Noted works: After Homosexual

A new collection takes stock of the four decades that have passed since the publication of Dennis Altman’s landmark book, Homosexual. malstad, CC BY-NC-SA

Noted Works is a new series on The Conversation devoted to long-form reviews of significant new books. See the end for further details.

Dennis Altman was a young, articulate activist and out gay man when Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, the book for which he is probably best known, was published in 1971. For people like me, including many of those who contributed to After Homosexual: The Legacies of Gay Liberation, who were teenagers or Altman’s peers, Homosexual changed the way we saw the world and engaged with non-homosexuals.

The way the world was, the way it is

Coming as it does, 40 years after and as a celebration of the publication of Homosexual, After Homosexual contains accounts from Altman’s confreres of the way the world was then and also from younger men and women of how similar and different the world is that Dennis Altman envisaged when he wrote about the conditions of gays and lesbians in the late 1960s, early 1970s.

UWA Publishing

Written by way of a festschrift, After Homosexual: The Legacies of Gay Liberation comprises three sections.

The first, “Looking Back”, includes extracts from the work of Dennis Altman and his contemporaries at roughly the time Homosexual was released. The second section, “A dossier of gay liberation texts”, mostly comprises written and pictorial documents from the time the book was published. The third, “Moving on”, includes accounts of how Homosexual affected academics and activists since its publication.

Editors Carolyn D’Cruz and Mark Pendleton provide a succinct context to the time when Homosexual was published and the 40 years of gay and lesbian scholarship and activism since then, which their contributors chart in the chapters of After Homosexual: The Legacies of Gay Liberation.

Activist-academics themselves, the editors seem not entirely convinced by the recent turn in queer social agitation:

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.

In a nutshell, then, this book attempts to cover some of the controversies as well as the spirit and social/political colour of the times slightly prior to and when Homosexual was published, provide some measure of its impact then and since then, and consider its legacy in the light of social developments since the mid-1970s, such as gay men’s response to HIV-AIDS, the rise and subsidence and seeming rise again of the queer movement, and more recently social movements concerning non-heterosexual immigration, parenthood, and marriage equality.

Altman’s contemporaries on his legacy

Among peers and contemporaries of Dennis Altman who write in praise of Homosexual are academics Raewyn Connell, Jeffrey Weeks, and Garry Wotherspoon.

Raewyn Connell, University Professor at Sydney University, provides a concise survey of the liberationist movements fomenting in the 1960s as context to understanding the strong currents for change that swept members of unions, universities, and social action groups together to work for racial, sexual, and economic improvement. The new left, she writes:

embodied politics [that] couldn’t stop in the streets: that is, the public arena as conventionally understood. “Being there” politically … applied to households, classrooms, sexual relations, workplaces and the natural environment.

And so the political was understood as personal, enabling ordinary people to be involved in the politics of the day, a strategy that a decade later included individuals refusing to buy oranges from South Africa in the hope their action might hasten the fall of Apartheid.

Connell’s outline of the practices of the new left provides a picture of the political milieu in which Homosexual was written and published. They were heady days when among other institutions built were, “Double-J radio, the Free University, the Pram Factory theatre, the Hindmarsh Women’s Community Health Centre … the network of women’s refuges, the gay liberation press, the Disadvantaged Schools Program…”

The late 1950s, early 1960s are the focus of Garry Wotherspoon’s contribution, in which he states that gay liberation was borne out of time of state-sanctioned persecution of gay men and other sexual outsiders.

The Cold War, Wotherspoon reminds was a time when it was no longer safe for gay men to be open about their sexuality as some had been during the second world war, especially in cities like Sydney and Brisbane that were host to hundreds of thousands of US servicemen on rest and recreation leave, not all of whom sought comfort in the arms of Australian women.

About this period, which was approximately a decade after the formation of ASIO, Wotherspoon writes, “the Sydney superintendent of police proclaimed that the two greatest threats facing Australia were communism and homosexuality”.

