Dennis Altman looks back on forty years of work as a gay rights activist and author - and the ‘extraordinary’ changes that have been made to how we imagine sex and gender since the gay rights movement began in the early 1970s. He asks what those changes mean for homosexuals today: both his generation and new generations, who have grown up in a very different world.
In 1975 I was invited by a student group to speak about homosexuality at the Townsville campus of James Cook University. The local paper reported my talk, which led to hostile questions being asked in the state parliament, where I was referred to as ‘a bare-footed practising homosexual’, and an attack upon me by Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Thirty-five years later I was invited by the vice-chancellor of Central Queensland University to Rockhampton to give a similar talk, chaired by federal Liberal MP Warren Entsch. This time the local paper editorialised its support for the event, and I was a guest on both local radio stations.
Flying north from Brisbane, I was tempted to believe I was entering a different country; the men in the departure lounge – one with a T-shirt proclaiming ‘Jesus Saves’, others with surfers gear and heavy tats – would not have been a common sight back at Tullamarine. But walking around Rockhampton, with its slightly stuffy and old-fashioned downtown area, reinforced my sense that Australia is a remarkably homogenous country, and that apparently different attitudes between regions are more likely to reflect economic status and demography, not some particular essential difference between state cultures.
This was in fact my fourth visit to provincial Queensland to address gay issues. At the end of 1993 I first visited Rockhampton for a conference at the university entitled ‘Voices of a Margin’, which brought together speakers from all the predictable indicators of disadvantage.
Seventeen years later, Rockhampton appeared to have changed little. However, The Boy From Oz was playing at the town’s theatre – an interesting reminder that Australia’s two most successful musicals (the other being Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) are, as they used to say, as camp as a row of tents. What had changed was the assumption of a kind of normality around homosexuality, so that the vice-chancellor could joke publicly about his wife’s attraction to the men pictured in a Queensland gay calendar. It was inconceivable that a vice-chancellor would have felt sufficiently relaxed about sexuality to make such comments twenty years earlier. Of course, prejudice and hostility remain: a week after I was in Rockhampton, the visiting American author Armistead Maupin encountered blatant homophobia in a restaurant in Alice Springs, when a barman told him the toilets were ‘reserved for real men’. Tourism Central Australia was quick to apologise, and the Melbourne Age followed up with an apologetic editorial.
‘Extraordinary changes’ in how we imagine sex and gender
Anyone over fifty in Australia has lived through extraordinary changes in how we imagine the basic rules of sex and gender. We remember the first time we saw women bank tellers, heard a woman’s voice announce that she was our pilot for a flight, watched the first woman read the news on television. Women are now a majority of the paid workforce; in 1966 they made up twenty-nine per cent. When I was growing up in Hobart it was vaguely shocking to hear of an unmarried heterosexual couple living together, and women in hats and gloves rode together in the back of the trams (now long since disappeared). As I look back, it seems to me that some of the unmarried female teachers at my school were almost certainly lesbians, although even they would have been shocked had the word been uttered.
In 1955 Princess Margaret had been forced to repudiate marrying a divorced man. Since then, three of Queen Elizabeth II’s four children have divorced, and the current heir to the throne is married to a woman with whom he obviously had an affair during his previous marriage. Most of my female schoolmates who went to university were on teachers’ scholarships, and would be expected to resign from the department if they married, which not infrequently happened because of unplanned pregnancies. Abortions were illegal but were often performed under appalling conditions; the occasional girl was known to have suddenly made a trip ‘to Melbourne’ in search of one.
Homosexuals were invisible, at best referred to in guilty jokes that I generally failed to understand. Barry Humphries wrote of this period that ‘Pooftahs were happily confined to the small hermetic world of ballet and window dressing’, but this was a snide half-truth. (Not surprisingly, Humphries did not appear to think lesbians were even worth a snide reference.) In the same way, our cities were overwhelmingly racially homogenous: an overt white supremacy was dominant, reinforced through the notorious White Australia Policy and through the legal inequality of Aborigines, and deep prejudice existed against the few non-Caucasians living in Australia. When I was growing up I recall several Chinese-Australian families, but they were regarded as alien and exotic, even though some had been in the country for a century – far longer than the families of many of my classmates, who treated them with contempt.
