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Big Thinker: Dennis Altman

by The Ethics Centre
28 September 2017
Dennis Altman (1943-present) is an internationally renowned queer theorist and Australian professor of politics. He began his intellectual career in the 1970s, a time some might describe as recent history’s height of homophobic violence and oppression.
Altman was born in Sydney to Jewish parents and grew up in Hobart. He is currently a Professorial Fellow at La Trobe University.
His influence to queer thinking and gay liberation is likened to Germaine Greer’s contributions to the women’s movement.
Much of Altman’s work explores the differences between gay radical activists who question heteronormative social structures like marriage and nuclear family, and gay equality activists who want the same access to such structures:

“Young queers today are caught up in the same dilemma that confronted the founders of the gay and lesbian movements: do we want to demonstrate that we are just like everyone else, or do we want to build alternatives to the dominant sexual and emotional patterns?”

Divided in diversity, united in oppression

Altman’s influential contribution to gay rights began with his first of many books, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation. The 1971 text has been published in several countries and is still widely read today. It is often regarded as an uncannily correct prediction of how gay rights would improve over the decades – something that would have been difficult to imagine 45 years ago or when the first Sydney Mardi Gras was met with police violence.
Altman questioned what created gay communities given they are so diverse and sexuality is only one part of a person’s identity. It was not like heterosexual communities consciously formed only on the basis people had a shared interest in the opposite sex.
In a similar vein to women’s and black civil rights advocates, Altman argued it was oppression that bound diverse people together. So even though gay communities were home to division and diversity, people shared experiences of coming out and experiences of discrimination.
Altman predicted homosexuality would become normalised and accepted over time. As oppressions ceased, and liberation was realised, sexual identities would become less important and the divisions between homosexual and heterosexual would erode.
Altman believed openly gay people would eventually come to be defined in a similar way straight people were – by characteristics other than their sexuality like their job, achievements or interests.

End of the homosexual? 

Altman’s 2013 book The End of the Homosexual? follows on from the ideas in his first. It is often described as a sequel despite the 40 years and several other publications between the two. He wrote it at a time when same-sex marriage was beginning to be legalised around the world.
Altman recently reflected on his old work and said he was wrong to believe identity would become less important as acceptance grew but right to predict being gay would not be people’s defining characteristic.
He offers Penny Wong as “the great example”. She was once the most senior female politician Australia had ever seen:
“I don’t think I could have imaged, even twenty years ago, a woman, openly lesbian, living with her partner, with a child, and … the most senior women in the Australian government”.
Altman has come across as both happy and disappointed by the normalisation of same-sex relationships. While massive reductions in violence and systemic discrimination is something you can only celebrate, Altman almost mourns the loss of the radical roots of gay liberation that formed in response to such injustices.
Without the oppressions of yesteryear, what binds diverse people into gay communities today? What distinguishes between a ‘gay lifestyle’ and a ‘straight lifestyle’ when they share so many characteristics like marriage, children and general social acceptance?
Of course, all things are still not equal today. While people in the West enjoy greater and growing safety and equality, people in countries like Russia are experiencing regressions. Altman hopes gay liberationists could have impact here.

Same-sex marriage

Unsurprisingly for someone known as a pioneer in queer theory, a field that questions dominant heterosexual social structures, Altman does not support same-sex marriage.
Some people might feel a sense of betrayal that such a well-respected gay public intellectual has not put his influence behind this campaign. But Altman’s lack of support is completely consistent with the thinking he has been sharing for decades. Like a radical women’s liberationist, he has reservations about marriage itself – whether it’s same-sex or opposite-sex.
Altman takes issue with the “assumption that there is only one way living a life” and it requires traditional marriage. He has long been concerned the positioning of wedlock as the norm forgets all the people who are not living in long term, married like relationships. Altman argues marriage isn’t even all that normal in Australia anymore with single person households growing faster than any other category.
Altman was with his spouse for 20 years until death parted them. While that may sound like a marriage, it is the role of state or Church that bothers him. He says he is very proud he was with his partner that long without the blessings of those institutions. He has expressed confusion over the popular desire to be approved by the state or religious bodies that do not want to sanction same-sex relationships.
Nevertheless, Altman recognises the importance of equal rights and understands why marriage for heterosexuals and not homosexuals is unfair. True to form he continues to question the institution itself by flipping the marriage equality argument on its head. He advocates for “the equal right not to marry”. When everyone has the equal opportunity to refuse it, marriage and all it stands for can genuinely be protested.


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