A new book celebrates the voices of our history
Through interviews with writers, activists, historians and founders of the gay liberation movement, Carolyn D’Cruz and Mark Pendleton have captured the voices of people who were at the forefront of gay activism forty years ago. The following is an extract from their book, After Homosexual: The legacies of gay liberation.
Queer communities are not always switched on to the vicissitudes of time. We are sometimes made aware of our histories, but through necessity are more often focused on the urgency of the now. We have needed to resist police, state and religious harassment based on our sex lives and our genders. We have forced politicians to pass legislation that responds to our demands. We have nursed our sick and dying, while not allowing their deaths to go unmarked. Challenging sexual norms and gender roles, we have scratched and clawed our way onto social and political agendas.
This has earned us the accusation of threatening the very fabric of society. There was a time when we would have read such an accusation as a compliment. Clearly, the measure of success for a liberation movement shifts with time. And as we fight among ourselves over our movement’s goals and what kind of future we want – not only for our ‘own’ folk, but for the kind of world we want to live in – we have constantly had to reflect on who ‘we’ are.
So it is with some understandable awkwardness that in recent years queer movements in many parts of the world have begun to slow and stagnate. Fixated on the last few remnants of formal legal equality, such as marriage, it seems our movement is no longer asking fundamental questions of what sexuality and gender may mean politically, nor questioning the social mores of mainstream society. This process has left many with a warped sense of progress; with supposedly no time to look back at our history, to pause and reflect, the movement has become caught up in a campaign that has left many no longer reflecting at all.
For ‘us’ the promise of an emancipatory vision for altering the structures of love, sex and kinship cannot settle at the present struggle for the ‘right’ to exchange vows at the altar. As things progress, we feel the need to press pause, to find time to reflect on the present through looking once more at what came before and thinking again about what is to come after.
The narrative of the Stonewall Inn is common folklore now, yet the movement and ideas it spawned over forty years ago are less well discussed or understood. This is not to say that there haven’t been those who have drawn on this history in similar explosions of confrontation – the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) being just one notable, but by no means isolated, example. Yet despite these moments, there is a sense that, forty years on, we are in a stalled moment when we are not quite legally equal and yet are socially acceptable in certain limited ways.
[Image] Gay liberation dance flyers.
Forty years have also passed since the publication of Dennis Altman’s Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, which captured the vibrant explosions of the post-Stonewall liberation movement. The book examined what this might mean for a nascent community struggling with its new-found politicisation. As we approached this anniversary, we began to think therefore about gay liberation’s legacies. We also wondered how Altman’s book, reprinted, republished and translated multiple times and read by many thousands of queer people the world over, might speak to this contemporary moment. So we compiled After Homosexual.
We come ‘after Homosexual’ in many senses. In chronological time, we carry the movement’s ideal, which arose later than the heyday of the counterculture and the wave of other projects that focused on liberation and oppression. We talked to people who had been there forty years ago, or who understood the context of the emergence of one of the great and most successful movements of identity politics.
Another sense in which we come ‘after Homosexual’ is through being ‘in quest or pursuit of’ the gay liberation movement. We did not want this project to be a volume that bundled up a past movement and permanently locked it between two covers as finished history. Instead, we wanted to think about what, if any, resonances from our pre-histories there may be for our communities now.
What brings the disparate voices in our book together is a sense that they are writing from a time well after the book Homosexual. What possibly separates them is the extent to which they are writing after homosexual identity politics, and Altman’s utopian imagining of ‘The end of the homosexual’.
[Image] Badge selection.
The final chapter of Altman’s Homosexual is perhaps the most controversial, and certainly the most strident. ‘The end of the homosexual’ argues that if gay liberation were to run its course, it would culminate in the end of sexual categories themselves through the liberation of human sexuality. This liberation never eventuated, and marks, perhaps, the most notable slippage in the political approaches of LGBT/queer communities over the last forty years. Still, is forty years an adequate time to traverse the space between the two places of oppression on one side and liberation on the other?
The views presented in our book all attempt in different ways an engagement with that suppressed vision of emancipatory politics. In doing so, they point not to a coherent movement for liberation along the lines of Homosexual, but instead to a queer spirit that persists through those forty years. It is this spirit of resistance, of fun, of perpetual motion that indicates we do not exist ‘after’ the end of the project of social transformation articulated with such force by Dennis Altman in 1971; political imagination is not dead. Instead, it lives on in the hearts and minds and bodies of those who continue to question, to push and prod at social mores, and to imagine a future world that is more just. Such a future will allow for a greater freedom of gender expression and sexual desire, along with fulfilment of another ideal we have lost sight of over four decades – that social and economic justice must be central planks of any project of liberation.
It is our hope that the reader may be prompted to imagine a world that is not simply chronologically ‘after Homosexual’, nor ‘after’ in the sense of being ‘behind’ us. Rather we carry on the quest to search after liberation, continuing the desire to fashion something new and better. Our book does not offer a program for change, but instead reflects an openness to the idea that our movements may not be done just yet; we also join those less audible voices that suggest that perhaps formal legal equality on the grounds of sexual and gender identity may be a limited political aim.
[Cover image] Dennis Altman launching Gay Liberation Sydney (January 1972)Photos: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives
(This is an edited extract from the introduction to the volume After Homosexual: The Legacies of Gay Liberation, UWA Publishing, 2013) Available from uwap.uwa.edu.au/books-and-authors/book/after-homosexual)