A meeting of minds celebrated the 40th anniversary, and reissuing, of academic Dennis Altman’s groundbreaking book Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation in Melbourne last week.
Writer Helen Razer led the panel discussion with Altman, US feminist academic Alice Echols and UK gay historian Jeffrey Weeks at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
Reviewing Altman’s hypotheses, Weeks said he believes Altman’s notion of ‘the end of gay’ or a time when sexuality is no longer needed as an identity is still radical today.
“Each of us [has the] potential [to be] sexual in many different ways and therefore the categories we use are very narrow attempts to limit that potentiality,” Weeks said.
“Over the last 40 years, instead of living through the potentiality of all of us being polymorphic… instead of no one having an identity, everyone has an identity.
“The paradox of all that is, it shows how fragile any identity is, because in the process of creating our own identity we actually confirm that identities are fictions in a sense, like stories we tell about ourselves and each other.”
“They’re necessary fictions because without the sense of coherence that our own stories give us, and the sense of belonging to a collective narrative, we’re unable to do anything about the practical problems we face as LGBT people.”
Addressing recent comments from Sex And The City star Cynthia Nixon that she chose to be gay (Nixon later clarified that she was bisexual), Echols said the controversy is reminiscent of earlier feminist debates.
“There certainly is a fair amount of evidence out there pointing to the fact women’s sexuality tends to be more fluid,” Echols said.
“Many of us active in the Second Wave thought that in some sense … you actually wanted to tear down the category of women. Early feminists and many gays and lesbians in that period felt that way about that identity as well.
“So to find [Nixon] has been put in this position somehow because she has constructed this as choice, frankly, for many of us in gay liberation and lesbian feminism it was a choice, lesbian feminism, the sort of dominant strand of it, did construct of lesbianism as a choice in ways that befuddled a lot of women we at that point called ‘old gay’ who very much didn’t see it as a choice.”
“The feeling was your sexuality was fluid, that this was something that could change.” You could be married to a man, you could be in a women’s liberation meeting and someone would catch your eye and … you fall in love.”
Altman contended the gay movement needs to “read more Freud and take less notice of Lady Gaga”.
“Lady Gaga has a song Born This Way. That is a very attractive argument, and what Cynthia Nixon walked into was a great desire on the part of the movement, particularly in the US, to argue we are born homosexual, therefore you have to treat us equally because we can’t change,” he said.
“I fundamentally reject that view of sexuality. I think it’s a very naive, essentialist view of sexuality and I really regret that [more attention isn’t paid to] the Freudian view of sexuality … that we all are capable of a much greater range of sexual feelings than we will probably ever act upon.
“What’s really bothered me in this debate is the lack of awareness among the many activists that there even is an intellectual argument to be had.” yes we have the categories and they’re very important to us and important to our identities, but that does not mean we can get away from a complex, nuanced flexible and indeed hybridic view of sexual potential.”
Same-sex marriage was raised, Altman joked in record time, in 15, rather than the first three minutes into a discussion on gay issues.
“I support the movement for [marriage] equality and I recognise it is enormously important to a large number of people, amongst whom I am not one,” he said.
“I come out of a radical, liberationist, anarchist tradition that actually thought marriage would essentially disappear, that that idea of relationships needing to be sanctified by the church and the state was not a good thing.
“I’d feel much more comfortable were our movement be leading a challenge to rethinking the concept that eternal happiness is to be found by mimicking Kate and William and walking down the aisle.”
Echols admitted she shared Altman’s scepticism on arguments extolling the virtues of marriage as improving societal acceptance of same-sex couples.
“I too feel sceptical of having that piece of paper that [it] is really going to normalise you and is really going to transform relations with family members,” Echols said.
Weeks said he supports same-sex marriage and rejects notions supporting it is a regressive position.
“I think that moment of public recognition is of supreme importance for our long journey towards full equality… it doesn’t mean everyone has to do it,” Weeks said.
“Gay marriage, same-sex marriage in the end, fundamentally changes the notion of marriage, it is a radical step in that sense.
“It’s not an assimilation at all, it seems to me. It’s not being accepted into the status quo, it’s transforming the status quo. Marriage can never be the same again in a country where same-sex marriage is recognised, which is why the
right wing in the States is so hostile to it… therefore it seems to me a radical step, not a conservative step, to support same-sex marriage.”
INFO: Altman will speak at Mardi Gras’ Queer Thinking on Feb 25, 5pm. He will be at the Midnight Shift on Feb 16 from 6pm with Jeffrey Weeks for the relaunch of his book and to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Bookshop Darlinghurst.
Weeks will also appear at Queer Thinking on February 18 at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta from 3.30pm.