Excerpt: ‘Annihilation by Blandness’, by Dennis Altman


Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1939. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

At the turn of the century I became bored writing about homosexuality. Most of my writings for three decades, since my first book Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, had touched on it in some way or another, even though I had escaped along the way into several other subjects, including a coffee table book which in the language of cultural studies set out to deconstruct postage stamps. Surely, I felt, in a new century, the need to explore and uncover the depths of fear, dislike, and opprobrium of homosexuality had given way to a new normality; when discussing one’s sexuality no longer seemed a pre-eminent intellectual and emotional demand.

Of course that desire didn’t last; yes, I wrote one book, and helped co-edit another, about human security and Australian foreign policy. But the need to explain and interrogate the ways in which homosex remains central at both the personal and collective levels remained. There is a point in one’s life when one recognises that what for us is memory becomes, for younger people, history. Over the past few years I have spent considerable time with people far younger than me who are fascinated by the history of the gay and AIDS movements, and are often engaged in archival projects to recover the memories of the past several decades. Of course this is not an impulse confined to the queer world, but it seems stronger there for two interconnected reasons: firstly, there is no biological family to pass on these stories, and secondly, the deaths from AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s have hollowed out the generation who should now be reaching retirement.

One much younger friend, a leading HIV activist in Sydney, once told me he was conscious of having lost most of his fathers, meaning those men who should have been there as he came into the gay world. He is one of a number of young men—and some women—who are deeply invested in our communal history, and at the same time constantly struggling with the absence of it in any mainstream historical records. The explosion of websites devoted to a gay past suggests there is a palpable need to relive and recreate this history.

Over the past two years, during which I have had to come to terms with the death of a long term partner, much of my comfort has come from younger gay men who are able to reach across decades to provide genuine comfort and friendship. At the same time [homo]sexuality remains as politicised as ever, indeed it has now entered the international arena as a major testing point for a new cold war around individual rights versus traditional religious and political authorities; Presidents Obama and Putin have both appealed to very different understandings of sexuality in a dispute that has been the subject of increasing numbers of heated debates within international fora.

It is often assumed that the world at large accepts sexual diversity, a polite way of saying homosexuality. After all we have many gay and lesbian public figures, and there is popular, if not political support for same sex marriage. The quip that the love that cannot speak its name has become the identity that will not cease bragging about itself has become tired.

And yet… the odd reluctance to acknowledge homosexuality is still present, and often where one least suspects it. The very people who rail against religious intolerance and name-calling in professional sports themselves practise what Christopher Isherwood long ago called “annihilation by blandness”, the refusal to acknowledge that a different sexuality is central to understanding one’s life, even if it is not, necessarily, the dominant way in which we present to the world. I thought of Isherwood’s phrase when reading John Lahr’s massive study of Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Bloomsbury, 2014). The recent film, The Imitation Game, based on the life of Alan Turing, who helped create the computer as part of breaking German codes during World War II, continues this sort of annihilation. While the film is framed by Turing’s infatuation with a fellow school boy and his suicide after being chemically castrated as a result of homosexual soliciting, he is never allowed any sexual intimacy with another man.

When Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda was published I was struck by the reluctance of reviewers to discuss the sexual anxieties and desires of the central character; yes, Barracuda is a novel about class, sport and private schools, but Danny’s life makes no sense unless one ponders his sexual confusions. Almost all of the reviewers identified Danny as “gay”, but to do so is to confuse identity with behaviour and desire, and to miss the point that the world is not divided neatly, as one reviewer suggested in the rather snide comment that Tsiolkas was “writing gay for straight readers”. “I didn’t want to write a coming out novel” Christos deliberately, it seems, imagined a character who struggles to come to terms with his homosexual desires without adopting the politically correct language of a social movement. This, and not the actual descriptions of sex, is what is most subversive about Barracuda.

Does this matter? Yes, when it means the central themes of life and literature are distorted. Both gay critics—and here I use the term “gay” for both women and men—and those who are not can be guilty of omission, either out of embarrassment or because they resist “special pleading”. But in a world which assumes stable gender and heterosexuality as the norm, any artists who struggles against this norm will reflect this in their work, even if it goes unmentioned. Misogyny, as Julia Gillard said of the attacks on her as leader, does not explain everything, but it is always present. The same is true of sexuality for a homosexual artist.

This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #25. Get your copy now.

Dennis Altman, a Professorial Fellow in Human Security at LaTrobe University, is the author of 13 books, most recently The End of the Homosexual? In 2006 he was listed by The Bulletin as one of the 100 most influential Australians, and he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 2008.