Audio Interview: Dennis Altman on the Founding and Importance of Gay Lib
Dennis Altman interviewed by Lucinda Horrocks, recorded by Wind & Sky Productions, Toorak, 27 April 2016.
CC-BY-ND-NC 3.0 This audio interview is licensed for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 Australia license. You are free to share, copy, communicate and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes so long as you give appropriate credit and make no modifications or edits to the material.Copyright
Copyright with Wind & Sky Productions.
In this audio interview Professor Dennis Altman, Sydney Gay Liberation founding member and author of the seminal work ‘Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation’, talks about his recollection of a certain event in Melbourne which prompted the formation of Melbourne Gay Lib, and expounds on the significance of the Gay Liberation movement of the early 1970s in Australia.
Lucinda Horrocks: Could you start by saying where you fit in to Melbourne Gay Lib?
Dennis Altman: Well I fit in to Melbourne Gay Lib because in 1971, at the end of 1971 I published a book called Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation and that played a role in the early days of the gay movement in Australia. And my memory which is very unreliable is that in connection with that I came down to Melbourne and apparently spoke at an early perhaps the beginning of the first Gay Liberation meeting at Melbourne University. My memory of it is much more connected with a certain person whom I then spent the night and some subsequent nights with. Actually that’s important because I think that one of the great things about the movement was it clearly was the personal, was political and that was an extremely important way in which people bonded, met each other, formed relationships that have continued to some cases even until today.
Lucinda Horrocks: So what, if you had to kind of tell a young person today what it was like to be a young person in 1971, how would you explain it?
Dennis Altman: You mean a young a young gay person?
Lucinda Horrocks: Yes, a young gay person.
Dennis Altman: A young gay person in 1971. We're talking ... Look I think that it was a time when homosexuality was still heavily seen as an illness, a sin or deviance. That was a pretty heavy burden for people to carry. It was also just the beginning of seeing depictions of homosexuals about women and men in film that weren't entirely stereotypical and unpleasant but even so the dominant view if one saw homosexuals in film or television was essentially that they came to an unhappy ending and classically they died tragically at the end.
I think the great difference was that we had to invent a world. Somebody young now who is coming to terms with their sexuality, have got a whole number of worlds that they can quite easily move into. And of course they have a huge amount of access through the sort of media that we didn't know, couldn't imagine, we didn't have the web, we didn’t even have portable phones. People now can access a whole set of images about what their lives might be like.
Lucinda Horrocks: What's your major recollection of that moment in time that you wanted to share with us today?
Dennis Altman: Look, I've got mixed recollections because for me it's all mixed up with something which for me has been essential which is to become a writer, and I've never thought of myself as an activist and insofar as I’ve been an activist is because as a writer that's given me access to certain media outlets etcetera.
I think, if I think back to the history of the movement in Australia, I remember the first ever demonstration, first ever gay demonstration in Sydney the end of 1971 when a very small group of us including some what we'd now call straight allies went down to the headquarters of the Liberal Party in downtown Sydney to demonstrate against the endorsement of a right-wing Christian as the Liberal candidate for a very safe Federal seat.
It is sort of ironic that you know more than 40 years later one could imagine a similar demonstration against the Liberal Party for endorsing a conservative Christian for a very safe seat. Of course the thing that has changed worth saying is the Liberal Party have actually in the last 6 months endorsed two openly gay men for extremely safe seats. That I think is something we couldn't have imagined back in the 1970s.
Lucinda Horrocks: You told me just before that we needed to understand the difference between a demo and a march.
