From Anthropomorphism to Apollo
– outgrowing ancient myths, creating new ones.
“LIFT-OFF! We have a lift-off, 32 minutes past the hour. Lift-off on Apollo 11.” – NASA Public Affairs Officer Jack King utters the first words to confirm lift-off.
On the 52nd anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 towards the Moon, it seems an appropriate time to pause and reflect upon the philosophical questions posed by that scientific achievement. The story of the Apollo missions is the stuff of modern legend – and is destined to become modern mythology. Perhaps it is no surprise that even as the Apollo missions were preparing to land men on the Moon, the archetypical astronaut was being conflated with pop mythology comprising gods and celestial beings, courtesy of Erich von Daniken.
Taking this idea of prosthesis and osmosis one step further, it is possible to understand that the space age has transformed us – and is still doing so, upgrading humanity one mobile phone at a time. Our ever-accelerating hardware and software updates mean that we have become humans with different capabilities and expectations than our parents during the Apollo Moon missions. It is hard to remember the world before the Internet, before ubiquitous mobile phones and streaming and tablets and wifi transformed us into a species that is closer to a lived experience of the ‘global village’ than any other in history. This merging of humanity with heroic high-tech might be the next step in our evolution from organic to something more. Such change is something to be celebrated and not feared:
“Asked if he felt the pervasive spread of technology was beginning to dehumanise us, [Arthur C] Clarke replied, “No, I think it’s superhumanising us.” “ (Benson, 2018, 432)
This evolution may even extend from the human to the posthuman. Francesca Ferrando suggests with some qualification that:
“Etymologically, the term “human” comes from the Latin term “humus” meaning “soil”, which, in our solar system, is only present on Earth. We can thus see migrating to space as the linguistic and semiotic step towards the literal creation of post-humans…”
Thus we may be evolving into the beings that we currently imagine in our dreams and myths: better, stronger, faster. Arthur C Clarke asserts in his Third Law that, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ and maybe we get a glimpse of this advancement when we ponder our futuristic posthuman societies scattered across the solar system. Perhaps we are in the process of becoming our mythological heroes.
Hit and Myth
My introduction to science and myth-making came via two avenues: the first being the flying saucer craze of the 1970s (which really excited a teenager who had been inspired by the space program) until I began to realise – as I came of age – that the science and critical thinking in these conspiracy theories was abysmal. I later came to understand a fundamental truth about the UFO craze as explained by Alexander Geppert (2012, 335):
“Seldom can historians observe the making of a ‘modern myth’ in real time, over the course of several decades; the emergence of the UFO phenomenon immediately after the Second World War constitutes such a case.‘.
My faith in UFOs began to decline along with my wishful thinking about Chariots of the Gods and the possible circumstances surrounding the tragic disappearance of Fred Valentich as a local case of alleged alien intervention. Even as a callow youth, I could see that UFOlogy was more wishful thinking than scientific investigation. I was maturing into a youth who esteemed critical thinking and scientific evidence over excitement and superstition. If only the rest of the world could do the same!
My second introduction to science and mythopoeia came via a humble pulp magazine that was on sale in my local newsagents in 1979. I was attracted to the front cover and content of a magazine that proclaimed; “SCI FI – Religion of the 80’s”. Inside, Christian evangelist Mal Garvin proclaimed:
“We believe that science fiction is replacing some of the functions of religion. Though it may be doing it for the wrong reason.” (Garvin, 1979, 24.)
In that same issue, the Superman story was conflated with Biblical figures (ibid, 37 – 40). Even then, as a tender young teen, I sensed that this conflation of science and myth was somehow intended to lend scientific credibility to mythical/religious archetypes instead of acknowledging the grandeur to be found in science. If anyone was using the wrong reason to conflate science and religion, it was not the scientists.
Utopia, Dystopia, Mythopoeia
It is perhaps in human nature to construct a whole pantheon of mythologies, spanning from past and present into the future. As children, we seek role models in order to learn by imitation. As adults, although we have outgrown the need for imitation, we retain the instinct and use it to construct mythologies, religions and archetypes in order to personify what ideals we would seek to emulate or take as a warning of our fears. JRR Tolkein spoke of this myth-making in his poem Mythopoeia:
“He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued.”
Star Wars creator George Lucas created a breathtakingly successful franchise by borrowing extensively from other science fiction stories or literary tropes – including Flash Gordon, Dune, Lord of the Rings, Yojimbo, Gone with the Wind, and ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensmen – and creating modern mythology which will undoubtedly echo our culture in the annals of history as much as the legend of Troy documents the culture of ancient Greece.
“Science gives us far more accurate answers to our questions than ever before. But we’re still dependent on myths to actually comprehend the science. The multi-dimensional expansion of energy, space and time we call the Big Bang wasn’t literally a bang any more than God saying “Let there be light” was literally how the universe was created. They’re both mythic ideas that point at an actual truth our mammalian minds aren’t equipped to grasp.”
Such a conflation can be awe inspiring as we discover the glories of science. But David Ludden Ph.D. warns us that this conflation of science and mythology has its potential dangers, including the rise of conspiracy theories that undermine public confidence in science:
“Because conspiracy theories sow the seeds of distrust in our governmental and social institutions, they can have a destabilizing impact on politics and society.”
Whether 5G, COVID (or other) vaccines, HIV/AIDS denialism, climate catastrophe, Moon landing hoaxes, September 11, lizard aliens… and probably a thousand other conspiracies… Ludden suggests that such theories express the desire for understanding and certainty, control and security – particularly among those who do not understand modern science or who might feel threatened by the modern world. I would suggest that such theories also promote the false equivalence of expertise versus ignorance – a favourite among religious fundamentalists – where uneducated and unqualified people believe that their ignorance is equal to the knowledge of world experts. Conspiracy theorists want to bypass years of hard study and academic rigour, and declare themselves as being equal to Stephen Hawking, Anthony Fauci or Katherine Johnson. This is a rather astonishing act of laziness, arrogance and hubris. Do you want to know about the COVID vaccine? Go ask your doctor – YouTube is not a university; and Facebook is not a scholarly source. Do you want to determine if climate change is real? Don’t take my word for it – ask a climate scientist, not your fundamentalist pastor who relies solely on a Bronze Age prescientific book as his sole source of information.
Barry Vacker warns us that the conflation of science with mythopoeia is filled with the danger of these human frailties:
“The Apollo missions, 2001, and the original Star Trek TV series blasted us into a sublime future with the opportunity to build a unified planetary civilization, but we rejected it because we were unwilling to accept that we are a single species inhabiting a watery rock orbiting a flaming ball of hydrogen in an infinite universe. Apollo and Hubble forced us to confront cosmic nihilism, or the fact that there is no obvious meaning to human existence in a godless universe. Via Apollo, we’ve walked on the 4.5 billion-year-old moon, and via the Hubble Space Telescope, we’ve peered across 13.7 billion years of space-time — and there is not a Creator in sight. As Nietzsche famously said long before Apollo and Hubble: “God is dead.” But most everyone can’t accept it. Apollo’s photos of Earth from space and the Hubble Deep Field images have obliterated the rationales supporting the dominant narratives (theology, nationalism, and tribalism) we use to explain our origins, meaning, and destiny. Yet our species remains in utter denial.
We humans apparently can’t handle the paradoxical meaning of our greatest scientific achievement and most important philosophical discovery: The universe is vast and majestic, and our species is insignificant and might be utterly meaningless” – (Vacker, 2018, 3).
Dr. Pham Trong Van points out that knowledge comes after a long process of hard study: “You must identify clearly that studying is arduous and “the path of science” is not like others. Through difficulties, we find the glories of science and sympathize with those who sacrifice their whole lives for science.” And Armond Boudreaux reminds us that mythologies serve a more pointed purpose in our modern human endeavours:
“One of the reasons that I think superheroes are important at this particular moment is how good their stories are at helping us think about questions of power. And perhaps more now than in any other time, we need to think about what it means to seek and to wield power.”
Perhaps our myths and deities tell us more about ourselves than we realise: our gods are anthropomorphic versions of our aspirations, dreams, or nightmares.
A generation has now passed since men walked on the Moon, and this has allowed sufficient time for eye witnesses to become wizened historians; for formerly fresh and vibrant memories to be recast as ephemera within a larger repository of lifetime memories; and for exciting progressive events to be recontextualised within the mundane modern culture that they have helped to create.
Like the charming angels on the frontage of Bath Cathedral – many climbing Jacob’s ladder and some falling back down – we are a mix of aspiration and frailty, nobility and weakness. Our science and our dreams are limited by our failures and foibles. But still we strive and evolve beyond our mundane limitations, even though – on the scale of an individual human lifetime – such evolution seems to take forever. Our small steps become a giant leap when combined.
Meanwhile, adults and children continue to pause and gaze up at the night sky in awe and wonder – we are glimpsing our past, our current place in the cosmos, and our future destination. As we outgrow our pantheon of deities from Mount Olympus or the Garden of Eden, we might find another source of inspiration when we climb the dizzy heights of Olympus Mons on Mars, or create our own interstellar Garden of Eden on an exoplanet. Leaving behind our ancient mythologies, perhaps we will create new ones that are more authentic, engaging and exciting. Stardust to stardust.
Michael Benson, 2018. Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Francesca Ferrando, 2016. ‘Why Space Migration Must Be Posthuman’, in Schwartz, J., Milligan, T. (eds.) Ethics of Space Exploration, Springer, Vol. 8, 137-152.
Although the idea of an ark itself is kinda cool and evocative, it is located within a larger and somewhat unappealing story. Most people would probably know the generic details within the tale: of how the Genesis deity decided that humanity was thoroughly too evil to live, and caused a great flood to descend upon the world, exterminating the entire human race except for Noah and his family, who constructed an ark and conducted what one Christian source enthusiastically claims was ‘the greatest animal rescue of all time’. The story ends with god inventing the rainbow as a reminder of his promise to never again send another flood.
Despite the generally light hearted tone in which the story is recounted for children in popular culture, I believe that any serious reflection regarding its details reveals a deity who is, in the words of Richard Dawkins:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” ― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Well, that certainly escalated quickly. Seriously though, the god of the Noah story reminds me of the stereotypical wife beater who proclaims that ‘she made me do it’. Is this really a story and an ethical position that we want to teach to children – or to anybody else?
This is one human truth that we need to reclaim from the Noah myth: that violence is never acceptable, not even in the name of someone’s preferred deity. Historically, everything from violence within the family, the death penalty and public lynchings, through to slavery, the Crusades, wars, witch burnings and the Holocaust have been rationalised by ethics such as those found within this flood story.
Hit and Myth
Today, we can see the immorality of this cultural template emblazoned in our everyday lives. We live in our own insulated arks of relative luxury and affluence while ignoring the floods of poverty that overwhelm those around us. Even our Prime Minister, emboldened by lazy theocratic thinking, proudly boasts how he ‘stopped the boats’ and thereby turned back real-life Noah’s Arks that held the hopes and dreams and lives of others.
Let’s face it: God is a poor role model, and deferring to such archetype is not only intellectually lazy but makes us lose touch with our compassionate, empathic human nature. I do not mean to imply that all religious people promote such negative behaviours; some are touched by what I would call the humanist call for enlightenment.
We can see the damage promoted by the Noah story not only in our past and present, but also in our possible future – as exhibited in attitudes towards the environment. Only God can control the weather, claim some religious folk, including our Penetecostal Prime Minister’s peers. This head-in-the-sand denialism is inherently dangerous for our environment and our world. The climate is changing to disastrous effect, and we must respond rather than continue to carelessly destroy our environment. We do not live aboard Noah’s Ark, so we are not immune from climate change disaster – and even if we were somehow immune, that does not absolve us from the moral responsibility to show a better morality than a man who builds a big boat for himself but blithely allows the rest of humanity (including, it appears, his own grandfather, Methuselah) to drown.
Doing the exact opposite of Noah and taking whatever steps are necessary to save the whole world, saving the environment through ethical and responsible human choices… now that really would be the greatest animal rescue of all time.
Reclaiming the Rainbow
It is surely time to reclaim the colourful and ubiquitous rainbow from the clutches of this story.
We should acknowledge the many cultures that have interpreted the symbolism of rainbows within their own mythologies. From the Epic of Gilgamesh interpreting rainbows as a call to war (possibly the origin source of the nastiness in the Genesis account), through to a more charming Hindu idea of rainbows being the godly archer’s bow used to shoot bolts of lightning, through to indigenous American and Japanese cultures using rainbows as a form of bridge. Even Australian indigenous cultures speak of the Rainbow Serpent with a rather charming connection to rivers and waterways as a source of rainbows and creation.
I enjoy the old Irish legend about a sneaky leprechaun hiding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow – symbolising the idea that every storm in life is followed by a new start that is as invigorating and fresh as the air and soil that crackle and sparkle after a spring shower. This leprechaunic folklore is a much more uplifting a story than a stone age fantasy about a violent, mass-murdering god drowning all the men, women, children and babies in the world.
I have engaged in discussions with an occasional Christian who has bewailed the ‘hijacking’ of the rainbow from the Genesis story. They usually complain about the rainbow flag used by LGBTQIA+ communities, for whom they appear to hold special dislike. They rarely express contempt for gay icon Judy Garland singing, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, nor for indigenous American rainbow stories that present more environmentally connected alternatives to Christian theology than the idea of a disembodied deity that is distinct from cosmology.
The Rainbow Connection
Richard Dawkins writes about Unweaving the Rainbow – unlocking its secrets and determining how a rainbow is created under natural laws and fundamental scientific principles. He points out that this does not detract from the colour, majesty and awe of the rainbow, but rather helps us to fully appreciate the glories of science in our the natural world:
“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”
― Richard Dawkins.
In this sense, I would much rather deconstruct the malevolent ancient flood myth and its constituent rainbow, leaving behind its nasty and barbaric morality, and instead find glory and wonder within our universe and in laws of nature that reveal a rainbow in a mundane drop of water.
Ultimately, I would imagine that most people would much rather prefer the inclusive LGBT rainbow flag – a legacy to the world from gay activist Gilbert Baker who spoke of rainbows being an ancient symbol of hope. Here we see a symbol not of genocide, but of life and love and celebration. Baker’s aspirations for the rainbow flag are quoted on his Foundation website:
“What I liked about the rainbow is that it fits all of us.
It’s all the colors.
It represents all the genders.
It represents all the races.
It’s the rainbow of humanity.”
Forty years ago today, a worldwide epidemic was unknowingly announced in a newspaper. Unlike COVID in 2020, this other virus had been unforeseen and undiscovered and, ultimately, politically stigmatised until it was on track to cause irreparable loss of life.
A generation later, it still has no vaccine.
His name is not recorded in Australia’s history books. He was just an average Australian bloke, but he became possibly the first casualty – the proverbial Unknown Soldier – in one of Australia’s most frightening wars.
He was born in Australia in 1909, when our nation had barely reached Federation. He spent his infancy during harsh drought, in an era of horse and cart, electric trams and the telegraph.
As a young boy, he would have seen older lads – possibly his father and older brothers – go off to the Great War. Later, he would have witnessed those who survived the war returning home to live with possible shell shock or disfigurement – and to face the worldwide pandemic named Spanish Influenza.
As a young adult, he saw the opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge, survived the polio era, lived through the Great Depression and he may have served in World War Two.
As an older adult, he saw many changes and challenges: television and antibiotics, automobiles and aircraft. He witnessed the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile Crisis, the Apollo Moon landings, US assassinations and civil rights demonstrations.
His world was shaped by the Cold War and his lifestyle may have been oppressed by McCarthyism. He lived through the early days of Gay Liberation and he may have marched in the original street protest which led to the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
Like many Australians of his generation, he had never travelled far nor done anything particularly significant or notorious. Tragically, the end of his life would be most significant.
Around February 1981, he began to get sick – at the same time when millions of Australians were becoming distracted by the engagement of Prince Charles to Lady Diana. By the time of the Royal wedding in July, our friend’s prolonged illness had developed into a persistent cough and he had pronounced difficulty with breathing.
The illness which struck him was testimony to the international travel that had become a ubiquitous aspect of our modern jet-setting lifestyle, despite the fact that he had personally never travelled overseas. He was afflicted with what was then called Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia (PCP), a fungal pneumonia that had first been identified in 1909 (Grmek, 1990, 116) – ironically the year of his own birth. It was only after World War Two that PCP began to appear in malnourished children who lived in overcrowded orphanages of post-War Europe – and a link was established between PCP and humans whose immune systems had been damaged or compromised (Shilts, 1987, 34.) A symbolic link had also been established between PCP and the concept of war or deprivation – a metaphor which would not be forgotten in the coming years, including in Australia.
All this background probably meant little to our friend, who battled his chronic breathing problem without being aware that others around the world had also recently puzzled their doctors with similar or related medical difficulties: people such as 47 year-old Grethe Rask, a female Danish surgeon who died in December 1977 (Shilts, 1987, 6 & 7); two pediatric siblings in San Francisco who were diagnosed in 1978 and 1979 (Cochrane, 2004, 28) while gay men in Los Angeles were being diagnosed with strange diseases around 1979 (Black, 1986, 20 – 21); an unnamed gay 27 year-old African-American hospital guard in New York City who died in December 1979 (Hooper, 1999, 57); a young gay man named Nick in New York’s Fire Island, who became sick in March 1980 (Black, 1986, 18 – 19); an anonymous gay 36 year-old dairy industry agricultural engineer who died in Denmark’s Rigslhospitalet, Copenhagen, in September 1980 (Shilts, 1987, 34 & 35); a Portuguese taxi driver and two women in Paris who all succumbed in late 1980 (ibid, 36 & 37). Ominously, a number of young gay men in Los Angeles had also been identified as getting sick and/or dying from the same ailment in 1981 (CDC, 1981) while nine gay men in San Francisco were also diagnosed in July of that same year (Cochrane, 2004, ch. 3). These people were merely the tip of a metaphoric iceberg.
In Africa, the danger had already been spreading silently for years. Swiss author Henning Mankell reports anecdotal evidence that mysterious ailments were being noticed among people in Uganda as far back as the 1970s. According to one story, a young man named Lukas had become afflicted in 1974 with an increasingly-debilitating mystery illness which included swollen glands, weight loss and an outbreak of sores. Lukas, and his two wives, all got sick and died – followed, in subsequent years, by other people in Kampala. One of Lukas’ workmates had explained this mystery to his child through a simple but hauntingly significant truth: “Something has happened” (Mankell, 2004, 52 & 53).
But the silent killer continued to build its strength, and gay activist Cleve Jones recalls:
“I have memories from 1978 and 1979 of friends of mine contracting diseases that I’d never heard of, or that I’d heard of but only in the context of impoverished countries. I remember a friend came down with meningitis, and that seemed to me to be odd. There was also quite a bit of hepatitis going around. So here was sort of a glimmering realization, but nobody took it too seriously, because the sexually transmitted diseases were easily treated with just a few doses of antibiotics.”
Our anonymous Aussie battler would most likely have been totally oblivious to this community of suffering when he was admitted to a Sydney hospital in August 1981, after six months of progressive deterioration. He died the following month, aged 72.
