Queer Liberation: an interview with Dennis Altman

Green Agenda editor Clare Ozich and member of the editorial panel Simon Copland sat down with the academic and gay rights activist Dennis Altman in September 2015. Altman is best known for his pioneering book Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, released in 1971. He recently released a retrospective of his work,The End of the Homosexual?, in 2013. In this conversation Clare, Simon and Dennis discuss all things queer, with a mix of Australian politics in there as well.

The conversation is split into three parts — a discussion on the tension between liberation and equality politics, a look at the modern marriage equality and queer movements, and finally a debate on the “alphabet soup” and modern identity politics.

The following is an edited extract of our conversation.

We begin with the first question from Clare.

Liberation vs. Equality

Clare: When Simon and I were chatting about the potential for you to be involved in Green Agenda, one of the key things I was interested in is this relationship and tension between liberation politics and the equality politics. I know that is a regular theme in your work.

Dennis: It’s interesting that you raise that because in a few weeks I have to speak at a conference in Sydney for the 40th anniversary of Damned Whores and God’s Police by Anne Summers.

I am going to look back at what we meant by liberation. Liberation came into the common left language through the National Liberation Front in Vietnam and then it got picked up and we had women’s liberation, black liberation and gay liberation. There was also the term sexual liberation, which was being used sometimes to cover women’s and gay liberation and sometime to cover what people in the past called free sex. So in thinking about the differences — so I’m going to go directly towards what I’m thinking you’re suggest — I think there are three real differences.

If I compare the rhetoric of the early 70s with what’s happening now, particularly through things like the marriage equality movement, it strikes me that firstly, identity has become essentialised. It has done so in a way that has become very convenient both for people who claim the identity and use that awful phrase “born this way”, and for everybody else. So Bill Shorten can get up and he can defend “our rights” because his sexuality isn’t thrown into question.

The second thing that I think is different is that the liberation movements at least rhetorically believed that you couldn’t get full equality or freedom for one group without getting it for everybody, which in turn meant you needed radical social transformation. That’s largely disappeared and I think that’s one of the reasons why the gay movement’s actually been so successful. Because it’s become reformist, indeed conformist.

homosexualoppressionAnd the third thing is I think there’s this tension between wanting to assert an identity and then at the same time wanting to disrupt identities. Twenty years later after the liberation period this idea was taken up by queer theory, which sort of came and went in about five years. There’s a tension between asserting identity, but then asserting that identities were fluid. So there was that wonderful phrase that “feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice”. That was an early 1970s feminist slogan. Now if you think what that’s actually saying, it’s saying that all women have the potential to experience desire with other women. That is not what the language of today says, which is based on the idea that whatever identity that someone assumes is discreet and essential.

Simon: The talk is a reflection of 40 years ago to what we’ve got now. In your perspective what happened that caused this shift?

Dennis: Obviously the world has changed and I think what’s really interesting is that what one might call social liberalism, or acceptance of diversity, has actually happened to a much greater extent that people might have expected. 40 years ago the idea of a black American President or a woman Prime Minister was the stuff of fiction.

On the other hand economic inequality has increased and the social democratic project has essentially been totally derailed. There would be no Governments in the world that would call themselves social democratic and one of the great mysteries that we all I think share is that the global financial crisis resulted in the election of right-wing Governments, which on the face of it is slightly bizarre.

Personal freedoms have certainly increased, enormously in all sorts of ways. It would be silly to deny that. But at the same time we tolerate greater and greater inequality and the two are related.

So I think there’s a discrepancy. Personal freedoms have certainly increased, enormously in all sorts of ways. It would be silly to deny that. But at the same time we tolerate greater and greater inequality and the two are related. So I think going back to your question Simon, that’s the big shift. The larger socio-political context has shifted considerably.

The other thing that has of course happened is shifts in the gay movement. The movement began as a small group of radicals who had the time, and the freedom, and had already been politicised. As the gay movement became bigger it inevitably became more mainstream. But the success has meant greater and greater pressure to behave as a pressure group, not as a social movement. Australian Marriage Equality is an extraordinarily good pressure group who are very good at raising a lot of money, and were very good until Tony Abbott gazumped them at lobbying politicians. They were so successful that Abbott had to invent a plebiscite because the equality movement looked like winning.

The same-sex marriage movement

Simon: [Noting Dennis has often been critical of the same-sex marriage push]. What is your current thinking on the issue?

Dennis: I’ve had to think about this, because I’ve found myself in an increasingly awkward position in the marriage debate where the dilemma was do I want to sound as though I was on the same side as Cardinal Pell against Penny Wong? I had been quoted in Parliament by one of the Catholic right wing Labor people and something I said had been used in one of the anti marriage equality ads in the Australian, which was embarrassing.