1970s to now: The erosion of homosexuality as ‘vice’ or ‘illness’
During the 1970s, when Australia saw the first public affirmations by gay men and women, homosexuality was regarded with deep suspicion – as a vice, as a crime or, at best, as an illness. Sexual behaviour between men was illegal in all states, and very few women or men publicly acknowledged their homosexuality. Even if the anti-sodomy laws were rarely applied, police harassment and entrapment, and fear of disclosure to families and employers, maintained a low-level reign of terror sufficient for most homosexuals to spend considerable effort managing constant subterfuge and evasion. The current world, in which there are openly gay politicians, judges and even the occasional sports star, was literally inconceivable. We used to worry about being bashed for walking hand-in-hand. Young queers now worry about wedding planning, even though the threat of violence is still real, and in some areas possibly increasing.
The last decade, in particular, has seen extraordinary progress towards the normalisation of homosexuality across the western world. Legal protection exists in most jurisdictions against discrimination based upon ‘sexual orientation’, and same-sex partnerships are increasingly acknowledged by civil (if not religious) institutions. Openly homosexual politicians are increasingly evident, and a significant ‘pink vote’ is now courted during elections. No mainstream television series seems to be without its gay and lesbian characters, and there is a well-established targeting of a gay/lesbian market in travel, real estate and consumer advertising. In 2012 the high-rating television station Channel Nine resuscitated the reality show Big Brother; the winner was openly gay and proposed to his partner on live television.
Making sense of the revolution
Those of us old enough to remember the period in which a large-scale gay movement began have lived through a revolution, and it is difficult for us to make sense of it. Change occurs at a number of levels simultaneously, and is often contradictory and uneven. Looking back over four decades, one can trace major shifts in the discourse, representation and regulation of homosexuality – all of which terms are open to multiple meanings. Nor does change occur without cost. Many activists find that, as they age, they feel a nostalgia for a remembered past, which seems increasingly preferable to the present. Gore Vidal, of whom I have written elsewhere, wrote a novel that identifies the ‘golden age’ as the decade following World War II, but in effect he is writing about his youth, which is where most of us locate that period.
The changing Australian attitudes reflect a much larger global story, where new images of the self and possibilities for activism circulate increasingly rapidly. The American influence has been particularly significant, and through its media the US has shaped how most of us imagine the world. Americans have been role models and reference points for changing images of sex and gender from Marilyn Monroe and James Dean through to the characters of Glee and Sex in the City. Our generation lived through a major shift in emphasis from British attitudes and culture to an increasing embrace of that of the United States, a change that paralleled the steady increase of non-British immigration to Australia. At the same time, the realities of globalisation, in all its diverse meanings, mean that even local stories have to be told through an awareness of the wider world.
Ageing and generational change
Of course, for me it is difficult to disentangle what has changed in the larger world from the realities of my own ageing. As soon as one relies upon personal observation, one has to recognise the extent to which these observations are distorted as well as enhanced by the personal. A friend wrote several years ago on Facebook:
I’ll be in New York this weekend, and it turns out to be the Black Party. That used to get me as excited as when I was a little boy about to open presents on Christmas Eve. Now the person who could get excited about either seems impossibly remote, barely half-remembered, from another lifetime.
Another friend, browsing recently through a gay bookshop, remarked that The Joy of Gay Sex seemed to have been replaced by The Joy of Cooking, although it is worth noting that The Joy of Gay Sex, originally published in 1977, has been reissued and revised several times by writers drawn from my generation.
