La Trobe Emeritus Professor Dennis Altman AM is a writer and academic, whose 1972 book Homosexual: Oppression & Liberation was a pioneer step for the gay liberation movement.
The author of thirteen books that explore sexuality, politics and their inter-relationship in Australia, the United States and now globally, Altman spoke with us about his latest release Queer Wars and his upcoming public talks on queer rights across the globe and 25 years of ARCSHS research.
Let’s start with your latest book Queer Wars, co-written with Jonathon Symons. Can you tell us how the polarisation over queer rights is becoming an issue between nations?
Until the beginning of next year at least, the current global polarisation around queer rights can be summed up in the very real clash between Obama and Putin.
The US was taking an increasingly active role in supporting queer rights globally and Russia was championing opposition in the name of protecting traditional values and culture.
As there’s been growing understanding and acceptance of sexual and gender diversity and huge changes in rich Western countries, increasingly in a number of other parts of the world authoritarian, religious and political leaders are using these issues to scapegoat and attack people.
We’re currently seeing this unfolding near Australia in Indonesia, where there have been some very nasty, homophobic rhetoric from people in the government and senior religious figures that are actually very frightening. That polarisation is increasing and I don’t see it getting better.
So, the situation is actually getting worse for queer people in some areas?
The situation for queers in many parts of the world has probably gotten worse because there’s more attention. There’s more attention because people are more aware of sexuality as an issue.
I wrote a book called Global Sex, which is really about the way in which globalisation was changing the way in which people talked and thought about sexuality. The reach of mobile phones, the internet and DVDs is such that images are available to millions of people who are getting a whole set of new perceptions and new ideas, and are often very hostile to change.
I don’t think you can say it’s worse or better, I think you can say there’s much more awareness in which there are different forms of understanding sex and gender.
Do you see the now-axed plebiscite as an example of how increased attention of the issue could have led to more negativity, in so much that many queer people didn’t want the plebiscite to go ahead because it could potentially provide a platform for hate speech?
I think there was a very legitimate fear that if you made a public debate around extending marriage to same-sex couples it would unleash extraordinary hatred.
I was cynical about that until early this year when we saw the attacks on the people running the Safe School program. We saw extraordinary, vicious threats to members of staff around the Safe School program. At that point, I thought Malcolm Turnbull is just wrong when he says Australians can have a nice, comfortable, mature debate on this.
Malcolm Turnbull should be telling some of his backbenches that they aren’t capable of a sensible, mature conversation before he lectures everybody else.
You’re giving a free public lecture as part of ARCSHS upcoming 25th anniversary. What can you tell us about La Trobe’s Australian Research Centre for Social Research into Sexuality and Health?
ARCSHS was set up in the early 1990s, originally as the Centre for the Study of Sexual Transmissable Infections. Under its two remarkable directors, Doreen Rosenthal and Marion Pitts, ARCSHS built a whole set of extraordinary links between research and the community, and pioneered research in a lot of areas.
The work around that led to the Safe Schools program. It’s important to recognise Safe Schools was picked up by state governments across Australia, it’s not just this nice little fringe element in inner Melbourne. Luckily we are in a state where the State Premier and State Government have been very, very strong in their support. I think Safe Schools is something that in time will come to be seen as a great contribution of this university.
ARCSHS also played a very significant role in developing responses to HIV in Australia, and in expanding understanding of sexuality in Australia in ways that have been taken up by a lot of government programs.
It has a new Director now, Jayne Lucke, and in my opinion it remains one of the great research strengths of La Trobe University.
You’re also speaking at the Wheeler Centre next week with La Trobe visiting Fellow, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, on queer rights across the globe. The event page asks ‘how helpful is the language of human rights for discussing the oppression of LGBT people’ and I wanted to ask you your thoughts on the language around same-sex marriage as a human right.
I doubt that same-sex marriage is a central human right for most people in the world who are sexually or gender diverse. We need to go back to the reality that in most parts of the world, people who are sexually or gender diverse face rape, murder and torture. That’s the reality.
Compared to that the right of two people to walk in matching tuxedos down the aisle of a church, really, is not very important. I think, quite frankly, the marriage equality movement in Australia has lost some sense of proportion.
It’s interesting how many people have leapt on the bandwagon (supporting same-sex marriage) but remain silent about the fact we are holding men in detention in Papua New Guinea who have fled because of their sexuality. Were they to be released in Papua New Guinea, which the government says they could be, they face huge possibilities of violence, intimidation, imprisonment and maybe death.
While I understand the passion of people who want to get married, I think sometimes a bit of humility is called for – a bit of recognition that for most people in the world this is not the most important issue.
You’ve pointed out previously that Australia, actually, has far more progressive legislation than most other countries. Is that in comparison to the countries that – we see as progressive because they – have legalised same-sex marriage?
If you compare us to the United States, the United States court ruled last year in favour of same-sex marriage. They said, under the Constitution’s Provision of Equality, individual states could not deny same-sex couples the right to get married
But the US does not have global anti-discrimination laws in the way we do. In fact, there are measures in Congress, which are now much more likely to go through, which would allow for far-reaching discrimination in ways that I think 90 per cent of Australians would be appalled by.
It would mean, for example, a doctor could refuse to treat someone because she was a lesbian. A hospital could refuse to allow someone to visit their partner in hospital.
A whole set of things in the United States have been basically dealt with through marriage, but in Australia have been dealt with through common-law and legal protection for de facto couples and anti-discrimination legislation. I think it’s a great trap to think that marriage in Australia solves everything, or indeed solves very much.
Altman will be speaking at the Wheeler Centre on Monday 28 November, and at ARCSHS Distinguished Lecture Series on Wednesday 7 December. His book Queer Wars [Polity Press] and a co-edited book with Sean Scalmer: How To Vote Progressive: Labor or Green? [Monash UP] were both published this year.