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Altman, Dennis (b. 1943)  
 
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For more than thirty years, Dennis Altman, a self-described "international activist-academic," has written on such topics as the United States and its politics, the gay movement, postage stamps, AIDS, the modernization of Asia, and national identity. He specializes in theories and practices of sexuality, in particular the development of the gay and lesbian movement and the globalization of sexual identities. He is also interested in the social, political, and cultural impact of the AIDS epidemic.

Gore Vidal pays tribute to Altman in the preface to a 1995 edition of The City and the Pillar (originally published in 1948), where he recounts how the book was taken from Altman at the Sydney airport in 1969: "Altman challenged the obscenity law under which the book had been seized. The judge in the case acknowledged that under the law that he must administer the book was obscene, but then, in a famous obiter dicta, he wrote that he thought the law absurd: in due course, it was changed." (Vidal is right about Altman, but the book in question was actually Myra Breckinridge.)

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Moreover, in a series of footnotes in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1983), Argentinian writer Manuel Puig cites Altman's most important work, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, as one of the first books to chronicle the gay and lesbian liberation movement. In addition, Jeffrey Weeks, a respected scholar of sexuality studies, praises Altman in his Making Sexual History (2000) for "anticipating" rather than simply recording change.

Altman is an elected member of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. In its July 4, 2006 issue, The Bulletin, Australia's oldest weekly magazine of opinion and politics, listed him as one of the 100 most influential Australians ever.

Altman lives in Melbourne with Anthony Smith, his partner since 1990.

Education

Dennis Altman was born in Sydney, Australia on August 16, 1943, to a Russian mother and Austrian father. He was educated at the Friends' School, Hobart, and received his B. A. from the University of Tasmania in 1964. Assisted by a Fulbright scholarship, he earned his M. A. in Government at Cornell University in 1966, where he discussed the Vietnam war with Hannah Arendt. (Despite his success as an academic, Altman never completed a doctorate.)

Although he came across Marx and Freud as an undergraduate, Altman did not read them in detail until after graduate school, when he also discovered their followers Antonio Gramsci and Herbert Marcuse. These seminal thinkers were to influence his subsequent work, as did the writings of gay novelists Christopher Isherwood, James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal, whom he also discovered while in graduate school.

Although he returned to Australia in 1967, in the crucial year 1970 Altman was living in San Francisco and in New York, cities that may both claim to be ground zero of the early gay liberation movement, in which he quickly became a participant.

Academic Employment

Altman has held positions at Monash University in Melbourne, Sydney University, and La Trobe University in Bundoora, where he is currently Professor of Politics. Over the years, he has chaired various academic units, including the Department of Politics, the School of Sociology, Politics & Anthropology, and the School of Social Sciences.

He also held visiting appointments at the Institut des Hautes Etudes in Paris, New York University, University of California at Santa Cruz and at San Francisco, University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, McGill University in Montreal, University of Chicago, University of Natal in South Africa, and Harvard University.

Major Publications and Professional Engagement

Altman's most important publications include Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation (1971), Coming Out in the Seventies (1979), The Homosexualization of America, The Americanization of the Homosexual (1982), AIDS in the Mind of America: The Social, Political, and Psychological Impact of a New Epidemic (1986), Global Sex (2001), Gore Vidal's America (2005), and 51st State? (2006). He is also the author of a novel, The Comfort of Men (1993), and a memoir, Defying Gravity: A Political Life (1997).

Altman's principal claim to fame rests on Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, which grew out of the intersection of his involvement in the early gay rights movement and his academic background.

A pioneering work, Homosexual was enormously influential for several reasons, but especially because of its wide range and optimistic outlook. Altman was one of the first critics to pull a lot of disparate ideas about sexual identity and liberation into a coherent argument. The book captured the spirit of the early gay liberation movement following the Stonewall riots of 1969, which Altman termed the gay world's "Boston Tea Party."

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