h) Culture, history and literature
Review of the republished Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation
Twenty years after it was first published is Dennis Altman's landmark book still relevant?
(published in Island, April 1994)
There is a dangerous arrogance in the contemporary sexual politics called “queer”. This arrogance says that gay identity was doomed from its birth in 1969 to degenerate into an assimilationist project dominated by white middle class men, and that queerness, in its appeal to all the sexually disenfranchised, offers the only genuinely radical alternative.
The re-issuing of Dennis Altman’s Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation twenty years after it was first published should undermine this arrogance. As a key text of the gay liberation movement that sprang from the Stonewall Riots of 1969 Homosexual shows that gay liberation, no less than the queer politics of today, was concerned with more than simply ending discrimination against the lesbians and gay men. It offered a critique of sexual categories which argued that the liberation of the homosexual, through the dissolution of heterosexual hegemony and the elimination of the hetero/homo dichotomy is an essential part of the liberation of all people. In Altman’s words, “the oppression of homosexuals is part of the general repression of sexuality, and our liberation can only come as part of a total revolution in social attitudes”.
There is little in such statements for queer activists to dispute, and thus they are confronted with the unpleasant possibility that their movement is no more or less radical than the origins of the movement they define themselves against. More importantly it suggests that a broad based and systematic sexual liberation agenda that had little meaning outside the Vietnam inspired counter culture may also have little relevance beyond the AIDS conditioned youth culture of the early 90’s.
This is not to say that the brand of sexual liberation which characterises Homosexual is irrelevant or uninteresting. When, as a frightened closeted undergraduate I first read Homosexual in 1986 my views on sex and sexuality were profoundly shaped by Altman’s exposition on sexual politics and his eloquent deconstruction of systems of desire. However the needs of an isolated and frustrated young gay man do not make a movement and the the fact remains that the radical shift in consciousness promised by both gay lib and queerness have failed to develop.
Altman himself makes this point in a recent article on queer politics. He argues that “queer”, which has come to mean “everything that is not suburban straight vanilla heterosex” resembles his earliest interpretation of “gay”. He also believes that queer may be “less radical than its exponents suggest”.
“I myself was attracted to these ideas (a broad sexual liberation agenda transcending homosexual identity), and they run through my earliest book Homosexual Oppression and Liberation”, Altman says.
“But it was clear as I was writing that book in the early days of the gay liberation movement that a counter-move was underway. The creation of a strong sense of identity based on a common homosexuality was very quickly to swamp any idea of a larger movement”.
According to Altman this was “...a vastly positive move” because it “has created a permanent shift in the ways in which homosexuality is understood in western societies”.
So if Altman himself has disavowed the end of gay liberation as it was originally conceived in Homosexual, and as it has now been resurrected in queerness, why has his book been republished?
The answer is that while Homosexual gives us what is now a largely redundant vision of a broad based sexual liberation movement that would one day grow out of and replace gay identity, it also yields a thorough examination of the meaning of this identity and an incisive critique of what gay identity had itself supplanted.
In 1986 it was this exposition on gay identity, more than any other text on homosexuality, which helped me make sense of my profound alienation from a world disfigured by heterosexual chauvinism. As I came out Homosexual continued to inform my activism and my life. It exposed and explained the unnecessary limitations gay men and lesbians impose on ourselves and each other. It celebrated the joy I felt when I joined with other gay men and lesbians to free ourselves from painful repressions and absurd restrictions. It pointed to the kind of emancipation I had never thought possible.
In 1994 Altman’s views on gay identity are no less important for me and are more important than ever for the lesbian and gay movement.
His analysis of the conservatism of the homosexual movement before 1969 is a constant reminder of the dangers of the politics of apology. This reminder has always had a particular poignancy in Australia. Unlike almost every other western country we had no homosexual movement before 1971 and hence we have no standard against which to judge the extent to which pride informs our politics. This has meant a greater tolerance of the quiet and the covert in our nation’s lesbian and gay politics than has been the case in other countries. In recent times the anti-gay rhetoric of the New Right has only increased the temptation to fade into the background and allow seemingly more powerful forces to fight our battles for us. In such an environment Homosexual’s call to pride, visibility and courage is a call to survival.
The other element of Altman’s book that is particularly pertinent in Australia today is his distinction between tolerance and acceptance. As some powerful national institutions struggle to invent the country as “a great social democracy” so, with the help of gay and lesbian leaders, they attempt to include lesbians and gay men within this democracy. The ABC Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras broadcast was one aspect of this inclusion, the pragmatic decision to lift the military’s ban on homosexuals was another. But the limitations of such inclusion are made clear in Homosexual. According to Altman tolerance simply obscures prejudice and nothing short of embracing homosexuality as a valid and acceptable aspect of human sexuality will ensure well being and emancipation of lesbians and gay men. We may be able to buy friends and influence people by spending the Gay Dollar and casting the Gay Vote, but these limited strategies obscure the true source of our power and strength - a belief in ourselves and our goodness - without which we have nothing.
In many respects, then, Altman’s discussion of gay identity in Homosexual is still the gauge lesbian and gay activists must use to assess the success or failure of our efforts to ensure the welfare of all homosexual people and challenge the superior and privileged status of heterosexuality.
But, however satisfied we may be with Altman’s views on gay identity, re-reading Homosexual still compels us to ask, can there be a system of thought that takes us beyond the sometimes prosaic community politics of the new ethnic group called gays and lesbians and into the complete transformation of society?
In Homosexual Gay Lib gave lesbians and gay men a special role in the liberation of everyone. The particular brand of liberation that was to fulfil this role was flawed. Despite its acute analysis of the ways in which sexual identity is conditioned by history Homosexual assumed that identity to be universal and reduced the relevance of its radicalism by allowing no room for cultural specificity.
Altman himself admits this fault, again when examining parallels between gay liberation and the queer movement.
“When I began writing twenty years ago I too felt that what happened in the United States was most important, and indeed I published three of my books originally in the States.” (But now) “I am uneasy about the way in which we in Australia look uncritically to the United States for models: I would be much more enthusiastic about using the term “queer” if it wasn’t yet another import from the States along with baseball caps and much of the Mardi Gras Festival. Indeed there is an enormous danger that for all the undoubted strengths of the lesbian/gay communities in Australia we are still so dominated by American culture that we see our realities distorted by American perceptions, which don’t necessarily apply here.”
Perhaps it is in this acknowledgement of the importance of place that there lies the potential for gay and lesbian emancipation to play a role in radical social change. In recent years lesbian and gay rights campaigns in places as distant as Ireland, Bavaria, Georgia, New Zealand and even Altman’s birthplace Tasmania, have played a key role in over turning what it means to live in these communities. In each of these places the universal gay identity that is so elegantly constructed in Homosexual has found an expression relevant to the society which has shaped it. In turn these identities have played a key role in challenging universalist cultures and revaluing the particularities of human experience for all people, heterosexual and homosexual who live in these places.
It is too early for us to know whether lesbian and gay particularism offers a truly radical alternative to the cosmopolitan gay culture that both produced, and was produced by, Homosexual. But if a gay/lesbian sense of place does prove to be a rejuvenating force in gay and lesbian politics it may yet fulfil the radical promise of this immensely valuable and durable text.
This review was published in Island magazine in April 1994
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