To make sense of change requires us to focus on a number of arenas simultaneously. As change occurs, it creates new possibilities but it can also reinforce old patterns – which may be why so many young people today regard ‘hippies’ with distaste. In a familiar cycle, yesterday’s radicalism becomes tomorrow’s nostalgia. So it is with sexuality. The changes over the past forty years have not replaced one mode of being homosexual as much as they have added new ones. The world of hustlers, drag queens and self-denial described in John Rechy’s 1965 novel City of Night can still be found, alongside well-dressed professional women and men at gay business fundraisers. The simultaneous existence of old-fashioned ‘queens’ and edgy transsexual ‘queers’ illustrates Raymond Williams’ discussion of ‘residual and emergent cultures’, whereby new forms don’t necessarily displace as much as they complement existing modes.
The past and future of gay life
It is not hard to sit in a clearly gay urban space and see both the past and the future of gay life; what was once shocking is now taken for granted. A casual passer-by on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, for example, can watch go-go dancers clad in the most revealing of briefs, while young pierced and tattooed queers walk by, largely disinterested. Rather like individuals, all cultures have complex and multiple identities, and change often means the incorporation rather than the replacement of old forms. During my most recent visits to that strip – one of the few remaining clearly gay zones in the United States – I saw three generations of queer life, from an elegant lesbian couple walking their matching dogs, to young guys, uneasily still in their teens, half-cruising for money and opportunity. ‘Ghettoes’ function as sites for both nostalgia and initiation, and if places like West Hollywood, the Castro and Chelsea have traditionally functioned as spaces to which young queers come from rural and small-town America, they are now increasingly playing this role internationally.
‘Lost gay’ Sydney and Melbourne
Major changes in the understanding of homosexuality reflect larger social and cultural shifts. One example: it is likely that the invention and spread of the internet has changed patterns of sexual behaviour as widely as did the contraceptive pill forty years ago. In both cases the changes were neither foreseen nor intended, and in both cases the impact of new technologies was partly dependent on political and ideological forces. Memory has suddenly become a major topic in queer circles: in 2012 thousands of people signed up to websites for ‘lost gay’ Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland and so on, while in Brussels a special colloquium was organised to remember the ‘homosexual militancy’ of the 1950s.
In some ways, these moves grew out of a number of celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in 2009. A raid in June 1969 on the Stonewall Inn, a well-known homosexual bar in Greenwich Village, New York, provoked a number of patrons and passers-by to fight back against the police, triggering several nights of riots that have since been mythologised as the founding event of the contemporary gay movement. Much has been made of the coincidence that the riots took place on the eve of Judy Garland’s funeral, and Garland’s character in The Wizard of Oz probably gave rise to the euphemism ‘friends of Dorothy’ to describe homosexual men. In 1988 Edmund White declared Stonewall to be ‘the turning point of our lives’; certainly the years between 1969 and 1972 represented a major tipping point in homosexual awareness and assertion across the western world.
Intergenerational friendships and communicating history
Books from the early period of the gay movement are now being reissued, and ‘vintage’ (that is, pre-AIDS) pornography is now widely dispersed through the internet, and in some cases has become collectable. Even so, there are still very few ways in which young people discovering their homosexuality have the means to learn much of the history of their sexuality, and of the ways in which homosexuals have been regarded historically.
Maybe there is something about forty years, which marks the coming to adulthood of a third generation since Stonewall; whatever the reason, I find myself talking increasingly with far younger people, for whom my memories help make sense of their history. Intergenerational friendships have their own particular challenges, involving as they do implicit assumptions about motives and hierarchy; older men, in particular, are assumed to want sex, while younger women and men are usually thought to be cultivating their elders for financial or career advancement.
One of the greatest pleasures in writing my latest book has been the discovery that we learn from each other, and often in ways that seem counter-intuitive.
Maybe, too, there is a desire amongst younger queers to find an equivalent to the family-tree version of history that is so strong in ethnic communities.
This is an edited version of the introduction to Dennis Altman’s book The End of the Homosexual?(UQP), available now.
Dennis Altman will be giving a Lunchbox/Soapbox address, The End of the Homosexual?, at the Wheeler Centre this Thursday 12 September at 12.45pm.