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Dr George Duncan

18 May 2023

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (16:14): I also rise to speak in support of this motion. May 10 this year marked the 51st anniversary of the drowning and murder of Dr George Duncan. Dr Duncan, who was 41, had returned to Australia from London to take up a lectureship in law at the University of Adelaide, teaching in Roman law. He was an extremely shy, intensely private man, and he may never have publicly identified as a homosexual. Dr Duncan had only been in Adelaide for six weeks when he was thrown into the River Torrens near Kintore Avenue. The River Torrens was a well-known meeting place for gay men at that time and on the night that Dr Duncan ventured down to the riverbank male homosexual acts were still illegal in all Australian states and territories.

The law effectively criminalised gay men because of who and what they were. The law made gay men the targets of violence. At around 11pm on 10 May 1972, Dr Duncan was thrown into the river by a group of men. Dr Duncan was unable to swim and he drowned. The events that followed are well documented, but it is important to note that this event was a catalytic event for our state. The death of Dr Duncan was not isolated, many gay men at that time were victims of homophobic violence and hate crimes, but his death did spark a public outcry and eventually led to several attempts to reform the law, to decriminalise homosexuality, and led to South Australia being a leader in this space.

I want to honour the work of Don Dunstan, as Premier at that time, and Peter Duncan, who it should be noted is no relation to Dr Duncan, who introduced a bill to reform those oppressive laws. I often remark, when I talk about the death of Dr Duncan and the gay law reform project, on how lucky I am as an out and proud gay man to have been a beneficiary of the changes that have been made over many years.

The Hon. Ian Hunter is not here today but I acknowledge that he has been a long-term advocate for gay law reform in this state, and someone who has been out and proud in public life for many years. As a result of the advocacy of people like Mr Hunter, and gay men of his generation, society has changed for the better for people like myself, so I am really appreciative of that.

The other day was International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, and that is also an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come on the road for equality and justice for LGBTI people. I mentioned that it is a lot easier these days being in public life as an out gay man, but I was recently reminded of some of the terrible discrimination that still exists in the community and that gay men can face, even in parliaments, when I saw the despicable comments made by Mark Latham in New South Wales in relation to Alex Greenwich, who is an out and proud gay man in that parliament.

Those despicable comments—hateful, revolting comments—really were a reminder of the discrimination that gay men can still face. I still hear reports of gay men experiencing homophobic abuse out on our streets, people being scared of coming out in their workplaces and people being scared of revealing their sexuality to their friends and their families, so there is still lots of work to do.

The death of Dr Duncan is a reminder of how far we have come. It is an opportunity to recognise his legacy and the legacy of those gay rights activists at that time, and it is also a time for us to strengthen our resolve to keep on fighting and to overcome homophobia and discrimination wherever we confront it.