Ingeborg van Teeseling

Don Dunstan: The Man Who Decriminalized Homosexuality

Don Dunstan is famous for decriminalizing homosexuality in South Australia in 1975, the first state in Australia to do so. Wherever Dunstan saw inequality, he refused to accept it. 


Don Dunstan is a man most of us know from one photograph. Even if you weren’t born yet in November 1972, you will recognize the picture of a State Premier on the steps of his parliament building, in a very tight white T-shirt, long socks, and, yes, bright pink hot pants. Although, it would be easy to be more distracted by the see-through lace shirt, skin-tight black trousers, and enormous silver rings he wore at a party for a famous painter. Or the dull gold dress suit with a caramel bow tie, shirt with frilly cuffs, and pull-on boots that came out of his closet for opening night of the Australian Ballet in 1974.

But, I digress.

Don Dunstan is, of course, most famous for decriminalizing homosexuality in South Australia in 1975, the first state in Australia to do so. Closer observation will show, however, that he was a civil libertarian and humanist across the board. Influential in strengthening democracy, helping Indigenous people get more self-determination, pushing multiculturalism forward, and addressing the powers of the police force in his state. Through it all, he remained highly controversial, with ministers preaching against him from the pulpit and police officers building up a special trash file. 

To understand why Don Dunstan was such a divisive figure, it is important to realize what kind of country Australia was in the 1960s and 70s, especially where homosexuality was concerned. In quite a number of States, ‘sodomy,’ as it was called, could get you the death penalty, or otherwise imprisonment, dismissal, and enormous fines.

It was also the height of the Cold War and moral problems with homosexuality (male only; women were not presumed to be capable of same-sex love and there were no laws against lesbian relationships) were made worse by worries that homosexual men could be a risk to the security of the country. South Australia especially was worried, because Maralinga had just been selected as a key site for weapons research and ASIO and the police were scared that homosexuals with inside information could be blackmailed into giving up secret information.

All this angst led NSW Police Commissioner Colin Delaney to publicly complain that homosexuals were ‘the greatest social menace’ in Australia. Soon, campaigns were put in place in most States to ‘control’ this ‘hazard.’ New laws were adopted that allowed police to arrest people for ‘consorting’ with homosexuals, ‘frequenting’ places where gay people ‘reputedly’ went, or even ‘using indecent language.’

South Australia associated homosexuality with the penal system. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, political discussions circled around ever more stringent measures: sterilization, bringing back the death penalty, locking men up in separate colonies, or giving them ‘a taste of the lash.’ The police were given expanded powers and ‘offenses against morality’ were soon clogging up the courts. People who had been living together quietly for twenty, thirty years were arrested, charged, and sent to jail.

Others were given hefty fines or forbidden to ever see each other again. Police officers were known to use informants and entrapment and beat people up to force confessions. In one case, they actually bored a hole through the ceiling so they could see what was going on below. In another, a party was broken up by the police and the men there found guilty of ‘singing bawdy songs’ and ‘using indecent language within the hearing of each other or encouraging the others to talk in a disgusting way of indecent matters.’


Don Dunstan is, of course, most famous for decriminalizing homosexuality in South Australia in 1975, the first state in Australia to do so. Closer observation will show, however, that he was a civil libertarian and humanist across the board.


During that time, Don Dunstan was a lawyer. He had been born in Fiji, where his father Viv worked in middle management positions and his mother, Ida, kept house. She also tried to make sure that her son did not mix with non-white children. Fiji was a class society divided by race, and young Don soon learned to lie to his mother to meet up with friends who did not fit the criteria.

It was also in Fiji that he was first confronted with the misery and poverty of other pupils, something that made a big impression. In 1949, aged 23, he married Gretel Elsasser, the daughter of Jewish refugees from Germany and an economics student. For a few years, Don ran a law practice in Suva, mostly helping out prostitutes and small-time criminals. Soon, he was wondering if his life was ‘contributing to the sum of human good or simply patching up messes and mistakes in human behavior, but doing little which would last.’

The couple moved to Adelaide, where Don looked for work but realized that his reputation as a left-wing ‘do-gooder’ had preceded him. He was considered ‘too red’ to be welcome in any existing law firm, so he set up one of his own. Money was scarce, especially with children arriving, and it got even worse when Don and Gretel got actively involved in stopping Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ attempt at banning the Communist Party. Now nobody wanted to be associated with him anymore, which led the Dunstans to supplement their income by taking in boarders and taking cold showers on the back porch. 

That didn’t stop Dunstan from accepting contentious causes. In 1952, he headed up the legal case of newly arrived migrants who were opposing the costly accommodation charges levied by the Commonwealth hostels. It was a test case that made it all the way to the High Court. Dunstan won, which got him elected as a Labor candidate for the seat of Norwood, a suburb of Adelaide. He also openly spoke against the death penalty that had been imposed on Max Stuart, an Aboriginal man who had been convicted of the rape and murder of a small girl.

Dunstan thought the case had been heavily influenced by racial bias and fought not just for Stuart, but to make sure Aboriginal rights would be more respected in the future. During the 1960s, Dunstan, first as a Member of the South Australian Parliament and then as Attorney-General, advocated for a stronger democratic system in the State and the removal of the White Australia Policy from the Labor platform. He was also the President of the Federal Council for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement and actively supported the arts in the State.