Twelve years later, doctors tested a preserved medical specimen that had been collected from the patient in January 1980. Using a test which had been unavailable and unimaginable back in 1980, they discovered that the patient had died of a condition which we now call AIDS. Yet when this patient died, AIDS had barely even been recognised as a problem overseas; it was still so new and mysterious that it had not yet been accurately identified nor assigned its name; and its existence in Australia had been unknown at that time. This led Australian doctors to make a worrying declaration in 1994 following their retrospective diagnosis of this patient:
“Whether this represents an isolated case in a man who progressed rapidly because of his relatively advanced age, or whether HIV was present earlier in Australia than previously thought, remains unanswered” (Gerrard et. al., 1994).
“Patient X” had never had a blood transfusion nor any record of injecting drug use – and yet his blood told a chilling story. Somehow, he had been exposed to the virus here in Australia in late 1979 or possibly earlier (Carter, 1994; Davies, 1993).
A new pandemic had arrived in Australia and silently claimed its first casualty.
Then, forty years ago today, the looming larger catastrophe was announced to the world. The New York Times – not the first to publish an article, but the first to publish one that gained widespread public attention – announced that a “rare cancer” had been found in 41 homosexuals (Altman, 1981). It revealed the worrying aspects of an emerging pattern: rare diseases were being caught as an indication of a compromised immune system among young gay men who should not normally be victims to such medical oddities (McKie, 1986, 21 & 22).
One of the people who read that newspaper report was John Foster, an Australian historian who was on study leave in New York City. He later recalled the day which would forever announce the public arrival of slow-creeping catastrophe into the lives of millions of people around the world:
“On Friday 3 July 1981 I went early to Mass. By the end of the Mass the priest was sweating. Summertime in New York, I was discovering, was drenched in sweat, though it was rarely so pure an essence as the kind that impregnated the wafer I received from the priest’s damp hand. On the subway, sweat sickly mingled with cheap scent; in the gay bars on Christopher Street it hit you in a mixture of amyl or diffused in the acrid drift of marijuana smoke; on the streets it came at you out of peripatetic hot-dog stands or the open doors of greasy-spoon cafes.
“Walking home from church, with my shirt already wet on my back, I bought a copy of the Times and turned in at Nick the Greek’s for my usual eggs and coffee. On the eve of a holiday weekend it was less than normally busy. There was room at a corner table to spread out the paper, a small but significant luxury which disposed me cheerfully to the day ahead. There was no news of any moment, which may explain why I spent so long reading the almost full-page advertisement of the Independence Savings Bank. ‘Sing out on the Fourth!’ it said, and to encourage this holiday spirit it printed the music and three verses of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’…
“So much glory is hard to take at breakfast, and so the Times, which is a newspaper of impeccable taste, balanced this rich fare with a thin column of more astringent medical reporting. Doctors in California and New York had diagnosed among homosexual men forty-one cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. The cancer appeared in violet-coloured spots which might be taken for bruises and which often turned brown before they spread throughout the body…
“It seemed to have something to do with promiscuous sex. Most of the cases had involved homosexual men who had had multiple and frequent sexual encounters each night up to four times a week…
“This was definitely not serious. Or at least, it did not concern me. I was not in the violet-spot league.” (Foster, 1993, 39 & 40).
Three weeks later, on 25 July 1981, John Foster was to meet another man – and this meeting would change both their lives. On 14th Street, by the Steps of Our Lady of Guadaloupe’s chapel, he met young Juan Gualberto Cèspedes (ibid, 41) and they struck up a casual friendship which quickly became a long-term relationship. Since his arrival in New York as a refugee some twelve years earlier – just in time to experience the culturally inspirational effect of watching the Apollo 11 Moon landing – Juan had subsequently been unable to realise his personal ambition of becoming a dancer due to the prejudice of others and following an unfortunate encounter with a New York taxi cab. His relationship with the Australian academic John Foster would provide him with new hopes – and it would provide John Foster with companionship and confidence.
Foster’s mistaken belief that he and Juan were not in any danger of belonging to the “violet-spot league” was a continuation of the same confidence which had been experienced by a younger Juan Cèspedes in the days of Gay Lib – and yet they were later to discover that such confidence and dreams would ultimately turn into ashes.
A new epidemic had been silently creeping into our world for some time, creating a concurrent epidemic of discrimination, stigma and disempowerment, and thereby giving rise to great ongoing needs for activism both in Australia and overseas. Ebola, SARS and COVID were not the first major epidemics in living memory, but our response to these others has been shaped – rightly or wrongly – by the lessons we have learnt (or failed to learn) from HIV/AIDS.
Altman, Lawrence, 1981. “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals”, in The New York Times, 3 July, A20.
Carter, Helen, 1994. “HIV Dates From ‘70s – Doctors,” in The Herald Sun, 7 March, 9.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1981. “Pneumocystis Pneumonia — Los Angeles,” in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR ), 5 June, 30(21), 1-3.
Cochrane, Michelle, 2004. When AIDS Began: San Francisco and the Making of an Epidemic, Routledge.
Davies, Julie-Anne, 1993. “Australia’s First AIDS Death in 1981: Doctors,” in The Sunday Age, 7 November, 1.
Foster, John, 1993. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Minerva.
Gerrard , John, et. al., 1994. “Australia’s First Case of AIDS?” in The Medical Journal of Australia, Vol. 160, 7 March, 247 – 250.
Grmek, Mirko D., 1990. History of AIDS, Princeton University Press.
Hooper, Edward, 1999. The River, Allen Lane/Penguin Press.
Mankell, Henning, (translator Laurie Thompson), 2004. I Die, But the Memory Lives On: The World AIDS Crisis and the Memory Book Project, Harvill Press (Random House).
McKie, R., 1986. Panic: The Story of AIDS, Thorsens Publishing Group, UK.
“I do not think we have a ‘right’ to happiness. If happiness happens, say thanks.”
― Marlene Dietrich.
“Why were gay men, lesbians and everyone who challenged compulsory heterosexuality or didn’t conform to the strict gender binary reviled?”
― Alison Thorne.
Around 1968, Frank Kameney coined the slogan ‘Gay is good’ in response to the chant, ‘Black is Beautiful’. While that may not seem so extraordinary these days, back in that era his was quite a radical and extraordinary claim. From the 1974 days of gay liberation, John Lauritsen explains why:
“In almost every state, anti-homosexuality statutes describe the prohibited acts with such phrases as: “unnatural intercourse”, “unnatural crimes”, ‘infamous crime against nature”, and “the abominable and detestable crime against nature”.
“In opposition, the gay liberation movement has put forward the slogan, “Gay is Good!” ” (Lauritsen, 1974/2012, 5).
28 June marks the anniversary of an event in the USA that has mythic overtones. The Stonewall Riots in New York City were not the first time that queer people had protested and rioted – indeed, the US-centric nature of their commemoration is problematic – but they mark what might be called a shocking change of consciousness for the world and serve as a demarcation point for historians and activists alike. Stonewall was like a queer version of Pearl Harbour, Eureka Stockade, and Arab Spring all rolled into one. The western world has never been the same again.
Oppression and Liberation
“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of
who do the things no one can imagine.”
― Alan Turing
“Perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret beauty to people
— the beauty within themselves.”
― Langston Hughes.
“We try to take out lesson from the typical tactics and history of other oppressed groups… It seems to be that in our society, if a group of people can bind themselves together into an effective power bloc, then they attain rights and social respectability and the protection of the law. And if they can’t, they have trouble.”
― Arthur Evans (Tobin & Wicker, 1972, 194).
“In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.”
― Simone de Beauvoir.
Stonewall was connected to the fledgling movement known as ‘gay liberation’, a concept that later evolved and expanded to include lesbians, bisexuals and trans people – all of whom brought into the collective community a variety of challenges, and redefining self-definitions – and more recently has included intersex, gender variant, non-binary, asexuals, pansexuals and a host of others. The ever-expanding LGBTQIA+ alphabet, and the furious debates that are aroused, can be seen as a successful demonstration of acceptance of diversity and pluralism; often summarised today in the reclaimed formerly-derogatory slur ‘queer’.
The active inclusion of drag, trans and gender variant people within Stonewall demonstrates how the protest was a minor (if visible) part of a much larger and longer continuum of queer diversity within human society. Many ancient kinship societies openly equated sexual and gender diversity with nature (Baghemi, 1999, 214 – 262) and extended a special reverence to transgender, gender-variant, cross dressing, drag and related diverse people, who held a long and respected role in their societies – often with links to shamanism or ritual as a recognition of their being living exemplars of difference. Such peoples can still be found today around the world, from the berdache of North America to the fa’afafine of Samoa (Greenberg, 1988, 40-60). Due to lack of surviving archaeological evidence, it is not possible to link them with earlier shamans – in the Paleolithic era, or Stone Age ritual dancers – although given their known cultural contributions, it seems reasonable to speculate on the possibility (ibid, 63). Is it just possible that the same diverse cohorts, who may have led our frenetic ceremonial dancing during the dawn of modern humanity, also choreographed the outraged and outrageous processional street protests during the dawn of secular gay liberation? We could learn from such a possibility. From Stone Age to Stonewall, from sacred to secular, from Mattachine to Mardi Gras; such a journey of individuality and defiance should be our template.
“The Homosexual Revolution”
“The Christian oppression of women and Gay people was no accident. Their freedom and high status in the old religion made them prime targets for the new religion, which was profoundly anti-sexual.”
― Arthur Evans (Evans, 1978, 99).
“My own feeling of concern arises from seeing how much moral injury and suffering is created by the superstitions of the Christian mythology.”
― Harriet Martineau.
“I’m militant about the church as an institution because of the damage done to the minds of homosexuals by the churches. Most of organised religion has been the mortal enemy of thinking people. I don’t want to destroy the churches, but I want to save young homosexuals from being damaged by the churches.”
― Jim Owles (Tobin & Wicker, 1972, 31).
“I say that homosexuality is not just a form of sex, it’s a form of love, and it deserves our respect for that reason.”
― Christopher Hitchens.
Stonewall and gay liberation comprised a time for challenging the status quo and for redefining and reinventing ourselves. Traditional attitudes and values were challenged; this pointedly included organised religion, business and medicine (Duberman, 1993, 223). Conformity and assimilation were discouraged in favour of outrage and intersectionality. Such protests from that era became open expressions of solidarity with other groups of people who were similarly seeking civil rights, natural justice, equality, elimination of entrenched disadvantage, and empowerment. (Ashley, 2015, 28).
A generation later, the civil rights push for marriage equality by LGBT communities, along with the abandonment of trans rights by some TERF elements of those same LGBT communities, would have surprised and shocked many of the original gay lib cohort:
“In many ways, the new millennium gay movement is the antithesis of the early ’70s gay liberation. It cavorts with politicians who may be good on gay issues, but not on concerns affecting other disenfranchised communities… It courts corporate support for its gala events, even its pride parades, which used to be protest marches and celebrations of the Stonewall Riots. Now those marches seem more of a market than a movement… The queer movement still hasn’t entirely gotten its act together about sexism, racism or the exclusion of transgenders.” (Avicolli Melli, 2009, xiv).
One prominent gay libber from that era – the man who literally wrote the book on gay liberation – came out some years ago as questioning why LGBTQIA+ communities supported marriage equality while ignoring the murder and oppression of their queer colleagues overseas. He also asks what happens to communities whose identity becomes dominated by a culture of consumption rather than activism. His views are not unique among gay lib era pioneers, and such questions of priorities remain largely unanswered even today. His compatriot Peter Tatchell clarifies the difference between gay liberation and modern day queer ideologies regarding the adoption of religion: “The Bible is to gays what Mein Kampf is to Jews.”
From Activism to AIDS
“I’m a twenty-year metastatic lung cancer survivor and a fifteen-year AIDS survivor. And I really believe that activism is therapeutic.”
― Kiyoshi Kuromiya.
“Celebrate diversity, and Heal AIDS with Love!”
― Michael Callen (Callen, 1990, iii, personal inscription).
“This epidemic is going to be with us for 50, maybe even 100 years. Its impact will be felt for many generations to come. You must build groups of activists, even if you have only 5 or 10 people, even if the obstacles are daunting and you’re poor.”
― Zackie Achmat.
“What I found was that people are going through exceptionally difficult times. Many are married in heterosexual relationships but have lesbian relationships on the side.”
― Midi Achmat.
The optimism of the gay liberation era was short-lived for two reasons. With the arrival of a new, cruel, epidemic, AIDS, countless gay men’s lives were shattered, and many men like Rock Hudson were forced out of the closet and into activism that would not have been their personal choice. AIDS also meant that many gay lib era activists and community heroes were struck down with the new affliction. People such as Kiyoshi Kuromiya and Michael Callen had to adapt the communal activist skills that had been refined during gay lib protests, and use them instead to deal with the tragic new situation – in their case, both becoming involved in groups such as ACT UP and People With AIDS. Similarly, South African gay man Zackie Achmat also had to use his anti-Apartheid activist skills to deal with AIDS both on a personal level and as a generic scourge in his country (Nolen, 2007). For all three activist gay men, their world had changed, but not in any way they might have anticipated.
For Achmat’s whole family, the world was turned upside down – when Zackie and his lesbian sister Midi both came out as gay, they were rejected by their Muslim parents, but their activist strength gave them the capacity to walk away and turn their attention to LGBT+ and HIV/AIDS activism that has helped people across their country.
“I do not believe in belief.”
― E M Forster, ‘What I Believe’.
“She thought there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.”
― Virginia Woolf.
“… Atheists have a responsibility to support human rights issues like LGBTQ equality; and most importantly… it’s crucial that we do so without delay or hesitation.”
― Camille Beredjick.
“I’ve often thought the Bible should have a disclaimer in the front
saying this is fiction.”
― Sir Ian McKellen.
Some years ago, I attended the launch of an academic report on gay conversion therapy. As a past victim, I wanted to hear what might be said about addressing the religious dogma that fuelled this pseudo-scientific form of psychological torture. Significantly, the launch itself took place inside a church – the very same generic environment wherein such religious-based abuse often took place. None of the academics who wrote the report, none of the religious queers who used their privilege to obtain the venue, none of the former victims who spoke publicly about their involvement in the study, nor any of the gay Christians who spoke hopefully about ‘welcoming these lost sheep back into the fold’ – not one of them had the sensitivity or empathy to openly question whether or not a religious venue was an appropriate place to launch a report about religious-based abuse, whether or not it was a safe place for former torture victims to visit, or whether any self-respecting victim would even want to be ‘welcomed back’ into a church or religious community.
Similarly, I also attended a queer conference some years ago which was widely advertised as promoting equality, inclusion and diversity. While many openly religious queers were included in the main program – including the chairman of the conference’s organising committee, himself an openly gay Christian – no openly secular or non-believing queers were included – except for myself, shunted into a side room to give a talk to a mere handful of people during a non-peak time when the conference was officially shut for breakfast. Organisers ignored my subsequent email in which I respectfully asked for a more inclusive program next year. Similarly, another multicultural queer network deflected my speech into a small side room for its conference, and excluded openly atheist perspectives from a publication on multicultural queerdom which otherwise overflowed with multi-faith perspectives. This appears to be the template within queer communities – where ‘multicultural’ equates with ‘multifaith’ and brazenly excludes atheist, agnostic or non-believing queers. Given that approximately 75% of LGBTQIA+ people in Australia indicated in 2020 that they have ‘no current religion or spirituality’, (Private Lives 3, 26), this means that the majority of the queer community is being effectively bullied by the 25% who enjoy religious privilege.
“The effort within queer spaces to be inclusive towards religious people is disproportionate and can be downright exclusionary towards non-religious people.”
Our people survived and thrived due to Stonewall. And yet another form of stonewalling is common today – the bullying by exclusion of queer non-believers and their views, with their needs and counsel being excluded from queer conferences, media, community networks and events. My own personal experience, since coming out as an atheist in the Australian LGBTQIA+ community, echoes the words of blogger Greta Christina:
“I’m finding that I feel more at home — more welcomed, more valued, more truly understood — as a queer in the atheist community than I do as an atheist in the queer community.”
The myth that has encompassed the Stonewall Riots has been diluted by a generation of modern assimilationists. Instead of respecting and promoting diversity, queer communities have become passive receptors of the same religious dominance that oppressed and murdered queer people for millennia – and still does in many places such as Africa. Tom Morris acknowledges the high rates of disbelief in the queer community (something that queerdom itself seems reluctant to admit) and offers an obvious reason why:
“Every single attempt to increase the rights and well-being of LGBT people has been militantly opposed by religion… everything that LGBT people have done in terms of activism and reform has been opposed by religion in some form. ”
I have to say it: sorry, religious queer compatriots, your bullying and exclusion of queer atheists does not demonstrate equality – but it does demonstrate a smug sense of superiority and elitism. Your self-affirming testimonies of self-acceptance and acquiescent assimilation within religions that have practiced queer genocide are not utterances of liberation but of narcissism and complicity. Your dominating public discourse does not win debates and converts, but simply alienates others and drives them away. Your privilege does not demonstrate your morality as much as it does your adoption of affluent, straight, white culture. Your silent ethnic cleansing of gay liberation goals and aspirations may lack the open brutality of homophobes who stretch from Tanzania to Texas, but it is no less real and no less deadly – instead of fists and iron bars, your weapons are the pink dollar and pink vote and pink media and pink assimilation and pink conferences and pink ghosting.
As someone who has spent decades agitating for human rights and equality, I am the first to endorse the principle that queers can choose any religion or philosophy they like, even though it means that many conform too closely for my liking to other ‘spiritual but not religious’ populations. But what profoundly disappoints me is the tendency for those same LGBTQIA+ peoples to so openly practice forms of religious apartheid, totally excluding non-religious queers in what should be safely queer space and places. As an LGBTQIA+ atheist and humanist, my non-belief perspective is almost never acknowledged as valid, nor presented in queer discourse, whereas queer astrologers, Christians, spiritualists, alternate philosophies, Jews, Muslims, and reactionaries are given prominence in queer discussions, debates, speaking engagements, networking coalitions, publications and radio airtime, public inquiries and media representation; they are delegated leadership and eldership within the queer community. But they do not speak for me – and I am not alone. Alex Gabrieldoes speak for me:
“Attempts to be ‘inclusive’ of religious queer people by godding-up our communities with sermons, prayers, clergy and promotion of religious groups often mean excluding us.”
It must be said that not all openly queer community leaders and speakers are openly religious. Some are what might be termed as being religion-neutral – possibly secular, possibly atheist but politely discrete, perhaps even possibly religious but not always asked to speak about topics that are religiously-suited. Their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) remain unknown or unclarified, which reminds me of pre-Stonewall times when queers stayed firmly in the closet if they wished to have a public voice or respectability. Why are queers forcing other queers back into a lateral closet? What happened to being out and proud?
Out and Proud
“Those of us who live with the tyranny only of our own conscience and belief that an ethical life can be lived without reference to the supernatural are called humanists – or atheists, or in my case anti-theists.”
