Commemorating World Gratitude Day (21 September):
Personal Encounters With People Who Made A Difference.
Two Australian activists – one an outspoken celebrity and the other a quiet achiever – both used their opportunities to change the world for the better. Their impact lives on.
In the twelfth century – according to tradition – King Canute unsuccessfully tried to stop the tides. In 1976, an Australian politician apparently succeeded.
The legendary story of King Canute was one of piety, asserting that worldly authorities, even kings, could not compete with the power of God. The more modern Australian version – a real life event at Glenelg beach – conveyed a converse form of piety: our ability to outgrow religious superstition by exercising secular thinking.
There are those who may recall when the destruction of Adelaide was predicted by a house-painter who, inspired by governmental reforms to decriminalise homosexuality, declared that around noon on 19 January 1976, South Australia would see divine wrath in the form of an earthquake and tsunami.
On the day, the Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan, waved theatrically at an assembled crowd and, beyond them, at the crashing waves. The deadline passed without incident, and the world continued as before. There was no tidal wave, no tsunami. News reports suggest that the house-painter moved to an undisclosed location in the Eastern states, where his house may have been later destroyed in a local flood – a nice urban myth at least, indicating the good-natured, karmic mockery with which many Australians remember his presumption.
Over forty years later, it is hard to imagine any Australian politician today who would have the courage to confront a religious decree, no matter how irrational its content. But back in the 1970s, Don Dunstan was a rebel whose sexuality and open marriages were a rejection of traditional religious sex-negative dogma.
Such was typical of the life of Donald Allan Dunstan (21 September 1926 – 6 February 1999), born into the Christian faith but later embracing secular libertarian humanism because he could ‘no longer maintain a willing suspension of disbelief in some of the stranger things in Christian theology’ (Dino Hodge, Don Dunstan: Intimacy and Liberty, Wakefield Press, 2014, p. 221). Dunstan was a ‘renaissance man’ who led the push to abolish the White Australia Policy among his impressive list of other reforms. He was married twice to women, and his last long-term partner was a man.
My own personal connection to Don Dunstan was indirect and impersonal – yet profound. In December 1986, after leaving South Australian government and while working as Director of Tourism in Victoria, he attended the Sydney launch of an Australian gay history book. Another presence at the launch was a gay rights activist dressed as a nun and known as ‘Monsignor Porca Madonna’. The ensuing public outrage led to his resignation from his Victorian job, but not before my family intersected with the great man.
At that time, Dunstan was also involved with a charity in which a relative of mine was also involved. I recall how this relative proudly boasted how he had confronted Dunstan at a meeting and angrily berated him for promoting homosexuality. In hindsight, I can only presume that homophobia had been a vestigial remnant of this relative’s traditional religious upbringing. Still, I recall feeling some consolation in knowing that someone as prominent as Don Dunstan was willing to uphold gay rights during an era when the AIDS epidemic was creating great homophobic stigma, trauma and death.
My story is one among many thousands of lives that were touched in long-term and positive ways by the reforms that Don Dunstan helped to achieve. Even that once-homophobic relative of mine, who in more recent years spoke in favour of same-sex marriage, was ultimately helped towards this personal enlightenment by the homosexual law reforms that Dunstan had initiated.
Dunstan’s King Canute beach satire of 1976, mocking religious suspension of disbelief, was only a small side note in his larger, epochal political career in which his desire to transform the ‘city of churches’ into the ‘Athens of the south’ was symbolic of his remarkable transformation of Australia. He is sometimes remembered as ‘the man who decriminalised homosexuality’ in South Australia – a claim that acknowledges his lead within his progressive government to undertake many reforms, addressing capital punishment, Aboriginal land rights, anti-discrimination, censorship, child protection, consumer protection, environment protection, heritage protection, social welfare, and urban planning.
Overseeing such a list of progressive reform was not a bad effort for one LGBT humanist.
On 7 March 1995, the Acting Prime Minister Brian Howe gave a eulogy for Senator Olive Zakharov (19 March 1929 – 6 March 1995). He expounded her favourite quote from Hamlet, but he added her amendment to Shakespeare:
“This above all: to thine own self be true.
And it must follow, as the night follows day.
Thou cannot then be false to any man…
… and to this, Olive added `woman’.”
In Senator Zakharov’s obituary in The Age (8 March 1995, p. 16), Karen Middleton notes that the addition of ‘woman’ to the quote was reflective of Olive Zakharov’s commitment to women’s rights. The idea of amending something as sacrosanct as Shakespeare, of rewriting the rules, or of reforming society for the sake of egalitarianism, was typical of the Senator. She is noted by the Australian Senate as being a grassroots campaigner for human rights, working on a variety of issues including nuclear disarmament, sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, domestic violence and HIV/AIDS.
Olive Zakharov and I shared the same northern suburban regional background, and we even worked (albeit at different times) at the same local school. We were both shared a passion for social justice. But in her case, she was able to use her political opportunities to help improve the nation and the lives of its people, as an expression of her pragmatism to work for common humanity instead of preaching a philosophical viewpoint. Australian Humanist of the Year for 1986, she is acknowledged in their tribute as having worked as an LGBT advocate – a somewhat uncommon activist role for a heterosexual woman in the 1980s. Her list of aligned organisations includes many that reflect her diverse interests in human rights, social justice, and the arts: everything from the Victorian AIDS Council to Amnesty International and the Australian Film Institute.
On 12 February 1995, I met her at the Midsumma Carnival, an LGBT festival held in the gardens opposite the Arts Centre in St Kilda Road, Melbourne. Among the many groups she visited that day, she came to the community tent for the AIDS Quilt. I recall her genuinely warm smile and her interest in discussing LGBT activism. She thanked us for our volunteer work and left the festival – to be struck down by a car in St Kilda Road, passing away in hospital on 6 March.
A memorial named Olive’s Corner has been dedicated to her memory in Port Melbourne. It acknowledges her passion to help disempowered people. I like to think that the greater memorial is the lives of the people who continue to benefit from her passionate efforts to improve the world.
© 2020 Geoff Allshorn