Almost fifty years ago, a quiet and unassuming University of Adelaide law lecturer tragically died after attackers threw him into the River Torrens in a gay hate crime that shocked Australia.
Dr George Ian Ogilvie Duncan, then aged 41, had only been back in Australia for a short time. The academic had flown over from the UK to start his new job at the Adelaide Law School.
His unsolved murder on May 10, 1972, would eventually lead to groundbreaking law changes in South Australia to decriminalise homosexuality.
Those nation-leading reforms still form the basis of similar legislation around LGBTQI+ rights enacted later across the country.
Before then, homosexual acts between consenting male adults were illegal and punishable by law.
Dr Duncan’s university, devastated by his murder, would become instrumental in the campaign to change that.
‘We were determined not to let it go’
Colleagues in the Adelaide Law School, in particular, fought to ensure investigations into the killing weren’t swept under the carpet.
At the time, Professor Horst Lucke was head of the Adelaide Law School and hired Dr Duncan.
Following the killing, Prof Lucke kept up public pressure on the state government, publicly advocating for the law changes.
He defended Dr Duncan’s reputation and privately met with gay men moved by his killing and desperate to have their voices heard, despite their personal fears.
“It became a cause célèbre and we were determined not to let it go,” Prof Lucke said.
Professor Lucke, now aged 92, today still works at the Law School at University of Queensland’s St Lucia campus in Brisbane.
In 1975, the late Labor premier Don Dunstan’s government introduced legislation into the South Australian Parliament.
The bill decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting males, and equalised the age of consent. South Australia became the first state or territory in Australia to do so.
University of Adelaide ceremony to honour Dr Duncan
This week, the University of Adelaide is honouring the late Dr Duncan with a ceremony at the North Terrace campus.
On Monday, students and staff unveiled the 10-metre high Dr Duncan Rainbow Campus Arch (pictured above).
Architecture students from the University of Adelaide designed the installation, and it will remain in place all month.
On Wednesday (March 2) it will be the location of a special ceremony. The University of Adelaide will welcome special guests to commemorate Dr Duncan and his legacy.
University of Adelaide Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj said the gay academic’s 1972 death was a “terrible tragedy”.
“This tribute is sad and solemn in many ways,” he said.
“[His death] was also a watershed moment in our history.
“We have always valued diversity at the University of Adelaide and continue to work hard to recognise LGBTQI+ rights and support diversity within our community.
“This event is a reminder of the progress we have made.
“But it must also be a strong reminder of how much further we have to go to ensure that our society is guided by enhanced mutual respect and inclusivity.”
At the event, guests including historians and members of the University’s ally network and pride club will place flowers for Dr Duncan beneath the rainbow arch.
They’ll then take a walk of solidarity along the River Torrens where Dr Duncan died.
Then at the Dunstan Playhouse, the guests will watch a preview of new opera, Watershed, retelling the events of Dr Duncan’s death.
The production is part of the Adelaide Festival and opens this week. Tickets to Watershed are on sale now.
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