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social sciences

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Altman, Dennis (b. 1943)  
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Many gay men and lesbians of a certain age still remember how liberating they found the book and its polemical tone, as in its opening claim: "For too long homosexuals have allowed themselves to be defined by a heterosexual world which at worst persecutes and at best tolerates them." Gay liberation, Altman announced, lies in an "assertion of gayness," namely the refusal to feel guilt or shame at being homosexual.

Political and Civic Involvement

Politically a "Libertarian Socialist," Altman employs Marxist models to discuss sexual politics. Perhaps not surprisingly, he dismisses the distinction between academics and activism, consistently combining academic analysis with gay activism. He has served as a spokesman for Australia's glbtq movement and has taken part in numerous marches, demonstrations, and other political activities. Rather than use the detached tone prevalent in scholarship, Altman prefers the first-person voice in his own writing.

Sponsor Message.

Altman has worked as a consultant for the Western Pacific Regional Office of the World Health Organization. In 1991, he became a member of the founding executive of the AIDS Society for Asia and the Pacific and was its president from 2001 to 2005. He also joined the Global AIDS Policy Coalition (founded by Dr. Jonathan Mann, the original head of the Global Program on AIDS) centered at Harvard University, a group of eighteen scholars and activists from around the world "committed to tracking the evolving HIV/AIDS pandemic, critically analyzing the global response, and encouraging policy analysis and advocacy activities."

Repression and Recognition

Altman is most fundamentally concerned with repression, especially in contemporary liberal societies. In AIDS in the Mind of America (published outside the U.S. as AIDS and the New Puritanism), for example, he investigates the gay community's response to AIDS, particularly its frustration with religious, governmental, and medical institutions. He traces a trajectory from sexual promiscuity and gay liberation to the AIDS crisis to a new awareness of difference.

AIDS, Altman contends, resulted in dramatic changes: since it was a public health crisis initially affecting gay men primarily, governments were forced to deal with homosexuality; new forms of sexual expression were created; a greater stress was placed on non-sexual intimacy and affection; and the bond between gay men and lesbians was strengthened.

Altman praises the gay community's reaction to the AIDS crisis: "Only a culture as basically accepting of sex as the gay one could have developed the idea of 'safe sex' as a response to HIV, to have maintained an emphasis on sexual pleasure while trying to change people's behaviour away from risky practices, though not necessarily away from multiple partners and sexual adventure."

In The Homosexualization of America, Altman envisions a pooling of resources of gay and feminist activists: "In its way homosexuality depends upon both the blurring and strengthening of gender differences, for by defining attraction as within rather than between the sexes it throws into question all the assumptions about a 'natural' heterosexual attraction of opposites."

Queer Theory and Queer Life

Altman believes that homosexuality is constructed by social and political forces. As a result, he pays little attention to the search for a "gay gene" for, according to Altman, advocates of genetic causes for homosexuality shirk their political responsibility.

He is also skeptical of theory, declaring that "queer theory seems to me useful as an aesthetic term but has not all that much to do with everyday life or politics." He is even suspicious of theory itself: "I'm not a theorist, I have a magpie approach to theory, picking up a bit here and a bit there, putting it together in the nest. If it looks good, that's fine, it's something to be used, but it's not something to be venerated and worshipped."

Indeed, Altman prefers literature to sociology. He believes that sociology simply orders the world, but that "Literature, on the other hand, helps us understand how other people see the world, takes us into other people's understandings of their world. It also intuitively makes connections before the social sciences make them."

Generally, Altman is more concerned with queer practices than queer theory. "While it is intellectually important to constantly decentre and deconstruct assumptions about identity," he writes, "there is as much a need to construct positive myths that help create and unite communities and movements."

Australia, America, Asia

Altman has a love-hate relationship with the United States, which has been crucial in shaping his perception of the world: "the more I get to know it, the more I reject it. For all sort of classic psychological reasons I need it as an object both to hate and to love simultaneously." He is especially critical of two staples of American culture: "From the outside what is most striking about the United States is its faith in religion and the gun--and both kill."

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