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Longtime scholar and activist Dennis Altman begins his book talking about change. How and why “change” happens are points of conjecture, but one thing that Altman is all too sure of is that “change often occurs at a number of levels simultaneously, and is often contradictory and uneven” and that is the point. In The End of the Homosexual?, Altman connects the old with the new and accounts for the pain and struggle that the LGBT movement has had in connecting to the proverbial “family-tree” version of queer history, while maintaining what is truly unique about the community as a whole–its constantly changing and evolving nature.
A pop culture re-telling of both American and Australian LGBT histories, Altman draws connections to and away from what makes the LGBT community in America and Australia different from each while engaging with the unique struggles each have faced. For Altman, the homosexual is both a byproduct of history and an active agent its creation. While there is no one homosexual for Altman, the end of the homosexual begins when individual and communal expressions of identity that have played a significant role in the production of LGBT history are forgotten by new generations and replaced by, for example, hookup applications and pop culture obsession. Stemming from the last chapter of Altman’s first book, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, the coinage of the phrase “the end of the homosexual” doesn’t have to do with the end of LGBT identity but the fulfillment of a utopian promise of a populous where sexual diversity is commonplace and acceptance is the standard. While Altman notes that the LGBT community has come a long way from pop culture obsessions with shows such as Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and moved onto a more cohesive and communal political engagements such as the fight for marriage equality, adoption rights, and global HIV/AIDS awareness, the fight to remember the homosexual and the struggles the LGBT community, regardless of identity politics, faced in order for the gay rights movement to succeed and thrive in new environments, is still left unexplored by newer generations of LGBT activists.
Reading like a memoir, Altman expands upon the erasure of entire generations of gay men from history as a result of the HIV/AIDS crisis and comments on the growing differences between gay men and lesbian women in a time where priorities diverged and communities grew apart. While his book concentrates mostly on gay men, his commentary on the sexual and gendered divide in the LGBT community is both rooted in fact and through his own personal experiences. While gay men were dealing with and charting through a major health crisis already charted by “women’s (and lesbian) health movement of the 1970s,” The realization of different needs and wants between different sexual identities became more divided as time ran on and furthered the divide that still exists in the LGBT community today. Altman notes, “while gay men were dealing with the complications of safe sex and HIV infection, many lesbians were fighting for access to reproductive technologies that would allow them to bear and raise children.”
Persistent in his approach towards the over arching thesis of the end of the homosexual and what it means for not only identity politics but also lived experiences, Altman raises awareness for his younger readers who many not be as connected to LGBT history and more importantly have little interest in it. Having been present for many difficult conversations revolving around the gendered and sexual divisions in the LGBT community, Altman symbolizes the growing need to reconnect with history in order to protect the struggle individuals underwent and to indemnify the new forms of activism that resulted in the face of death brought on by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
While the plague that is HIV/AIDS still rages on across the world, its impact on gay activists in the late 1970s and 1980s created newer generations of people fighting not only in the streets, but now also in positions of power within large community bodies, governmental position, corporate board rooms, non-profits, and international agencies. While younger generations of LGBT individuals may not have lived through the same dark times that older generations did, they have directly benefited from the lives they fought for and the deaths they both overcame and succumbed to. Although younger generations now see gay men and lesbian women in positions of power, a disconnect still exists between the reality of how these members of the LGBT community got to these levels of power and influence. Nobody remembers the history of how gay men and lesbian women got into these positions and that is not only the problem but also the driving force towards the axiomatic end of the homosexual. If members of the LGBT community start forgetting our shared experiences and histories, we are surely doomed to fail and the end of the homosexual won’t seem like a far off possibility anymore but rather one that is on our proverbial doorstep. Although gay nostalgia may glorify the past, the act of remembering is critical to maintaining a sense of vigilance that protects the LGBT community from the destructive and haunting forces of the past while creating newer and even stronger LGBT communities and activists.
The genius behind Altman’s book is its exploration into how close we came to actually experiencing the end of the homosexual as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Concisely described by singer Michael Callen that “Every time [he] threw [his] legs into the air it was a blow for sexual freedom [and] now [he] is dying from it,” Altman’s exploration into how HIV/AIDS both affected the Australian and American LGBT community stresses the freedom the sex both offered too the gay male community and the pain and literal death it could cause a result. Exploring the various ways in which gay bodies were and continue to be policed in some American states and countries around the world, the actual act of sex was both seen as a liberating force and one that tied the gay male community together throughout history. Although the individuals that were killed by the HIV/AIDS epidemic still remain very alive our memories, it was the near erasure of generations of historical storytellers that almost caused the end of the homosexual as we know it. As Altman shows, without history there is no story and without a story there is no way to experience the vast histories of our communities that tie us together no matter how we identify.
Expressed by performance artist Tim Miller in the beginning of Altman’s book, Miller’s metaphorical sexual ancestry stresses the importance of intimacy between men while encapsulating the sexual history that both ties gay men to a long lineage of queers who have come before: “in my history of tongues, I had sex with David Roman, who had sex with Allen Ginsberg, who had sex with Neal Cassidy. Who had sex with Gavin Arthur, who had sex with Edward Carpenter, who had sex with Walt Whitman: Daddy of our American tongue.” Gay men are connected through sex and it in the sexual awakening where the idea of the end of homosexual doesn’t exist but is rather reborn through of process of self-exploration and discovery that leads younger generations of LGBT individuals not to just a history of struggle but to one of perseverance.
The End of the Homosexual?
By Dennis Altman
University of Queensland Press
Paperback, 9780702249815, 256 pp.