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Learn about Adelaide's gay history
The First Gay Pride March in Adelaide in 1973 (Image: Jill Matthews Collection)
This year is the 40th anniversary of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in South Australia, and An Open and Shut Case? is a new free exhibition at the State Library SA that commemorates this important event.
South Australia was the first state in Australia to make consenting homosexual acts legal, and this gay law reform in 1975 led to many changes in community attitudes in the decades since. Now one of the last areas of discrimination against same sex couples is likely to be changed, with marriage equality legislation probable in the near future.
An Open and Shut Case? is a Free Exhibition at State Library SA
While An Open and Shut Case? superficially relates to the drowning of Dr George Duncan in 1972, and the resultant change in law by Premier Don Dunstan that enabled gay men to come out of the closet, it also documents a partial history of gay Adelaide life.
This new exhibition is a collaboration between Ian Purcell, Tim Reeves and Will Sergeant and the State Library SA. It draws extensively from the State Library's large collection to chart Adelaide's gay history with archived posters, photos, and other documents. Beginning from the early days of colonisation, it examines how gay Adelaide men have lived and socialised right up to the present day.
Bert Edwards' Tea Rooms - Another Meeting Place for Queans?
Parts of our gay history are difficult to unearth. Even the language used to describe men who are attracted to the same sex is not consistent over the years, and in Victorian times, homosexuality was often seen more as a temporary aberration. A double suicide by two gay men at Gawler in 1879 was consdered to be "most mysterious, and one of the most remarkable occurrences that has ever happened in the colony".
In the 1920s, flamboyant Adelaide gay man Bert Edwards was well known for being homosexual, but it wasn't until 1931 that he was convicted and imprisoned for sodomy.
This happy ignorance of gay life in Adelaide seems to have continued until World War 2, but homosexual encounters were reported more frequently from that time. One orderly at the Repatriation Hospital complained that the "flagrant nocturnal couplings of other men in his hut repelled him". It seems that the air raid shelters at the Repat were also frequently used for all kinds of sex.
After World War 2, life changed for gay men in Adelaide. The SA Police began to actively target homosexuals, and their social life became more undercover. In 1950, a lampshade shop on Rundle Street in the east end became centre of a major scandal. By day, the Governor's wife shopped there, but after dark young men partied in hedonistic heaven - until the police came knocking. Many of these young men were gaoled for gross indecency as a result of their confessions.
Transient meeting places sprang up regularly, only to close when the long arm of the law discovered them. One such place in the 1950s was the Montmartre Cafe on Twin Street Adelaide, probably located in the basement of the former City Steam Biscuit Factory opposite the Adelaide Hairdressing School. This article about Adelaide's Flowering Homosexual Culture: 1939‐1972 reports "The Montmartre was open seven days a week, and became a hub for socialising. From there people would not only meet but also learn about what parties were happening, and so people would gather at the cafe before heading off to a party.
A Former Gay Cruising Ground Near Where Dr George Duncan Drowned
In the 1960s and 1970s, many gay men met at public toilets for sex. SA Police responded by using attractive young men to entrap cruising homosexuals, and reportedly engaged in "bashing" gay men. Learn more in Police Persecution of Adelaide's Homosexual
When Dr George Duncan drowned after reportedly being thrown into the River Torrens by off duty Vice Squad officers, it was the catalyst for decriminalisation of male homosexual acts by the Dunstan government. Since that time, a small number of gay Adelaide venues such as the Mars Bar cater for people attracted to the same sex.
The An Open and Shut Case? exhibition tells the story of gay Adelaide through the decades, giving brief personal insights into the Law's relationship with the homosexual community in Adelaide. It's jointly curated by Ian Purcell, Tim Reeves and Will Sergeant with the assistance and support of the State Library of South Australia.
This free exhibition is on display at the Treasures Wall of the State Library from September 18 to November 8. More about the exhibition can be found on the State Library SA website. It's Ian Purcell's second exhibition at the State library - Gay Times Are Here Again was held in 2013.
The Program of Events Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of Gay Law Reform in SA
An Open and Shut Case? is complemented by a program of events commemorating the 40th anniversary of gay law reform in Adelaide, starting with a free talk by Tim Reeves: Dr Duncan Revisited. Tim will introduce important new material about the man whose death triggered changes in the law. Bookings essential.
You can download the full list of events for the 40th Anniversary of Gay Law Reform in South Australia from the Don Dunstan Foundation website.
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