― Christopher Hitchens.
“And you have to give them hope.
Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow…”
― Harvey Milk.
“Do your part. Give ’em hope.”
― Dan Savage (Savage & Miller, 2012, 8).
“As a humanist I hold to an innate human value and see education as the emancipator of all humanity.”
― Peter/Ethel Thurston.
In exploring earlier times and eras, it is interesting to see how they may differ from our own, even though we might see ourselves as belonging to the same communities as those from earlier times. Our earliest era of solidified gay liberation was one in which queer atheism, bohemian lifestyles, intersectionality, and protest activism, were commonplace and part of the culture. Today, we seem to have a queer community which believes that equality with heterosexuals means adopting their mores and values, their lifestyles and their traditions – from voting conservative to appropriating heterosexual marriage. It was not always so. All of the people whom I have named and quoted directly within this article are pioneers and heroes in their own way, and significantly, they are all known rainbow atheists – with the possible exception of Hughes and Martineau, for whom the jury is still out. Although their atheism is often excluded from modern narratives, these people have pride of place within the wider picture of gay liberation, Stonewall, and today. Representation matters. Inclusion matters. Diversity matters. And we are all better off when we cast aside our comfort zone and see the world – and each other – as we really are. Stonewall was not the end of the journey, but a step along the way. It is time for individual rainbow atheists to:
“…Counterbalance the predominance of religiously-oriented organisations within the Lesbian and Gay male movement.”
― (GALA Review, 1989).
“Come Out of Both Closets.”
― Doug Randolph (GALA/SF, 1985).
“I am deeply pessimistic of any hope that the churches, especially the Fundamentalists will change their mind about the homosexual.”
― ‘Retired Serviceman’, Washington DC (Lucas, 1964-66 n.d., 4).
“My sexuality and my humanism are connected. A big part of why I’m so passionately committed to the godless community and the godless movement is that I’m passionately opposed to how religion has traditionally dealt with sexuality—sexuality in general, and LGBT sexuality in particular. I’m fiercely opposed to the traditional homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and general sex-negativity of most traditional religions, and to the terrible harm they’ve inflicted on millions of people… And a big part of what first drew me to the godless community was how queer-friendly it generally is. ”
― Greta Christina.
Bruce Baghemi, 1999. Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, New York: St Martin’s Press.
Michael Callen, 1990. Surviving AIDS, New York: HarperCollinsPublishers.
Martin Duberman, 1993. Stonewall, New York: Dutton Books.
Arthur Evans, 1978. Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture, Boston: FAG RAG Books.
GALA Review, 1989. ‘Preamble to The Constitution of Gay and Lesbian Atheists’, Volume 12, Number 5, September, 3.
David F Greenberg, 1988. The Construction of Homosexuality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Adam O. Hill, Adam Bourne, Ruth McNair, Marina Carman, & Anthony Lyons, 2020. Private Lives 3: The health and wellbeing of LGBTIQ people in Australia, ARCSHS Monograph Series No. 122, Melbourne, Australia: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University.
John Lauritsen, 1974 (2012). The Religious Roots of the Taboo on Homophobia: A Materialist View, New York/Boston: Pagan Press. (This is a 2012 reprint of a 1974 pamphlet).
“A few months ago Trinnie told me that he would die in Kakuma, I hoped that he would get to a place of safety and would be able to live his life in the way that so many people take for granted. I despair that he has suffered such a cruel brutal assault and that Trinidad’s life has been cut short by homophobia and neglect. I am thinking particularly of his friends in Kakuma who are now grieving while living in fear for their own lives.
Rest in peace Trinidad Jerry 💔”
– Gareth Lee, 14 April 2021.
I’m only thirty years but have seen some life,
A far cry from the worst and yet so close to it
I know the pain,
Of getting heart broken and the honour,
Of being entrusted with handsome boy’s virginity.
I know how it feels to score,
One hundred percent in an exam and how it feels to score,
Zero percent in the same exact subject just a few years ago,
I know how it means to transition from being a golden son to being a family embarrassment
I know how it feels about suicide and romantacize about it,
To actually consider it and finally try it out,
And I know what it means to spend the rest of your life waiting,
For something you do not understand …I know the narrow path.
I know first hand about depression, anxiety and PTSD,
And I know how enough time might heal those wounds,
And I know how how to have a mountain moving faith and how you can lose it,
And I know the intensity of the grief you experience when you lose loved one
If I ever say that I need to know how it feels to pass the gift of life,
Please do not ask me why
Because I do not have a such idea how to answer a such question
– Trinidad Jerry, last posting on Facebook
Before being attacked with firebomb.
On 3 May 2021, US President Joe Biden announced that he was raising to record levels the number of refugees who would be admitted to the USA. This is a highly commendable, humane and civilised act. I commend the President for this announcement and I offer my humble support as a world citizen for the honouring of such humanitarian principles. I hope that Biden’s nobility in this matter teaches other, less enlightened governments – including Australia’s Parliament, or the UK Parliament – how to treat vulnerable refugees in ways that befit civilised human values.
Tragically, however, Biden’s announcement came too late to save the life of a young poet and human rights activist in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Trinidad Jerry was one of some hundreds of LGBTQIA+ refugees detained in Block 13 at Kakuma, surrounded by ignorant, prejudiced, traumatised, embittered, religiously motivated violent homophobes. I have seen phone film footage taken shortly before Trinidad was attacked, in which another refugee pointed and appears to have declared, “I will burn you alive”. That night, Trinidad and others were attacked with a firebomb as they slept.
I understand that #UNHCRKenya took days to transport Trinidad and his friend Jordan to hospital, despite their terrible and extensive burns. And as far as I know, the #KenyaPolice have not prosecuted anyone for murder. It appears that #BlackLivesMatter unless you are LGBTQIA+ in Kenya, Uganda, or some other African nation.
We Live for Justice
In the traumatised, violent world of refugee life, it is often necessary to gather together in groups for mutual protection. Trinnie was a leader in Block 13 at Kakuma, and as such, his understandable loyalty to internal camp politics sometimes interfered with our internet friendship, but we retained an undercurrent of mutual respect – just as another person similarly testified after Trinnie’s death:
“Gone from our sight, but never our hearts. We are really sorry for your loss, Trinnie, everybody is thinking of you during these difficult times. Words can’t express how saddened we are to hear of your death. As brothers, we sometimes had misunderstandings and fought, but our hearts stayed connected with love, courage and we all hoped for goodness for the entire queer community in Kakuma.”
In my case, I got to know Trinnie through Facebook because of his interest in books. He was reading the novel, ‘Lord of the Flies’, and asked me if I had read it. I told him that as a former school teacher, I had taught the book. We spoke at length about the story of young people cut off from civilization, and of their daily choices to follow Ralph or Jack and thereby choose between laws and lawlessness, good and evil, rationality and fear. We agreed that one must avoid at all costs sharing the fate of Simon, a kind boy and gentle-natured leader who lost his life due to the cruelty of others.
“Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend…”
― William Golding, Lord of the Flies
How tragically, heart-breakingly ironic that Trinnie aspired to be Ralph but became Simon. Trinnie’s final message to me was sent about a month before he was fatally attacked; he had heard that I was in hospital and he sent me a get well wish. My final message to him, after his attack, was to send much love, and he responded with a ♥. I am thankful we had that opportunity for a small, silent farewell.
The poet may be gone, but his poetry lives on:
IF TRUTH COULD BE REVEALED
We are at the crossroads,
Mirrors reflecting our faces,
We doomed where to head,
Could it be the dead end.
Born free, minds fresh, hands chained,
Is our life nature,
It’s what we where meant to be.
It’s a curved ball,
Oh yeah a curved box,
No where to run,
Short of ideas, with our God mother
A judgement befalls, on the cross roads,
Where should we go!
It’s a dead end,
Yet the world watches!
The silent island appears.
The sparkling light dims,
We are good as dead,
If could only we could resuscitate.
But who could be the saviour,
The saviour lost in fake paradise,
We are our own saviours,
Dad taught me that!
Believe in myself,
Never them, Trust myself,
Only me can.
The world should know,
We are black-brothers,
Thou shalt live,
By help of one another,
And aim at justice,
For we live for justice,
And shall die for injustice.
– Trinidad Jerry
16 February 2021
As a friend of his states: “He was a great activist who had something to live for, but unfortunately he suffered terrible injuries that made him leave this world at a tender age.”
A Narration Full of Love
Trinnie’s funeral drew the grief, mourning and regret of thousands of people across Kakuma Refugee Camp, and further afield across Nairobi, all of Kenya and Uganda, and around the whole world. Watching the event live, I wept along with hundreds of my African friends.
This is how I will master the art,
Of tearing open all my heart,
Exposing all of the dirt,
Embracing the divine hurt.
If I meet a Muslim Allah akhbar,
When I meet a Christian hallelujah,
If I meet a Buddhist I will bow,
For the Dhaoist there no words!
I meet a lot of homophobes on a daily,
I wave and some pretend to wave back,
With all mystics I see through everything,
And with shamans, I go completely nuts.
But do not anticipate his next move,
He delights in taking you by surprise,
Life is a narration full of love,
Mystery, mayhem and murder of course,
I used to be confused by the source,
Of some of the most intricate thoughts,
The thoughts slowly became a voice,
Then came visions and dreams,
Not everything is how it seems,
But it seems that is not how everything is,
From today this source has become anonymous!
Not feeling mentally fine, so thought of anything to write about
3 February 2021
Lucretia, a friend of his in Kakuma, speaks of Trinnie with fond love and memories:
“He was an inspirational, encouraging, self-made, outspoken activist. He taught me a lot, telling me that , ‘the power belongs to the people’. He told me: ‘If you are standing for the truth, you’d better be ready to stand alone’. He told me, ‘For the sake of – – – (a 9 year-old kid), we should fight until our last breath to get Block 13 folks to safety’. He was always inspired by Miriam Makeba’s A Luta Continua.
“He would risk everything when it came to ensuring the safety and freedom of those around him. He stayed more hours late in the night looking over us, acting as our watchman, but unfortunately one night, we weren’t able to watch over him as someone threw a petrol bomb.
“Trinidad was a great leader. He was exemplary. He could mobilise us, encourage us, whenever we were weak and feeling hopeless about ever moving out of the camp to safety. He used to report to the UNHCR every attack we suffered, every death threat, but the inaction and silence of the UNHCR murdered him.
“Trinidad’s death was preventable from day one in the camp, until the day he took his last breath. He should have been protected as he always asked – as we were all asked. He shouldn’t have been left to sleep outside any more, as this left him exposed and at risk until the day he was burnt. He should have been assigned care givers while under UNHCR care in Kenyatta Hospital in Nairobi (instead, he was restrained, and he couldn’t feed himself, even while he was on strong treatment). All this neglect led to Trinidad’s death.
“Trinnie, wherever you are, in power you rest. You have left a big gap in African and international human rights. Sometimes I feel too small to do anything without you, I feel like I have nobody to lean on, I feel like you left me hanging in space, like a piece of paper blown in the air to the highest and most distant part of the sky.
“You owe me, comrade, and I will make it up for you. I promise that. Trinnie, forever, rest in power.”
I agree that with Trinnie’s death, all of African and world human rights have been diminished. I feel that Trinnie would feel jointly amused, honoured and embarrassed if I acknowledged the reason why, paraphrasing luminary poet John Donne:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
[Africa] is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Trinnie’s death was avoidable, and came as a result of an ongoing series of homophobic attacks that were ignored by #UNHCRKenya and #KenyaPolice and the world beyond. His friend Lucretia asks why the wider world only seeks to humanise the stranger after tragedy briefly pricks our collective conscience, but why the rest of the time such attacks are ignored:
“The reason we’ve been ignored is simply because the world considers queer lives dispensable, more so when you are a queer African, and even more so when you’re a queer African refugee.”
It’s A New Day
Indeed, the question might be asked why George Floyd is known around the world and Trinidad Jerry is not. I suspect it is not merely a matter of simple geography or nuanced racism and homophobia, but also of complacency: the wider world does not care about Trinidad and his peers – how many churches, organisations, societies, friendship groupings, schools or benevolent societies actually do anything to help refugees across Africa, Asia, or even in Australia? How many politicians actually care about the disgusting, barbaric, homophobic laws and the backward religious customs that fuel hatred and death in families and communities and UNHCR offices across Africa? How many LGBT churches or community groups actually pay anything more than lip service to loving their neighbour? Intolerance and complacency begin right here, in the heart of every individual. The bell tolls around the world, every day, non stop.
As this year commemorates the centenary of the Tulsa race massacre in the USA, and while some of Australia lives in denial of its frontier wars history, we should also ponder a larger question: does the Maafa (African Holocaust) continue today, in the form of complacency and apathy from much of the western world in response to the terrible living conditions faced across Africa? Will future generations judge us as disapprovingly as we judge slave traders or apartheid proponents?
Trinidad reads one of his poems online, late in 2020.
Meanwhile, following the murder of Trinidad and the subsequent death of Arnold in Kakuma from unknown medical problems, thousands of LGBTQ refugees across Kenya now struggle with grief and fear. We must try to make something good come out of this tragedy, such as helping his friend Jordan who suffered similar burns in the same attack, or helping LGBTQ refugees in Block 13 and elsewhere at Kakuma.
Trinnie’s valiant fight in the face of terrible injuries is testimony to his strength of character, and must inspire us all to keep fighting injustice and evil whenever we can. Trinidad Jerry was a strong and inspiring and poetic and humble and educated and compassionate and friendly person. The world has lost a hero and a future to which he could have contributed – but his legacy lives on in the hearts of his friends in Block 13, across Kakuma and Kenya, and around the world – and they will not forget him or his fight. He continues to inspire us, and therefore his greatest contribution may be yet to come.
Rest well, Chriton (“Trinidad Jerry”). Your struggle is over but your fight continues; your influence lives on in the hearts and lives of all those who knew you. Those in #UNHCRKenya and #KenyaPolice who neglected you and your rainbow family in Kakuma will one day, somehow, face poetic justice.
(Poetic License: Trinnie was not thirty years old as one of his poems suggests. He was younger.)
Public disclaimer: I have used poems from Trinnie’s Facebook page by permission of his close friend in Kakuma. I make no claim to the copyright on poems written by Trinidad Jerry, and include them here solely so they can be collected and displayed publicly in his honour. All rights for that poetry are returned to Trinidad Jerry or his beneficiaries. I ask readers to please honour his talent by donating money to his rainbow family (see links to Jordan, Block 13, or elsewhere in Kakuma as listed here and above, or use the links below).
And hey UNHCR, let’s get those human beings out of hell.
I am part of a group that has been started in response to the ongoing LGBT+ refugee crisis across Kenya and Uganda, and I invite readers to contribute to the building of a better world: Humanity In Need: Rainbow Refugees.
One of the reasons for the early success of the Salvation Army was their “borrowing” popular songs of the day and putting new “Salvationist” words to them. Thinking about Sunday Assembly I thought it might be time to return the favour, so here’s a start, using a tune that I used to love singing beside my grandfather as an adolescent visitor to his church…
(Sung To the tune, “How Great Thou Art”)
Oh Glorious Sun, when I perceive the wonder
Of nature’s beauty, powered by your rays
You rule all life on land and sea and under,
You give us light, and tides, and rainy days
With wonder filled I marvel at your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!
I love to sing and revel in your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!
In awe I see the galaxies and stars shine,
And through the year, your arc move low and high
The planets’ glow, reflects your light at night time
As does the Moon, migrating ‘cross the sky
With wonder filled I marvel at your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!
I love to sing and revel in your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!
In times of doubt when signposts all have shifted,
I look for answers and a sense of peace.
I feel your rays, and with my spirits lifted
and body warmed, my heart is more at ease.
With wonder filled I marvel at your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!
I love to sing and revel in your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!
And when at last my time of life is over,
as for all lives, and death has set me free,
Back to the Earth I’ll go, but not forever
Because your power will make new lives from me!
With wonder filled I marvel at your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!
I love to sing and revel in your power
Oh Glorious Sun! Oh Glorious Sun!
On 21 May, as a secondary school student from rural Victoria, I took a trip down to Treasury Gardens in Melbourne to take part in something that has a huge impact on my generation’s future.
A protest organized by ‘School Strike 4 Climate’ was being held in every state in Australia, to bring attention to the ongoing issue of climate change. The strike, aimed at the Morrison Government, was to show that instead of creating thousands of jobs for Australians in the renewable energy industry, they are lining the pockets of gas and coal companies. Such companies are the main contributors to the climate crisis.
With the strike beginning at one o’clock, students from all across Victoria began to make their way to central Melbourne. The protest started with Ella Simons and Anjali Sharma acknowledging the custodians of the land that we were gathering on, which was and always will be stolen land. They then went to on to explain to the crowds why we were all here and what this protest was aiming to do: to show the government that despite their efforts to ignore the problem, we, the upcoming generation, are going to fight for our future and planet. After a few more speakers took to the stage, the strike began.
With over 20,000 people coming together, the majority of them being school students from various schools across the state, it was a massive show of unity and strength. We are not going to let the government that is supposed to be protecting us, ruin our chances of having a future. We are calling on the Government to take our future seriously and treat climate change as what it is: a crisis.
I believe that the reason so many students participated in this strike is because we know that without us acting upon the issue, nothing is going to change, and we will be stuck in a world that current politicians have neglected. By taking action, we are hoping that the government will know that we will not accept their ‘efforts’ to look after future generations. If they don’t start making changes soon, we will be the ones in power before too long, and we will not let this issue continue to be ignored.
The millions of dollars being spent and put towards mining fossil fuels is an amount that could be used in so many different areas to save our planet. If the money being spent on the things that are creating so many issues on our earth were instead put towards collecting energy from natural resources like sunlight, rain, tides, waves, and wind, not only would we be creating jobs and a sustainable way to live but saving resources and our lives.
We will not stop protesting and fighting for our right to be able to live our lives without the worry that we won’t have a future. Fund our Future, not gas.
NASA Photo: ‘The Blue Marble’ photo taken on 7 December 1972 by Apollo 17 (the last human mission to the Moon), some 29,000 km from Earth on the way out to the Moon. Wikimedia Commons.
Even as a child, I used to wonder at our self-obsessed culture.
Every advertisement is aimed at instant self-gratification: buy our product to become smarter, sexier, cooler, more popular, and only worry about yourself. Forget about metaphorically storing treasures in heaven, just make sure you horde everything you need for creature comfort today while your neighbours starve.
Every popular song in the ‘hit parade’ is aimed at ME ME ME. I can’t get no satisfaction. I love you, yeah yeah yeah. Love me tender. Man, I feel like a woman. You know you love me. I will survive. My heart will go on. Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.
The cultural worship of narcissism.
As a child, I also used to puzzle over Boris, a widowed World War Two Polish refugee who lived in my neighbourhood. He lived a lonely and troubled life, and the neighbourhood was replete with stories about how he had allegedly dug escape tunnels in his back yard in case of a night raid by Nazis, and how he had concreted up his electricity meter box so nobody could tell if anyone was living inside his shuttered-up home. As a boy, I recall seeing him sitting in the gutter outside his house, using a spoon to share a can of dog food with his only friend – his pet dog – and I wondered why the adults in my neighbourhood used to ignore him. Didn’t Jesus or Santa Claus also love him?
