A Response from David Halperin to Dennis Altman

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This is a response to Dennis Altman’s article On Global Queering.

As someone who only last month completed a permanent move from the United States to Australia, and who is still flushed with pleasure at the happy effects that ‘globalisation’ has produced in his own life, I was naturally a bit chagrined to find myself implicitly classed by Dennis Altman, in his recent essay ‘On Global Queering’, with Disney and McDonald’s among the less desirable American ‘exports’ to Australia–branded, in effect, a kind of intellectual junk food. Professor Altman winds up an otherwise sage and percipient survey of the contemporary global scene by railing against the influence of American gay studies in general and so-called ‘queer theory’ in particular, which he treats as part of a sinister global tide of capitalist expansion, reactionary social trends, and American cultural imperialism.

Despite the fact that his pioneering first book, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, was originally published in New York in 1971, and notwithstanding his later preoccupations with The Homosexualization of America, The Americanization of the Homosexual (1982) and AIDS in the Mind of America (1986), Professor Altman evidently wishes now to stem this tide of American ‘exports’–just at the moment when the Federal Government’s

proposed changes to immigration regulations may soon make it much harder for lesbians and gay men from overseas who are the partners of Australian residents to live here permanently1–and to teach ‘queer theory’ a bracing lesson in political economy and the history of gay liberation.

Thisis not the first time Professor Altman has chosen to make a public example

of me2, but since he and I are now part of the same national university system I feel, for the first time, a particular obligation to my colleagues and students to respond.

I certainly agree that the United States is no model for the rest of the world, what with its ceaseless hysteria over sex and its almost genocidal treatment of sexual dissidents–although the extraordinary, if intermittent, vibrancy of lesbian/gay sub-cultures in the US represents a valuable by-product of the social and political mobilisation which such a hostile environment necessitates. And in Saint Foucault I complained at length about the potentially reactionary dimensions of queer identity politics (Professor Altman, incidentally, is better at administering political lessons than critical ones: anyone who can discover no ‘apparent irony’ in the title of my book really should retire from the irony-detecting business). Ironically enough, it is the very distinction Professor Altman draws between two generations of lesbian/gay studies scholars–the first movement-based and activist, the second allegedly careerist and apolitical–which needs to be exposed as an American export: it derives

from a hasty, ill-considered 1990 polemic by Jeffrey Escoffier, then editor of the San Francisco-based Out/Look, and even its author no longer stands by everything he wrote in it.

Professor Altman may be tempted to see in the newly-fashionable ‘queer studies’ the symptom of a dangerous tendency on the part of American academics to repudiate the gay liberation movement or to abandon politics in favour of worshipping ‘postmodern gurus’, but the New Right in the US has not been similarly deceived: witness the carefully orchestrated, almost decade-long attack on American universities by the right-wing think tanks, the media, and the Congress. Indeed, it is an indication of the very strength of this reactionary ‘New Consensus’, which unites old-fashioned Marxists with cultural conservatives in a demagogic campaign to discredit the varieties of radical critique emanating from the current practice of literary and cultural theory, that it can recruit to its cause, however ambivalently, the likes of Dennis Altman.

Let there be no mistake about it: lesbian and gay studies, as it is currently practised in the US, expresses an uncompromising political militancy. Indeed, nothing short of political militancy suffices to establish such courses of study in the first place. The emergence of lesbian and gay studies has brought about a far-reaching intellectual transformation in the disciplines of the humanities, arts, and social sciences as well as in the social life of American universities and in the professional culture of American academe. More specifically, it has produced a multiplication of subjects, courses, administrative units,

panels, conferences, and political caucuses inside the various professional associations and learned societies. Lesbian and gay studies scholars have been active in a vast spectrum of undertakings which even a professed pre-postmodernist like Dennis Altman might deem political: we have lobbied universities and professional associations to adopt and enforce anti-discrimination policies, to recognise same-sex couples, to oppose the

US military’s anti-gay policy, to suspend professional activities in states that criminalise gay sex or limit access to abortion, and to intervene on behalf of human rights for lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men at the local and national levels. And among our most effective and energetic leaders in these struggles have been the biggest names in lesbian and gay studies: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Lee Edelman, Diana Fuss, George Chauncey. (Even I,

apolitical cretin that I am, received a Community Award from the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights in Boston as well as the Michael Lynch Service Award from the Gay and Lesbian Caucus of the Modern Language Association, in recognition of my political work.)

Professor Altman’s claim that current work in lesbian/gay studies is divorced from the larger political movement is simply uninformed. It cannot account for the example set by such major figures in the field as Douglas Crimp, Carole Vance, John D’Emilio, Gayle Rubin, George Chauncey, Michael Warner, Lisa Duggan, Henry Abelove, and the late Jack Winkler, scholars of different ages all of whom have had significant activist careers both inside and outside the academy. Professor Altman grants exemptions from his generalisation about the ‘second generation’ of lesbian/gay studies scholars only to Simon Watney, Cindy Patton, and Gary Dowsett, whose indispensable work has revolved around HIV/AIDS and who, he acknowledges, ‘carried on’ the tradition of movement-based activism into the inhospitable era of ‘queer theory’: but what does he make of the close degree of collaboration between, say, Cindy Patton and Eve Sedgwick, herself the founding member of a local chapter of ACT UP in Jesse Helms’s home state of North Carolina?