Dunstan’s personal focus was on the South Australian police force and the way it dealt with homosexuality. As Attorney-General, he was confronted with two cases of men who had hanged themselves as a result of police accusations. He was also a friend of John Tasker, the inaugural director of the South Australian Theatre Company, who had been openly living in a gay relationship and had been sacked because of it. Dunstan made sure he was given a job at the Labor Party’s advertisement agency, appalled by the turn of events.

The police, in the meantime, was upping its game and the courts were handing out higher sentences to younger and younger defendants. In 1965 a 16-year-old boy was sentenced to twelve months hard labor. Dunstan took the whole affair to the Parliament, asking for a Royal Commission into the behavior of the police.

When that didn’t work, he kept pushing for law reform, especially decriminalization. Along the way, he made himself some powerful enemies, with Commissioner McKinna describing him as an ‘immature soul, obsessed with a desire to reform our social structure, showing too much concern for the rights of wrong doers.’ To Dunstan, the fight was simple: ‘Liberty means more than voting rights. It also means that people should be able to live the way they wish, providing they don’t harm others.’ 


To Dunstan, the fight was simple: ‘Liberty means more than voting rights. It also means that people should be able to live the way they wish, providing they don’t harm others.’ 


Dunstan had political, but also personal reasons to promote this kind of freedom. From the start of their marriage, Don and Gretel had had extramarital affairs, and Don was clearly bisexual. Gretel was fine with that, until Don lost track of what was socially acceptable and started showing off his boyfriends in public. That was especially problematic because Dunstan’s political star was rising fast. In 1966, a journalist described him as ‘the pace-setter and direction finder’ of the Labor Cabinet he was a part of at the time.

He was, the reporter wrote, ‘the Government’s main source of ideas,’ and that resulted in jobs as Treasurer first and then, between 1967 and 1968, Premier. In 1968, Dunstan narrowly lost the elections, but in 1970, the ‘Dunstan Decade,’ which lasted until 1979, started. It was the first ALP government in South Australia’s history to take office and win three successive elections.  

Dunstan did not waste time in going after the police force. Despite the fact he knew that Special Branch was busily compiling a file on him, he kept pushing for what he felt was right, both in his personal and his political life. The marriage with Gretel was stranded on the rocks of Don’s open relationships with men, but that was only more reason for Dunstan to support one of his backbenchers, a socially progressive lawyer named Peter Duncan, who was drafting a private member’s bill for the full decriminalization of homosexuality.

There was another impetus as well. In 1972, a law lecturer at Adelaide University, a man named George Duncan, had been murdered at a well-known pick-up place for gay men. After thorough investigations, Dunstan and others were convinced that the police had done the killing, and the now-Premier thought that this was the red line. The police simply had to be stopped and in 1977 Dunstan held a judicial inquiry into complaints against the police. The new Commissioner, Salisbury, described his Premier as one of the ‘agents of darkness,’ who were ‘planning the destruction of marriage and the family way of life, by subtle, insidious means, such as permissiveness.’ Lutheran ministers were warning their charges against Dunstan as well, labeling his tenure as ‘Sodom and Gomorrah.’

First, it seemed Dunstan was winning his fight. Salisbury was dismissed, Special Branch dismantled. But then it all quickly unraveled for the flamboyant Premier. In 1978, his second wife, a young Malaysian journalist named Adele Koh, died from cancer after only three years as Don’s partner. That same year, a book came out titled It’s Grossly Improper that blew the lid off Dunstan’s relationships with men. In February of 1979, Dunstan collapsed during parliamentary question time and a month later he resigned during a press conference at the hospital, wearing his pajamas and looking gray. But that is not where it ended for Don Dunstan.

In 1981, a ten-part television series, The Dunstan Documentaries, aired to great acclaim. A year later he became the Chairman of the Victorian Tourism Commission, a job he had to resign from in 1986, when he scandalized Australia again by launching Being Different, the first anthology of stories written by homosexual men. Not deterred, Dunstan became the chair of a national HIV/AIDS committee, as well as traveling the country advocating the decriminalization of homosexuality in other states. He wrote articles, including for the Adelaide Gay Times, and openly celebrated the appointment of Michael Kirby to the High Court of Australia. ‘The forces of bigotry, intolerance and reaction are evil and must always be fought,’ Dunstan said in a speech marking Kirby’s success. 

In 1994, he opened Don’s Table, a restaurant he ran with his partner Steven Chang, and three years later he launched Adelaide’s community float for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. In 1998, he became sick and died from cancer a year later. But not before establishing the Don Dunstan Foundation, which now advocates exactly the same issues their namesake fought for most of his life. Dunstan was fortunate enough to see homosexuality decriminalized in the whole of Australia, which happened when Tasmania became the last state to take it off the books in 1997.

Nevertheless, a lot of work that Dunstan started, especially in the area of civil liberties, needs all the attention it can get. But who knows how far behind the times we would be without this exceptional, flawed maverick? Hats off to Don Dunstan.

‘There is reason to take pride in what you are by nature,’ Dunstan said not long before he died. Words to live by. 


Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.