Having just finished Dennis Altman’s 1997 memoir, Defying Gravity: A Political Life, I was reminded of one of the very first books I read as I was coming out.
I was twenty years old, working at Books, Inc. at Town and Country Village, a suburban shopping mall in San Jose. I was excited to be working directly across the street from the Winchester Mystery House, which had completely intrigued me when I first visited with my family around 1960. Today, not only the bookstore but the entire shopping center is gone, replaced by ubiquitous high rises. The Mystery House has not only endured, but is likely to get yet another lease on life with a forthcoming biopic with Helen Mirren portraying the enigmatic Sarah Winchester.
But I digress. Barely out and trying to find my way as a gay man, I was not even 21 so couldn’t (legally) get into bars. I somehow found Altman’s Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, published in 1971. I temporarily “borrowed” it, surreptitiously sliding it off the shelf and into my backpack. I wasn’t ready to come out to my colleagues by actually buying it. I read it gingerly, then a few days later slipped it back into place. The book changed my life, my way of thinking, gave me a road map. Led me to other books, including the 1972 anthology Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, edited by Karla Jay Allen Young. Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. Impressed upon me the power of literature, fiction and nonfiction. Perhaps even steered me to my career as a queer librarian, reviewing books for Library Journal, perhaps influencing library acquisitions across the country. I’d like to think Altman would approve: “Activism takes many forms and since my apprenticeship in underground politics I have come to enjoy certain forms of political activity ‘within the system’.”
Now, 45 years later, I am again communing with Altman. The San Francisco Public Library didn’t hold a copy of the 20-year-old book, nor was it available through Link+, so I requested it through Interlibrary Loan. Who was in charge of acquisitions for gay and lesbian titles in 1997, I’d like to know! Oh, wait, it was me! Apparently, as an Australian imprint, it was not on my radar.
I was surprised to learn that Altman, nine years my senior, is Jewish and grew up in Tasmania. Who knew? I also didn’t know in 1972 that I could claim a Jewish identity, a fact that remained unrevealed until ten years ago. Altman’s sojourns in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Paris parallel some of the people and places I myself visited, perhaps at the same time. How is it that a man who doesn’t know of my existence has so greatly influenced my life? Such is the power of books. Thank you, Dennis.