Lesbians were seen as “fair game” if they weren’t in the company of a man and faced violence when they turned down sexual advances, an inquiry into unsolved LGBTQ+ deaths has been told.
In the years after New South Wales decriminalised homosexuality in 1984, Carole Ruthchild said lesbians still faced severe backlash simply for being themselves.
“We didn’t have to hide – it wasn’t the 1950s – but being in public could draw attention,” the former adviser to the attorney general on LGBTQ+ issues said in Sydney on Friday.
“Whether you were outrageous or looked just like everybody else and they just happened to know … you couldn’t be out and open and not get a bad response.”
Ruthchild was the first witness from the lesbian community to give evidence at the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into LGBTQ+ hate crimes.
It is investigating historical hate crimes against the queer community, particularly a wave of gay-hate homicides and other crimes in Sydney during the Aids epidemic of the 1980s.
Most of the evidence presented to the inquiry this week has related to violence against gay men.
Ruthchild took part in publishing the groundbreaking Off Our Backs report in 1992, which detailed lesbian experiences of violence.
In one instance, a 23-year-old woman reported being attacked by five men, slashed with a broken bottle and left with serious lacerations.
On another occasion, a 22-year-old was walking with her partner when she was verbally harassed by a man who called her a “dirty fucking dyke”.
The man then punched her in the face, causing a concussion.
She called police about the incident and waited two hours for them to arrive before giving up.
Ruthchild noted bashings of lesbians were often more “opportunistic” than the groups going around deliberately targeting gay men for “poofter bashings”.
“Men target women usually in a sexual way, so they usually persist in that in the way they target lesbians,” she said.
In some cases, women were attacked because they turned down the sexual advances of men, which occurred more frequently because lesbians were perceived as “available”.
“If you weren’t there with a man, you were seen as fair game really,” Ruthchild said.
“Even if you were with another woman or several women, men seemed to think it was their right to come and want to buy you a drink – as if we were just sitting there waiting for a man.”
For her work drawing attention to discrimination and creating services for victims, Ruthchild was presented with an entry to the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby Hall of Fame in 2008.
“If we look at the situation we’re in now, it’s almost unrecognisable from where we were then,” she said.
“It’s certainly not perfect all the time but it’s just been a quantum leap in terms of how the public views lesbians – ‘gays and lesbians are just members of the community, they’re here, they’re just like us.’”
The police response will be the focus of hearings from 5 December.