Professor Altman maintains that The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader contains no discussion of politics, but how then does he categorise the contributions of the aforementioned Simon Watney and Cindy Patton–or the volume’s opening article, ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality’ by Gayle Rubin, an activist, movement-based scholar if there ever was one? Does Adrienne Rich’s ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, also included in the collection, ignore the lesbian/gay movement? Does Stuart Hall’s 1974 essay on ‘Deviance, Politics and the

Media’ despise ‘politics understood in the mainstream sense of institutions, elections, organisations and lobbying’? (In fact, Hall provides a powerful argument against limiting our formulations of ‘politics’ to that ‘mainstream sense’, especially when it comes to the politics of deviance.)

The fact is that lesbian and gay studies simply is the academic wing of the lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender movement. As I wrote in the Introduction to The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader –and no one in the field has ever (to my knowledge at least) contested this–lesbian/gay studies ‘intends to establish the analytical centrality of sex and sexuality

within many different fields of inquiry, to express and advance the interests of lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men, and to contribute culturallyand intellectually to the contemporary lesbian/gay movement. . . .Lesbian/gay studies has an oppositional design. It is informed by thesocial struggle for the sexual liberation, the personal freedom, dignity, equality, and human rights of lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men; it is also informed by resistance to homophobia and heterosexism–by political and cultural opposition to the ideological and institutional practices of heterosexual privilege. Lesbian/gay studies necessarily straddles

scholarship and politics. . . .’3 It would be hard to be more explicit than that.

Of course there remains much to worry about in the current hegemony of ‘queer theory’–not least that its institutionalisation, its consolidation into an academic discipline, constitutes a betrayal of its radical origins. Coined in 1990 by Teresa de Lauretis for the title of a conference at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the phrase ‘queer theory’ was originally intended to be scandalously offensive. Its immediate purpose was to disturb the complacency embodied by the rubric ‘lesbian and gay studies’

that ‘by now established and often convenient formula’, as de Lauretis called it), which managed to give the misleading impression that the relation of lesbian to gay topics in the field was well defined, equally balanced, reciprocal, and somehow harmonious both intellectually and politically. Instead, de Lauretis hoped (as her opening remarks at the

conference made clear), both to make theory queer, and to queer theory to call attention to everything that is perverse about the project of theorising sexual desire and sexual pleasure. She also wished (among other things) to introduce a problematic of multiple differences into what had tended to be a comparatively monolithic, homogenizing discourse of (homo)sexual difference, to offer a way out of the hegemony of white, male,

middle-class models of analysis, and to resist intellectual domination by the empirical social sciences.4

Almost instantly, however, ‘queer theory’ became Queer Theory, the label of a determinate sub-field of academic practice, initially designating the branch of lesbian and gay studies that conducted its work in the register of critical theory, and coming ultimately to stand in for the entire field of lesbian and gay studies itself. Even the scandalous term ‘queer’ became

respectable through its association with ‘theory’–respectable enough, at least, to appear i advertisements for academic jobs (including the one I currently hold at UNSW), where it provides a merciful exemption from the inescapably referential terms ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ (not to mention ‘bisexual’ and ‘transgender’). Once conjoined with ‘theory,’ then, ‘queer’ loses its offensive, vilifying tonality and subsides into a harmless generic qualifier, designating one of the multiple departments of academic theory.

Queer Theory thus provides a means whereby lesbian and gay studies can be sexually despecified, and merged into the ‘larger’ practice of critical theory, which can then be folded back into the standard practice of literary studies, without impeding academic business-as-usual. Far from posing a radical challenge to current modes of thought, queer theory is in the process of becoming a game the whole family can play.

These developments need to be intelligently examined and confronted, with political will as well as political generosity. It will be crucial for the growth of lesbian and gay studies in Australia that students and researchers here not show undeserved deference to the theory-heavy, empirically-undernourished work that seems to be produced in great quantity these days overseas. In calling our attention to the limitations and dangers of such work, to its narrow scope, to its neglect of history, anthropology, sociology, and political economy, and in urging upon us the corresponding need for wider learning and a more global focus, Dennis Altman is performing a vitally important service. I hope his summons will be taken seriously without lending the appearance of substance to what is a caricature of queer studies and without encouraging the politically divisive us-versus-them rhetoric in which his critique is couched.


1. See Peter Weekes, ‘Govt plan slashes gay immigration’, Capital Q, 197 (Friday 12 July 1996), pp. 1, 7.

2. See, for example, Dennis Altman, ‘Querying Gender’, Arena Magazine, October-November 1995, pp. 48-52.

3. See Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin, eds.,The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. xvi.

4. See Teresa de Lauretis, ‘Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities. An Introduction’, differences, 3.2 (1991), pp. iii-xviii, esp. iii-xi, with my discussion in Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 113.

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