Forty years on: the drowning of Dr George Duncan

News — By on May 27, 2012 5:51 PM

At the southern end of the Adelaide University footbridge, this plaque was laid on the 30th anniversary of George Duncan's death in 2002, photo: CHRIS BRUNNER


Forty years ago in Adelaide, in fact anywhere in Australia, homosexuality was a crime.

That was why men like Dr George Duncan, then a law professor at the University of Adelaide, were forced to meet other gay men in secret.

In 1972 there was no internet, no mobile phones; instead “gay beats” were established as places to meet other homosexual men and women.

One such place in Adelaide was on the banks of the River Torrens, but it was a dangerous game.

The Vice Squad, a special police unit designed to stop crimes of immorality and depravity, were always nearby.

It was considered “sport” to humiliate gay men by throwing them in the river.

On the May 10, 1972, Dr George Duncan was thrown into the Torrens while seeking out other homosexual men.

Ian Purcell (foreground), Coordinator of the SA Gay and Lesbian Archives (GALA) in the procession down to the spot where George Duncan was killed, photo: CHRIS BRUNNER

Dr Duncan was a frail man with only one lung, having suffered tuberculosis as a child.

He drowned.

After 14 years and two investigations, two former members of the Adelaide Vice Squad stood trial but refused to give evidence.

They were acquitted.

A subsequent investigation by Scotland Yard into the handling of the case has never been made public.

The case has never been solved, but its impact on the lives of homosexual people around Australia will never be forgotten.

The public outrage spurred the progressive Dunstan government on to decriminalise homosexuality in South Australia in 1975, the first Australian state to do so.

Forty years on from that fateful day, members of the gay community are free to meet publicly to commemorate his death.

Coordinator of the SA Gay and Lesbian Archive (GALA) Ian Purcell said it was great to see so many young people at the event.

“I think it’s fantastic that the Student Representative Council, Adelaide University Pride (and the Adelaide University Union) have actually put this event together,” he said.

After meeting at Duncan’s memorial, the group of around 50 people made their way along the river to the spot where Duncan drowned.

Idris Martin (left), President of the Adelaide Student Representative Council and Ian Hunter, SA Minister for Communities and Social Inclusion take wreaths to the water’s edge, photo: CHRIS BRUNNER

The gathering was addressed by prominent gay men, including SA Minister for Communities and Social Inclusion, Ian Hunter and activist, Will Sergeant.

Mr Sergeant inspired the crowd with slogans from the old gay liberation days: “The personal is political… blatant is beautiful…and come out, come out wherever you are!”

After a moment’s silence, wreaths were laid in the river by Mr Hunter and President of the Adelaide Student Representative Council, Idris Martin.

After the ceremony, the crowd returned to the Barr Smith Lawns at Adelaide University to celebrate homosexual culture.

Adelaide University Union (AUU) President, Casey Briggs said the group was there “to commemorate that tragic event forty years ago, but also to celebrate how far we’ve come”.

“Students and staff do feel a connection to Dr Duncan both because it happened on the nearby river bank and because he was a law lecturer here at the university.”

Messages of hope are attached to balloons, photo: CHRIS BRUNNER

A room in Union House now bears Duncan’s name, and is the designated safe gay space on campus, according to Mr Briggs.

Messages of hope and support were attached to colourful helium-filled balloons, before they were released over the city of Adelaide.

Social Inclusion Minister Ian Hunter says there is still a lot of work to do.

“Marriage equality is the next big federal issue…it’s the last piece of (Commonwealth) legislation that actively discriminates against lesbians and gays.”

But there is plenty still to be done at the state level too, he says.

Ian Purcell thinks the Dr Duncan story keeps the fight for gay equality alive in South Australia.

Balloons with messages of hope attached are released over Adelaide, photo: CHRIS BRUNNER

“There’s still a lot of anger in the community that the men who killed him got away with it,” he says.

“People will want this ceremony to continue because justice has never been served.”

If you are struggling or need to talk to someone about issues relating your sexuality, contact the Gay and Lesbian Counselling Service on (08) 8193 0800.

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