Transcript

Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation

Dennis Altman
d.altman@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to "Meet the Author", a La Trobe University podcast. I am your host Matt Smith and my guest today is Dennis Altman, a Professor of Politics at La Trobe University and the Director of the Institute for Human Security. 2012 marks the fortieth anniversary of his acclaimed book, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation. It is now being re-released by the University of Queensland Press.

Dennis Altman:

It's a book that really came out of an accident, and the accident was my first academic job at Sydney, I had some leave and I went to New York. And I got to New York city just at the time the Gay Liberation movement was starting and by a series of very lucky coincidences, I ended up sharing an apartment with someone who made his apartment available as a meeting space for the then New York Gay Liberation newspaper. So suddenly, within a month, here was this young rather naïve Australian plunged into the middle of this new social movement in the States, and because I was supposed to be doing some academic project while I was over there, I started writing about it, and again through a series of lucky coincidences, ended up with a very small publisher, who has long since gone out of business, who liked the idea and I wrote the book, and the book came out of very much my own experiences of being involved in those days of Gay Lib in New York. I wrote most of it back in Australia and its main impact I suppose was in Australia, because when it was published in the States, nothing much happened and then a couple of months later, Time magazine reviewed it. Of course, being reviewed in Time magazine means suddenly people notice you in Australia. The cultural cringe hasn't gone away. Richard Walsh, who then ran Angus & Robertson, which used to be a major publisher, bought the Australian rights, published it in Australia, and their publicity was extremely good. And so suddenly the book took on a life of its own and this is the third or fourth time it's been republished, but it's also been published in a number of other countries. And so I think this is the fourth time I've had to write a new introduction. I'm running out of ideas for introductions.

Matt Smith:

Tell me about the reaction that your book received. Were you surprised by it?

Dennis Altman:

I think I was largely unprepared. I think that … I'd already come out, I mean, my family knew and my colleagues and I don't think I thought very much about what would happen. And then suddenly Monday Conference, which was this flagship ABC program, a television program where they would have one guest a week, who would be on air for something like fifty minutes, with a panel, did a program on which I got to talk about the book, which of course was terrific for flogging a book, but it made me for a short time a minor public figure. You know, people would recognise me at airports, which is a very strange feeling, and not actually a very nice feeling. I just wasn't prepared for that. I mean, most of the reaction was extremely positive. Occasionally I got nasty, usually anonymous letters, but I think I'd have to say that in a way everything I've done since has for me been overshadowed by those early experiences, because in your mid-twenties to suddenly be a semi-public figure is actually quite odd, and it does affect how you see the world.

Matt Smith:

You were seen by many as a kind of spokesperson by the movement. Did you see yourself as that?

Dennis Altman:

I didn't want to be, but at the same time I had enough vanity that I was offended if I wasn't asked. And I was actually very pleased when more and more people sort of emerged who could be spokespeople and I have certainly no ambition … really in the end I was more interested I think, once I got over my immediate vanity, in being an author than in being an activist.

Matt Smith:

How do you view your book now? Do you still see it as relevant, or is it of interest in a historical context? Or both, even?

Dennis Altman:

I think it's largely of interest historically but I think that saying that doesn't make it irrelevant because people in movements need to understand where they came from. What I think I have been increasingly thinking about and am currently writing about, and I've actually committed to write a book about how things have changed over the last forty years, is the way in which huge amounts of things change and at the same time, huge amounts of things remain more or less recognisable and the same. And so in that sense, going back, which for me is really going back to my early memories, becomes quite important in how one understands the present and I think because sexual politics is something that not much is taught … at this university, because of the program in Sex, Gender and Diversity, we have a little bit, but most people have remarkably little knowledge of their own history, and in that sense it's relevant. But I don't think it was ever really meant to be a primer for what people should do, it wasn't a manifesto – it was more an expression of living through major changes, and I think I've been very lucky in my life, because I've happened to be in the right place at the right time, to have experienced those sorts of changes.

