Where to now?
In a riveting and personally revealing work – The End of the Homosexual? – Dennis Altman, one of the original voices in the gay rights movement, reflects on four decades of social, cultural and political change and how they have affected our queer world. Is the struggle finally over? By Rachel Cook.
In 1972 a book appeared in New York which heralded a new era. It was Australian academic Dennis Altman’s Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation – a book that could be compared to Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch in that the effect it had on large numbers of people was profound.
Here was a book that was dealing with the issue of homosexuality head on. It wasn’t a chapter, an afterthought, or an obligatory inclusion, it was an entire book devoted to what it was to be homosexual – and the gay community and significant mainstream media outlets such as Time Magazine and The New York Review of Books lapped it up.
Altman’s book captured the social and sexual politics of the time, and readers found themselves talking about what it was to be gay in ways they hadn’t before. And while Altman is quick to remind us that we have perhaps mythologized the level of wild rebellion that was happening in the seventies, something was happening, and people such as Altman had strong ideas of where it should head.
Last year the queer community celebrated the 40th anniversary of Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation and this year Altman brings us The End of the Homosexual? It is the follow up to Homosexual, a look back at what has happened to the gay and lesbian community in the last four decades, where we find ourselves and what the future might bring.
Altman is a Professorial Fellow in Human Security at La Trobe University, Melbourne, and was Visiting Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard. He has written eleven books exploring sexuality and politics, and their inter-relationship in Australia, the United States, and now globally, including The Homosexualization of America, AIDS and the New Puritanism, Rehearsals for Change and Defying Gravity. His book Global Sex has been translated into five languages. Most recently he published Gore Vidal’s America and 51st State?.
For years, Altman and his editor from the University of Chicago Press, Douglas Mitchell, had discussed the need for The End of the Homosexual?. And while Altman agreed to the project, after several unsuccessful attempts to write a proposal he realised the book was not going to work for an American publisher – this was a book much closer to home.
“I tried to write a proposal and I could never quite get it right,” Altman says. “And then I had this flash: most of my life I have been in Australia and the really interesting stories are Australian and that doesn’t work for a US publisher. It was an Australian book.”
Indeed it is. The End of the Homosexual? begins in 1975, when Altman was invited to James Cook University in Townsville to speak about homosexuality. The event not only led to hostility from state parliamentarians, but an attack from Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Decades later, in 2010, Altman was invited to Rockhampton to talk about homosexuality again – but this time around there was a milieu of support.
And while we have not yet succeeded in creating the utopian future that Altman dreamed of, we have, as he says, “come a long way”.
“We have reached a point where we have openly gay Liberal politicians, including a senator from WA,” Altman says. “That’s certainly something I never imagined.”
The End of the Homosexual? is, of course, not about the demise of gays and lesbians, but of the possibilities that Altman wrote about in Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation in part realised: the possibility that one day we might not be defined by our sexuality.
As Altman writes: “Four decades of change, politics and experience have not made me alter that basic conviction. I would not, however, now talk of homosexuality ending, but rather of an increasing blurring of boundaries, rules and stigma around sexuality and gender”.
Above: Dennis Altman (right) in the Christopher Day Parade, early 1980s, photographer unknown, courtesy of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives. Top image: Dennis Altman at a gay demonstration on Macquarie Street, Sydney in 1981. Photo: William Yang.
There is a deep satisfaction in reading an historical account from someone who not only lived through the period, but was present at many of the events written about. Altman’s book reads like a memoir. His vivid memories span early radical political meetings to ‘sauna culture’. The richness of the anecdotes is in no small part due to Altman’s diligence of not only keeping a diary, but the fact that he has written about homosexuality for over 40 years. If he needed to know something about a particular event, time or place, he didn’t have to look very far.
“I’d read stuff that I’d written that I’d totally forgotten and I plagiarised myself mercilessly. And that was also part of the fun of doing the book, to go back through a whole lot of stuff. Finding old letters, too.”
