Dennis Altman’s 1971 debut work, Homosexual: Oppression & Liberation, heralded a longstanding career as an academic and expert on sexuality and politics.
Since its publication, Atlman has become a Professorial Fellow in Human Security at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, been a Visiting Professor in Australian Studies at Harvard, published 11 books and has become an important public figure on sexuality and politics. Forty years on, his latest work, The End of the Homosexual? reflects on the progress homosexuality has made since Homosexual was first published. This follow-up is a detailed history of homosexuality before, during and after the Gay Movement, drawing from Altman’s experiences in both personal and academic capacities. The End of the Homosexual? is actually the title of the last chapter of 1971’s Homosexual, with this question acting as Altman’s main thesis. This doesn’t suggest that homosexuality as a concept will end, but rather that social, political and cultural trends will evolve to an extent where people will no longer define identity based on sexuality. While this may have been the prediction of gay liberationists in 1971, it is still not a reality in 2013. Atlman shares some of the thoughts on why this may be the case with The Adelaide Review ahead of his pending visit for Adelaide’s Feast Festival. “I think there may be an end of a specific homosexual identity in the way we now think of it,” Altman explains. “I thought that 40 years ago and that was one of the things I was wrong about! One of the things I always have to say to people is that political scientists are particularly bad at predictions – although we’re not quite as bad at economists, who are the worst. All I can say is that there isn’t anybody today who could tell you what sex and gender will look like in 40 years time. The only thing I’d be prepared to say is that it probably won’t look as it does now.” Altman then shares a topic that he wishes he included in the book but didn’t: the idea of science fiction writing and its failure to acknowledge changing gender and sexuality. “One of the things that always annoys me about a lot of science fiction writing is that it imagines these extraordinary changes to almost everything except sex and gender. There are exceptions [such as China Miéville and Margaret Atwood], which are really interesting, but for the classic boys’ science fiction, as it has traditionally been male, by and large people can imagine these radical changes yet somehow assume that sex and gender are constants — and that is so ahistorical.” While Altman does address the increasing global debate around sexual rights, including cases in Uganda, Nigeria and Malaysia, the timing of the book’s publication meant that discussion on Russia’s anti-gay legislation could not be included. This is proof that the politics of sexuality is an ever-changing landscape that can shift dramatically without warning. Altman shares his insight of how he may have addressed that particular case if given the chance. “I think the Russian situation for some reason has gotten through to a lot of people who were ignoring what was happening in other parts of the world… There is terrible persecution going on in many parts of the world and by and large no one in Australia seemed to register that until, for some reason, the Russian situation, which has registered with a lot more people. I notice in the gay press a lot more coverage on [Russia] than previous issues. It’s not necessarily because it’s worse than what has happened elsewhere, but because for some reason – and we can speculate what that is – it has caught the imagination of a lot of people.” Altman also offers some intriguing insights into his views on the growing public discourse for humanitarian interventions and impositions on Russia. “It’s a really interesting and tough question,” Altman begins. “I think often making grand statements of support boomerang, making things worse for people in countries being persecuted. We’ve seen examples of that when Hilary Clinton and David Cameron, for undoubtedly good motives, proclaimed gay rights as very important and just fed an anti-Imperialist, anti-Western position on a number of governments. I think that what we do has to be thought through very carefully and has to be done on the advice and along with the groups in Russia themselves. When, for example, people call for the boycotting of the Winter Olympics in Russia, it sounds great and I’m not against it, but I want to know first of all – if we can find out – if that is what the lesbian and gay movement in Russia wants, and what the impact on them would be. We could boycott or go to the Winter Olympics and wave rainbow flags and then go home, but they’re the ones who will get beaten up. I think there’s a real danger of grandstanding by people in countries like Australia. We can feel morally righteous without actually helping people.” This is a harsh reality that is difficult to digest, yet illustrates how delicate sexuality is within governance. With the case of Australia, which is the country where The End of the Homosexual? is anchored, there has inarguably been much progress towards the legislative and cultural acceptance of homosexuality. Altman is quick to note that there is, however, an important distinction to be made between progress and success, where he refers back to a recent conversation that he had with leading feminist Anne Summers on a panel at the recent Melbourne Writers Festival. “I would say that there’s been a great deal of progress, but that doesn’t mean there has been total success. We know coming out is still very traumatic for a lot of people and there is still a lot of bigotry… I think there are a lot of markers in our culture, but we know through research that is not true across the world, and there are huge variations in social attitudes between countries and cultures. There is growing hostility and homophobia in some parts of the world, usually connected with religious and nationalist tendencies.” Altman is visiting Adelaide during the Feast Festival this month to host a forum following a screening of Jeffrey Schwartz’s documentary Vito, which depicts the experiences of leading American LGBT activist and author of The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo. Altman and Russo were friends, detailing some of their experiences and political objectives in The End Of The Homosexual?. However, when asked about the ongoing contentious debate surrounding same-sex marriage, which has recently re-entered the public discourse following the Federal Government’s opposition to the ACT’s legalisation of same-sex marriage, Altman offers a curious perspective, likening the plight to that of the Australian republic. “I don’t feel passionate about either issue as I feel they are both largely symbolic. I recognise that to others they are much more important than they are to me. The more important point I was making was that everybody on the Left in the 90s when Paul Keating was talking about the republic would have said that it was going to happen within a decade – and it didn’t – and I think that’s a very interesting warning.” Another issue that Altman illuminates through The End Of The Homosexual? is his account of how the AIDS epidemic in the 80s unfolded, the disease responsible for Russo’s death. Given the severe loss that Altman experienced through the passing of his partner of 22 years, Anthony Smith, last year to lung cancer before the book was completed, his reflection on this tumultuous time in history is especially poignant. “What is clear is that for people who didn’t live through that terrible period when a lot of people were dying, for them it’s probably like what it is for me when I read about World War II – a sense of large-scale death that you didn’t personally experience. However, for people in my generation and any gay man over 50, there’s a sense of ongoing loss and I don’t think that’s talked about nearly enough – and I don’t think people have come to terms with it. I lost my partner last year and I’ve thought a lot about loss and grief and the fact is that you live with it. It doesn’t go away. At a communal level that hasn’t been sufficiently recognised and thought through.” While Altman’s book, like its predecessor, is an important insight into homosexuality and its global impact, Altman also wanted the book to be as much about Australian society. “I actually wanted to write a book that is as much about Australia as it is about homosexuality, by using what had happened [in the Gay Movement] to say a whole lot of things about how Australia had changed through the last 40 years.” This implies that while The End of the Homosexual? will no doubt become a beneficial addition to homosexual literature, it also captures the changing spirit and culture of Australia over the last four decades, and is therefore an important read for all Australians. Dennis Altman’s The End of the Homosexual? is published by University Of Queensland Press. RRP $29.95. The Feast Festival screening of Vito, followed by forum with Dennis Altman will take place at The Mercury Cinema on Tuesday, November 12. uqp.uq.edu.au feast.org.au