Dennis Altman himself wrote in another of his influential works, The Homosexualisation of America, the Americanisation of the Homosexual (1983), that until the end of the sixties, to be a homosexual in more western countries:

was to experience a life that was largely furtive, shameful, and guilt ridden; most homosexuals shared only too strongly the social condemnations against them.

Elsewhere, I have argued that gay men developed their sense of self, sexual and political identities when they were taking part in the other popular movement of the late 1960s, early 1970s, the craze for disco dancing and nightclubbing that spread from San Francisco and New York to other western cities such as London, Paris, Sydney, Amsterdam, and Berlin.

Wotherspoon and other historians have argued that gay-libber activists were aware at the time of the limited appeal their consciousness-raising meetings had in comparison with the physical and erotic liberation thousands of gay men expressed on Friday and Saturday nights and identities they fashioned in bed, at beats, and on the dance floors of gay clubs and bars. (See for example, Wotherspoon’s 1991 book, City of the Plain: History of a Gay Sub-culture.)

In the 1970s, gay men were not alone in their desire to dance away Friday and Saturday nights or have lots of sex. Our swinging decade followed in the footsteps of heterosexuals’ swinging sixties as sexual liberation broke when women got control of their fertility with the Pill.

For young men and women, it was a time of wonder and experimentation, social, sexual, and political. Historian John Foster was a young man then and wrote of the dawning of the 1970s in the following terms in 1993’s Take Me To Paris, Johnny: “It was an awesome climax, that moon landing, to a fabulous summer: Woodstock, Stonewall, and then the moon”. While hetero sexual liberation and gay liberation overlapped, they had quite different agendas according to US historian David Allyn, who wrote of the period and the contrast between the two movements for sexual liberation in his book Make Love not War: The Sexual Revolution, an Unfettered History (2001):

For straights, “sexual liberation” often meant personal, psychological transformation — freedom from hangups. For gays, personal liberation required social and cultural change — elimination of repressive laws, the abolition of damaging stereotypes, the relaxation on public displays of homosexual affection (like holding hands and kissing).

From the archive

Part two of After Homosexual: The Legacies of Gay Liberation is headed, “A dossier of gay liberation texts, manifestos and pictures from Australian Lesbian Gay Archives” and contains a representative sample of documents from the period that will help those who were not there or who were there but not involved understand what the gay lib movement meant to its followers. From my point of view, this section helps make this book a valuable artefact, that is, the artefacts it contains give it greater worth than it would have without them.

Some of these documents are priceless examples of the brash confidence of the gay-lib generation. Many of these men and women believed that their consciousness-raising activities would re-shape the world, help remove oppressive practices and beliefs.

And in one instance they did. While the coming-out stories of today’s cohort of young men and women might not be as publicly dramatic as were the coming-out experiences of the generation that initiated coming out, they were right to believe that the act itself was, is, and will always be a political one for as long as differences exist between non-homosexual people and queers.

Among liberation documents (texts, manifestos and pictures) from the period that might whet the appetite of readers who were not there for whatever reason is an extract from Dennis Altman’s address at Sydney University in 1972; “Gay is good”, which Martha Kelley wrote in 1970 in New York, the opening line of which is:

Look out straights! Here comes the Gay Liberation Front, springing up like warts all over the bland face of America …

There’s also the “Radicalesbian manifesto” from some time around 1973; and the “effeminist manifesto” written in 1973. As mentioned, the documents capture some of the political colour and degree of urgency that were a feature of those times — when the USA and Australia were at war with Vietnam and conscripted soldiers from both countries and their allies were fighting peasant soldiers of the North Vietnamese People’s Liberation Army.

Pictures from the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives include a poster from what has come to be known as the first Sydney Mardi Gras or as it was then described in the poster as the “Day of International Gay Solidarity”, 24 June 1978.