I don’t condemn our culture for obsessing over self-preservation – selfishness sells at least as much advertising copy as its constituent components: sex or vanity. There is of course nothing wrong with healthy self-preservation, nor with ensuring that you survive along with your immediate family. My concern is that our culture promotes the falsehood that family stops outside our front door.
I even accept that self-preservation can be a fine, upstanding platform of morality – provided it does not trump other morals such as loving thy neighbour. And our culture creates false divisions between neighbours: Not in my back yard. Protect our borders. Punish the dole bludgers. Hide the homeless in another location. Lock away the sick old people where we cannot see them. Stop the queue jumpers even when the queue for those fleeing war or poverty extends over 150 years. Charity begins at home – and ends there. Privileged white lives matter too.
Wherefore art thou, Boris?
Our idolatrous promotion of capitalism is based upon two falsehoods: the first is that self trumps society, that the individual is paramount and should remain the focus of our capitalist system. After all, the myth proposes, people need to be rewarded for initiative, because otherwise free handouts via godless socialism simply make people lazy. Hence our culture prefers to hold billions of humans in economic servitude and allows millions to die each year from starvation, disease, or other poverty-related problems, rather than organise fair and equitable sharing of our resources. Universal Basic Income, anybody?
Culturally, our society honours those whom it sees as being worthy of praise – usually conflating affluence with hard work – and disrespects the poor and disadvantaged, as though blaming them for their failure to be rich. Our worship of economic rationalism and ‘trickle down economics’ – philosophies that are largely immoral and discredited – permeate our lifestyles, causing us to behave in ways that, to an objective observer, are not the optimal ways for humans to treat themselves or others: from undertaking exploitative employment through to the way we approach charity – giving the poor a few breadcrumbs off our table.
The second falsehood in capitalism is the idea that we can all consume abundantly and shamelessly, and that our planet can and will absorb our mindless pursuit of hedonism and selfishness. Who cares if the oceans will soon be depleted as long as we can gorge our gullets today with lobster? So what if forests and the Great Barrier Reef will be gone within a generation, as long as we can eat, drink and be merry today? Who cares if in few years’ time there will be a billion climate change refugees, as long as our borders are secure and we can keep out the black people?
A friend of mine recently discussed similar points on Facebook, and with her permission I quote from her wisdom with some minor adaptations.
When people angrily denounce the 1% as being the evil bastards who keep everything for themselves and neglect everybody else, I remind them that WE are part of the 1% wealthiest people on Earth, just by being born here. We are those evil people who think a meat meal at a restaurant is more important than the lives of the 9 million or so people who will starve to death this year… or the tens of millions who will never manage to lift themselves out of borderline starvation.
In Australia we live really well — even the poorest of us… and I am one of those poorest. I don’t own a car or home. I eat one meal a day, only having protein (a little tin of sardines which I feel guilty about) one day a week. I don’t buy myself much of anything. But I have access to the vast riches of the internet, I never starve, I have a (leaky) roof over my head, am warm and happy. We are not starving to death. We have the dole and pension and many charities that hand out food and other goods. My brother works (for free) in a charity shop that has ridiculously low-priced goods, which they often give away to needy people.
We are sooo lucky here. Most people don’t realise. I come from a well-to-do background, so I have always known a wide spread of people, from filthy rich to destitute. I’ve always been amazed at so many of my wealthy friends believing they are struggling to keep their heads above water. It is always the people who are richer than them who are the problem. The thing is, we all are. We Australians are among the biggest energy consumers on Earth. We produce more greenhouse gases per capita than any other western nation. We produce more rubbish. We do less recycling than almost any other 1st world nation. We really need to ditch this selfish government that encourages selfishness in us and do our part to help fix the world.
At the same time, I don’t think less of those who don’t. It is entirely understandable that most people don’t realise how much better off we are than the vast majority of the world’s people. It is unfortunate, but not really anybody’s fault. It is changing slowly.
So you think this is an exaggeration? The USA and Australia are among the top ten richest countries in the world, as measured by GDP per capita. Maybe reassess whether you are rich: if you received more than $1500 US (or $2000 AUS) last year, you are among the world’s richest 20% of income earners; if you earned $50K US (or $65K AUS) then you are among the richest 1%.
These days I spend a lot of my time, money and effort helping disadvantaged people in some parts of Africa. And I was never very rich in time or money to begin with, living below the poverty line and having way too many projects on the go simultaneously. But we here in Australia are unimaginably wealthy — even those of us, like me, who live below the poverty line.
I help people in Africa who are in danger of dying. The greatest difficulty is that death is knocking at the door for so many there, it is difficult to triage the problem and spend the money in the most effective ways. Helping people set up a shop, buy land, build a house, get mosquito nets (against malaria), get solar powered lights so they don’t have to pay for fuel or cut down precious vegetation…
I should add that I don’t see myself as virtuous in any of this. I’ve been a pretty selfish shit for much of my life. Helping others is not atonement for that or anything. It just makes good logical sense. We all benefit from an improved world.
Everybody benefits from making the world a better place to live. Where will the next genius come from who might change the way we see the universe? That person might be a young girl in a slum. Who will be the person to gain new insights into the best ways to build and use artificial intelligence? It might be a young boy who gets saved from poverty in a Brazillian favela. Who might be the inspirational person to bring about world peace? It might be a young gay man trying to survive in a deeply homophobic society. Who might show us the way to live lightly, yet luxuriously on this planet? That might be a child yet to be born to a young woman struggling to survive in a land devastated by war and broken agriculture.
If you doubt this, consider the following:
A man who escaped extermination, as a member of what was considered at that time a race of vermin, totally altered the way we understand the universe. He was Albert Einstein.
A young black woman in the insanely racist south of USA grew up in a time where girls did not do math, but her abilities ended up making her one of NASA’s most valued people. Her calculations were respected more than those from the new computing machines. She was Katherine Johnson.
A young boy, the son of illiterate black parents in racist, apartheid South Africa, grew up tending cattle, but believing in fairness. He ended up peacefully dismantling Apartheid and leading that country forward. He was Nelson Mandela.
A young Italian boy, born illegitimately, out of wedlock, realised as he grew up that he was gay at a time when that was a very serious “crime”. He became perhaps the greatest artist/scientist/technologist/inventor in all history. He was Leonardo da Vinci.
We don’t know where the next geniuses will come from who will deliver new ways to understand the universe, life, and psychology. We don’t know if those poorest people will give us the tools to live lightly and luxuriously upon the earth. Maybe those key insights will come from wealthy 1st-worlders like us, or maybe they will come from the much greater numbers of poor people. In the past, some of the most oppressed people have given us some of our brightest stars.
This time we live in now is a Renaissance. It is the beginning of a new era for humanity. There are more geniuses alive today than ever before in all human history. We have vast amounts of free information available to us at our fingertips. People living in poverty have supercomputers in their pockets that let them access this information and communicate with other people all around the planet. Society is shifting to greater tolerance and empathy faster than ever before. Great social changes, which used to take a hundred years, now occur in decades, or even less.
It is true that we have great problems to solve: the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, ecological collapse, religious extremism, increasing waves of disease… but we are smarter than ever, more peaceful and cooperative than ever, and more knowledgeable than ever.
If every person in Australia helped some people in the poorest parts of the world, we might eliminate deep poverty and starvation. We might end wars over resources and stupid gods. What might the human race then become? Knowledge, art, and culture are really the only unlimited resources. Imagine how that could enrich us all.
I find her words compelling and her spirit admirable. She suggests that if we want to change the world, we must first change ourselves. But she also warns us that this change must be sustainable:
One of the big problems with trying too hard to help fix the problems is burnout. It is difficult to maintain perspective. I worry sometimes that I might end up giving up on the impossibility, instead of concentrating on small things that can make a big difference to people.
My friend’s warning about sustainability moderates both our desire to help others and our perception of what is needed to implement real change. I am reminded of a childhood memory: I was out doorknocking for a charity called, ‘The Freedom From Hunger Campaign’, when through a flywire door I observed a man eating lunch. In a splinter of my mind’s eye – undoubtedly coloured by my somewhat disapprovingly emotional memory of the event plus subsequent life influences – I seem to recall him as a large, almost obese fellow, gorging himself upon a lunch while displaying the temperament, dimensions and character of Jabba the Hutt. In between loud chews, he asked me what I wanted, and I invited him to make a donation to feed the hungry. Without breaking chews, he loudly and rudely replied, “No!” and turned his attention back to stuffing his face. In my more excitable moments some fifty years later, I recall this man and wonder if he serves as a metaphor for myself, my country or my world.
I do believe that the world has big problems and things must change. Whether through social evolution or revolution, real change is coming and it will hurt. Climate change, economic inequality, political instability, dwindling resources, science denialism… we face many challenges, but I would argue that the human species has the resources of intellect and courage to overcome these with rationality and selflessness. If we choose. But just as war often imposes rationing, we are living in an era when the Third World War (a war to save what we patronisingly call the Third World) is already underway, and we need to adopt a collective mindset wherein we act to help our human family by being prepared to use our affluence to help those who have less.
Whether we act pre-emptively and mitigate imminent change – or continue trying to ignore it as long as possible until it overtakes and overwhelms us – this is our choice both as individuals and as a society. How we each respond to that call determines our ethics as human beings and our civilised values as a human society. As Sarah Connor, once said, “A storm is coming” – and this will necessitate lifestyle change for us all.
I am not necessarily advocating the overthrow of capitalism; but I do propose its humanising: an economic system based upon compassion not consumption, predicated on helping instead of hoarding. We need a world built upon apposition not opposition; upon coalition not competition.
Any rational and ethical concept of human identity must include a healthy perspective of being collective and collegiate. This includes a morality which is based upon human need and human reason. The concept is not hard – even children can grasp the concept that sharing is preferable to selfishness, as expounded in the ‘Pronoun’ song from the old children’s TV series, HR Pufnstuf:
“Mine is a selfish word,
Yours is a thoughtful word,
But ours is the nicest word of all.”
The human factor – indeed the organic life factor – must surely comprise an important part of anyone’s perspective if they wish to be fully alive and fully human. This leads to certain inescapable conclusions. Life is not a shopping spree nor a game to see who dies with the most toys. History will never thank you for watching every episode of your favourite TV series, for going on that overseas holiday, or for painting the back verandah a special colour last summer. But if you instead gave equivalent time, money and effort to help others, then you may leave a human legacy wherein some future family can literally thank you for their home, their environment, or perhaps for their very existence – a much better form of immortality than that found within many religions and philosophies.
Do you want to see the world change? Then get out there and change it.
Here is an opportunity to support some of the work that my friend supports, helping homeless people and saving lives: Lunko House in Kenya and Uganda.
And here is one of mine, supporting people directly in Kakuma Refugee Camp – building shelters and toilets, providing life saving night lighting, feeding people, saving lives with medicine: Humanity in Need – Rainbow Refugees.
Another opportunity for direct assistance in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. Helping those who have nothing. They currently need food and firewood.
Directly funding a self-sustaining project, the Rainbow Refugee Food Program in Nairobi. Feeds refugees, supplies gainful employment and income and rent.
A direct fundraiser for Nairobi-based rainbow refugees
run by my trustworthy friend in the USA. Feeds and clothes, provides shelter and medicine. Saves lives and gives hope.
“What is the essence of life? To serve others and to do good.” – Aristotle
I recall some years ago, an Australian politician thought he would demonstrate how ‘in touch’ he was with the common folk. He suggested that volunteering was a great thing to do, and proposed that everyone in Australian should volunteer one hour per week to a voluntary cause. Sounds great and noble, eh?
The response from one national social service organisation was probably not what he expected – they observed that if everyone in Australia donated only one hour per week to volunteer work, the entire economy would collapse in a heap. From sports teams to school lunches, from meals on wheels to fire fighting, from human rights to home care, from activism to animal welfare – volunteering comprises a large component of our individual and collective civic life.
“Speaking out on behalf of the disadvantaged is my way of justifying my existence” – Halina Wagowska
In the 1980s, I began my volunteer involvement with a human rights organisation that included writing letters to overseas governments in the days when the pen was mightier than the keyboard. My friends and I wrote in particular to a certain government whose human rights abuse of its own citizens made it a target of activist letters. Word was that the President of the nation became quite agitated because his government had to actually employ extra staff to open and respond to the many letters they received from around the world.
Some years later, that government fell and was replaced with a civilian government that rewrote its national Constitution in order to enact new human rights protections for its citizens. Around that time, I met a church minister who was visiting Australia from that nation. I told him that my friends and I had written letters to their former government, and I asked whether or not such activism was helpful or simply a sanctimonious waste of time. He smiled warmly and told me confidentially that he could not walk down a street in his town without talking to people whose lives – or the lives of their families and friends – had been saved by activist letters.
“My friend,” he told me warmly, “Whatever you are doing, keep doing it. You are changing lives.” Those words fuelled my activism for many years because they taught me that volunteers really can change the world.
“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”
– Barack Obama
By the time we met, she was already an older woman depending upon a walking stick for personal mobility – and yet her spirit was indomitable. She was a front-line fighter in an epidemic that has now extended for forty years, and like a commendable few around the world, she was there at the height of the battle. While others (mainly young gay men, often rejected by family and Australian society) were becoming ill and succumbing to what we now call AIDS, she donated countless hours of volunteer time to be their mum. She befriended them, cared for them, took them shopping or to medical appointments, visited them and held their hands as they lay dying in hospital, attended their funerals, and then began again with the next young man in need. She stopped counting their funerals when they reached one hundred, but she never stopped caring.
I met her because our volunteer work overlapped at the AIDS Memorial Quilt, where she memorialised many of her extended family of lost young men, attended workshops to support the grieving, marched with those living with HIV/AIDS, and demonstrated that a little old lady’s heart was a formidable weapon against widespread social stigma and discrimination. She was living proof that although love cannot cure the world’s ills, it can make them more bearable. Now gone herself, Mary was my hero.
“Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more.” – H. Jackson Brown Jr.
Two students of mine – a quiet boy and girl – had volunteered to visit an old folks’ home as part of their weekly community service activities. They had avoided the loud, popular activities, featuring crowds and kudos and other youngsters, choosing instead to chat quietly to grandmas and grandpas. At the end of that year, a woman arrived at the school and asked to speak to the teacher in charge of sending teenagers to that nursing home. She was greeted with some trepidation (“what have those kids done wrong?”). Instead, she explained that her mother was a resident at the nursing home, and that she had visited her mother that week while the students were there. It turns out that, unknown to anyone else, these teenagers had smuggled formal evening wear and a disc player in their school bags, had dressed up when they reached the facility, and had waltzed with each of the residents in turn, while playing old melodies. This woman had seen the sparkle in her mother’s eyes, and those of the other old folk, as these shy teenagers had danced and laughed and shared, and had then given out Christmas gifts of biscuits and cakes that the girl and her mother had personally baked at home. None of this was ever spoken about at school by the kids involved. They wanted no fame or glory; they were just happy to treat these elders with grandparently care, respect, and human love. (Naturally, I ensured that they got a letter of commendation from the school – a quiet reward that did not publicly draw attention to them with their peers, but which still acknowledged their efforts). Those kids learnt an important lesson: in seeking to create a better world, we also improve ourselves.
“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” — Dr Syed Muhammad Zeeshan Hussain Almashhadi
In 1988, a mere seven years into the epidemic, the Mayor of San Francisco told the US Presidential Commission on AIDS that his city had already lost more young men to AIDS than it had to World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam – combined and doubled. (Agnos, 1988, 1).
This rather horrifying thought evokes the assertion by Leslie Banks that ‘geographical aspects of disease date back to the earliest of written records’, linking locality and disease as being both interdependent and interactive (Banks, 1959, 199). Thus historians have traditionally examined how local conditions may have given rise to the spread of disease across place and time, as demonstrated in the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, where we can see the clustering of cases around a polluted water pump in London (Snow, 1854).
A study of place, however, can also show vectors of infection through forms of human migration, as demonstrated by the spread of diseases such as Bubonic Plague beyond their place of origin (May, 1953, 22 – 27). HIV/AIDS may have been the first worldwide pandemic to enjoy international transmission at the speed of the jumbo jet, but it will not be the last.
The trans-national spread of HIV/AIDS has been compounded through its interweaving with what Dennis Altman refers to as the ‘globilisation of human welfare’ (Altman, 2001, 73). His concern over the dominance of western medical discourse is understandable when considering its possible incompatibility or inappropriateness in other places or cultures. In studying the responses to HIV/AIDS in San Francisco and Melbourne, we can see a mix of varied outcomes within two locations that are geographically distant but culturally and socially interactive.
The arrival of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s transformed both San Francisco and Melbourne. Rodgers et al assert that: ‘During the early 1980s, when the epidemic began, AIDS had no social meaning. Individuals had to create meanings regarding its definition, social context, epidemiology, and causes.’ (Rodgers et al, 1995, 665) While the USA and Australia were still formulating their national, political and cultural responses to HIV/AIDS – responses that would at times include hysteria, fear, stigma, vilification and discrimination – it was the gay communities that led the fightback, which they defined within the context of saving lives, caring for the sick, celebrating diversity and promoting gay rights.
San Francisco and Melbourne can be seen to share some historic and social intersections. Both are locations in relatively affluent ‘western’ democracies which were originally inhabited by indigenous peoples who were later dispossessed by white European colonizers; both cities received a boost in economy and population from the mid-19th century Gold Rush; and both places are now seen as centres of culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
Despite such similarities, San Francisco and Melbourne also have differences of population, status and local culture which are as disparate as are San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge with Melbourne’s Westgate Bride. San Francisco is both a city and a county, registering some 805,235 residents in its 2010 census (US Census Bureau, n.d.; Office of the Mayor, n.d.) but serving as a major focus for the San Francisco Bay Area, comprising 7.1 million residents (Focus: Bay Area Focused Growth, n.d.) A 2006 study reports that 15.4% of San Francisco’s residents identify themselves as being gay, lesbian or bisexual, the highest percentage of any city in the USA (Turnbull, 2006). The municipality of Melbourne contains an estimated 100,611 residents (2011 estimate) and its greater metropolitan area covers some 4,169,103 residents (City of Melbourne, n.d) but there are no known estimates of the size of Melbourne’s gay community.
While Melbourne was traditionally viewed by many as a city where much of its culture appeared to stop upon six o’clock closing, its post-war immigration encouraged the evolution of a more cosmopolitan, multicultural society. Meanwhile, San Francisco was popularly known as a centre for bohemian culture. In 1950, legal protections for gay people were already being established by law in San Francisco (San Francisco History Index, n.d.), while this did not commence in Melbourne until the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1980. In the 1960s, Scott McKenzie was encouraging people to join the hippie counter-culture by travelling to San Francisco – and ‘be sure to wear a flower in your hair’ (Phillips & McKenzie, 1967). In the 1970s, the Village People encouraged young gay men to ‘Go West‘ and to join the gay community of San Francisco because ‘life is peaceful there’.
