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June 6, 2024

The ‘godfather’ of the gay community enters the Pride Hall of Fame

The late Ian Purcell is being inducted into the South Australian Pride Hall of Fame as one of its inaugural inductees. CityMag sat down with his husband, Stephen Leahy, to hear about the incredible man that he was.

  • Words: Isabella Kelly
  • Top photo: The Centre of Democracy

CityMag spoke to Stephen for 40 minutes, but it took just one for us to realise how special Ian was, and how loved.


South Australian Pride Gala
June 15
Her Majestys Theatre
58 Grote Street, Adelaide 5000


“Well, I’m very biased: he was my husband so I loved him to bits. He was a very special person. He was a very warm, very kind person,” Stephen says.

“I think in the time that I knew him, 25 years, [there was] less than a handful of people that he met that he didn’t like.”

Ian Purcell was born in 1947 to a large family. He spent years teaching English, something Stephen says he loved dearly. But it was his work as an activist and leader in Adelaide’s LGBTQI+ community which is now, eight years after his death, leading to his induction into South Australia’s Pride Hall of Fame.

In writing about the establishment of the Uranian Society in 1989, a social group for gay men, Ian said the AIDS crisis drew him towards a life of activism.

“In the early ’80s AIDS came along. Everything took a nosedive – the fundamentalist churches called it God’s punishment; the conservative media blamed it on promiscuity,” he wrote.

“It’s true that at least on one level the gay men’s culture was a sexual culture, a result of years of repression.

“It was then, really in 1986, after I’d started losing a lot of friends to AIDS that I thought ‘that could have been me’ and stopped full-time teaching to join the AIDS council and enter politics.”

Ian and Stephen were married in Canada in 2006. When they got home their marriage was not legally recognised. This photo: Supplied

Referred to as the godfather of Adelaide’s gay community, Ian was active in the Let’s Get Equal campaign, which called for marriage equality in Australia, worked to seek legislative reforms to allow for equal superannuation rights for same-sex couples, and played an integral part in Adelaide’s queer community.

Ian was a founding member of the Lesbian and Gay Community Action lobby group, the South Australian Rainbow Rights Advocacy Alliance and the revived Adelaide Pride March, a board member of Gay and Lesbian Community Services, and an active contributor to the Feast Gay and Lesbian Culture Festival. An inaugural member of the ministerial advisory council on gay and lesbian health and the SA Police Gay and Lesbian Liaison Committee, Ian received an Order of Australia medal in 2005 for services to the gay community.

Ian was also the manager of the Darling House Community Library, and it is here where he met Stephen.

“I was probably just at that point where I was getting a bit sick of the scene and wanting something a bit more, and so I met this man, and, just… just wonderful,” Stephen tells CityMag.

“He was a very public figure in some ways, but he was a very private person too. I got to see a side of Ian that not many other people did.

“There was nothing proud about him… nothing was too not important enough for him to do.”

Not just the godfather of the gay community, Ian had at times been crowned “an honorary lesbian” for his inclusion of gay women at a time when some gay men were against it. This title is something Stephen says he was exceptionally proud of.

Ian Purcell is being recognised in the South Australian Pride Hall of Fame. This Photo: SARAA

Ian died in November 2016, before he and Stephen could have their marriage legally recognised in the city they lived in, and the state Ian loved so much.

“He loved South Australia, he was very passionate about South Australian history, and South Australian gay history. Because there is gay history in South Australia,” Stephen says.

“He was a community builder. There’s very few of those around, now it’s often done by organisations, they try and build a community. But Ian was a sort of person who just created that community.

“He was always looking at how he could bring a community along with him, and create a good place to live in South Australia… He wanted people to see what a special place we have here.”

Stephen said about five years before Ian’s death, he began to get tired.

“He’d been doing this for a long time. So he was really pleased when he saw younger people stepping up… It was lovely to see the look on his face when he realised that, he could sort of take the mantle off.”

Of all the work he did, Stephen says he believes Ian was most proud of the two community musicals he put on: The Pink Files and King of the West End, which both told different aspects of South Australia’s gay history.

“There was a line in The Pink Files that I thought described Ian perfectly,” Stephen says.

“’Brighten up the corner you’re in.’ And that’s exactly what Ian did.”

Ian Purcell will be inducted into Pride Adelaide’s South Australian Pride Hall of Fame on June 15 at the South Australian Pride Gala. 

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