So for me the way I would answer it is that it’s clear that marriage has become a symbolic issue that is about much more than the right to walk down the aisle in matching tuxedos. I really have little sympathy for the people who, when they talk about marriage equality, only talk about their right as two individuals to get married. Because people who are in that situation are in fact already very privileged. They are clearly out because if they weren’t out they wouldn’t be able to get married. They’re in long-term relationships. In fact many of them seem to be able to afford to go overseas to get married. So their big beef is that their Buenos Aires wedding is not recognised in Australia, you know, tough shit.

But I think that equally marriage has become a symbol of accepting cultural and social diversity.

So I think one can go from the marriage equality argument to broader arguments. I spoke at a rally in Melbourne a couple of weekends ago and speaking at a rally means you actually get to see the crowd — it’s right there. The crowd really interested me because it was predominantly young, and not particularly queer — okay, I’m not saying my Gaydar works on a crowd of 5,000. But marriage equality has clearly become a symbolic issue for a lot of young people, for whom it means acceptance and diversity and I think that’s where one builds on the marriage movement.

I think that equally marriage has become a symbol of accepting cultural and social diversity.

Clare: I think that’s very true. I was anti-marriage before Simon was. I wrote an article for the gay press in Perth about ten years ago about why we didn’t need marriage.

Dennis: Did you get brutally attacked?

Clare: Not really. I also went to the very first gay marriage rallies in Perth when there was only 20 people there. They were mostly organised by my friends.

But I think you’re right that it’s become a very important opportunity. Although I must say one of the uncomfortable things I find is how all the straight people just love it. It’s so easy.

Dennis: Yes, I was joking about how it was great to have Bill Shorten and Richard Di Natale as my warm up act, but then I also thought “do I really want all these straight men up there speaking for me?”

I think there are two issues here. Marriage equality has also become a way to bash the power of organised religion and that’s why I think the Irish referendum was so significant. Because we might not personally feel it’s the most important issue, but effectively Ireland saw a popular vote against the influence of the church and that I think is very good and important.

But the other thing I’d say as someone who had a very long term partner who died a couple of years ago, I think there’s a real danger of the marriage equality movement marginalising people who are not in long-term relationships. I’ve had people come up to me crying when I’ve said it, saying to me “I’m so glad you said that because I’ve never heard anyone say it.” The marriage equality movement are quite good at bullying. I’ve had more attacks for statements that are in any way critical of marriage from other homosexuals than from straight people.

Simon: The bullying point is an interesting one. I’ve written about my polyamorous relationships and the people who have always reacted the worst to it have been gay men, who come and tell me stop talking about this publicly, you’re going to hurt marriage equality. You’re going to make it more difficult for us. You’ve got to wait your turn. It’s always been the straight friends who I thought were a bit conservative that were fine, while the gay friends who I thought were more progressive were not.

Dennis: Well Simon my suggestion to you is that you track these men down on Scruff and point out their hypocrisies.

Simon: So I was interested, you talk about marriage equality as an opportunity but there is also problems with it in the way it can marginalise people who aren’t in long term relationships and it can normalise long-term monogamous relationships. So how do we deal with those negatives but use the opportunity it has provided us?

Dennis: I think in Australia now we are stuck with the reality that it is not going to be possible to have a nuanced discussion about this until either, which is probably the more likely outcome now, the current Government loses and Labor passes it. Or if the Liberals get back in and we go to a plebiscite, the whole nature of a plebiscite is that you’ve got to be for or against. And so we get trapped. So I don’t think we’re going to have a nuanced discussion until it’s resolved. [Note: this interview took place before the replacement of Abbott by Turnbull as PM, and I no longer believe a Labor government is likely next year.]

Clare: Until it’s done, yes.

Dennis: That’s one of the really important reasons to have it done. Once it’s done is then we can start talking about why do we — I think this is one of the things that strikes me about polyamory — is why do we measure fidelity only through sex? I mean you can be unfaithful to someone in all sorts of ways. You can treat them like shit, you can be totally faithless emotionally, but somehow as long as you don’t screw anybody else this is alright.

queerfistOn the other hand, and I think this is one of the virtues about gay culture, which we ought to be talking about and not hiding is that gay men have actually been quite good at managing that. So we know from the research that my former partner did actually that almost all long-term gay male relationships are not monogamous. There’s something a bit sick about all these gay men getting up and talking about monogamous relationships. I wasn’t joking when I said go online and you’ll find them.

But I think that’s a discussion that’s become very difficult to have in Australia. Would you agree with that?

Clare: Yes, I would. I remember hearing Rodney Croome speak in Parliament House a few years ago. I’d always wondered why he and I don’t share the same political perspective and when I heard him speak I understood why. That’s because he spoke very movingly about his strong desire to belong. He wanted to be a part of the broader community. Whereas I have never had this particular desire to belong. I’ve had a desire to be as I am or don’t have me.