Both cities became a destination for an influx of young gay men who were seeking escape from oppressive country towns, as fictionalised in San Francisco’s Tales of the City books by Armistead Maupin. San Franscisco’s gay culture was epitomised by Harvey Milk and civil rights activism. Historian Alan Petersen gave an example of the dichotomy between Melbourne’s private/public spaces and the restrictions that were traditionally placed upon Melbourne’s gay community, with a cluster of gay venues as the central, covert focus of its social existence and the majority of gay people being more hidden in suburbia (Petersen, 2012, 4). In my own studies, I have been told by gay men that they socialised in Melbourne’s gay venues on weekends and then went and lived more closeted lives at home and work.
In November 1980, a gay man named Ken visited his doctor’s office in San Francisco and was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a type of cancer connected with AIDS, and he would later become the first officially registered Person With AIDS (Stryker and Van Buskirk, 1996, 85 & 86). His life and death are documented, along with those of other early protagonists in the fight against AIDS from San Francisco and New York City, in Randy Shilt’s study And the Band Played On. It is reported that by 1989, almost half of the gay men over age 26 in San Francisco were infected with HIV (Rodgers et al, 1995, 669) and that by 1995, the city had the highest per capita infection rate of any city in the USA as well as the highest percentage of AIDS-related deaths (1.7%)” (ibid, 666).
In December 1981, young Bobbi Campbell from San Francisco publicly disclosed his status as a person living with Kaposi’s Sarcoma. He created a poster about “Gay Cancer” which he placed in a pharmacy window (Stryker and Van Buskirk, 1996, 86 & 87.) Campbell was one of the first gay men to attempt to seize control of his situation and agitate for public education and action. We can see the start of local activism that would affect not only San Franciscans but also have an international impact. San Francisco not only served as a place where local conditions – in this case, a large collectivised gay community – would provide one locus for an infective agent; the city also demonstrated that epidemics – and human responses to such epidemics – could ebb and flow into and out of localised geographical centres and travel the world.
San Francisco received no prior warning of AIDS, and by the time they rallied, many people had already been lost. By contrast, Melbourne’s gay community received warnings in advance, and they had time to develop community support networks and distribute information. There are no statistics available on the estimated number of gay men living in Melbourne in the 1980s or 1990s due to the covert nature of homosexuality at the time and due to the absence of a strongly united gay community as there had been in San Francisco. Statistics do show that in the early 1980s, hundreds of gay men were diagnosed annually with HIV/AIDS (Author unknown, 1999).
At the 25th anniversary of the Victorian AIDS Council, founding President Phil Carswell recalled the dread and apprehension which they all felt back in those early days and their inability to fully grasp the gravity of the coming problem:
“Looking ahead, we thought we could see a tsunami was coming. What we failed to understand was that it wasn’t a tsunami; it was a whole climate change” (Carswell, 2009).
In 1983, when Australia’s first AIDS fatality occurred in Melbourne, the story appeared on page 3 of The San Francisco Chronicle (United Press, 1983). Its prominence in this newspaper might suggest that the patient – known to have lived in the USA for some years – may have had friends in San Francisco.
A number of comparisons could be made between community responses in San Francisco and Melbourne, and this is the first and most obvious. In San Francisco, the Kaposi’s Sarcoma Foundation was started in April 1982 and was later to be renamed the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF, 2012). In Melbourne, the Victorian AIDS Action Committee was founded in July 1983, later renamed the Victorian AIDS Council. Both organisations were started by coalitions of gay activists and doctors, and both were born out of a groundswell of community concern. There was open liaison between both cities, as is demonstrated in this 1984 Melbourne document, which talks of the San Francisco response (Carr, 1986 (1990) 196 – 203; Author unknown, n.d. (Ian Goller Collection); Goller & Carswell, 1985; Scroope & Carswell, 1987.
The San Francisco model of health care became somewhat of a template for the Melbourne response. This ‘model’ encompassed medical staff, carers and volunteers working collaboratively in every aspect of patient care and treatment, including collaborating closely with local community organisations. This included the emergent, grass-roots volunteer care teams and other support structures; thousands of hours of volunteer work from both homosexual and heterosexual people, possibly the first time that so many volunteers had rallied to confront an epidemic.
Randy Shilts wrote of this model in 1992:
“The importance of San Francisco General Hospital in the history of the AIDS epidemic cannot be overstated. The model of care now used the world over was pioneered in those buildings.” (Shilts, 1992, ix and x.)
My own study in 2011 suggests that Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne was also a centre of medical excellence and innovation, one of synergy between doctors and activists; a place where patients became self-empowered to define and determine their own treatment options (Allshorn, 2011). Although it was closed in 1996, the hospital’s legacy is a paradigm of collaborative discourse between patients and doctors, a redefinition of the medical discourse away from the traditional western model proposed by Foucault, in which medicine has been constructed and regimented as a form of social control (Gordon, 1980, 175).
When we look at both cities, we can see differences emerge even when close correlation is apparent: the SFAF expanded its services to assist affected cohorts, including gay men, injecting drug users, women, and CALD communities (SFAF, 2021). By contrast, the VAC focussed its work predominantly on gay men. This may reflect differing social hierarchies in these cities: San Francisco’s gay community had enjoyed greater civil rights, whereas Melbourne’s gay community was more covert and emergent, and evidently saw a need to establish their own exclusive support structures.
Strangely, the activism in both cities may have been energised by converse governmental responses to HIV/AIDS. In the USA, Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, just as AIDS was being discovered. Many commentators criticise his failure to significantly address AIDS as a public health issue for the first seven years of his eight year administration. Suggested one critic: ‘Ronald Reagan cared more about UFOs than AIDS’ (Pareene, 2011). The San Francisco Mayor stated in 1988 that: ”What threatens to overwhelm San Francisco is not the increased caseload of AIDS, but the continued lack of leadership from the federal government’ (Krohn, 1988).
In Australia, our federal government took steps to work cooperatively with affected communities in order to develop effective responses to the epidemic (Carswell, 1986). This meant that unlike San Francisco, where the activist community was forced into activism due to the inaction of their national government, Melbourne’s activists were being empowered by governmental recognition. Despite somewhat tangential political actuation, both cities achieved a similar result and created a powerful local activist movement.
Community activism in both cities did include forms of protest. The group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was a radical protest group founded in New York City to fight for those with AIDS, particularly to demand their access to potentially life-saving drugs. Chapters of ACT UP formed around the world. ACT UP Melbourne was enthusiastic but short-lived, perhaps lacking the rage of their US counterparts because of our more collaborative government.
AIDS memorial rituals were also developed in San Francisco and exported to the world. These include Candlelight Vigils, starting in San Francisco in 1983 and continuing to this day (SFAF, 2012). Melbourne’s Candlelight Vigil has almost disappeared in recent years. Similarly, San Francisco boasts a National AIDS Memorial Grove, while Melbourne’s AIDS Gardens remain largely forgotten.
The AIDS Quilt, created by San Francisco gay activist Cleve Jones in 1987, remains available for display across the USA, while most of Australia’s AIDS Quilt is now stored in a Sydney museum and Melbourne – perhaps surprisingly – boasted its longest surviving chapter. These varied outcomes demonstrate that even when community activism is directly transmitted by human and cultural interaction, the resulting outcomes are reliant upon local conditions and personalities.
Rodgers et al assert that “When a major event threatens the stability of a system, it forces the members of the system to construct new and changing meanings of their community.” They also suggest that HIV/AIDS reconstructed the social fabric of San Francisco (Rodgers et al, 1995, 676). Dennis Altman has recently called for greater acknowledgement that HIV/AIDS has contributed to the development of Australia’s modern gay community. My study demonstrates the complexities faced by trans-national communities even when they are facing a similar problem or share some cultural antecedents and aspirations. This comparison also shows the ability of local communities to develop their own systems of self-empowerment and to adapt templates to suit local needs when facing challenging times. Such a template might be adapted to suit local conditions in other places.
The world needs to learn lessons from this history because there will be another time, another place and another epidemic. Cleve Jones recalls that the SFAF’s phone started to ring before they had even advertised its existence. He evokes a universal symbolism for local activist communities everywhere: ‘The phone never stopped ringing. Thirty years later, it’s still ringing’ (SFAF, 2012).
Original paper entitled, ‘AIDS Response in San Francisco and Melbourne’ was presented at the ‘Putting History In Its Place’ Conference, La Trobe University, 28 September 2012, and can be found here as part of the conference program that was available on iTunes. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
Geoff Allshorn, 2011. Heroes of the Epidemic: A Social History of HIV/AIDS in Melbourne during the 1980s, unpublished Masters Preliminary thesis, La Trobe University.
W K Anderson, 2002. Fever Hospital: A History of Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital, Carlton South: Melbourne University Press.
Author unknown, n.d. ‘Visitors to AIDS Conference’ (undated note), Ian Goller Collection, Box 2 Folder 3, South Yarra: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.
John Ballard, 2003/2007. Untitled Review, in Neal Blewett, AIDS in Australia: The Primitive Years: Reflections on Australia’s policy response to the AIDS epidemic, Sydney: Australian Policy Institute, University of Sydney, Commissioned Paper, 35 – 38.
Neal Blewett, 2003/2007. AIDS in Australia: The Primitive Years, Sydney: Australian Health Policy Institute, Commissioned Paper Series.
Phil Carswell, 1986. ‘International AIDS Memorial’ (Press Release by Victorian AIDS Council), 23 May.
Phil Carswell, 2009. Founding President’s speech, VAC 25th anniversary celebration, Fawkner Park, South Yarra, 5 April. Quote confirmed by private communication 25 September 2012.
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Adam Carr, 2011. ‘When We Were Very Young: The Early Years of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Victoria’, in Graham Willett, et al, eds, Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne, Parkville: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, pp. 149 – 152.
City of Melbourne, n.d. ‘Melbourne in numbers’, at http://www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/AboutMelbourne/Statistics/Pages/MelbourneSnapshot.aspx accessed 23 September 2012; dead link.
Timothy Conigrave, 1995. Holding the Man, Ringwood: McPhee Gribble.
John Foster, 1993. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Port Melbourne: Minerva.
Ian Goller & Phil Carswell, 1985. International Conference on AIDS, Atlanta Georgia 14th – 17th April, Melbourne: Health Commission of Victoria, 1985, Ian Goller Collection, Box 2 Folder 2, South Yarra: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.
Lou McCallum, 2003/2007. Untitled Review, in Neal Blewett, AIDS in Australia: The Primitive Years, Sydney: Australian Health Policy Institute, Commissioned Paper Series, 2003/2007, pp. 32 – 38.
David Menadue, 2003. Positive, Crow’s Nest: Allen and Unwin.
Alan Petersen, 2012. A Historical Geography of Melbourne’s Gay and Lesbian Club Scene c. 1970 – 2000, seminar paper, La Trobe University, 26 April.
Prostitutes Collective of Victoria, n.d. The Hussies Handbook: A Guide for Sex Workers and the Law, St Kilda.
Allen Scroope & Phil Carswell, 1987. ‘Report of Visit to San Francisco and Conference on Health Department Leadership and Community Response’, Melbourne, Attachment 4: ‘Shanti Project’, Ian Goller Collection, Box 14 Folder 7, South Yarra: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.
VAAC News: Official Newsletter of the Victorian AIDS Action Committee, No. 1, October 1983, ALGA Collection.
VAAC News: Official Newsletter of the Victorian AIDS Action Committee, No. 2, March 1984, ALGA Collection.
Art Agnos, 1988. Quoted in An Epidemic of Loss: AIDS in San Francisco’s Gay Male Community 1988 – 1993, report from conference of 30 October 1987, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, 25 March.
Author unknown, 1999. ‘Estimated HIV Incidence, observed AIDS Diagnoses and projected AIDS Incidence’ in National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research (ed.), HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and Sexually Transmissible Infections in Australia: Annual Surveillance Report 1999, Darlinghurst: National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, Figure 2, p. 8.
Author unknown, Visitors to AIDS Conference, undated note, Ian Goller Collection, Box 2 Folder 3, South Yarra: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, accessed 20 September 2012.
Wyatt Buchanan, 2006. ‘SAN FRANCISCO: Pride parade salute for an unlikely ally / Police officer who reached out in 1960s to be grand marshal’, San Francisco Chronicle, 23 June.
Adam Carr, ed., Meeting the Challenge: Papers of the First National Conference on AIDS, Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1986; reissued Abbotsford: La Trobe University, 1990, pp. 196 – 203.
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John Phillips (writer) & Scott McKenzie (singer), 1967. San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair), MCA Music Publishing.
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Randy Shilts, 1987. And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1987.
– – – 1992. ‘Foreword’, in Carol Pogash, As Real As It Gets: The Life of a Hospital at the Center of the AIDS Epidemic, New York: Birch Lane Press, pp. ix – xii.
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Some years ago, I applied for employment in a religious school.
I was young and full of enthusiasm, with a respectable religious background and church upbringing. I had appropriate teaching qualifications and impeccable references.
The job interview went well, and we all seemed mutually happy, as a panel of administrators and parents asked me to respond to their school ethos, educational requirements etc. It was going swimmingly, and we were discussing educational practice until one parent asked me a hypothetical question out of the blue:
“Imagine you are on Yard Duty, and one of the students in the schoolyard asks you the question: ‘Are Adam and Eve in the Bible true?’ – How would you answer?”
I immediately recognised that this was a potential trap and that they wanted me to say: “I would tell them that if it is in the Bible, of course it is true.” But I also knew that such an answer was unsatisfactory to me. As someone who had been taught to think for myself within my Christian upbringing, and as a teacher, I could not ethically encourage children to blindly accept indoctrination.
Pausing for a moment, I came up with an answer which I felt would be acceptable to me as a teacher, and to them as Christians: “I would tell the student to go read the Bible, read their student Bible commentary, ask their parents, ask their teachers, ask their pastor, ask their friends, and then make an informed decision.”
“Thank you for coming,” replied that parent immediately, smiling thinly and gesturing to the door. I thanked them for their time, and left the room with my head held high. I had not betrayed my professional ethics as a teacher, and therefore I was useless to them.
This is one of many reasons why religious freedoms – the fake news being peddled by our federal government in an attempt to introduce a law that would abuse human rights under the cover of religiosity – must be opposed.
Everyone expresses concern about the ability of religious schools to fire gay teachers, Muslim gardeners or single mothers whose ‘chosen lifestyle’ is incompatible with the proclamations of religious bigots. I agree – but I wonder if the greater long-term damage might be in teaching students to NOT think critically about themselves and the world around them?
I recall my younger days, travelling into town and visiting Space Age Books. As I stepped through those bookshop doors, the everyday sounds of traffic and mundane life were left outside and I was free to explore other worlds and other times. I felt as if I had traversed a cosmic portal and left behind my mundane existence as a schoolboy to become, for all too brief a period, an adventurer and researcher at Hogwarts or in a modern-day Library of Alexandria.
I miss the days of looking upward, of being inspired by Moonwalkers who held much of the planet breathless in shared excitement. I miss Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, who encouraged us to consider the stellar void as testimony to both our cosmic beginnings and our future as a species. I recall my imaginary explorations as a crewmember aboard the Skylark, the Spacemaster, or the USS Enterprise; or as a citizen of Trantor or Arrakis. I admire the modern equivalents of these vistas, but somehow (to me at least) these newcomers lack the grandeur of the old masters – or maybe that is simply my nostalgia instinct kicking in and giving special deference to my halcyon days as an avid and excitable teenage SF reader.
It has been reported that 60% of post-war baby-boomer children in the UK were avid readers of Dan Dare comics during the 1950s (Holland, 2008, 6). They later matured by watching Thunderbirds and 2001: A Space Odyssey and Armstrong’s one small step on the Moon. It may have been inevitable for me to join this same cohort, as I was born between the launch of Ham the Chimp and Yuri Gagarin.
As someone who was first exposed to SF via television programs such as Space Patrol, Lost in Space and Space: 1999, and the pulp SF novels of Captain WE Johns, I recognise that the science in these stories was often embarrassingly inadequate, but they nevertheless portrayed something marvellous – the grandeur of the universe and the sense of wonder which can be inculcated by our viewing of cosmic vistas.
Nowadays, the demands and realities of mundane existence have largely replaced my youthful dreams and visions – I have not gafiated so much as fafiated. And yet, when I pause and look up into the night-time sky, there is a primal call which echoes in my soul. Despite my attempts to ignore this compulsion, I still miss space opera, that traditionally maligned sub-genre of science fiction which encompasses both the grandeur of Apollo and the ordinariness of pulp culture.
Defining the Undefinable
In its purest form, SF holds the potential to not only anticipate a variety of possible futures, but to actually contribute to such outcomes (Bonfiglioli, 2010, 40; Kreuiter, 2009, 26-28). This holds true both sociologically and technologically, as demonstrated by the public silence that largely greeted NASA’s 1996 announcement of possible Martianmicrobial fossils inside Meteorite ALH84001. No politician mocked the concept of little green men; no religious leader proclaimed the divinely-ordained anthropocentric nature of creation. Life on Earth continued as before – evidence that SF had prepared our species to accept news of possible ET life.
I observe a similar lack of controversy in the discovery of thousands of extrasolar worlds circling nearby stars. Once again, our cultures and cosmological understandings have been prepared in advance for exciting discoveries. This shows that SF has an incredible, literally world-changing power, in no small part due to its implicit optimism. SF has even helped students to understand and learn scientific concepts (Laprise and Windrich, 2010) and has inspired many people to enter scientific careers or to create technological inventions (Jones, 2005; Easton & Dial, 2010).
Science fiction inculcates an open mindset in which its practitioners might explore all sorts of possibilities: diversity and learning to appreciate the metaphoric alien in our midst, wondrous scientific discoveries, future utopias and dystopias available to humans, new human identities and futuristic societies, vast cosmic vistas that transcend space and time and humanity. I have previously noted how Carl Sagan has invoked the sense of wonder that can be found in the cosmic vistas of science. Science fiction pioneer and monster afficionado Forrest Ackerman was one person who embraced and popularised many science fantasy elements, but he personally disavowed any belief in religion or the supernatural, and embraced hard science. As an atheist and secular humanist, he looked ahead with hope to the future awaiting possible construction by humankind:
“My hope for humanity – and I think sensible science fiction has a beneficial influence in this direction – is that one day everyone born will be whole in body and brain, will live a long life free from physical and emotional pain, will participate in a fulfilling way in their contribution to existence… I hope to be remembered as an altruist who would have been an accepted citizen of Utopia.” – Forrest J. Ackerman
Bridging the Gap
CP Snow suggested that we need to bridge the gap between the ‘two cultures’, ie. the chasm that exists between science and arts (Snow, 1959). I would suggest that science fiction may be one way to popularise science and critical thinking in ways that are artistic, creative and innovative. This may help to steer our culture away from fake news, Trumpism and Brexit, conspiracy theories, religious fundamentalism, and pseudoscience.
