Gay Law Reform Anniversary

It is my great pleasure to rise in support of the Premier's motion, and can I just say it is a privilege to be able to speak on such an important issue.

It is often easy in the cut and thrust of politics to forget that we are united as parliamentarians in our love and pride for South Australia, and motions like these are a chance to reflect upon the achievements of our state. South Australia has a long history of social progression; much of it has been outlined in this house this morning by the Premier, from being the first state to give women the vote in Australia to being the first state to legislate for Aboriginal land rights. We have much to be proud of.

 

However, we are here today to reflect and celebrate on that other great struggle that so typifies the quest for equality in the 21st century: the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

 

Let me start by reflecting on the kind of place South Australia was back in 1972: William McMahon was soon to be replaced by Gough Whitlam as the Prime Minister; the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was erected on the lawns of the federal parliament; Olympic medallist Shane Gould was Australian of the Year; and here, only a few hundred metres from where we are now, the body of the Adelaide University Law

Professor, Dr George Duncan, was found in the Torrens.

 

This single event cast a shadow across the state that would last decades. The noted professor was the victim of a hate crime: killed for daring to live his life according to the desires of his heart, rather than the forced, moral imperatives of his time.

 

Following a manslaughter trial in 1988, the two accused were acquitted. Dr Duncan's killers have never been brought to justice. It was a truly shocking act, and one that not only tore at the very fabric of our legal and academic community but also at the heart of the gay and lesbian community—a community in hiding and a community under siege.

 

However, as so often happens, from great darkness comes great light. The death of Dr Duncan became a catalyst for gay law reform and, for the first time, turned the spotlight on the archaic laws that outlawed homosexuality in South Australia. Soon, a groundswell for change driven by activists and lobby groups was making waves throughout the wider community. Along with those parliamentarians already mentioned by the Premier, I would in particular like to pay tribute to the work of Liberal MLC the Hon. Murray Hill, the first parliamentarian in the country to ever make a serious attempt to decriminalise homosexuality.

 

Following the death of Dr Duncan, Murray Hill moved a private member's motion to amend the Criminal Law Consolidation Act to decriminalise homosexuality. In his second reading speech he noted:

 

I believe that there is now a tolerance and understanding of the problems facing homosexuals that were not apparent until recently…The greatest contribution that can be made to help is for society itself to be compassionate and willing to consider the opposite viewpoint.

 

However, the bill introduced by Mr Hill was not without opposition. The legislation was eventually passed, but heavily amended and watered down. The amended act changed the law to allow for the defence of a homosexual act committed with another male person in private by men over 21 years of age. Although the amended legislation was not in keeping with Mr Hill's original vision, it remained an Australian first and led the way for gay rights reform in South Australia. For a first step, it was surprisingly quick. The act was assented to in November 1972, not even a full six months after the tragic death of Dr Duncan.

 

As parliamentarians, it is easy for us to follow the Hansard debates and see the historical path of legislation in order to gain an understanding of the pitfalls encountered by those brave enough to fight for equality. It is much harder to truly understand the plight of those everyday South Australians who fought for justice outside of these walls. In my mind, it is the mother who refused to turn away from her child, the individual who set up a support group despite the potential backlash, the business owners who allowed their premises to be a safe space for members of the LGBTI communities and the passionate activists who would not stop yelling until their voices were heard. They are the true heroes.

 

One such hero was Adelaide City Councillor Mr Bert Edwards, who in 1930 was found guilty of sodomy and sentenced to five years' hard labour in South Australia. Consider how devastating this must have been for Mr Edwards. His court case was a public fascination. He was a professional man in his prime, a philanthropic man with a reputation for helping the needy, and here he was in gaol. He served three years before he was released on probation.

 

It would have been understandable if following an ordeal like this Mr Edwards faded away from public view. Instead, he was re-elected to the Adelaide City Council and continued his charitable work. Following his death, Premier Sir Thomas Playford said: 'Scarcely a good cause in the city did not receive some help from him.' It is people like Mr Edwards, who lived their lives in the face of such extreme brutality and injustice, and yet who still managed to contribute to a better South Australia who are the true heroes.

 

All people want to be able to live free from discrimination and criminal penalties, free from the threat of violence and free to express their own unique identities. If it was not for the dedicated campaigners for gay rights in our state, South Australia would not be the culturally diverse, inclusive and vibrant place that it is today.

 

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention the fantastic work done by a range of organisations in South Australia. In particular, I would like to acknowledge Let's Get Equal for their work over the past 15 years, as they have lobbied tirelessly for equal rights for same-sex couples. Many have given their time to grow Let's Get Equal. In particular, I would like to recognise in the Hansard the contribution by Mr Ian Purcell, Mr Matt Loader, Ms Liana Buchanan, Mr Scott Sims, Jo and Terri Mitchell-Smith, Ms Roxxy Bent and the late Mr Andrew Steinwedel.

 

I would like to make particular reference to Mr Tim Reeves and Mr Will Sergeant, who, along with Ian Purcell, are about to open an exhibition charting South Australia's history of gay law reform at the State Library. I look forward to seeing this exhibition and I hope many of my colleagues in this place will also take that opportunity. I would like to acknowledge the Director of the State Library, Mr Alan Smith, and his colleague Ms Jenny Scott for their work with the LGBTI community.

 

As we reach the 40-year milestone of gay law reform it is time to reflect on how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. I look forward to a time when gay, lesbian, intersex and transgender young people are not at an increased risk of bullying and suicide. I look forward to a time where 'gay panic' is no longer a legitimate defence for murder. I look forward to a time when a person's sexuality is not the first descriptor used to describe them and where the language around sexuality is no longer loaded with judgement.

 

I have no doubt that in South Australia we will reach such a time. We have a proud history when it comes to gay rights and one that I am sure will continue.