Adelaide’s tribute to slain gay man who sparked historic reform

adelaide lord mayor george duncan decriminalisation
Photos: SA Police (left)/Adelaide City Council (right)

Adelaide’s Lord Mayor has honoured the memory of Dr George Duncan, whose tragic 1972 death precipitated South Australia’s nation-leading decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor on Monday unveiled a new sign sharing Dr Duncan’s story, next to his permanent memorial near the Adelaide University footbridge on Victoria Drive. July 20 would have been the man’s 90th birthday.

In 1972, Dr George Duncan had returned from London to lecture in law at the University of Adelaide. But two months later he would be dead.

At the time, male homosexual acts were illegal right around Australia. The southern bank of the River Torrens was a gay beat in Adelaide.

At about 11pm on May 10, a gang of men attacked Dr Duncan and another man, Roger James and threw the pair into the river.

James suffered a broken ankle and reached safety, but Dr Duncan tragically drowned, aged 41.

No one was ever convicted of the crime, despite allegations of police involvement. Two police officers would face trial for manslaughter years later but a court acquitted them in 1988.

However, outrage following Dr Duncan’s death sparked momentum in South Australia for law reform.

Within eleven weeks, MPs introduced a private member’s bill to decriminalise male homosexual acts into South Australia’s Legislative Council.

On September 17, 1975, South Australia became the first Australian jurisdiction to fully decriminalise homosexuality.

George Duncan’s death ‘changed South Australia forever’

Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor said Dr Duncan’s tragic death shocked the state at the time.

She said the violent crime was a “tipping point” towards ending discrimination against the LGBTIQ community.

“What happened to him, and the reaction to that fateful event, changed our state, and our nation, forever,” she said.

She said the council was proud to display the sign and described it as “a reminder of the tragedy that led to the increased freedoms enjoyed by so many today.”

“We’ve come a long way since then. The life and legacy of Dr George Duncan is an important story to tell on that journey,” she said.

Click the sign below to enlarge:

adelaide dr george duncan sign

Adelaide’s rainbow-coloured Pride Walk is also a monument to the state’s LGBTIQ history.

In 2016, councillors unveiled the rainbow-coloured pathway in Light Square in the CBD. The footpath forms a timeline of significant dates for South Australia’s queer community.

In 2017, the council updated the Pride Walk to include the passage of marriage equality after the “yes” vote.

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