As dusk settled last night, Westside locals gathered to say “no” to homophobia in a candlelit vigil held in Footscray Park.
A recent cluster of alleged attacks by gangs in both Westgate and Footscray parks on members of the gay community prompted organiser, James Wray, to call for an emergency assembly of concerned locals and allies in a peaceful procession to reclaim the park as a safe space for all.
Wray recounted a time when he was savagely beaten for identifying as a gay man as he addressed the crowd of fifty people who gathered at short notice.
Although he doesn’t know the victims of the recent incidents, he said that reflecting on his own isolating experience made him feel compelled to do something in response to the attacks happening in his community.
“What about those people who are being maliciously attacked by strangers waiting in the shadows? Who’s coming together as a community for those people?” he said.
Among the gathered was a concerned group of local police officers and State Greens MP, Colleen Hartland, who spoke of when Saturday night ‘poofter bashing’ was considered a sport.
“It wasn’t right then and it’s not right now”, she said.
“I thank the police for being here today because, being 58, I can remember a time when it wasn’t such a friendly relationship between the two groups”.
Local Area Commander, Inspector Adrian Healy, urged everyone in attendance to report any incidents to the police and said that his team was committed to keeping all members of the LGBTIQ community safe.
Last May, Premier Daniel Andrews apologised on behalf of the state for the past criminalisation of homosexual acts.
But Dan Cook, who came all the way from the northern suburbs to attend, said he thought gay people were still unlikely to report attacks for fear of being arrested for lewd conduct in a public area.
Footscray Park is a well known ‘beat’ for gay hook-ups in the Western suburbs.
Victims have instead been using the Melbourne-based hook-up website, Squirt, to warn others in the gay community.
“F***, I just escaped with my life. I was about to go to the dunnies when 5 or 6 guys jumped out of the bushes with bars … have the police showed up yet?”, wrote one user.
CEO of the Victorian Aids Council, Simon Ruth, reiterated Inspector Healy’s message, urging victims and witnesses of attacks to contact their local Police station through their Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officer (GLLO).
“This helps raise awareness of homophobic violence, and helps the police in their efforts to prevent it”, he said.
Anyone wishing to make a report can head to www.police.vic.gov.au for a list of current GLLO contacts and contact details. Alternatively, they can contact the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard on 1800 184 527 for free and anonymous telephone counselling and referrals.