Reading this book was a little like seeing one’s own life in parallel flashback. Not that there is any specific similarity for me, but so many of the events, places and influences all struck a strong chord of recognition (Altman is two years younger than me). If there were two books that set in train my life’s interest in who and what I was, they would have to be D J West’s ‘Homosexuality’ (1955, 1960) and Dennis Altman’s ‘Homosexual Oppression and Liberation’ (1971,2,3,). The concluding chapter of Altman’s initial work was ‘The End of the Homosexual?’ and he has taken what was essentially a predictive query and used it to title review a life and time devoted to an analysis of homosexual sociology, liberation and, more recently, Queer culture.
While DJ West’s work probably terrified me in my late teens especially with its heavy Freudian influence on parental causation (modified in later editions) and I appreciated his later work on male prostitution, Altman’s work was a beacon for its time and was published far and wide. He remains 40 years on probably the only Australian researcher and theorist in this area who has achieved world-wide status and acceptance (though he has not always been free of disagreements in the always fractious world of liberation and queer culture theory).
This is a measured and insightful view of those 40 years of theory, activism and change. No wonder it keeps on ringing bells of events and changes that centre around notions of ‘where are we?’ and ‘where are we going?’ Much of the tone of the work when examining the range of views from sexual outlaw to indistinguishable married couple cannot escape being quite ironic. No one denies that promiscuity continues a la Gindr as it did in many forms in the past within or without SOPVs. Altman says ‘The old warehouses along the Melbourne docks, once the home of wild dance parties, have disappeared in the urban renewal that has produced the sanitised streets of Docklands.’ One reviewer commented ‘The great irony of our age is that the partying young queers who made our cities liveable once more have become the grumbling old queens complaining about the noisy crowds and 24-hour licences they helped usher in’.
One of my favourite comments is when Altman notes the continuing importance of two phenomena – the business of coming out and the availability of groups with a shared understanding (like this very group).
He examines notions of liberation, the impact of the AIDS years and more recently the debate on equal rights in marriage. Inevitably, there is quite a lot about Altman’s own life history but he includes some very interesting information and insights about changes in a wide variety of international contexts which comes from his travels and representation on national and international stages as a speaker, researcher and consultant. I found this to be a very useful aspect of the book
I would happily recommend this book to anyone, young or old (but especially the younger) who wants to get a grasp within 200 pages on where the phenomenon of the ‘homosexual’ has been over our most seminal (no pun) period and whether we may be absorbed, for better or worse, into the heterosexual world.
Vive la difference!
(There is some use of academic language of the sociological variety but it occurs mostly early and is not too difficult to read with (or over)).