Dennis Altman: Oh, well a march ... Well, I think that you know, the simple explanation is demonstration is static and the march moves. This was a demonstration, I mean there was a group of us there were photos, so my memory is quite good on this, holding balloons. I'm not quite sure why we held balloons but yeah we all stood outside the Liberal Party headquarters. Of course the famous march that has become I guess the symbol of the gay movement in Australia or the queer movement in Australia is Mardi Gras, which began as, grew out of, a whole set of events commemorating Stonewall, which had been the American beginning of Gay Liberation, and led to a march down Oxford street which is the genesis because of the history of it, became the genesis of what is now Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras in Sydney. Which I'm sure everyone watching knows is the biggest street party in Australian life and much more fun than Moomba.
Lucinda Horrocks: Sorry, I have to laugh at that yes can you ...
Dennis Altman: At this point the interviewer burst into historical laughter and was unable to continue.
Lucinda Horrocks: How does the Melbourne Gay Lib's story fit into that broader context?
Dennis Altman: I think that very quickly, from the very beginning of the 70s we saw a number of groups emerge right across the country and it's important to remember this is the period that the writer historian Donald Horne talked about, this is the time of hope. It's the period that leads up to the election of the Whitlam Government at the end of 1972. It's the period in which there had been increasing amount of social movements. Growing out of Australia the very very big Anti-Vietnam war movements and I think pretty well everybody who was part of those early queer movements had probably been politicised through the debates around Vietnam, through the beginning of the support of Indigenous rights and then most importantly of course, the new wave of Women's Liberation. It's impossible to think of Gay Liberation without also talking about Women's Liberation and the enormous impact that had.
In my case, I mean I remember very clearly, I can remember flying to the US in 1970. Those days you couldn't fly nonstop across the Pacific so we stopped in Honolulu and I bought a copy of Kate Millett’s book Sexual Politics which for me has always been the determining tome of women's liberation, though of course there were many others, and the huge upsurge in issues that really had not been talked about until the late 60s is all part of this period. For us, I think that's really important to remember that Gay Liberation always saw itself as part of a bigger radical social movement and felt a lot of empathy and connection with other radical social movements, something that I very much regret we've lost today. Of course now we have a queer movement that often is very very insular and quite uninterested in making links with other forms of social protest.
Lucinda Horrocks: What are you hoping that this story will say about that period of time or about the Gay Lib story?
Dennis Altman: I think it's important that we understand that social change comes about because people collectively start asking for it. I think that's something that every generation has to learn in its own way. I think there is always a problem with these sorts of programs of indulging in too much nostalgia which leads to what we now sometimes hear, complaints not so much I think with the queer world but more generally, that the young are not political, the young are not active, which isn't true. I think what happens is as we get older we don't necessarily recognise that the forms of activism may change. As someone who is technologically still living in the 20th century, I'm very conscious of fact that I'm probably not aware of a lot of the forms of social activism now going on.
I think there's a story, I mean I would like this story to be part of our general school curriculum, it is part of the way in which Australia has become the sort of country it is today. For me the relative successes, and I think we have been successful, of the queer movement is part of the larger story about the relative success of multiculturalism and creating an Australia in which it is accepted, that there will be a lot more diversity than there was when people at my age were growing up.
Lucinda Horrocks: What's your favourite image or photo or iconic visual from that period?
Dennis Altman: Well, when you asked me that I did immediately have this flashback to an image of four of us outside that Liberal Party headquarters in Bligh Street Sydney all holding balloons with very stupid expressions on our faces but that's not I think an iconic movement [image]. I don't know that we have an iconic image although I think that some of the images that were shown in the exhibition that this documentary's relating to could well all become iconic. I think there is something that captures the combination of personal commitment and collective action that's very powerful. I'm not sure that four rather geeky looking people standing together with balloons quite does it.
Lucinda Horrocks: Did anyone ever figure out or remember why the balloons?
Dennis Altman: I've never asked. That's what you do right? I mean I suspect somebody probably stopped at Woolworths on the way down to the CBD and bought them, you know, could have been streamers could have been, well couldn't have been firecrackers but they're illegal. Maybe they weren't then, I think balloons have visual and presume that it represent, you know, you let them go they float up into the air and they represent hope.