Dennis: It’s interesting because when you’ve been in a relationship with someone for ten years all that changes with marriage is you get a one off ceremony and a bit of paper. I know about this. When Antony died everybody behaved as if we had been married, as if in fact we had been legally married. There was only one thing, literally, that was different and that was the nature of the death certificate. Everything else, and this included major institutions, all acted as if we had been married.

Clare: It is the flipside of what marriage symbolises. At one level marriage symbolises this great acceptance and on the other hand marriage symbolises, or actually is, a very particular way of living in our culture.

Dennis: Yes, and then of course it goes back to something you said earlier Clare. It becomes a very easy way for straight people to understand and accept us, because we are just like them.

Simon: And we’re promising to behave just like them.

I was just thinking about going back to that question of how do we use marriage. One of the things I found interesting, particularly following the success of the Supreme Court Decision in the United States, was that the following the discussion, particularly in the straight circles was “okay, marriage equality is done, what’s next?” And a lot of the focus has gone to “okay, now it’s time to fight for trans rights”.

Obviously it is very important as trans people have been pushed out in many ways, but then part of me is very concerned as it seems part of this idea that we’ve got another group we have to work for and it’s not a discussion about gender and sexual liberation as a whole. It goes down to some of this stuff we’ve spoken about the focus on individual identities. What’s your response to that? After marriage equality will it just be “what’s the next set of rights” or how can we shape it so that there’s a broader discussion that’s not just about individual groupings all the time.

Dennis: In the days of gay liberation in the 70s there was always a belief that transgender was essentially a product of very strongly defined masculinity and femininity. As that distinction broke down there would be fewer people who would feel the need to transition. And transition now means all sorts of possibilities, medical possibilities that probably weren’t really available then.

I think what you’re saying Simon is very important, because of the fear of sounding un-PC, if not transphobic, but we’ve actually created an essentialist notion of transgender, which in a way, when you start pushing it, doesn’t really make sense any more than an essentialist nature of being homosexual makes sense. So I have deep sympathy with what you’re asking.

In some ways traditional assumptions about gender have broken down in that women now occupy all sorts of positions that they didn’t occupy 30 or 40 years ago. On the other hand in some ways they’ve increased. There’s very strong markers of being a woman and being a man. So we don’t actually know what would happen if they were to genuinely break down.

I think that raises really interesting questions. So transgender strikes me as both being extremely conservative and extremely radical, which I think presents a real dilemma for trans* people because they get constantly caught. They have to depend on the conservative notion of gender, they have to depend on the medical profession in a way, you know, you suddenly decide to change your sexual preference you don’t have to go to a doctor for it, or be on hormones. At the same time it’s radical because it’s questioning all sorts of ideas about what you’re born as.

transgender strikes me as both being extremely conservative and extremely radical

Clare: Language becomes very interesting here too, there’s transgender, transexual, gender queer etc. One of the things that I find very interesting is this development of “trans” and its opposite being “cis”. I find that quite interesting because I’m neither. As a masculine of centre woman I don’t identify as trans and there’s a large part of the trans movement that wouldn’t identify me within that scope either. I also don’t fit an objective definition of what cis is either. I find it interesting to reflect on how trans* has evolved over the past few years – it has gone from being a quite all-encompassing concept to being a potentially much narrower one, and being caught in the dualism.

Dennis: I think you’re absolutely right and as you were talking about that I was thinking about — the army officer — Kate McGregor. What’s interesting is that she presents herself as trans, but she simultaneously is very clear she wants to be taken as a woman. And I think that’s what you’re pointing to is that’s a really interesting contradiction because I am sure there are people out there who are trans who don’t want people to see them as trans.

And then there’s people who do. I’ve noticed on the gay apps, there are increasing numbers of guys who identify as trans.

Simon: There’s that and then there is an increasing number of people who are “searching for trans”.

Dennis: Yes

Simon: As if people who are trans are a fetish.

Dennis: I think that’s always been true. We know there’s been…the idea of trans women as sexual objects for hetereosexual men is quite strong. There are all those fantasies that I think a lot of straight men have that if they can be fucked by a trans woman, who hasn’t done a total surgical transition, then somehow that makes it okay because they’ve not “really” homosexual. I think there are all sorts of sexual fantasies that a lot of people play out on trans bodies.

Clare: I guess just going back to our previous discussion there is also this massive disconnect isn’t there, in that there’s this debate about marriage and these norms, yet there’s all this activity that occurs all over the place that is not fitting these norms.

Dennis: One of the reasons is that there are not many things that you can demand from the state if you are homosexual in Australia, so you are sort of stuck. In a sense it was much easier to organise when we were criminalised as there was a very clear objective. So marriage remains in Australia the last legal barrier.

