Australian writer, activist, scholar, and educator Dennis Altman (above) wrote one of the first theoretical overviews of gay culture, the groundbreaking book-length essay Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, first published in 1972. On the 40th anniversary of its publication, some of his colleagues at La Trobe University in Melbourne organized a conference to commemorate and chart the influence of Altman’s work. Carolyn D’Cruz and Mark Pendleton compiled an anthology of papers, essays, memoirs, and archival material into a volume called After Homosexual: The Legacies of Gay Liberation. The list of distinguished contributors includes Jeffrey Weeks, Karla Jay, Steven Dansky, Sarah Schulman, and Alice Echols (who is, among other things, the Barbara Streisand Professor of Contemporary Gender Studies at the University of Southern California), along with Australian academics new to me. I was pleased to be asked to contribute something to the conference and doubly pleased that my brief personal essay is included in the anthology, which came out late last year. Here’s how my piece begins:
To consider Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of its publication meant, for me, getting out the stepladder and climbing to the upper left-hand corner of my floor-to-(high-)ceiling bookcase, rummaging through the As and descending with a dusty, creased copy of the Discus/Avon paperback still containing a matchstick as bookmark. Contemplating the single stark word emblazoned across the cover triggers a flashback to my adolescence. I’m ten years younger than Dennis, so while he was writing the book, I was attending high school in rural New Jersey near the Air Force base where my family lived. In those days, looking up the word “homosexual” in the dictionary was the only place a gay kid like me could find his existence verified. Just seeing the word in print was as arousing to me as pornography, which was virtually non-existent or at least unavailable to me then except in the mild heterosexist form of Playboy on the magazine rack in certain convenience stores.
Suddenly, in 1971, there it was, a book out in the world with That Word as the title. I didn’t acquire a copy until two years later, when it came out in paperback just as I was coming out in my third year of college in Boston, which was then a hotbed of gay liberation and countercultural thinking. Dennis’s book was among the first of what became a stream and then a deluge of gay writings that I hungrily devoured in my development as a baby gay scholar, cultural commentator, and pleasure activist.
Dipping back into it now, I’m fascinated to be reminded of the things that were important then. (As I write this, the cover story of New York magazine chronicles the history of Ms. Magazine, which was launched the same year Homosexual was published, and it churns up a related stew of sociopolitical and cultural references.) Charles Reich’s The Greening of America! Eldridge Cleaver! Norman Mailer! (“Without guilt, sex was meaningless.” Really?) Dennis’s discussion of popular culture (“The New Consciousness and Homosexuality”) seems so quaint now. When he started writing, gay life was something glimpsed only rarely among the fields of pop music and theater, like four-leaf clovers. Homosexuality found its highest visibility in literature. Those writers brave, savvy, talented, and free enough to address gay experience directly in their work were well-known, countable on two hands, and thoroughly familiar to gay readers with any interest. I’m intrigued to see how much weight Dennis gave to Paul Goodman and Allen Ginsberg as public gay literary figures. These artists, thinkers, and activists were indeed pioneers in their time and they remain admired and admirable historical figures, but my impression is that they are almost completely unknown to the vast majority of gay Americans younger than 40.