Q&A with Dennis Altman

Gay rights activist and academic Dennis Altman visits the State Library’s exhibition Coming Out in the 70s.

 

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST REACTION TO THE EXHIBITION?

I loved the fact that its title, Coming Out in the 70s, is shared with an anthology of my early writings, published by the small Sydney publisher Wild and Woolley in 1979. The book was launched at a now defunct gay sauna in the city, which may have been the only time many people — including my mother — found themselves in a gay sex venue.

THE EXHIBITION FEATURES YOUR FIRST BOOK: HOW DID YOU COME TO WRITE IT?

Homosexual: Oppression & Liberation grew out of my time living in New York in 1970–71, which meant I was not in Sydney for the foundation meeting of the first Australian gay rights organisation, CAMP. I’d become involved in the first gay liberation newspaper in New York, Come Out!, and from there the idea of a book took shape.

Dennis Altman

AS A YOUNG AUSTRALIAN, WHAT WAS YOUR PATH TO PUBLISHING THE BOOK IN NEW YORK IN 1971?

Finding a publisher was difficult; mainstream publishers were still very wary of any serious discussion of homosexuality. Through my friend, Australian rock journalist Lillian Roxon, I met Harris Dienstfrey and soon had both a publisher and, gulp, even a literary agent. Unfortunately, the publishers Outerbridge and Dienstfrey collapsed within a few years, but my book became an Avon paperback and was taken up in Australia by Richard Walsh, then publisher at Angus & Robertson.

HOW DO YOU REFLECT ON THAT TIME NOW?

I’ve returned to the themes of that book several times since, most notably in my The End of the Homosexual? (UQP 2013). But I’m conscious of how the luck of writing an early book on gay liberation, and the resulting television and media exposure, shaped much of my later career. The 1970s was a time of political and cultural ferment, of sexual experimentation and intense friendships; if I have a criticism of the exhibition it’s the absence of images of the explosion of sexual liaisons and sites that I remember from Sydney in the decade.

CAN LOVE, LOSS AND POLITICS EVER BE SEPARATED?

It’s a fascinating question that echoes the 1970s slogan, the personal is the political. I’m tempted to respond with that Facebook meme: it’s complicated. But it would require a novel to fully answer, and my one attempt at a novel, The Comfort of Men, was not a great success. The major relationship of my life was with Anthony Smith, whom I met in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and who died eight years ago of lung cancer. He was younger than me, which made his death all the more difficult.

WHAT CAN TODAY’S QUEER MOVEMENT LEARN FROM 1970S GAY LIBERATION?

There are some legacies from the gay liberation period that are worth recalling: above all, the insistence that our liberation was connected with the call for a more just society for everyone — intersectionality, before the term was coined. Coming out is important, but it is insufficient as the basis for an ethical political stance; I feel no political allegiance with those openly gay members of parliament who support our ongoing torture of asylum seekers in Nauru and Manus. And while diversity — racial, gender, sexuality, class — is clearly important, it’s not a sufficient basis for a political stance.

WHAT ARE THE NEXT IMPORTANT STEPS?

Early gay liberation got some things badly wrong. We assumed that transgender desires would decline as social attitudes to sex and gender changed, but clearly this has not happened. Trans activists challenge the basic assumptions of our social arrangements more radically than the early gay movement, and gender politics have become deeply fraught. We need to distinguish between those people who express active hostility, often including real violence, towards trans folk, and people who are struggling to understand how others experience their bodies in ways for which western society makes little space.

AND WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?

That’s a risky question for someone in their later seventies. But I have always written about politics more broadly than sexuality, and next year have a small book coming out called The Strange Persistence of Monarchies. It was sparked by the recognition that constitutional monarchies are significant in both Europe and Asia — as well as in our own rather bizarre constitutional set up — and has been a fun lockdown project to work on.

The free exhibition Coming Out in the 70s is in the State Library’s galleries until 30 May and also online.