“There was no struggle, nothing. And then he slipped away… the river engulfed him.
This is how a witness described the last seconds of Dr George Duncan’s life, told to the ABC in 2005, 33 years after the 41-year-old University of Adelaide academic drowned in the River Torrens and posthumously set in motion the spirit of gay law reform in Australia.
The death on 10 May 1972 of Dr George Ian Ogilvie Duncan – suspected of being at the hands of the Adelaide Police Vice Squad, at a time when homosexuality was banned in all Australian states – is a event inscribed in the narrative of the LBTQI community of South Australia. .
The writer Christos Tsiolkas and his partner Wayne van der Stelt first learned of Duncan’s revered place in SA legal history in the mid-1980s, when the two young University of Melbourne students took their first road trip together to Adelaide.
“I remember we went to the Candlelight, which was one of the old gay clubs there, and we heard the story of what happened by the river – heard about the bashing of the homosexuals and belittlement by the police,” he said.
“There was still a real feeling of being in a border town…we were in the beautiful middle class part of Adelaide but we were getting warnings from gay people we talked to in pubs saying we just had to do very careful. It continued, it was always part of the history of the city.
On March 3, Adelaide festival-goers will witness the multi-award-winning Melbourne writer’s debut as a librettist, with Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan, co-written with Sydney playwright Alana Valentine.
Marking the 50th anniversary of Duncan’s death, the production, conducted by Neil Armfield, will be delivered in the form of an oratorio, premiered by Queensland opera house and composer Joseph Twist.
Tsiolkas and Valentine agreed that the traditionally sacred form of the oratorio—opera without sets, costumes, and staging, and deemed appropriate by the church to address religious material— was the most appropriate way to tell Duncan’s story.
“One of the things about being queer is being separated from the sacred,” says Tsiolkas.
“There is a feeling of being exiled from religious traditions and Duncan was a religious man [he was high church Anglican].
“That’s what was great about writing an oratorio…doing it but not denying our homosexuality, because that’s what religious texts have done – denying that our bodies are part of the sacred.
“Duncan died to a gay beat and we wanted that world to be communicated in the words of the music… It was exciting to work on those two things, the sacred and the illicit together.”
The background story documenting Duncan’s life is compelling, as historian Tim Reeves can attest.
The white upper middle class, Australian-raised and Oxbridge-educated history graduates, lived a secretive life, as most gay men were forced to do, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s.
Reeves has spent the better part of three decades documenting the Duncan case, he has been a consultant on the Watershed project and will publish his book The Death of Doctor Duncan at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival on March 9, where it will be launched by David Mar.
The record of Australia’s longstanding criminalization of homosexuality – through murder, manslaughter and suicide – was far from unique in the English-speaking world, he says, but the speed of legislative changes after Duncan’s death changed that.
Three police officers were early suspected as the culprits who dumped Duncan, a man who, despite attending Melbourne Grammar – an exclusive school that boasted as much about his athletic prowess as his academic rigor – was unable to swim.
After an internal police inquiry sparked widespread skepticism in the public, detectives from Scotland Yard were called in to investigate independently – but subsequent findings filed as part of a parliamentary inquiry revealed that ‘there is no There was no real intention to cause anyone’s death – it was just a frenzied lovemaking. went wrong. »
In Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan, the oratorio features a work with the refrain: “We thought faggots could float”.
Within seven weeks of the recovery of Duncan’s body from the Torrens, however, a private member’s bill was introduced in the South Australian parliament. And in one of the most startling details of Reeve’s book, it wasn’t the famous reformist SA prime minister at the time – Don Dunstan – who was leading the charge. It was a Tory opposed to the incumbent Labor party, Murray Hill – then a member of the Liberal Party and the League of Countries, which would later become the SA Liberals – who pushed for legislation decriminalizing sexual relations between two consenting adult men in the southern state.
Reeve’s book reveals other disturbing details that are unlikely to appear in the oratorio’s libretto: Duncan’s drowning witness, Roger James, who first told his story to the ABC in 2005, was also thrown into the Torrens that night (he was never able to identify his attackers).
James crawled out of the water with a broken leg and was rescued by a motorist who took him to hospital. This apparently the good samaritan was Bevan Spencer von Einem, later convicted of the kidnapping, sexual torture and murder of a 15-year-old schoolboy, Richard Kelvin, and the alleged murderer of at least two other gay men whose cases were never resolved. Von Einem remains incarcerated in a high-security SA prison, marked never to be released during her lifetime.
And in ultimate indignity at Dr. Duncan himself, when the police finally recovered his rigid body from the Torrens, the local television cameraman was too late to capture him; the police pulled Duncan’s body back into the river and fished it out for the show.
Hill’s legislation was modest. It only stopped police from raiding – without a warrant – private homes where two adult men lived together. But within three years, South Africa became the first jurisdiction in the English-speaking world to legalize the equal age of consent for sex at 17, regardless of gender.
Tsiolkas was only 10 years old, but remembers it very well.
“I didn’t have the words to express it at that age – about my identity and my sexuality. But I remember hearing the news… it was supposed to be on TV, and I remember this silent shiver – like it started in my stomach. I couldn’t tell anyone about it. But this change has been huge.
Valentine says the LGBTQI community today remains keenly aware of how the law governs their lives. “All gay, lesbian and transgender people are especially aware that we live our lives subject to the law, and that the laws have a profound influence on how you can behave publicly – what are the limits of your love and how they are legally defined.
Spending decades delving into the life of Dr Duncan – a man who has no surviving relatives to speak for him – Reeves admits to the Guardian he is conflicted over the role he played in the sudden resurgence of public interest in the academic’s life and death. .
“He was an extremely shy, intensely private and taciturn man, he may never have publicly identified as gay,” Reeves said.
“And yet he became a gay martyr, a queer icon in modern parlance. I can hear him muttering darkly from the grave… if he’s an icon, it’s not because of his own actions, but because of his cowardly killers, who thought it was OK to throw poofters in the Torrens, then to flee as they flowed down the river bed.
In his conclusion to the book, Reeves writes, “I am the person most responsible for placing Dr. Duncan on a pedestal that was not of his choosing. I now ask that he be remembered as more than just an epithet.
Tsiolkas is more ambivalent.
“Dr. Duncan was a man whose life was taken in 1972. He didn’t do what all of us sitting around this room did… turn back time.
“I wonder, if he hadn’t been killed, would he have finally found a way to find joy? Finding pleasure, finding love in the tumult of change that was beginning to dawn? What kind of life could he have led? And I think that’s the tragedy of the story, it’s the life that was taken away.