As the increasingly heated debate over a plebiscite on marriage equality takes centre stage in Australia’s queer rights movement, leading academic in the field Dennis Altman says that while we have some way to go, it’s important to recognise the achievements already won.
“As the current debate is so centred on marriage, we tend to overlook the fact that Australia has greater legal and discrimination protection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity than most countries, including many that have same-sex marriage,” he says.
While he believes the plebiscite is a dreadful idea, Altman acknowledges that his personal reasons may put him at odds with many in the queer community exactly because he believes LGBTQIA+ Australians are powerful enough to fight back.
“It will be horrible and nasty, but that’s been true of a lot of other things and we’re strong enough to deal with that. There’s a danger in saying how awful it will be, which is that we’re not preparing ourselves to say, ‘well fuck it, we don’t really care what you say.’”
Altman’s main beef is that it goes against the basic premise of parliamentary democracy. “We have elected politicians. It is absolutely absurd that we’re going to have this extraordinarily expensive opinion poll because they’re not allowed to vote on the issue. We need a campaign to block it that actually points out why it’s an abdication of the responsibility of parliamentarians and why it’s going to be an enormous waste of time, money and resources.”
A professorial fellow in human security at La Trobe University, Altman’s 1972 book Homosexual: Oppression & Liberation is widely considered a seminal text in the field, doing for the gay liberation movement what Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970) did for feminism and Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975) did for animal rights. 12 books have followed, including The End of Homosexual?
His latest book Queer Wars, co-written with Jonathan Symons, senior lecturer in international relations at Macquarie University, explores why sexuality and gender identity have become such vexed issues both at home and internationally and sets out realistic pathways to advocate for change. He’ll discuss it and the evolution of Australia’s queer rights movement at the Melbourne Writers Festival this weekend.
The legacy of British settlement and its strong legal and social prohibition of homosexuality in Australia stood right through to the end of the 1960s, but in the following decade, the emergence of vocal gay and lesbian movements helped precipitate increasing public support for law reform. Queer Wars notes that In 1967, support for decriminalisation was as low as 22 per cent, but less than a decade later that figure had shot up to 68 per cent, reflecting a general liberalisation of attitudes in Australian society that Altman believes is linked to the country’s multiculturalism.
“By the end of the '70s, through a much more overt gay and lesbian presence, and I guess the symbol of that is Mardi Gras but obviously a whole lot of other things, Australia came to see us as another community and that fit very well with the ethos of multiculturalism,” he says. “If you look at the way in which politicians and business have attached themselves to queer rights, it’s very much using the language they use in multiculturalism. It’s about diversity, respect and equality.”
Greater acceptance was also boosted by Australia’s globally renowned approach to the HIV/AIDS crisis, driven by a progressive Labor government and community responses from already established queer organisations, Altman says, noting its lauding by Jonathan Mann, then director of the WHO's Global Programme on AIDS. “We also had some remarkable researchers, both biomed and social, who understood immediately that they needed to work with the communities.”
Of course, not everyone’s on board, with a great deal of antagonism surrounding the Safe Schools program as well as the marriage debate. “The quite extraordinary overreactions to Safe Schools and the vendetta the Murdoch press has been running are, I think, a sign that they recognise that things are changing very quickly and they are scared,” Altman says.
“The hostility is the sort that comes when there is rapid social change. People feel threatened by it and become more and more extreme because they feel they are defending something that has never been questioned. That has been true in different forms in most Western countries over the last 30-40 years. Conservatives have seized upon a fear that a lot of people will feel, because they don’t quite understand how these things are changing and the family has become the shorthand code for maintain the status quo. We’re seeing the flailing around of people who know they’re losing and can’t stand it.”
While he believes Australian embassies all over the world most likely do very good work on queer rights quietly, and rightly so, Queer Wars stresses the need for progress to be led by local communities. Noting a news report entitled, ‘Obama's 6 Gay U.S. Ambassadors Are Leading the Global Fight for LGBT Rights,’ while he commends the work done, he has issues with the triumphal way its reported.
“I can think of nothing more counter-productive than claiming that the struggle for queer rights is something being led officially by the US state department. That’s feeding into everything that people like Putin and other oppressive governments want to say, mainly that this is another form of western imperialism and I think there is a real danger of us constantly telling the world how wonderful we are and how we can lead them.”
One area where Altman argues Australia is clearly not doing enough is in our attitude towards asylum seekers. “We are currently incarcerating people offshore who are terrified for their lives because of their sexuality. It’s very worrying that the government’s rhetoric about Syrian refugees, though hardly any have actually got here despite the promises, was essentially that we don’t want single men, with no recognition at all that some of those men were actually extraordinarily vulnerable either because they were, or people thought they were, homosexual.”
Buy tickets to see Dennis Altman at the Melbourne Writers Festival here.