Science fiction has a potential to transcend its own limitations and expand further into the paeans of literature. It can do this by borrowing extensively from other literature for its theme, character and setting (Casimir, 2002) or by utilising mythical archetypes that allow Luke Skywalker to be Odysseus. SF can give expression to feminist and other progressive ideas. Among its many fans, science fiction attracts those who are marginalised by mundane society and we should listen to such voices:
“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”
– Octavia Butler.
“We need women to be able to participate fully and equally in science fiction’s conversations about humanity’s future – to shape how women are portrayed in those visions, to consider the roles women might play in those futures, and to imagine what a truly evolved and advanced society might look like for women.”
– Dr Bronwyn Lovell.
“We have the right to imagine what is possible beyond the systems that try to destroy us. Black and queer writers have long imagined worlds beyond this one.”
– Shayla Lawz.
Science fiction can therefore be an antidote to bigotry and intolerance, and an educational tool for promoting diversity and difference. How can someone hate their fellow humans after they learn to appreciate the ‘alien’ within SF literature?
The Fandom Menace:
In SF, we meet people who are forever changed by the advances in science which have affected both their world and their very humanity. It is when we stretch these boundaries, not only of science, but of our concepts of what it means to be human, that we achieve the level of classical literature.
It is thus we see a connection between Jules Verne’s The First Men in the Moon and Plato’s stories of Atlantis; we understand that Star Trek is a modern-day reworking of Jason and the Argonauts or Gulliver’s Travels; we can view Asimov’s Robot stories as 20th century modellings of medieval morality plays. We understand that tales of astronauts exploring strange new worlds are re-visitations of Robinson Crusoe or The Odyssey. We appreciate the Superman stories as secular retellings of Biblical folklore; and that Sarah Connor’s space opera adventures reboot female archetypes Athena or Minerva.
All such mythologies examine the timeless themes of what it means to be human in a wider, breathtaking cosmos.
Perhaps most of all, science fiction gives us a mirror within which we can glimpse who we are, and who we might become. In creating the possible worlds of science fiction, we are also creating ourselves:
“The Martians were there – in the canal – reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad. The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water …” ― Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
Catriona Bonfiglioli, 2010. ‘Science ↔ Society’, in Chemistry in Australia, RACI, Volume 77 Number 9, October.
John Casimir, 2002. ‘Clone Wars’, in The Age, 16 May, B3.
Thomas A. Easton & Judith K. Dial (eds), 2010. Visions of Tomorrow: Science Fiction Predictions That Came True, Skyhorse Publishing Inc, Canada.
Steve Holland, 2008. ‘Introduction’, in Steve Holland (ed.), Rick Random: Space Detective, London: Prion/IPC Publishing Group.
Julian Jones (writer and director), 2005. How William Shatner Changed the World, Handel Productions Inc.
Allan Kreuiter, 2009. ‘The Science of Science Fiction’, in Australasian Science, Volume 30, Issue 10, Nov/Dec.
Shari Laprise & Chuck Winrich, 2010. ‘The Impact of Science Fiction Films on Student Interest in Science’, Journal of College Science Teaching, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 45 – 49.
C.P. Snow, 1959. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
“ ‘Cause love don’t need a reason
Love don’t always rhyme
And love is all we have for now
What we don’t have is time.” – Love Don’t Need A Reason
In memory of Michael Callen
(11 April 1955 – 27 December 1993)
They Are Falling All Around Me
Michael Callen was a US singer and gay man who became an important AIDS activist during the terrible pandemic that swept the world in the 1980s and 1990s – and which continues to this day in many parts of the world. One of his legacy songs, Love Don’t Need A Reason, was co-written by Australian-born singer Peter Allen (who also died of AIDS) and singer Marsha Malamet.
My personal introduction to Michael Callen took place at the US National March on Washington on 25 April 1993, not because I attended the event, but because I watched film clips from the March on the ABC News in Australia. I was visiting a lesbian friend who has since passed away, and we were captivated by Michael’s song – a moment of beauty and peace during a stormy era when our civil rights were under attack and many of our friends were suffering and dying from a dreadful epidemic.
Although he came from a background where he had enjoyed a lifestyle of sexual freedom and ‘promiscuity’ within gay male communities, he later spoke against this behaviour in the era of AIDS, and expanded his activist work to support all who were affected by HIV/AIDS – women, children, minorities, haemophiliacs, and others.
He ‘coined the term “people with AIDS” (PWAs) to replace the early characterizations of PWAs as AIDS victims’ and spoke of empowering them:
“Michael Callen used to say there was ‘a special magic in the room’ whenever a group of people with AIDS got together. Because our lives were at stake, we generally did our best to share what we were learning without judgment, without personalizing our arguments, without any agenda except to learn.”(Strub, 2014, 296)
I do not know if he considered himself a Humanist, but he was an atheist and he certainly undertook activist work that upheld Humanist principles, by working for the dignity of others and empowering the dispossessed. Although he testified to members of New York Congress in 1983 that, ‘At age 28, I wake up every morning to face the very real possibility of my own death’, the most recent book on his life and works notes that his atheism contained elements of ‘hope and optimism’ (Jones, 2020, 349), which I see as another Humanist trait.
In 1988, he noted the insidious nature of living with AIDS:
“Two weeks ago… I looked down and noticed my first KS lesion on my leg. A biopsy has confirmed my suspicion. I thought I’d made a separate peace with AIDS, but it’s continually negotiating in bad faith. AIDS is a wily adversary. One cannot turn one’s back for an instant.” (Callen, 1988, xix)
Two years later, he displays a more positive attitude during the era when HIV remained a virtual death sentence:
“While I would never have wished for AIDS, the plain truth is that I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. Having AIDS has been like going through ten years of therapy – every week.
“AIDS has taught me the preciousness of life and the healing power of love. I’ve been more productive than at any time prior. I’ve travelled the world and met hundreds of wonderful people that I’m sure I would not have met any other way. I’ve tried to see AIDS as a challenge to begin living, instead of a sign to begin dying.
“AIDS forced me to take responsibility for my own life – for the choices I had made and the choices I could still make. For better or worse, AIDS has made me the man I am today.” (Callen, 1990, 10)
We could surely all learn from his uplifting attitude.
The Healing Power of Love
Perhaps one of Michael’s greatest gifts to the world was his strong hope. Author Sean Strub reports of Michael’s 1990 book, Surviving AIDS, written at a time when HIV was largely seen as a death sentence:
“In Surviving AIDS, Callen interviewed people with AIDS about why they thought they were alive. He found that those who had survived the longest shared three important traits: They believed survival was possible; they could identify a reason to get up in the morning; and when asked how they treated their illness, they could rattle off a list of different strategies. What was on the list wasn’t important. Survivors sought survival; seeking and experimenting with various treatments and strategies was the key.
“Callen told me he was accused of offering people with AIDS ‘cruel hope’ by suggesting that survival was possible. “I tell them there’s no such thing as cruel hope,” he said, “Hope is hope – either you have it or you don’t.” ” (Strub, 2014, 236).
Such a concept as ‘hope’ might be open to accusations of demonstrating a religious mindset. Lawrence Rifkin suggests an alternative view of hope, divorced from the populist vision of a utopian, dreamy-eyed fantasy that denies the ugly face of reality:
So let’s admit straight out: humanism is not about hope. It’s about facing the world as it actually exists and making the best of it. It’s about looking this real world in the eye and, using imagination and initiative, building castles in the sand, not castles in the sky. It’s about finding goodness within the spectrum of what’s real and what’s possible. And in facing such truths, humanists don’t look outside nature for salvation; they don’t seek change through wish fulfillment. This perspective is not a limitation. It’s a motivator. It’s the ground for positive action and results.
It seems to me that this is actually the form of hope that Michael Callen grasped and shared widely. A gay cliché of dark humour during that same era was that if life offers you lemons, make lemonaids. This is what Callen did, not denying the world’s problems but defying them; offering enlightenment to those facing darkness; offering a tomorrow for those whose today offers little. We can learn a lesson from him a generation later, whether facing cancer or COVID, poverty or prosperity, pride or prejudice.
On The Other Side
Australian AIDS historian Nick Cook recalls Michael Callen’s ‘show-stopping speech’ at Australia’s Third National Conference on AIDS in Hobart in August 1988, where he ‘gave a rousing address about refusing to be ashamed of his infection’ (Cook, 2020, 143). This encouraged, ‘the first major coming out of people with HIV’ in Australia, led by activists Chris Carter and Terry Giblett (Menadue, 2014, 20) – a virtual takeover of the conference by HIV-positive Australian activists gatecrashing the stage, coming out to the world – and to each other – for the first time; amidst applause, cheers, tears, hugs and a standing ovation from the audience – in defiance of widespread stigma and discrimination across the nation (Cook, 2020, 144 – 150). In that event, Michael Callen changed Australia.
I am fortunate to own a copy of Michael’s books, in one of which he has inscribed to its previous owner: “Celebrate diversity and heal AIDS with love!” Such words are surely worth remembering during this current pandemic and beyond.
“Together we have come this far
Don’t wonder where the heroes are
You are one!” – The Healing Power of Love,
(c) 1986 by Michael Callen & Marsha Malamet
(Callen, 1987, 94)
Michael Callen died of AIDS at age 38 on 27 December 1993. Had he been spared that fate, he would have celebrated his 66th birthday just this month. We can only wonder what music, what activism, and what hope he might have offered the world during those fruitful years of life that he was denied. Maybe that is his last lesson to us: to grasp every day and every opportunity while we can. Because love is all we have for now, what we don’t have is time.
Thank you, Michael.
This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
Berkowitz, Richard & Callen, Michael, with editorial assistance by Dworkin, Richard (1983). How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, New York: News From the Front Publications, May.
Callen, Michael, ed. (1987). Surviving and Thriving with AIDS, New York: People With AIDS Coalition Inc.
Callen, Michael, ed. (1988). Surviving and Thriving with AIDS Volume Two: Collected Wisdom, New York: People With AIDS Coalition Inc., August.
Callen, Michael (1990). Surviving AIDS, New York: HarperCollins.
Cook, Nick (2020). Fighting For Our Lives: The history of a community response to AIDS, Sydney: NewSouth Publishing/University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
Jones, Matthew T (2020). Love Don’t Need a Reason: The Life & Music of Michael Callen, punctum books, 11 May.
Menadue, David (2014). ‘Stigmatised but largely invisible’, in John Rule, ed., Through our eyes: Thirty Years of people living with HIV responding to the HIV and AIDS epidemics in Australia, Newtown: NAPWHA, July, 18 – 21.
Strub, Sean (2014). Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival, New York: Scribner.
In 1993, Minerva Books published a memoir written by Melbourne academic, John Foster, which immortalised the life and death of his partner. A generation later, we are experiencing another pandemic, and this book – subsequently reissued by Black Inc. in 2003 and most recently in 2016 by the Text Publishing Company – is something of an overlooked classic. Given its literary merit – Peter Craven (1994) praises this writing as “unparalleled in Australian letters” – it is surprising that John Foster’s book has not received wider acclamation.
The answer, it seems, might be found in the historical context of the times. A generation has now passed since the arrival of AIDS, and much of our societal ignorance, fear and hysteria have dissolved into the calm of complacency. AIDS, which was once loudly denounced everywhere from pulpit to Parliament, has instead succumbed to the ultimate stigma: that of being generally forgotten and invisible. Foster’s novel is both a victim of, and a challenge against, such invisibility. It reminds us that HIV/AIDS is still here – and that we are greatly diminished when we overlook the courage of its heroes.
Take Me To Paris, Johnny is the real-life story of Juan Céspedes, the Cuban refugee and US emigre who arrives in Melbourne in 1986 to begin a new life filled with love, cautious hope and limited possibilities – only to be struck down with AIDS. Foster’s affectionate testimony to Juan’s resilience transforms the young man into the human personification of John Donne’s call for compassion: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind…” Juan’s Cuban mother and grandmother – whose distant lives interweave a mixture of both compassion and heartbreaking tragedy – are also transformed by Foster into figures who, through their suffering and loss, are evocative of the mother of Jesus. Such religious allusion subtly enriches Foster’s writing at different times throughout the novel.
Foster’s devout religious convictions might puzzle anyone who believes the term “gay Christian” to be potentially oxymoronic – even more so in the 1980s, when religious-based vilification was aimed at many people with AIDS. Such contradictions, however, are apparently not unusual for John Foster: an administrator who hates bureaucracy (Robertson, 1994) and an academic who falls in love with a self-educated dancer. Most paradoxically, Foster is an historian who teaches his students about the horrors of the Holocaust whilst conceding in his book that history holds a callous disregard for mere mortals: “Mostly it neither absolves nor condemns; it simply forgets”. Like his teaching, Foster’s personal memoir is a protest against such oblivion – this latter being a tribute to his partner, Juan, whose deathbed exclamation of heartbreaking despair, “I have accomplished nothing”, sparks Foster’s determination to document his life and death (Rickard, 2003).
The story is large and literate in scope, evocative even of a Shakespearean epic. Foster’s star-crossed lovers battle both society’s disapproval of their relationship and a deadlier ‘plague on both their houses’. Whereas Shakespeare’s fictional characters die in suicidal despair, Foster’s real-life lovers find consolation within their relationship: “We made it, Johnny. Didn’t we?”
John and Juan’s relationship can also be seen as an Australian story because it is the embodiment of multiculturalism and diversity. Their potentially intergenerational partnership – common enough in the gay community (Wilde, 2008) – is complicated by differences of race, education, class, culture and language. Foster nevertheless demonstrates unconditional love and acceptance, for example by accepting Juan’s infidelities either by choosing wilful ignorance or through a dismissive attitude akin to “boys will be boys”. Such is the nature of their unconventional partnership; one which some religions might propound as being symptomatic of the ‘sinful’ nature of homosexuality, but which Foster, as a Christian, presents without apology or reservation – his is neither a tale of political activism nor moral turpitude (Dessaix 1994), but simply a narration exposing a facet of what he considers to be real life.
Despite this implicit documentation of ‘ordinariness’, Foster’s writing also resonates with his personal sense of ‘otherness’ as revealed in his earlier book about WW2 German Jewish refugees when he summarises the effects of war, flight as refugees and subsequent cultural assimilation: “In Melbourne, German Jews have ceased to be a community…It is the memory of a past which is proud, terrible and still problematic” (Foster, 1986). Such mixed feelings and fears are reflected in Take Me To Paris, Johnny when Juan’s difficulties as a refugee and a gay man with AIDS allude to the plight of “pariahs” within Australian society (Baker 1994); they imply a concern by Foster that AIDS might decimate his own gay family just as life’s harsh realities ravaged members of the German Jewish community. There may even be a further parallel concerning the struggle within Foster’s own faith as a gay Christian, a minority within a minority which was under attack from both disease and discrimination. It may indeed be John Foster’s very underlying assumption – that gay men can find acceptance and love within the religious community – which has contributed to the avoidance of this text by some Australian readers.
Juan’s more obvious ‘otherness’ exposes different possible interpretations of his life and motivations. Readers might criticise Juan for relying on the financial support of older men in order to compensate for his own lifelong failure to forge a successful career for himself (Dessaix, 1994). A more benign interpretation might see Juan as someone who strives to improve his lot (Hanrahan, 2003) but upon whom fate inflicts many cruelties – until he is blessed through the friendship of John Foster. Williams (1994) evokes this latter alternative in his character description of Juan: “attractively elegant, talented, flawed, and unlucky in just about everything, except his choice of lovers.” As an example of the fickle finger of fate, Juan lies dying just as the “Grim Reaper” campaign is terrorising Australian television in 1987, and this fills Foster with impotent rage. After all, the faceless ‘other’ who is being publicly vilified as someone to fear is none other than gentle Juan. In the end, it matters not whatever might form the course or cause of Juan’s life journey; readers are uplifted by the end of his vigil when he discovers the redemptive power of love.
“Who, in their right mind, would actually want to read a book … about AIDS?” – apparently wrote one reviewer of an early New Zealand AIDS anthology, and was soundly criticised for this comment by Tom McLean, a Scottish journalist who was living and dying in New Zealand at around the same time as the characters in Foster’s book. McLean wrote his own AIDS autobiography, If I Should Die: Living With AIDS, dying three days after its publication (Young, 2002?a) – departing this mortal coil, like Juan Céspedes, on a Good Friday (Young, 2002?b).
The vexed question remains: “Who would want to read a book about AIDS?” – particularly in this decade when AIDS is seen as being barely newsworthy. Perhaps the answer is obvious: Everyone, because in learning about John and Juan, we are learning about ourselves. Why?
Indeed, why did the world find Anne Frank’s diary about the Holocaust to be so compelling and personal? It is an endearing coincidence that Anne Frank and Juan Céspedes share a childlike optimism despite imminent disaster; moreover, both their testimonies resonate with a mix of inner personal voices and external human truths which echo poet Walt Whitman’s decree: “I am large, I contain multitudes”.
Robin Grove (1994/1995) summarises another parallel in Foster’s book: “JUAN is JOHN, John Juan, each in the language of the other…” and this is the first of many parallels which are replete within and without the memoir. Juan receives almost identical care at the start and end of his life; his compassion for the friend who probably gave him HIV is shown through his caring support as the other man lies dying of AIDS – and mirrors the care he receives in due course from Foster, to whom he probably transmitted the same virus; the lovers both have funerals at Easter (Brady, 2004) and are buried together in Kew Cemetery. Such is the level of connection which unites John and Juan in both life and death; such is Foster’s skill that he can weave together such disparate threads of memory into a colourful tapestry of love and loss.
The book’s original subtitle, A Life Accomplished in the Era of AIDS, was a refutation of Juan’s deathbed exclamation of despair and defeat. This subtitle was deleted for the subsequent reissues, and may reflect the changing face of AIDS in Australia since Foster’s book was first published. The genre of Australian novel-length AIDS life narrative was a transitory and largely overlooked phenomenon; commencing with an autobiography by Eric Michaels (Unbecoming: An AIDS Diary, 1990) and ending with another by Robert Newey (Lessons Learnt, 2005); the arrival of new drug regimes then ended the conspicuity of suffering and death. AIDS now inspires little interest for most Australians; they see it as affecting marginalised peoples who are geographically or emotionally distant from their own lives. This is another tragedy of the pandemic: we fail to recognise noble heroes and role models. As one character comments in Foster’s book: “I sense from your account… that many people are increased in their humanity because of Juan’s presence among them.” A common truism is equally fitting: those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.
Most significantly, John Foster’s text is a story of humans and families: individuals, lovers, friends, biological versus adoptive families, religious and gay communities – and indeed the whole human family. In this mix, Juan is presented as both child and adult seeking his way in the world, while John Foster becomes both lover and mentor. The heartbreak of Juan’s biological family as they lose him to refugee flight is counterbalanced with the pain faced by Juan’s adopted Melbourne family as he is fades away with AIDS.
