By November 26, 2021 January 11th, 2022 Newsroom, Regional, What We Do

Shivananda Khan Award for Extraordinary Achievement

Dennis Altman


I’m a gay man in his seventies who was part of the early gay liberation wave of the early 1970s and I was very active around AIDS from the mid 1980s on. I was born in Sydney to refugee parents, and I feel passionate about the need for rich countries like mine to greatly expand their intake of asylum seekers. At the age of twenty-one I went to the US to study, and since then have been back there for a total of perhaps eight years in all, including stints at Harvard, Chicago University and University of California Santa Cruz. I’ve had a number of serious relationships, as I describe in an early memoir, Defying Gravity, but my longest relationship was with Anthony Smith, who died in 2012 after we’d been together for 22 years.

Briefly let us know about your work

I am a largely retired professor of Politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, and a writer, usually about sex and politics. I’ve written fifteen books, most recently Unrequited Love: Diary of an Accidental Activist and God Save the Queen: the strange persistence of monarchies. Because I was in New York when AIDS first appeared I wrote an early book–AIDS in the Mind of America–and when I returned to Australia became very active in community organisations. I was part of the founding of both ASAP and APCASO, co-chaired the ICAAP in Melbourne in 2001 and was on the Governing Council of the International AIDS Society for eight years, often the only non-medico on that Council.

What one achievement you’ve accomplished that you’re most proud of

My first book, Homosexual : Oppression and Liberation turned forty in 2012, and it was amazing to have a conference organised around it, which in turn produced a book of reflections. I am most proud of my accomplishments as a writer, but working with local community folk in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Japan and Mexico around international AIDS Conferences has been a great privilege for a white man from Australia

What do you find most challenging about your work

I am not great at technology and the current online world can be tricky for us older folk. As an activist in the AIDS world, I found getting a serious discussion about political realities difficult; everyone acknowledges that politics are central to the response but the international discourse rarely allows space for considered analysis as against slogans. And as a writer it is always challenging to persuade people to read books.

What do you do to recharge your battery

I play tennis, which is bad for my shoulders, but enormous fun. I read a lot of bad mystery stories. And I am very dependent on classical music, which is always playing in the house; I write to music. 

What is your vulnerability and how do you overcome it

Aging is not fun; I am increasingly aware of physical vulnerabilities and do the usual things to stay healthy. As to emotional vulnerabilities, I am prone to anxiety, and I am a bad sleeper. I have great envy of those who can fall asleep anywhere at any time.

Despite the fact that the COVID-19 is still with us, what is a warm/hopeful message that you would like to share with the communities in the Asia Pacific

It’s been a long journey from that park in Delhi in 1992 where a small group of us met because the AIDS Conference had no space for homosexuals. Who then could have imagined the excitement of HERO awards in various Bangkok embassies? I look forward to being there in person next year, if everything opens up post-COVID. It’s easy to point to growing repression and authoritarianism across our part of the world, but the extraordinary courage and resilience of queer people is an ongoing inspiration 

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