Sex has long been a matter of interest to Altman: how it’s negotiated, where it happens, the boundaries within which it exists and the people who push those boundaries are still a source of fascination for him. Over the course of our meeting he brings out an advertisement that appeared in this magazine for a sauna. He points out a new night running called ‘Come Play’, and who it’s for.
“I was really fascinated by this ad for a sauna, which is an absolutely traditional sex venue for gay men,” Altman says. “It’s talking about a mixed sexuality swingers’ night for straight, bi, gay, lesbians, CD, TS and TG.
“Now let me tell you I’m not game enough to go – to figure out the codes of behaviour that are going to be involved is going to be so complex – but I think it’s fascinating that we have reached that point.”
‘Come Play’ is certainly a far cry from the sauna days of the seventies. But even on the standard, gay male-only sauna nights Altman has noticed shifts in people’s interactions – or perhaps the lack of them.
“I think saunas are terribly interesting. I was talking to a couple of younger guys recently and they seemed to be suggesting that it was generational and that older guys use saunas and younger guys use Grindr. But that’s not right, as saunas can have a huge age range and older people are capable of using apps as well and they do.
“And I think the way people use those sorts of devices will vary enormously. I tell the story in my book of being at a sauna and seeing a young guy sitting there on Grindr when he is surrounded by all these near-naked men.”
Altman’s frankness on the subject of monogamy has often tapped a raw nerve. On a panel with writer Jeanette Winterson, he remarked that commitment should not be measured by sexual fidelity. Winterson was not the only one unimpressed by the comment. Two young gay men were quick to jump to the mic and voice their opinion that gay men and monogamy are not mutually exclusive.
However, to Altman, the way many gay male couples have negotiated their extracurricular sexual activity is to be admired. “I think that emotional fidelity is much more important than sexual fidelity,” he says. “And I think that is the great thing gay men have to teach other people.
“You go into a sauna and a lot of the guys in there are in long-term relationships and their partners know they are at the sauna and that’s fine because they understand where your primary emotional commitment is – but that you might also want sexual adventure.”
The changes Altman sees in today’s queer community he could not have imagined 40 years ago. Besides openly gay and lesbian politicians, there have been great shifts in the way society in general regards homosexuality. However, as much as the laws may have changed, and poll after poll shows that the majority of Australians support same-sex marriage, Altman suggests a “polite homophobia” still exists.
In promoting The End of the Homosexual? Altman says what really struck him was, “the ability of straight men to very early on in interviews establish that they are straight”. “They are deeply sympathetic and supportive, in fact, they fall over themselves to be supportive, and it is subtle how they do it, but they have techniques.”
While Altman’s book focuses on Australia, he is keen to point out the importance of recognising what is happening in gay and lesbian communities overseas.
“There are really interesting things happening in the Philippines, people are doing very interesting things in India. In South Africa in the townships there is a growth of black African, often lesbian-led movements. We don’t know much about that and we should.”
Back home it is the trans communities that are remarkable to Altman. While he sees a lack of passion for radical politics within the gay and lesbian community, and he can struggle with the current focus on same-sex marriage, he finds inspiration from trans activists.
“There are people who define themselves as transgender and are subversive and revolutionary in the sense that they are saying we need to get beyond the common assumption that everybody in the world can tick an ‘M’ or an ‘F’ in the box.
“That was probably the biggest shift in my thinking that came out of the book, and that’s where I end up. I think that there is radical sexual politics going on and that’s probably where it’s coming from.”
Earlier this year Altman lost his partner of 22 years, Anthony Smith. At the beginning of The End of the Homosexual? Altman dedicates the book to Smith and says he died before he could read the final draft. I ask Altman about the impact that had on him:
“To be honest, what I miss is not so much having Anthony to have read the final draft, what I really miss, especially at the moment when I’m doing a lot of media stuff, I miss someone to ground me and remind me that being on lots of radio programs is not actually that big a deal, and he could do that with one look.
“I really do miss that sense of him pulling me back.”
The End of the Homosexual?, published by University of Queensland Press, is out now.