Take Me To Paris, Johnny has acquired extra layers of meaning since its initial publication. Juan originally escaped from Guantánamo in Cuba – a place which has taken on a new resonance around the world in more recent times as the location for other forms of cruelty – and his identity as a refugee also places his story within a more contemporary Australian context of discrimination and alienation. Most pointedly in recent times, the whole world has learn what it means to endure under the spectre of pandemic. Foster could not have envisaged that his book would remain as relevant as tomorrow’s headlines in the decades following his death.
John Foster shows his consummate skill as an author through his realism and compassion: love may not conquer all, but it makes everything bearable. His legacy is a work which echoes with the voice and essence of his departed friend, Juan Céspedes. In turn, readers can only wonder how many other Juans have been forgotten, with their stories left untold. Perhaps Juan’s greatest accomplishment is that, in the pages of this memoir, he speaks on behalf of them all.
This is based upon an unpublished book review written in 2010, related to my PhD Studies on, “A Social History of HIV/AIDS in Melbourne during the ‘Crisis Years’ 1981 to 1997”. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
Mark Baker, 1994. ‘Gentle Critic of the Hills Hoist Culture’, in Michael Visontay (editor), ‘Time and Tide’ (obituaries), The Australian, 18 May 1994, p. 16.
Jim Brady, 1994. ‘Eulogy’, in Baker, Mark, editor (1997), History on the Edge: Essays in Memory of John Foster 1944-1994, University of Melbourne History Department.
Peter Craven, 1994. ‘A Rare Thing’, in Voices, Vol. IV Number 2, Winter, pp. 118 – 122; an excerpted version of this essay was reprinted as the Foreword to the 2003 reissue of John Foster’s book.
Robert Dessaix, 1994. ‘The Dark Rose’, in Meanjin #1.
Stephen Dow, 2003. ‘AIDS, Fragile Love and Dying’, in The Age, 28 September, Agenda section, p. 10.
John Foster (editor), 1986.Community of Fate: Memoirs of German Jews in Melbourne, Allen & Unwin.
John Foster, 1993. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Minerva.
John Foster (reissue), 2003. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Black Inc. (includes Foreword by Peter Craven and Afterword by John Rickard).
John Foster (reissue), 2016. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Text Publishing Company. (includes Foreword by Peter Craven and Afterword by John Rickard).
Robin Grove, 1994/1995. ‘A Memory’s Shape’, in Island No 60/61, Spring/Summer, pp. 68-71. (Note: this article contains a beautiful photograph of Juan which is not available in any of the other literature).
John Hanrahan, 2003. ‘Loving and Dying’, in Australian Book Review, November.
Tom Mclean, 1989. If I Should Die: Living With AIDS, Benton Ross Publishers, p. 56.
John Rickard, 2003. ‘Afterword’, in John Foster, 2003, as above.
Ian Robertson, 1994. ‘Obituary: John Foster’, in The Age, 14 May, ‘Extra’ p. 8.
Winston Wilde, 2008. Legacies of Love: A Heritage of Queer Bonding, Haworth Press.
Stephen J Williams, 1994. ‘The Personal Will Be History, One Day’, in Overland No. 136, Spring, pp. 84 & 85.
Hugh Young, 2002?a. ‘HIV/AIDS in New Zealand‘, in Queer History New Zealand: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender New Zealand History, Queer History New Zealand.
– – – – – – – 2002?b. ‘A Chronology of Homosexuality in New Zealand: Part 5 – From Law Reform to the Present’, in Queer History New Zealand: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender New Zealand History: Part 5, Queer History New Zealand.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
I acknowledge and pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians and Elders of this nation, past, present and emerging; and to the continued cultural and community practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Based up indigenous.gov.au and Reconciliation Australia
Many years ago, I worked in a country town. I was somewhat startled by some local attitudes towards First Nations inhabitants – attitudes which wavered between open disinterest and openly racist. I was concerned at the social distancing between European and First Nations communities, and attempted to bridge the gap within my personal and professional spheres of influence. As a young, naïve, relatively uninformed but idealistic first-year teacher, I made an effort to learn and implement indigenous culture within my subjects.
I took aside my indigenous Year 9 students and apologised to them that the Australian History curriculum that I had been mandated to teach actively excluded the existence of their communities after 1788, and I invited them to contribute ideas or to put me in touch with local adults who could help me make the subject more inclusive. They shrugged casually and remarked, “Nothing personal sir, but we’ve been putting up with this shit of being overlooked all our lives”. Naturally this encouraged me to redouble my efforts – working with the union to incorporate indigenous perspectives into the curriculum; seeking counsel from a local Koori Liaison Officer; incorporating indigenous stories, perspectives and culture into my classes; taking my younger students onto the school oval to throw boomerangs and spears under the guidance and direction of appropriate local First Nations elders.
After I left the town, I bumped into one or two of my former First Nations students in other social settings, and we maintained a positive relationship until life took us in different directions.
I did not find out until some years later, however, that the year before I had arrived in the town, there had been a death that would ultimate feature within the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. During my time there, I had not heard a word – not amidst the social gossip, not within otherwise snide racist innuendo, not even in the context of professional concern at the social isolation of individuals with whom I worked – nothing. This man’s death had been invisible and ignored and unheralded in the town, like dirty laundry that nobody wanted to air.
The Royal Commission produced many reports, including individual reports for each death investigated. The Royal Commission found that First Nations people were more likely to die in custody because they were more likely to be in custody. Almost 30 years later and First Nations people are still far more likely to be incarcerated than the non-Indigenous population. The final report was signed on 15 April 1991 and made 339 recommendations. The recommendations focused on health and safety procedures for people in custody, liaison with First Nations community groups, police education and improved transparency of records. According to the Federal Government’s own measures, most of these recommendations have either not been implemented or only partially implemented.
Since the Royal Commission handed down its findings in 1991, at least another 455 Indigenous people have died in custody, according to the latest-available statistics from the 2018-19 National Deaths in Custody program.
And so it is now, some thirty years after that Commission – its recommendations largely ignored; the societal discrimination that it attempted to address still remaining unresolved due to a continuation across Australia (and beyond) of the same attitudes I observed in my local country town all those years ago – a marriage of open disinterest and open racism.
“Looking at the earth from afar you realize it is too small for conflict
and just big enough for co-operation.” – Yuri Gagarin
Sir Isaac Newton is famously attributed, in his 1675 letter, with the metaphor that: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We can certainly appreciate his allusion to the intellectual and scientific giants who have changed our world. And yet the metaphor has earlier attribution that includes Christian humanist Guillaume de Conches, and implictly accords greatness to people from many backgrounds and cultures across humanity. In 1961, a young Soviet pilot became one such giant by literally going boldly where no one had gone before.
I am lucky to have been born – with barely one fortnight to spare – into a generation that will, in the mists of history, be remembered as one which truly took a step into a new frontier and maybe changed forever what it means to be human. This revolutionary change was spearheaded by 27 year-old Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, born into a family with seemingly evocative Biblical overtones (his parents were a carpenter and a dairy farmer) whose trip on 12 April 1961 aboard Vostok lasted just 89 minutes. With his short cosmic jaunt, he plugged into the timeless dreams of philosophers and stargazers, and tapped into our most primal dreams of flight:
YURI GAGARIN Maj. Yuri Gagarin during training, April 1961. The black-and-white photo has been colorized. AP Photo / TASS / Mattias Malmer (public domain). Planetary Society.
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
– from “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee
While writing such testimony, I resist the conceit of mythopoesis, the process of creating myth; a human tendency that was evident in those who sought to recast Gagarin as a Russian icon, or ascribe him an aristocratic family background. Nevertheless, the reality is that Gagarin was a genuine pioneer and hero, and that his was a dangerous journey aboard a flawed, fragile capsule hoisted aloft by explosive propellant. The background stories behind his life, flight, and tragic death, are all shrouded in Soviet-style mystery, and certainly help to demythologise his narrative. In the early days of the space race, cosmonauts and astronauts were referred to in the USA as people with ‘the right stuff’, able to tap into inner reserves of resilience and indomitability. Gagarin’s background may have prepared him for such a hardy adventure. William Blake alluded to noble human attributes that can be found within the souls of such giants:
“In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?”
– The Tyger by William Blake.
So it will be in the galactic era to come. Our human ability to dream and to grow will ensure that, pending survival from pandemic and parochial war, we have a potentially wonderful future ahead. Claiming a habitat in space may ensure our long-term survival as a species should a meteor or microbe threaten planetary extinction here on Earth. The harshness of environmental conditions on other worlds will hopefully make us mindful of the need to wisely and optimally utilise interplanetary resources, while also ensuring the backbone of a thriving space economy and perspective that has the potential to benefit all of humanity and other life in our planetary ecosystem. Learning to terraform other planets may give us the ability to also terraform our home planet back from climate catastrophe.
Any suggestion that space exploration is somehow a waste of time or money is really quite problematic for a number of reasons: it invokes the hypocrisy of creationists, religious fundamentalists, and anti-science denialists who wish to promote some form of luddite society while still enjoying the benefits of our scientific age; and it stifles the human impulse to look up in awe and seek to explore and evolve. It ignores the lessons of history that science has improved the quality and quantity of our lives, and that those societies which resist progress actually go backwards. Perhaps most pointedly (in contradiction to the populist maxim that the money spent on space should instead be spent on the poor), the space program actually has the potential – when adopted widely and wisely – to assist developing nations, to supply valuable infrastructure and to help the environment. We cannot fight poverty if we economically, scientifically or intellectually impoverish ourselves.
On this anniversary, let us celebrate the fact that humanity took its first tangible step into space on the first Cosmonautics Day, 12 April 1961 – the day when Yuri Gagarin soared (however momentarily) into space, and changed our world. Celebrated annually across Russia and aligned nations, Cosmonautics Day was officially declared International Day of Human Spaceflight in 2011. The occasion has been supplemented since 2001 with the addition of Yuri’s Night, described as ‘space-themed partying with education and outreach‘. Our future is coming, and we should prepare. Let us honour the dreams and wonderment of billions of people down through the millennia, as they looked up at the cosmos and into our possible future:
May our next trip into space be bold and ambitious, reflective of the utterance: “Poyekhali!!” (“Let’s go!”) that began Gagarin’s launch in 1961 – and turned our species forever from Homo sapiens into Homo galacticus.
“[Actor Leonard Nimoy] wrote autobiographical tomes variously titled, I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock; perhaps his next book should have been titled, We Are All Spock.” – (Allshorn, 2015, 12)
The original Star Trek series was created by Humanist Gene Roddenberry, who presented a utopian vision wherein science and society had evolved to create a future without war, injustice or other human foibles. Spock was one of his most noble, popular and inspirational creations.
Star Trek was a television series with ambitions that were larger than the television screen: “What Star Trek is, is a set of fables – morality plays, entertainments, and diversions about contemporary man, but set against a science fiction background.” (Gerrold, 1973, 48)
Spock was a true scientist and humanitarian. He explored the galaxy (and nature) with an open-minded sense of awe and wonder, frequently expressing his admiration for “fascinating” new discoveries. He also explored the structures and strictures of pure logic – and, in his case, concluded that the discipline was too constricting within a wider social context. His approach to life therefore incorporated a healthy respect for logic balanced with ethics and humanitarianism, reflecting his own inner struggle to balance his humanity with other aspects of his personality. Spock was capable of ignoring emotive considerations when there was a need for cold, hard logic; but he was also capable of great loyalty and self-sacrificial dedication to his science, his captain and his crew. His words to James Kirk echo his sentiment to millions of fans: “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.“
Actor Leonard Nimoy, who portrayed Spock for nearly fifty years, spoke of his character’s widespread appeal:
“Here is an ET of superior intelligence and abilities. Capable of making difficult decisions free of ego and pressure, and emotional needs. Dealing (supposedly) only with the facts in each case and the logical conclusions. The period in which Spock arrived was one of polarization over major political and social issues. The war in Viet Nam, the drug culture, the black revolution, assassinations, etc. Perhaps Spock represents a wise father figure to whom humans could turn for solutions to thorny problems.” (Nimoy, 1975, 93 & 94)
In this era of science denialism, Trumpism, Brexit and conspiracy theories, perhaps we need Spock more than ever. We should all aspire to be more like Spock. It’s only logical.
Science is Golden
In the series, Spock (representing science and logic) provided life-saving scientific data so that he and McCoy (a character representing raw emotion) could help Kirk (the decision-maker) to weigh up options and determine the most logical and ethical response to each of life’s challenges. Jeremy Nicholas affirms that ‘Kirk is caught between Apollonian Spock (rational, logical, ordered, controlled) and Dionysian McCoy (emotional, instinctive, passionate). In every episode Kirk faces a decision whereby he gets conflicting advice from his two trusted advisers that he is in a constant struggle to reconcile.’ Stephen Fry also examines this duality within Star Trek.
The conflict between Spock and McCoy might also be seen as an exploration of the gap between what CP Snow calls, ‘the two cultures‘ i.e. science and the humanities/arts – a gap that I argue is bridged by science fiction such as Star Trek.
The impact of the Spock character upon popular culture cannot be underestimated. It is acknowledged that Star Trek inspired many people – including women – into a career in science, innovation or technology. Nimoy recalled in 1995:
“On a recent visit to New York, I had the opportunity to speak with several people who warmly shared with me their gratitude towards Star Trek and Spock. It always amazes and touches me to discover how deeply the series affected so many people’s lives – people who chose careers in science, astronomy, space exploration, all because of one television show called Star Trek.” (Nimoy, 1995, 332)
May this cultural influence – like the fictional Spock character itself – live long and prosper.
Outer and Inner Space
This duality between logic and emotion, between science and humanity, was internal as well as external. The Spock character struggled – as might we all at times – to balance his emotions with rationality and logic. This was encapsulated in one of his famous sayings: ‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one’, which revealed his internal fight between seeking significance for the individual ego versus a willingness to subvert ego in order to serve the wider community – a common human struggle. Spock’s internal conflict was declared as resolved by creator Gene Roddenberry in 1968:
“Spock’s stoic temperament, his refusal to say anything or do anything not based solely on logic, is… a reflection of his Vulcan heritage. Complete adherence to logic is the primary motivating factor in the Vulcan mental process. Of necessity, complete suppression of emotions is required, lest logic be influenced in any way.” (Whitfield & Roddenberry, 1968, 225).
“All in all, Spock is hardly the Stoic sage. Although he has some Stoic leanings, he consistently falls short of being the man of action. Furthermore, in completely suppressing his emotions, he conforms to the stereotype of the Stoic, in contrast to the real Stoic who aims to cultivate positive emotions such as joy and wishing others well.”
Therefore, we must be careful to consider the logic/emotion binary with an appropriate amount of nuance and depth; and be mindful that ‘Star Trek’s logic illustrates weaknesses in pop psychology’s models of emotions, intuition, logic, and morality.’ Blogger Hannah G gives a good reinterpretation of Spock’s internal logic/emotion binary:
“It would be easy to set up his arc as a conflict between logic and emotion, but really it’s more nuanced than that. It’s a transition from an attempt at emotionless logic to an understanding of “human logic,” a system that takes passions and emotions into account.”
In pondering the inner confict within each of us, Spock was able to exercise intellect while also extending respect and empathy, as demonstrated in this conversation about Kirk, which took place between Spock and his Vulcan protégé Saavik: Saavik: He’s so – human. Spock: Nobody’s perfect, Saavik.
The Alien Within
As something of an alien and outsider – as we all are – Spock not only celebrated diversity, but he epitomised the nobility and dignity that we all seek as we explore our own place within the cosmos and seek to make a difference. His culture contained the IDIC emblem – a mix of shapes combined to create a divergent symbol for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.
Spock is an ‘Everyman’ figure for us all: he served as a metaphoric combination of alien and human. Spock gained pop culture significance in the 1960s and beyond because of this ‘Everyman’ status. He was literally an alien hidden in plain sight, particularly for adolescents/adults seeking role models:
“The teenager coping with the fiercely complex problems of adolescence often feels very much alone… Spock easily resolves this dilemma. He has superior insight. He can quickly understand the nature of the problem. He has studied the human race. He is a pure authority on the problem… He is future. He can be compassionate in his judgment and dispassionate in his help. To the young female, there is no sexual threat. Spock is asexual.” (Nimoy, 1975, 97 & 98)
I have previously written that ‘many fans upheld Spock an an archetype in that he embodied optimism amidst the universal human condition of loneliness’ (Allshorn, 2020, 90); I have similarly paid tribute within my 2015 eulogy to actor Leonard Nimoy:
“Spock was a kindred spirit, someone who had found strength, pride and nobility in being different … Spock’s resilience and quiet dignity in the face of intolerance, or bullying, or alien dangers; served as an example to ennoble and enable the lives of many fans who might otherwise have felt isolation or despair.” (Allshorn, 2015, 13; also cited in Allshorn, 2020, 91)
Or, as James Kirk said more concisely: “Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.”
We all seek heroes. That is part of our human condition – to explore, emulate and aspire towards our role models, heroes and leaders. Across literature, heroic archetypes are often reboots of time-honoured templates. In this instance, Spock might be seen as a reboot of Sherlock Holmes, Merlin, or Odysseus. His captain, James Kirk, might be King Arthur, Jason (of Argonaut fame) or Robin Hood. Superman might be seen as a secular revisitation of religious figures.William Indick examines the Lord Raglan Hero Pattern and other cultural heroic archetypes, and examines how modern secular heroes are reworkings of old tropes:
“While science has replaced divinity and the superhero has replaced the demi-god in the expression of the hero myth, the basic archetypal structure of the hero pattern has not changed – and probably will never change, as the hero character serves the same function today as he did thousands of years ago. Heroes are simply ourselves projected outwardly. Their stories are our stories…” – Indick, 2002, 20).
To this end, we might examine how Spock shares characteristics of ancient heroic templates according to the Raglan mythotype:
Mother is a royal virgin (secular reworking: Amanda, Spock’s mother, was a homely school teacher; his step mother was a Vulcan princess) Father is a king (Sarek was an ambassador) Unusual conception (first Vulcan-human hybrid) Hero reputed to be son of god (child of human mother and male from celestial domain) Attempt to kill hero as an infant, often by father or maternal grandfather (Spock ‘rejected’ by Sarek as being ‘too human/emotional’ during infancy? Rejected by Sarek for many years after joining Starfleet) Hero spirited away as a child (taught how to suppress emotions and hide his inner feelings from the outside world) Reared by foster parents in a far country (adopted by ‘Enterprise’ family?) No details of childhood (except for losing Sehlat as child) Returns or goes to future kingdom (travels into space) Is victor over king, giant, dragon or wild beast (is victorious on many alien adventures) Marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor) (is betrothed to T’Pring) Becomes king (becomes science officer, Starfleet captain, and ambassador) For a time he reigns uneventfully (successful career in Starfleet) He prescribes laws (he enjoys command as Starfleet officer and science officer) Later loses favor with gods or his subjects (falls out with father over career choice, tension with some Vulcans who reject his emotional facets, killed by adversary Khan Noonien Singh) Meets with mysterious death (‘Kobayashi Maru’ and Genesis resurrection following Khan space battle) Often at the top of a hill (Enterprise engine room/Mount Selaya) His children, if any, do not succeed him (His apprentices, Saavik and Valeris, do not succeed him as he had hoped) His body is not buried (put in coffin/torpedo on Genesis planet/resurrected on Vulcan) Has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs (Katra travels from McCoy to others then back to Spock)
According to my interpretation, Spock has more archetypical attributes of a mythical hero than does King Arthur, Jesus or Moses. As Spock might say: ‘Fascinating.’
