Orginally published in Crikey 9 August 2013.
In 1971, academic and queer activist Dennis Altman wrote the bookHomosexual: Oppression and Liberation. Positioned between the riots at Stonewall in 1969 and the expansion of the gay liberation movement in the 70s and 80s, Homosexual was in many ways before its time. Altman managed to predict the key trends within the queer movement and propose ways we can create community out of shared sexual identity – propositions that have often been followed through.
This year, Altman has followed up Homosexual with a sequel – The End of the Homosexual?
The question of the title comes directly from Altman’s original work. InHomosexual, Altman posited that a ‘homosexual identity’ had been developed through the ‘coming out’ of homosexuals. Seeking community and solidarity, homosexuals moved into the ‘gayworld’, defined by its queer spaces, and in turn created a distinct ‘homosexual identity’ defined by centuries of oppression. As coming out continued however, and oppression turned to acceptance, Altman argued that this distinct identity would eventually disappear. As we discard sexual ‘norms’, a new world would be opened up that doesn’t label people through their sexuality. In other words, as homosexuality becomes accepted into our society, sexuality will no longer form the basis of our identity. Altman argued that this would be ‘the end of the homosexual’. Now, 40 years later, The End of the Homosexual? reflects on this thesis, asking whether the ‘end of the homosexual’ has happened or is near.
Altman explores this question by taking readers through a personal history of the queer movement, interlinking his own role over the past 40 years with its swift progress. There is no doubt that the movement has made incredible strides in forty years. As the British Equality and Human Rights Commission reported in 2010, the biggest gains in tolerance over the past 20 years has been the ‘dramatic shift in attitudes to homosexuality’.
But despite this progress, Altman argues that there is a growing ‘polarisation’. There is a separation between growing acceptance, largely in the Western World, and more conservative shifts in places such as Russia and Africa – shifts that Altman argues are extremely important for the queer movement to focus on. But there is also continuing polarisation in the understanding of queer identities – acceptance of homosexuality has never been higher, but it is still considered a defining factor in one’s identity:
“In everyday life the reality that being homosexual still sets one apart from the mainstream reveals itself in two major ways: the continuing trope of ‘coming out’ and the need for separate queer spaces, where homosexuality is the norm.”
Simply put, the end of the homosexual is not near. Due to a range of different factors, gender and sexuality continues to remain a defining element in the identity of most queers.
This presentation of a ‘polarisation’ is genius from Altman. In presenting it in this way, Altman clearly identifies what the queer community continues to face, both internally and externally. Most importantly however, Altman provides an essential historical analysis of how these issues have come about. How has the movement dealt with the idea of a homosexual identity, and how have we engaged in the debates around acceptance into mainstream community versus changing the norms and systems of that community?
It is this history which I think is often forgotten as part of today’s fights, particularly around same-sex marriage. The concern Altman raises about the forgotten radical nature of the movement is relevant:
“For some of us, it is disconcerting to see a new generation of activists whose priorities seem to renounce the radicalism of gay liberation, and who seem unaware of and uninterested in the radical push shared by women’s and gay liberation to challenge the ‘common-sense’ and taken-for-granted assumptions about private life.”
It is here however, where I would have loved to have seen Altman go further. His historical analysis is superb, largely due to his ability to weave his own history throughout his writing. But I leave myself wondering where the queer movement will go next.
Here another polarisation exists. Altman already identified this in Homosexual – a division between the ‘gay liberationists’, those working towards breaking down societal norms; and more mainstream campaigners, those working towards legislative changes and the idea of ‘equality’. Altman argues that fight continues:
“Young queers today are caught up in the same dilemma that confronted the founders of the gay and lesbian movements: do we want to demonstrate that we are just like everyone else, or do we want to build alternatives to the dominant sexual and emotional patterns?”
This polarisation is played out largely through the movement for same-sex marriage, which is fundamentally a campaign built of gaining acceptance into a social system that many see is inherently conservative, and one that limits the ability for different sexual experiences. It certainly does not fit within our gay liberation roots.
Yet, as this campaign dominates the queer movement, Altman still sees massive changes ahead – ones that fit more within the desires of gay liberation to create alternatives:
“I would not…now talk of homosexuality ending, but rather of an increasing blurring of boundaries, rules and stigma around sexuality and gender.”
It is here where I see a contradiction and one that needs to be explored. If (as I agree) an increase in the blurring of boundaries is happening and important, how does this fit with the ‘mainstreaming’ of the queer movement, which is focused more on demonstrating that we are just like everyone else?
In many ways, however, this is what makes The End of the Homosexual? the perfect companion to Homosexual. Whilst situations have changed, Homosexual still provides an essential basis to understand the arguments and theories behind the gay liberation movement – a basis to presenting the alternatives I think we need. If we are to continue to blur the boundaries, rules and stigma around sexuality (which is essential to ending oppression around sexuality and gender), a rethink of our norms, instead of working to gain acceptance into (and therefore strengthen) these norms, is essential. This means we must look back at the theories of liberation as argued by Altman in his Homosexual.
The End of the Homosexual? is therefore like an updated volume of the original work – and an extremely valuable one at that. These two books should be read together (as I did within one week). Reading The End of the Homosexual? is a reality check and an important call to return to some liberation roots.
What Altman has created is two pieces that are essential to any understanding of gay liberation. The End of the Homosexual? solidifies Altman’s status as a legend within the queer movement (not that it was ever in doubt) and provides an essential guide to understanding queer politics today. For anyone interested in the history of queer politics, it is a must read.
– Dennis Altman’s The End of the Homosexual? is available through UQP. RRP 29.95