For all the many places that Dennis Altman’s writing, teaching and activism have taken him in his life, it’s perfect that his first published book was hatched from his residency as a Fullbright fellow at Cornell University in upstate New York and focused heavily on gay life and culture in the U.S. during the 1960s. From the very beginning of his career as a writer, Dennis insisted on connecting the dots between social life and academic theory, American culture and the world beyond, and (well-trained feminist that he is) the personal and the political.
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.
Meanwhile, gay presence is all over the map of today’s popular culture. Theater, film, television, video, and pop music have become terrific conduits for learning about, trying on, establishing, enhancing, exploring, critiquing, and transcending gay and gender-queer identities. I have been able to form a thriving journalistic career specializing in gay theater. My online archive of theater articles is stuffed with profiles of openly gay artists from A (legendary playwright
Edward Albee) to Z (inventive designer
David Zinn). My thirty years of theater reviews cover everything from
Angels in America
(the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” by Tony Kushner, one of the few 1960s-style public intellectuals in the U.S. today) to
Zulu Time (a collectively created theater piece staged by gay Quebecois film-opera-theater director Robert Lepage).
We have many artists and activists to thank for paving every mile of the road to this outpouring of gay culture. Gay liberation grew up with the counterculture and the alternative press.
The Village Voice led the way. Critical mass built incrementally until mainstream culture could not ignore disco music, Boy George, Madonna, Elton John, the AIDS epidemic, Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres, Dan Savage, Rufus Wainwright, and
Glee. For better and for worse, the World Wide Web gave us access to free porn, YouTube, and social networking.
When I flip through this week’s issue of New York, I note that there are six Broadway shows and five big-time Off-Broadway shows with substantial gay content currently running, from a satirical musical about Christian missionaries in Uganda
(The Book of
Mormon) to adaptations of movies about drag queens (Priscilla, Queen of the
Desert) and young ballet dancers (Billy Elliott) to acclaimed dramas about feuding Jewish families (Nicky Silver’s
The Lyons) and Lebanese descendants of Kahlil Gibran (Stephen Karam’s
Sons of the Prophet). Any night of the week in New York City, one can partake of high-quality mainstream art related to contemporary gay experience. It’s equally possible to encounter strong gay artwork that rejects everything about mainstream culture any day or night of the week in New York City. The same may not be said of every major city in the world, and certainly not of every small town – but the internet supplies a lifeline to this teeming mass of culture that has come into existence after
Almost exactly ten years after the book was published, I was introduced to Dennis by our mutual friend Doug Ireland in the funky offices of the
Soho Weekly News, where I worked as theater editor (my first job in New York). I believe it was summertime, and for some reason he had a flower stuck ironically behind one ear. That means we’ve known each other for 30 years now. We’ve only had sex once or twice, but we’ve shared many meals and steamy conversations in several cities on at least three continents. We’ve seen and disagreed about any number of plays over the years. And I’ve been delighted to save up used postage stamps and add them to the collection that is one of Dennis’s many charming, quirky passions. I am fortunate that Dennis has become a personal friend. But he will always remain what he first was to me – a culture hero.
Published in After Homosexual: The Legacies of Gay
Liberation, edited by Carolyn D'Cruz and Mark Pendleton, University of Western Australia Publishing, 2013.