Matt Smith:

When you look back at the book now, how much have your opinions changed?

Dennis Altman:

Remarkably little. That I find odd in a way. I think I am deeply, boringly, consistent. My politics are not very different to where they were in the early 1970s. And I guess I would say in that way, yes, there is relevance. I think that there's a theoretical framing in that book that grew out of a radical reading of Freud, around sex, and that grew out of some of the really interesting post-Marxist thinking that was beginning to happen as part of the whole explosion of ideas and culture at the end of the 60s and into the 70s, and I think that I'm still very influenced by those ideas. That doesn't mean that I think those ideas can be applied today. But I am very struck by how often ideas do re-circulate.

Matt Smith:

In some ways it can be seen that the Gay Liberation Movement no longer exists and that it was largely successful. What do you think about the shift in attitudes that we've seen in the last forty years?

Dennis Altman:

I think that you're absolutely right. It is quite extraordinary that if one thinks back to the whole set of social and cultural movements that sort of emerged in Western countries at the very end of the 60s and into the 70s, the Gay Movement in some ways has been the most successful, in that attitudes have shifted fundamentally and that it's really quite difficult to explain to people … in fact I remember you and I once had a discussion about this and you were quite appalled when I pointed out that until fairly recently, most states in Australia treated homosexual behaviour as a crime and it was seen as an illness, a crime, a sin. I find it fascinating that even our conservative politicians, in the debates around same sex marriage, are terribly careful to keep on saying "Of course, we do believe in full equality. We just don't feel comfortable about marriage". Young supporters of same sex marriage get terribly upset by that, but when you reach a certain point in your life, you know how different this rhetoric is. It's connected with a whole set of shifts in what Australia's gone through and how Australia's changed. If you think forty years ago, this was a much whiter country, it was a country in which male dominance was much clearer than it is now – I've been thinking a lot about this and trying to remember. When was the first time … and I'm old enough to remember, but I'm not quite sure when. When was the first time when I would have seen a woman as a bank teller? When did women stop getting kicked out of education departments when they got married, because that was the old rules. An 18-year-old would take all of that for granted and would find it quite extraordinary to think that wasn't the case. And I think the same is true with sexuality. Although it's not as clear because there certainly are some very real examples of bullying, of persecution, sometimes of violence. But I think overall there've been big shifts in attitudes and I think what you say is quite right. The Gay Liberation Movement of the sort that I was writing about doesn't exist, but interestingly it exists in a different form of course in a number of non-Western countries. I had this very interesting experience last year when Homosexual was translated and published in Japan, 38 years late, and I went and did a couple of lectures in Japan, and very earnest young Japanese would get up and say to me "Why do we not have a Gay Liberation Movement in Japan?" to which my answer was of course, well, you tell me, because I don't know. So, in a sense, many of those ideas are more relevant now outside the Western world than inside it.

Matt Smith:

In the Western world, it's not so much of an issue, but there's a lot of other countries around the world, a lot of African countries, Middle Eastern, a lot of Asian countries, that are just still addressing this issue. It sounds like you're finding a new audience out there, who are finding your words relevant to them.

Dennis Altman:

Well, I think that, again I would say that I'm terribly lucky. Mainly through HIV and AIDS, I've developed a whole set of links with developing gay movements in a number of non-Western countries. In fact, before that, because I went to Brazil for the first time in the 1970s and there was a small Gay Liberation group, there was a gay newspaper in Rio called Lampiao and they'd actually organised me to come and stay there and meet with them, and yes, there's a sense in which a lot of my work has therefore grown out of that early book. When I go back and read Homosexual, it's very clear it's written by someone who's totally besotted with the United States and every now and then I'd thrown in a reference to Britain or France or Australia, but that was as far as it went, whereas if I think of a book like Global Sex which I published in 2001, the emphasis is very much on the broader world and that's I think, really important, because for me, that's where the big issues around sexual politics are, and in fact I'm working with a colleague of mine who's about to come and join us at La Trobe, John Symons we're writing something at the moment about how homosexuality is a polarising issue in international relations, and you get people like David Cameron and Hillary Clinton pushing very hard for recognition of sexual rights. And as you say, you get very strong backlash against it from particularly, a number of African, Middle Eastern, some Asian …

Matt Smith:

In Australia and to some extent the UK and the US, the same sex marriage is seen as almost the last battle. What do you think of this issue and do you think it will come to the point where it's going to become a reality?