What does this tell us about humanity? It is said that, ‘One of the chief purposes of literature is a means of exploring what it is to be human.’ In pondering the fictional Spock, we can examine ourselves.
Author’s Note: I have not included any examination of the Spock character from the reboot movies and timeline. These other versions have insufficient background and character detail at this time to enable any informed assessment. They also appear to lack the archetypal nobility of Spock Xtmprosqzntwlfdb as presented in the original Star Trek series and movies.
Allshorn, Geoff, 2015. ‘‘I have been, and always shall be, your friend’: A Tribute to Leonard Nimoy 1931—2015’, Captain’s Log, Austrek, May, 12—13.
– – – – – – – – -, 2020. “Life, but not as We Know It: Star Trek, fan culture, slash fiction and the queering of Starfleet Command”, Bent Street 4.1, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan Press, 89 – 100.
Blair, Karin, 1979. Meaning in Star Trek, New York: Warner Books.
Gerrold, David, 1973. The World of Star Trek, New York: Ballantine Books.
“I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead. ” – Kurt Vonnegut
Based on a talk given at the 2013 AGM for the Humanist Society of Victoria,
and recorded at Future Salon in Melbourne in 2013.
As I celebrate a significant birthday, I pause and reflect upon my life as an amalgam of past, present and future. Like the multiple birthdays we find in the science fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, life itself is full of births and rebirths and reboots. Every day we experience new opportunities and observe new directions in our personal and collective journeys towards the future. Like a modern Vitruvian Man, we can stand in a landscape vista and spread our arms wide with joy and wonderment at glimpsing myriad variations on the theme of life and cosmology.
In my case, I believe the year in which I was born to be a very important year – perhaps not surprisingly – but particularly because of other world events which would ultimately become seminal and significant in my own life.
A fortnight before my birth, Humanists Victoria held its inaugural meeting in Melbourne. A fortnight after my birth, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. A month after that, British lawyer Peter Benenson launched Amnesty International, an organisation which continues to promote human rights independent of any religious or political affiliation. Such secular worldly influences would inspire me to become an enthusiastic human rights activist and, more recently, an avowed Humanist. Gagarin and his successor, Neil Armstrong, would propel my lifelong interest in Science, space travel and science fiction, although to the astonishment of friends and family, I would not pursue any of these professionally. Thus 1961, while also serving as the backdrop for the Berlin Wall and the Tsar Bomba, nevertheless demonstrated that the human species has the potential for nobility as well as savagery. This was the world and era into which I was born.
More than that, 1961 might ultimately be seen by future historians and anthropologists as ushering in a new era of human evolution. The epoch of human spaceflight might prove to be as significant as the change brought about by the arrival of the Holocene era some 10,000 years ago (?), in which humanity was learning to transition from hunter to herder, from nomad to settler. In 1961, maybe we began our next human journey as cosmic nomads hunting for new places to settle.
Such transition is visible in both mega and mundane forms: the human animal evolves both collectively and individually. As a species, we appear to have undergone a philosophical and intellectual growth spurt about two millennia ago – known as the Axial Age. When individual humans go through a similar period of intellectual transformation, we call it puberty. Like all children going through that transition in my own life, I came to a realisation that our personal dreams do not match external reality, and that for all our wishes that we might live in the best of all possible worlds, there are many indications that reality falls far short of that ideal. After realising the many theoretical and practical failings of religion during my young adulthood – in particular, its treatment of LGBTQIA+ people, culturally and racially diverse communities, women, refugees and others living in deprivation, and the natural world around us – I became aware of the dangers of any philosophy which fails to adapt to an evolving world. Leaving behind this traditional upbringing, I went the way of an AI growing beyond its programming, and in my case I began a life journey as an atheist – full of yearning to express my optimism through activism.
“ Atheism offers the idea that this world is all we have. And it therefore offers the hope that we have the power to touch that world, and shape it, and shove it a little bit in the direction that we’d like to see it move.
Along those same lines, possibly my most enduring early influence was the original Star Trek TV series, which nowadays I jokingly suggest turned me into a Trexistentialist, because some of its original philosophies still influence me today – and directly guided me towards Humanism.
The reason I mention all this is because I feel it demonstrates, on an individual level, that although we are all a product of our time and culture, we can evolve into something that is greater than the sum of those parts. It also demonstrates, to me, the human imperative for continued social and technological evolution.
But it also exposes the need for a reality check.
We Are The World
When Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson penned the title, ‘We are the World‘ in 1985, they probably had no idea how correct they were. Despite our speciesism and our propensity for believing ourselves to be ‘spiritual’ and somehow superior to our material world, we need to recognise our place alongside the flora, fauna and geology of our biosphere. Professor Robert M Hazen presents us with a view of the cosmos that is both awe-inspiring and as humbling:
For the past four billion years, life and minerals have coevolved in astonishing ways… the epic, intertwined sweep of life and rocks, with such dramatic innovations as the rise of algae that produce oxygen by photosynthesis, the evolution of complex cells with nuclei, the near extinction of life during episodes of extreme cold, the emergence of multicellular animals and plants, the gradual transformation of the land to an emerald planet, and ultimately to the modern world that is being shaped in part by human activities. (Hazen, 2013, 3).
Despite tending to think of ourselves as constituting some higher plane of existence, we need to recognise our place among the rocks and critters and furnishings of our world. That connection includes sharing life and life rights with the flora and fauna that inhabit our biosphere – not only humans. Author Andrew Boyd conflates this commonality with compassion:“When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others.”
Instead of perceiving ourselves as being the owners and sole occupants of our cosmic drawing room, we should – in the words of the old song – consider ourselves part of the furniture. This reassignment of perspective not only assigns us equality with our constituent atoms and with all organic life that comprises our biological cousins, it ennobles us as part of the cosmos. In the words of Carl Sagan: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
Amidst this dualism – within which we are both murky stardust and lofty ambition – humanity still enjoys a significant place within our cosmic biosphere. Our history as a species is replete with religions and philosophies that encapsulate our quest for significance, whereas the answer is actually to be found within our common humanity and our common organic sentience with other living things across biosphere Earth (the very existence and suffering of which provides strong evidence against a deity).
The Human Adventure
Humanism is a philosophy within which human beings are seen to have a currently unique capability to respond to the world’s problems, and a consequential responsibility to do so in profound and ethical ways. Humanism specifically excludes the possibility of supernatural options such as theism or disembodied life in metaphysical heaven – “up there”. I find it interesting to ponder a future where the evolution of AI, or the discovery of intelligent alien life “up there” in the material heavens, might one day create a need for the re-evaluation of current Humanist understandings. I wonder if cybernetic technology might somehow, eventually and in a most ironic way, ultimately fulfil traditional religious prophecies of an afterlife which Humanists currently discount: travelling down a tunnel of light and being uploaded into some virtual heaven or downloaded into some virtual hell. Instead of facing an afterlife in which we sit on a cloud and play a harp, perhaps we will one day sit in the cloud and synthesise orchestral symphonies of cybernetic synaethesia?
Possibly echoes of such a future can already be heard. In a world where some people fear genetically modified humans as potential Frankenstein creations, we can see the relatively primitive forebears of augmentation technology today. I am one such example. I carry in my chest a donor heart valve and artificial cardiac plumbing which are straight out of Doctor Who’s Cybermen or Martin Caidin’s Six Million Dollar Man or Star Trek’s Borg. I hope to live long enough to maybe receive a cloned heart, and a cloned ear to replace my deaf one. This already makes me a person who, within my own lifetime, would once have been considered to be at least a focus of societal ethical controversy. I am not, physically or conceptually, the same human being I was when I was born; through human-created ‘intelligent design’, I have evolved beyond my original potential.
Within my family tree, I can see similar social and individual transformations across many generations. I am old enough to have lived through social discourse – some decades apart – that promoted both interracial marriage (in the 1960s) and same-sex marriage (in the 2010s), both forms of debate helping to recontextualise the human condition. When my parents were young, the UN formulated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which, for the first time in history, granted every human being equality of worth, opportunity and dignity – at least in principle – and did so from the default position of secular humanism. Going further back, my grandmother was born on a day when the Suffragettes shut down Edinburgh for street protests, demanding equal humanity for women. Further back, my great-great grandfather made a fortune peddling homeopathic concoctions in the days when Darwin and the men of the Lunar Society were advancing the cause of science over superstition and redefining human understandings of our place within what was previously understood to be a theocratic cosmos. Our self-identity as human beings is fluid and ever-changing.
Looking ahead, I envy my young nieces and nephew who may live to see interplanetary colonisation or Singularity or some other wonderful technological possibilities. My own family tree therefore provides – in its past, present and future – individual examples of people living during times of transition for what it means to be a human being. I imagine that this may be a universal phenomenon within every family tree and across every generation at least since the Enlightenment. When Creationists ask me for evidence of transitional forms, I have fun by telling them to go look in a mirror or at their own family tree.
In the future we may almost certainly live in ways that transform our traditionally binary gender understandings, our patriarchal and sexist and racist and homophobic and transphobic and ageist societies, and our self-identities within traditional organic limitations and life expectancies. How then might we expect to adapt to new understandings or world views or self-identities which we likely cannot anticipate? Will technology lead us to devolve into tech-reliant simpletons or evolve into a tech-empowered singleton? What will it mean to be Humanist in a world heading towards transHumanity? Might my postHuman nephew and nieces one day look back upon me in my primitive, individual, organic shell in much the same way I might patronisingly (and somewhat arrogantly) regard neanderthals or denisovans?
I am reminded of a story once recounted by Arthur C Clarke (Clarke, 1984, 4), in which the mayor of an American city was first introduced to a telephone in the late 19th century. The mayor reportedly enthused wildly about this new technology, predicting that he could see the day when, ‘every city will have one’. Clarke’s point was obviously that we cannot anticipate the impact of future technology based upon old understandings and paradigms. I look forward to the day when new forms of communication once again redefine the human being just as did their predecessors: the Internet, the telephone and the printing press. But what wondrous and awe-inspiring radical changes lie ahead, from nanotechnology to Boltzmann brains? Does our future contain an evolution of human rights into more general life rights so that we might move beyond what Peter Singer considers to be our current speciesism and embrace all sentient life, and cyberlife which might not yet exist? Will our future enemies be luddites who oppose some currently non-existent cybernetic relationships in much the same way as they currently oppose same-sex marriage?
Daniel Dennett records possibly the ‘first robot homicide’ as taking place in 1981, when a Japanese workman in an automated factory failed to shut down a robotic arm and was crushed to death (Dennett, 1997, 351). Similarly, a female pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona was killed by an experimental self-driving car in 2018, some 121 years after another pedestrian in London became the first pedestrian to be killed by a horseless carriage. Such incidents foreshadow the fear of future sentient AI wreaking death and calamity upon humanity, if/when they should develop capabilities beyond that of automated and mindless computers aping human error. Even this week, I note concerns being expressed about robots that date back to the original invention of the term ‘robot’ and mirror the fictional experience in the Robocop franchise. Such fears actually mirror our own human frailties and imperfections – particularly the current problem with AI development in that it largely excludes the participation of women and other traditionally excluded cohorts: ‘There is mounting evidence that without the input of women, the technology has been left vulnerable to an alarming number of biases.’ Similarly, we see the evolution of technology as corresponding to the rise of empowerment for Africans and Latinos and Indigenous cultures.
I believe that whatever happens in the future, exciting times lie ahead – and I am not alone in this view. Humanist Alisdair Gurling writes about the rise of Artificial Intelligence as ‘adaptive digital prosthetics’ to assist us in our own evolution. This, he proclaims, could lead to ‘a second renaissance – the intelligence renaissance. The impacts could be profound, irreversible, and far-reaching’ (Gurling, 2020, 10). By extension, if we aimed to fulfill the dreams of science fiction author Isaac Asimov by creating robots who are ‘a cleaner, better breed than we are’ (Asimov, 1973, 11), wouldn’t we in fact also be guiding ourselves towards betterment? I say bring it on.
I see Humanism as having the potential to offer us an ethical and viable philosophy for a future which will redefine our humanity. I note that it has already done so many times over recent decades and centuries, and I see no threat that Humanism might become as outdated as intransigent old religions or superstitions of the past. It contains principles which may help to guide future generations as they develop new lives and technologies. I hope that through continued contribution to public and legislative discourse, we might contribute to the development of new answers and redefinitions of humanity in our global, trans-national village.
“Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final – resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” – Edward Said
However, like any other example of human endeavour, Humanism itself must also be prepared to evolve. As part of some research into the history of Humanism in Australia, some years ago I undertook an admittedly somewhat cursory skim through past issues of Humanist newsletters and magazines dating back to the 1960s. I was surprised to find effectively no Humanist discourse on the space program even at the height of the Apollo missions. It appears to me that in past times, maybe local Humanism relegated science and technology to a secondary interest after social issues. I understand that much of traditional Humanism focussed heavily upon evolutionary change through education and legislative reform rather than through science and technology. However, I also fear that such an approach represented a ‘qwerty’ mindset that was at risk of being left behind by accelerating social and technological change. Today, I hope to see Australian Humanism focus more on Greta Thunberg and diversity, global justice and sentientism; instead of debating the minutiae of dusty theology and perpetuating forms of affluent white culture and privilege. To capture its truly universal human flavour, Australian Humanism needs to incorporate what US scholar Anthony B Pinn cites from Martin Luther King as somebodyness, or a refusal to be ashamed of being black (Pinn, 2015, 70) – which I take by extension as claiming pride in every form of difference and diversity, particularly those who are oppressed or marginalised.
A colleague once asked aloud whether Humanists are dreamers or activists. I submit that we are both, and that the two interdependent activities – dreaming and activism – are merely different sides of the same proverbial coin. Similarly, I see TransHumanism as providing both a glimpse into future dreams and an opportunity to forge activist pathways in preparing humanity for imminent change. Humanism challenges people to work for change here and now, whereas Transhumanism (as I understand it) looks ahead to the future and plots how we may arrive at that point. Rather than being at odds, I see these differing approaches as working interactively to unleash our fullest human potential. I hope that we might learn from each other and continue to work in our respective spheres for the evolution – and for the continued transformation – of our world. I can hardly wait to see what is birthed next.
Which of course, brings us back to birthdays, which is where we began. Happy birthday to the 20 million people who likely share my birthday, and more than that, happy birthday to the world and the chance for renewal and a fresh start every day. What future is being born today? That surely depends upon us, and whether or not we are willing to anticipate the future that we want (or do not want) and take steps accordingly. It is up to us – AI notwithstanding, we will get no help from elsewhere.
Personal Birthday Request: Don’t just read or think – do!
Please help change the world for hundreds of people
by supporting this cause with which I am connected: Humanity in Need: Rainbow Refugees Thanks for your humanity and compassion.
An earlier version of this article, based upon the original talk, was published in the Australian Humanist and Victorian Humanist magazines in 2013.
Isaac Asimov, 1973. I, Robot, London: Granada (Panther) Books.
Arthur C Clarke, 1984. 1984: Spring/A Choice of Futures, New York/Toronto: Del Rey (Ballantine) Books.
Daniel C Dennett, 1997. ‘When HAL Kills, Who’s to Blame? Computer Ethics’, in David G Stork (ed.), HAL’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality, Cambridge/London: MIT Press, 351 – 366.
Alisdair Gurling, 2020. ‘The Intelligence Renaissance: The Coming Era of the Artificial Muse’, in Australian Humanist #140, Humanists Australia, Summer, 8 – 10.
Robert M Hazen, 2013. The Origin and Evolution of Earth: From the Big Bang to the Future of Human Existence, The Great Courses: Course Guidebook, Virginia: The Teaching Company.
Anthony B Pinn, 2015. Humanism: Essays on Race, Religion and Popular Culture, London: Bloomsbury.
Atheist Day was originally about a fictional case of an Atheist who had decided to sue the government. The reason for the fictional lawsuit was a simple one—unlike all the major religions, there was no day for Atheists, to which the judge said that April 1st (i.e. April Fool’s Day) was their holiday. While this case was just a hoax, the story spread quickly and was actually accepted as fact.
The Atheist Republic website explains that the circular symbol (above) stands for a null set (as in zero belief in god) and a fertile wholeness of completion that results. In a city that recently celebrated ‘donut days’ (days when our COVID cases dropped to zero – or a donut) perhaps we should celebrate Atheist Day as Cosmic Donut Day, giving it an almost Australian vernacular.
A central component of Atheist Day is raising awareness of the discrimination and stigma faced by atheists around the world. Atheists are your loved ones, your friends, your doctors, your social workers, your teachers, your police officers and in short, the people in your life who are hiding in plain sight.
Having a day to celebrate and commemorate a lack of belief might seem to be somewhat frivolous or vexatious. After all, we do not (yet) have a day to celebrate those who disbelieve in Santa Claus or aliens with anal probes. And yet the right to celebrate atheism is as fundamental as any other right to freedom of thought, belief or religion.
To me, atheism represents non-conformity with tradition and faith; it demonstrates a willingness to be different and to think divergently. It resists tradition and dogma for their own sake, and potentially offers an open-minded approach to diversity of race, sexuality, gender and gender identity. Atheism and agnosticism and freethought and secular humanism demonstrate a wish to think critically and autonomously, and hopefully exemplify a keenness for seeking evidence via science and rationality. Free from the shackles of anthropocentric religions, atheism inspires the courage to admit that our human existence is pretty insignificant within a cosmos that is wondrously awe-inspiring, but vaster and stranger than we can possibly imagine:
“There is a place with four suns in the sky — red, white, blue, and yellow; two of them are so close together that they touch, and star-stuff flows between them. I know of a world with a million moons. I know of a sun the size of the Earth — and made of diamond. There are atomic nuclei a few miles across which rotate thirty times a second. There are tiny grains between the stars, with the size and atomic composition of bacteria. There are stars leaving the Milky Way, and immense gas clouds falling into it. There are turbulent plasmas writhing with X- and gamma-rays and mighty stellar explosions. There are, perhaps, places which are outside our universe. The universe is vast and awesome, and for the first time we are becoming a part of it.“- Carl Sagan, Planetary Exploration (University of Oregon Books, Eugene, Oregon, 1970), page 15
Agnostic astronomer Heather Couper acknowledges that there is plenty of discovery still to be made in our human quest for knowledge:
“Have we discovered our Galaxy yet?” And I think the answer to this question is “No, not quite”. There is plenty of work ahead for the next generation of astronomers.”
Amidst this immensity, it is up to each of us to find or create meaning in our own lives.
“You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”
― Carl Sagan, Contact
Happy Atheist Day – may you enjoy whatever meaning you create for yourself.