call for institutional change and a plea for justice for dozens of families who had long ago lost hope.
We have come so far, but still have so far to go.
STEVE JOHNSON is the CEO of Boston-based ChoiceStream.