For over half a century the shameful and scandalous history behind “world’s only gay prison” located in a small regional town in New South Wales, Australia, had remained buried and forgotten. Now, a new true crime audio podcast series, The Greatest Menace, from queer Australian journalist Patrick Abboud, uncovers the dark chapter and a secretive government operation to find a “treatment to eradicate homosexuality”. 

Trigger Warning: This story has details of homophobic government action and torture of gay men, which might be distressing to some readers. For 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For Australia-wide LGBTQI peer support call QLife on 1800 184 527 or webchat.

Abboud first heard about the ‘gay prison’ in 2017 from a colleague at a work Christmas party,  after a gruelling year covering the national marriage equality vote. The colleague told Abboud that he had heard from a friend of an acquaintance about the prison in the town of Cooma.

The prison and asylum in Cooma was closed in the 1900s before its reincarnation as a “gay prison” in 1957. 

The Homosexual Threat

 

Abboud says that it was so “shocking” when he first heard that there was a “prison set up specifically to incarcerate gay men”, he and his co-producer Simon Cunich embarked on a three year journey to research the story. 

The moment of revelation was discovering the reason the government of the time set up the prison. In a 1958 speech, then NSW police commissioner had proclaimed that “homosexuality was the greatest threat facing Australia”.  

“Hearing that speech was so disturbing as a gay man. I knew from that moment that I couldn’t not investigate this. I couldn’t not bring this story to light because it just demonstrated how hated we were. It demonstrated how unjust the laws of the time were, and the worst part is how people’s lives were destroyed,” Abboud told Star Observer in an interview on Zoom. 

“The reason the government established this prison was to eradicate the ‘homosexual threat’ that the police commissioner had publicly announced. The intention was clear – to establish this research experiment they needed a sample of gay men,” said Abboud.

This was around two decades before Australian states and territories reformed laws to decriminalise homosexuality, starting with South Australia in 1975. The LGBTQI community in NSW had to wait close to another decade before same-sex relationships between men were decriminalised in 1984. 

Gay Men Were Entrapped, Arrested, Sent To Prison

Across the eight-part series, Abboud speaks to former inmates of the notorious prison, police officers who were part of the ‘vice squad’ and others connected with the prison.

The stories he heard were sinister – about police entrapping gay men and arresting them from gay beats. Some ended up being sent to the ‘gay prison’ where they were forced to be part of “experiments” and subjected to torture, including electric shocks. 

“The purpose was to investigate the causes and treatments of homosexuality and essentially to ‘find a cure’,” said Abboud. 

The podcast series is a wild adventurous ride, taking listeners from regional New South Wales to regional parts of the UK, New Zealand, from hidden sex haunts to gay beats and underground nightclubs. 

The ‘gay prison’ in Cooma functioned for a few decades before it was shut down. The Cooma Correctional Centre currently operates as a minimum and medium security prison, though it no longer serves as a “gay prison”.

The Devastating Impact Of Words

Cooma Correctional Centre. Photo by Mattinbgn

For Abboud, the story also had an unexpected personal connection – he had spent parts of his childhood visiting family living in Cooma, probably walking past the prison many times. He returned decades later to uncover the stories and tragedies behind the walls. 

The attitudes that led to the setting up of the prison continues to this day, says Abboud, from the anti-gay and anti-trans killings in Sydney in the latter half of the 20th century, the campaigns against marriage equality, the targeting of trans children and enacting transphobic laws to Scott Morrison now pushing the discriminatory Religious Discrimination Bill. 

“The homophobia and transphobia is still so unbelievably pervasive today in the halls of power and for that to stop, a story like this is really important,” said Abboud, adding, “I hope that the series goes some way to applying pressure on the current government to think about the devastating impact of of their words and actions.”

The eight-part true crime ‘The Greatest Menace‘ is available on Audible. The podcast series is available to listen for free for a month on Audible. 

 

If you feel distressed reading the story, you can reach out to support services.

For 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention call Lifeline on 13 11 14

For Australia-wide LGBTQI peer support call QLife on 1800 184 527 or webchat.

 

 

 

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