Gary Dowsett responds to Dennis Altman

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

Dennis Altman’s ‘On Global Queering’ is yet another one of those pieces where this writer’s uncanny feel for something new, something emergent, reveals itself. Altman has been working in South-east Asia for some time now in his HIV/AIDS community work and in researching emerging gay identities and communities in the region. In launching off from the Economist’s recent liberal call for tolerance of gay people (in the light of the very ordinariness of many gay people and their definite potential as a market for consumer goods and services), Altman notes the pervasiveness of the North American (read US) model of gayness and investigates some aspects of its appropriation through the post-industrial and, more interestingly, industrialising world. Echoing his earlier book title, the Americanisation of the Homosexual, Altman charts some of the significance of gay liberation ideology, politics and practice in the last thirty years.

There is much to agree with here, and I’d note the challenge to gender and the Foucauldian imperatives of HIV/AIDS as two such useful contributions. I am less convinced than Altman (or Jackson, for that matter) that the process of the ‘gaying’ (definitely not the ‘queering’) of Asia, for example, is so unproblematic. Neither the political economy model nor the cultural accommodation model (both are convergent frameworks) necessarily recognises the tensions I’ve seen in emerging gay identities in my (admittedly less intense) experience in that region.

There are also some concerns about long-uttered tropes, repeated in this piece, that need to be rethought. The problematic effects (which I have also written about) of professionalisation in HIV/AIDS have long been canvassed, but to my knowledge there is little detailed research on the process and consequences of such professionalisation. It’s just not fair to dump on HIV/AIDS workers — “self-promotion and career building” — in throw-away lines, when the exact same slur can be cast on HIV/AIDS academics (myself included here) flying-off around the world doing likewise. This is a more complex issue and one that deserves serious attention.

The old tried-and-true journalistic trick of slagging postmodern theorists for their impenetrable language and lack of politics just doesn’t wash any more. There are too many theorists writing now with postmodernism within their framework who are clear, expressive and politically committed: e.g., Cindy Patton, Simon Watney, Diane Fuss, Michael Hurley, Rosemary Pringle, to name a few. Eve Sedgwick herself is a case in point: her first book, Between Men, where the thesis on homosociality is spelled out; the later Tendencies, a collection of essays, and Fat Art, Thin Art, her poems, are wonderfully lucid and accessible. And her political commitment to gay men, HIV/AIDS, and feminism is undimmed by her attraction to queer.

The density of Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet is granted, but the debt it owes gay liberation is direct and clear: Sedgwick’s argument on a universalising vision of homosexuality draws on the earliest and strongest challenge of gay liberation to all sexuality, and stands in stark contrast to those who configure gay men and lesbians as minorities (akin to ethnic groups). This minoritarian stance is a major error in a kind of liberal politics that ultimately marginalises gay and lesbian communities and focuses on civil rights agendas at the expense of the larger question of human sexual liberation.

Of more interest is the fact that ‘queer’ has had less impact in Britain than the US and very little impact in Australia (outside a few fiction writers, student politics and a few feral academics). This may reflect the dispersed nature of our gay and lesbian intelligentsia and the smallness of our numbers. It may also reflect the disciplinary frameworks that have dominated in the Australian political context and the mammoth diversion of effort into, and loss of life involved with, HIV/AIDS. Whatever the cause, ‘queer’ doesn’t equal postmodernism and its impact on intellectual and political work; the latter seems to have borrowed much and might do well to engage with the ideas rather than whinge about the polysyllables. These are not strong complaints about Dennis Altman’s piece, but pleas for more even-handed and less off-hand approaches to some of the issues he canvasses in this article. Whatever else Altman has done, with his excellent eye for a new story he has alerted us to an emerging area of great interest and one to which we should pay more attention. Watch this space!

Gary Dowsett is in the sociology department of Macquarie University.

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