The following extract from “Gay is good”, in which Altman addresses an imaginary heterosexual audience, says something about the sense of shame that his generation of gay men and lesbians carried with them and which the liberationists sought to help them shed:

Understand this — that the worst part of being a homosexual is having to keep it secret. Not the occasional murders by police or queer-beaters; not the loss of jobs or expulsion from schools or dishonourable discharges — but the daily knowledge that what you are is something so awful that it cannot be revealed. But the internal violence of being made to carry — or choosing to carry — the load of your straight society’s unconscious guilt — this is what tears us apart; what makes us want to stand up in the offices, in the factories and schools and shout out our true identities.

According to historian Graham Willett in his book Living Out Loud, Dennis Altman’s “Gay is good” proclamation at Sydney University in 1972 marked the beginning of gay liberation in Australia as a breakaway movement from its predecessor, the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP), which had been established in 1970–1.

“Moving on” is the title of the book’s third and final section. It includes commentary mostly from the generations of activists and academics that followed Dennis Altman, such as Christos Tsiolkas, Robert Reynolds, Dean Spade, and Carlolyn D’Cruz.

In his piece entitled, “My queer apprenticeship: between politics and friendship”, author Christos Tsolkias recalls a halcyon time when he read Homosexual, “that innocent moment of liberationist politics; on the eve of AIDS; on the cusp of the collapse of the communist project; just before the dawn of state-sanctioned equal opportunity” (italics in the original).

Reading Tsiolkas here I am reminded of my own response to Homosexual. Like him, I was inspired by what Altman wrote in this final chapter where he argues, “for the civil and human rights of that subject of being and consciousness designated ‘homosexual’”. Like Tsiolkas, I was inspired but also surprised when in that final chapter Altman reckoned that the end of our separate, sexual identity was the best possible solution of homosexual persecution. Like a number of the other writers in this section of After Homosexual, Christos Tsiolkas struggles to understand the current interest in and energies devoted to parenthood and gay marriage:

[R]eviled poofters and dykes got swallowed up and shat out the other end as the epitome of the cashed-up postmodern consumer. So all we want now is to get married, raise children and send them to the right private and/or experimental school where no one raises an eyebrow that Jonah has two mummies or Bridget has two dads.

Robert Reynolds also finds it hard to understand why gays and lesbians born in the 1990s are so interested in gay marriage:

I’m too much of a product of the 1980s to envisage getting married to a man (or a woman for that matter). Shall I be honest and confess that two men at the alter seems incongruous?

Both men were actively involved in progressive social movements in their 20s and both seem to lament the conformist impulses let loose after more than 30 years of neo-liberalism.

Another writer who did not belong to the baby-boomer generation, Carolyn D’Cruz writes that she picked up a copy of Homosexual on leaving a 1986 Marxist summer school and that sitting on her bookshelf together with copies of Monique Wittig’s The Lesbian Body and Pat Califa’s Sapphistries it:

took part in the regular de-dyking of my household when real estate agents and parents were due to visit.

On re-reading Homosexual, D’Cruz, whose chapter is entitled, “The (red) lion, the bitch and the wardrobe”, says she found charming Altman’s “description of seeing a man in chaps for the first time, and his curiosity about S&M codes in a leather bar in the 1970s”, admitting also that the man who was “this doyen of the gay liberation movement became one of my colleagues [at La Trobe University] and we very soon became friends”.

This book, that includes many different queer voices, appeals for at least three reasons: first, as a record of a time long ago when, using Carolyn D’Cruz’s allegory, a young gay man from Tasmania stepped into a wardrobe, stumbled across a different world where things were better, then wrote about what he had found; second, as a record of documents and texts from that time; and third, as a record of how subsequent generations of LGBT people understood Homosexual, many of whom also developed friendships with its author.

I suspect this book will enlighten and be an exciting read for people born in the 1990s and later and for those of all ages who were not aware of the rhetoric and underpinning philosophies of gay liberation in the 1970s and queer social movements that have been bubbling along in the four decades since then.


After Homosexual: The Legacies of Gay Liberation is published by UWA Publishing. Details here.

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