Respected gay author and academic Dennis Altman says the LGBTI community needs to adopt a greater historical perspective when looking towards its future.

Speaking at the Victorian AIDS Council/Gay Men’s Health Centre’s annual general meeting, Altman said he believes a sense of history is lacking from current debates on LGBTI issues.

“A historical perspective can be understood to mean a number of things, ultimately … it’s about understanding the stories that make us stand where we are now,” Altman said.

“Looking back on those early days, what is most striking to me is that the Victorian AIDS Council became basically the centre of gay community activism in Melbourne.

“I think there is something we have lost.”

Altman said he has observed the community change since the mid-’80s and early ’90s, leaning more towards organisations like Melbourne LGBTI radio station JOY94.9 in larger numbers, or simply attending one-off annual festivals Midsumma and the Melbourne Queer Film Festival.

“I think a very big question we have to ask about the current world is what happens when our sense of community becomes one of consuming, rather than one of participating?” he said.

“That’s one of the big challenges now.”

During his speech, Altman also criticised the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations for failing to properly engage with the community in its push to call for decriminalisation of homosexuality in Commonwealth countries at the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth.

Altman also hit out at the gay press and those working in the LGBTI community sector for “a remarkable ignorance” of historical perspective.

“What strikes me is the remarkable ignorance of people, even people who work professionally in this sector, of history,” he said.

“To situate the current debates within the framework of how we got there, where we came from, the fact that there has been, over a 30-year period, ongoing tensions with governments in Australia around … the movement that is radical and wants to change larger social norms.

“History in the end becomes a way for us to understand how we got where we are, but I think equally importantly, it helps us ask questions of where we go next and are there ways of re-imagining what we do when we see it from a historical [perspective].”

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