Australia actually, this is the odd thing, we actually have far more progressive legislation than most other countries, yet because marriage has become the yardstick, if you look at the various international surveys we now rank low on queer rights, because we don’t have marriage equality. On the other hand South Africa, where your day-to day life is probably much more precarious, ranks high because they have all these apparent legal equalities, including marriage.

Clare: Takes it right back to the beginning in that the concept of a liberation movement has some focus on the state but it actually has a much broader focus on how to change society and social relations and not relying on the state.

Dennis: Which must be one of the links with a Green movement, because a Green movement has to be more than, or demand more than things the state can deliver. Because for the state to deliver real change requires a whole change in how we all live.

Clare: Yes, I mean I think it’s true for all movements. I do think about this a bit, you know one of the things that happened off the back of gay liberation, off the back of feminism, off the back of the struggles of indigenous peoples in the 70s and the 80s is that the state then did get involved and we did get a raft of laws and things changed legally and then a lot of things got quite bureaucratised.

Dennis: Yes, Australia invented the term femocrat.

Clare: Yes, which I think is very apt.

I see this kind of politics playing out around domestic violence in Australia. There’s all this activity again and it’s all good and important but it’s all very much focused on the state. I was at something the other day and someone was saying “it’s really great and we’re winning and it’s all excellent” and for me it was like “we’re catching up on stuff we’ve lost in some ways”. Not in all ways but in some ways and certainly in that sense that broader cultural change, broader social change doesn’t come from Government, it comes from other places.

Dennis: That makes me think, there’s a wonderful example in terms of queer politics in that we now have a Minister in Victoria for Equality and we now have a Commissioner. And the Commissioner is great but she has to find things to do. She’s talked to people, she’s actually looking for, “for god’s sake give me some terrible oppression I can stop” and that is the dilemma when you start depending on the state.

The Alphabet Soup and Identity Politics

Simon: One of the other things I’d love to chat about is the alphabet soup (the letters “LGBTIQ”). I know you don’t have a like for that so I was wondering if you could go into that because it goes into all of these discussions about rights and identity politics.

endofhomosexualDennis: The first point I’d make about LGBTI, — some people say it’s LGBTIQA or AA — is that the letters have become a noun. So when I say to people “what do those things stand for” and you can’t be all those things simultaneously they often react as if they had never asked what the letters actually mean.

But that’s not really the question you asked is it Simon?

Simon: No, I guess I know you are critical of the use of it.

Dennis: Well I’m critical of it because I think it dumps in a whole lot of categories together. And the one I’m most critical of is the B, because I think human beings are all potentially bisexual. But having said that I don’t think that there are clear historical and contemporary case of the sort of oppression on people for them being bisexual that is true for peoples who are one hand lesbian or gay or on the other hand transgendered.

Clare: Controversial, controversial.

Dennis: It is controversial but it’s become, I think people use the letters without actually stopping to think about what they mean. Ironically as someone who has been perceived to be hostile to queer theory, I think the term queer is a much more useful term because it actually somehow captures both sexual and gender difference.

I’m really uncomfortable with the LGBTIQA when A stands for allies, which you know, if you’re thinking about where we’re all sitting — you’re sitting in Edinburgh Simon and we’re sitting in Melbourne, well that means pretty well the whole population are part of this minority.

Simon: I think what I was trying to get at as well is that part of the LGBTIQ for me is the issue of specific identity politics and this is what I was going back to with when marriage is won who is next, what is the next group that we’re going to fight for? The idea of queer challenges the notion of there being individual groups that obviously have different types of oppression but also form a broader minority.

Dennis: The other thing one has to throw in, which we’d need a whole other discussion and a whole other hour is the global situation. Using the term LGBT, which is a classic American one, actually assumes Western concepts are appropriate everywhere in the world. That ties into the very strong backlash where Western ideas of sexuality get used very effectively by a whole number of unpleasant Governments in the rest of the world to persecute people.

It clearly is much more important that people are being executed by ISIS for apparently being homosexual or that women are subjected to corrective rape in Africa because they’re seen as lesbian. But to say it’s more important doesn’t actually say there’s very much I think we can do about it directly. I don’t want to channel the energy from the marriage equality movement to rally outside the Zimbabwean Embassy or the Russian Embassy, because it would make the situation worse. That is I think the really big dilemma that I find the most interesting in terms of a global movement on gender and sexuality.

Simon: Well, maybe that’s good place to end? But that was fun.

All: Thank you!

Green Agenda acknowledges the above conversation included discussion of identities that the participants do not hold or have lived experience of. We welcome engagement in the conversation from those who do. This was a critical discussion of contemporary queer issues but we acknowledge that we do not speak for everybody.