Dennis Altman:

Same sex marriage is going to happen. My feeling about it is rather like my feeling about the republic. It's going to happen, it isn't that important, it won't change very much, but at some point there's a momentum that builds and increasingly people can't oppose same sex marriage without sounding deeply bigoted. We see that at the moment, we see the mess that Julia Gillard's got herself into. It's quite absurd if you think about it rationally, that this was the most divisive issue in the last Labor Party National Conference, partly because Gillard has managed it so badly. But it's already the case in a number of Western countries, it's after all been enacted in, I think it's now seven US states, in Canada, the British are moving fast towards it. I'm deeply cynical about it, because I'm deeply cynical about marriage. And I'm deeply cynical about the way in which a once radical movement is now become intent upon bestowing the blessings of a Woman's Weekly marriage on all of us. I don't want a Woman's Weekly marriage.

Matt Smith:

So tell me about the new edition of your book.

Dennis Altman:

The content's totally unchanged. When you republish a book after forty years because it has some historical value, I did write a new introduction, and the reason it's being published is very much connected with a conference that's being organised at La Trobe University by a few of my lovely colleagues, which is called "After Homosexual". You know, it's about making a book that had a role I guess in changing attitudes and in helping develop a movement, making it available again. Books go out of print as we all know, very quickly and it's very nice that the University of Queensland Press were willing to republish it. There's also going to be another book, I gather, at the end of this year, that is going to come out of papers connected with the After Homosexual Conference where a number of Australian writers are reflecting on the impact of Homosexual. I haven't read the papers yet but I do know that at least one of the contributors has written this wonderful description of her angst in buying the book, expecting the teller to look at her with contempt, which of course didn't happen.

Matt Smith:

So what did you reflect in your new introduction then?

Dennis Altman:

I would sum it up by telling them a story about two trips to Queensland. Back in the 1970s I went up to James Cook University in Townsville to give a talk and the Townsville Daily Bulletin reported this in terms of an outside homosexual agitator coming to Queensland and sitting barefoot, they were very shocked by the fact that I sat on a table with bare feet, although I thought that would have been how you did things in Townsville, right? And this got blown up. Joh Bjelke-Petersen raised it in the Queensland State Parliament. It was very flattering to have been attacked in the Queensland State Parliament. More than thirty years later, at the beginning of 2010, I was invited up to Central Queensland University in Rockhampton to give a talk, and I was a guest of the Vice Chancellor, who chaired the event and I was introduced by a Liberal MP, Warren Entsch, who is the Federal Member for Herbert, who'd flown down from Cairns, because Entsch is actually a very, very pro-gay Liberal member of parliament, and the contrast between those two visits to Queensland seem to me to say an awful lot about what's changed.

Matt Smith:

Were you wearing shoes?

Dennis Altman:

I'm afraid I was not only wearing shoes, but being older and less attractive, I was wearing a suit.

Matt Smith:

That could have something to do with it.

Dennis Altman:

Yes, but remember, I was the guest of the Vice Chancellor and of a Liberal MP and what was interesting is that whereas the Townsville Daily Bulletin had been very hostile in the 70s, in 2010, I was on both local Rockhampton radio stations with interviewers who were even nicer to me than you are.

Matt Smith:

Well, that's a great amount of change then. That was Professor Dennis Altman and his book Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation is available from the University of Queensland Press. The After Homosexual conference is on from the 2nd to 4th of February 2012, with a public event at the ACMI theatre in Melbourne. You can find out more information from the La Trobe University website. This has been the "Meet the Author" podcast. If you have any questions, comments or feedback, then you can send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au.

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