Book review: The End of the Homosexual?

Book review: The End of the Homosexual?

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 1 | March 2014

By Chris Ward

CHRIS WARD reflects on Altman’s account of the gay liberation movement, finding that it resonates with many of his own experiences.

The End of the Homosexual? By Dennis Altman. Published by The University of Queensland Press (2013).

CHRIS WARD reflects on Altman’s account of the gay liberation movement, finding that it resonates with many of his own experiences.

More than half way through Dennis Altman’s personal account of the gay liberation movement, he observes that, ‘In some ways, the central question of this book is whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. Clearly, much has changed since the days of the first gay liberation demonstrations, forty years ago.’

He then goes on to quote historian Shirleene Robinson: ‘It might be easy to feel that homophobia is no longer an issue for the majority of the queer population, and that the gay and lesbian liberation movement has successfully eradicated prejudices once so strong held … this is not the case.’

It seems the polymorphous perversity a younger Dennis Altman expected to develop from that movement, rendering homosexuality irrelevant as a primary marker of identity, and recreating us all as undifferentiated sexual beings, has fallen short of expectations. Yes, there is less homophobia in Australia and comparable societies, but ‘the idea of a fluid and diverse sexuality that does not need categories is still utopian.’

I grew up in Melbourne and I came out in 1981. Dennis Altman and others in the gay liberation movement at that time helped me to understand the world as it then was, and how it might change in ways that would allow me to be who I was. His writing and activism on gay liberation, and later on HIV, exposed the sometimes unthinking and sometimes hateful oppression and marginalisation that were part of growing up gay at that time.

Forty years on, the issues raised by the movement continue to affect our lives. The term ‘gay liberation’ may have fallen into disuse, but the ideas it represented have reached forward into the 21st Century with a prescience we have to admire.

The social changes concerning gender and sexuality which have occurred since the 1970s have been momentous and transforming. Dennis Altman’s account of his own involvement in many of these changes makes for an engrossing personal and political narrative which reflects much of the experience of homosexual men (and to a lesser extent women) from the 1960s onwards. Perhaps not the part about being invited to Gore Vidal’s holiday house, but much of the rest.

The response to HIV in Australia was largely built on the then nascent phenomenon of a visible gay community, within which were established media, advocacy groups, social organisations, and commercial venues. In Altman’s view, ‘the epidemic brought forth a maturity in policy-making that few would have predicted’, and that was matched by few other countries at the time. The ‘combination of effective and largely bipartisan political leadership and a savvy gay movement’ dealt with attacks on homosexuality and the civil liberties of gay men, denying those attacks any real traction. Many gay men moved from street protests to organisation building, and then into government and international agencies responding to the global AIDS pandemic. ‘It became possible to build a career out of one’s involvement in the gay world’.

The sense of this book reflecting my own experience was heightened in the chapter ‘The 1980s: HIV/AIDS and Working inside the System’. Altman saw a reinvigorated sense of community and political activism among gay men in response to HIV. He reflects on the early 1990s, ‘when the first generation of AIDS drugs promised false hope and the gay newspapers were full of obituaries of men in what should have been the prime of their life.’ He goes on to say that, ‘The impact of AIDS on the generation of men who lived through its first decades was permanent, and it has created a gap in experience between us and younger gay men.’

In a personal narrative that manages to encompass pre-liberation homosexuality, homosexual law reform, and first-hand accounts of gay liberation movements in Paris, New York City, San Francisco, Tokyo, Brazil, and Bosnia, together with legal and cultural milestones along the way, it may seem churlish to identify gaps. Dennis Altman writes in rather harsh and cursory terms of the current Australian HIV response, which is described as ‘its own closed, corporatist world of AIDS professionals,’ and in this context quotes William F. Buckley who said that ‘every great issue begins as a cause, becomes a movement and ends as a cabal.’

The Australian epidemic and our response to it have both (inevitably) changed greatly since the early 1980s. I would have liked to see a more nuanced analysis of those changes, particularly of the community response and community organisations, in both of which Altman has played a prominent role. Nevertheless, The End of the Homosexual? is a very readable book of remarkable scope. And the image of Ita Buttrose, then perhaps the most well-known woman in Australia, sitting at an AIDS conference buffing her nails while she listened to a discussion of anal sex and HIV transmission, is one I will not easily forget.

Chris Ward is an HIV policy analyst and former manager of policy and international projects at AFAO. He has worked on HIV policy and projects with government and civil society partners in South and South East Asia.