Originally published in Solar Spectrum #2, Spaced Out, Melbourne, 2002.
When I look back on younger days
(When things were black and white),
The Enterprise epitomised
My transport of delight.
A life of young simplcity
(A heart both bold and brave),
And fantasy epitomised
The promises life gave.
Roll back the years on memories!
(Role models in my past…)
From Kirk and Straker to Armstrong
Their influences last.
A youth who searched for adulthood
(A literary goal),
From self esteem to romance –
Such adventures filled my soul!
Come back to present time with me
(Come fly the sky in dreams!)
I thank the past for giving me
The vision that life seems.
And as I soar to reach the skies
(And into the unknown),
I thank others who shared their dreams
So I could seek my own.
I recall a Sunday last year, when I received dozens of greetings from online LGBT+ refugees who had been rejected by their biological families, and yet these young adults greeted me from the other side of the world with what I presumed was a traditional African mark of respect towards an older person: “Hello father…” – and then I realised that it was Father’s Day and they were sending greetings to their new dad.
As a single man, I never had children of my own – although as a school teacher for many years, I worked daily with many young people and built varied relationships with many (one of my earliest students, with whom I was recently reunited due to the miracle of social media, turned fifty-years-old last year). And it is through such opportunities in social media that I have come to learn of humanity’s latest incursion into new social territory – changing our understandings and responses to new forms of human relationships.
A Whole New World…
Such is the power of World Day for Social Justice, which aims to highlight ‘poverty, exclusion, gender equality, unemployment, human rights and social protections’. Its theme for the 2021 is, ‘Social Justice in the Digital Economy‘. This seems to be an acknowledgement of a new normal that is emerging: digital life (though not just in financial economics, because there are other forms of investment in human, planetary and environmental infrastructure that are at least as important as pecuniary interests). It seems fitting that my own, much more humble reflections on social justice in 2021 should also focus on digital social media that have the power to change the world, in particular through giving us unique opportunities for access to people whose heroic work for social justice should inspire us all.
As a science and space enthusiast – as a futurist – I enjoy the exploring new ideas and new worlds and new technology – and I find it amazing that the virtual world holds the power to change our real-life world in ways that could not be anticipated. Social media is possibly the next epochal change for humanity – because it holds the potential to help us evolve into a better species.
Social media demonstrates that social evolution is a tangible force – unstoppable, immutable, inevitable – and reminiscent of that old song, For the Times, They Are A-Changin’, or in acknowledgement of the modern social blog that It Gets Better, we should either join in or get out of the way.
I will let some of my extended social media family speak for themselves.
Global Village, Global Family
Social media has introduced me to one young man who describes himself and his situation:
“A polite Ugandan who was born gay by nature and discriminated against due to the homophobic environment and rigid culture and religious norms starting within my family itself and my entire community. Even during school, I knew life would never be fair to people of our nature…
“Fortunately, I was received by the UNHCR and taken to a place that they thought I would be safe (Kakuma camp). This place has seemed more tough and dangerous even more than before, due to exposure to more tough times.”
(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).
Life in the camp is difficult. One refugee from Yemen reports:
“Everyone accuses the LGBTQ community in Kakuma camp that we are the cause of the Corona virus, hunger, thirst, disease and all the problems… They say we are LGBTQ people, so they want to get rid of the LGBT community in any way, even if we are killed.”
(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).
Meanwhile, a young woman tells me:
“We are attacked almost every day by the Turkana natives and fellow refugees who don’t like LGBTI community… Even the police discriminate [against] us. My first house given to me by UNHCR was burnt by homophobes. We are [also] discriminated [against] while receiving key services like medication and water. We are attacked and cut like animals. One day we went to seek protection from the UNHCR compound … and we were badly beaten and tear-gassed by the police, ordered by the UNHCR sub-Office.”
(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).
And so they endure machete attacks, typhoid and malaria, medical neglect, attacks upon property and person, and starvation rations from the UNHCR. Is the ‘solidarity and compassion’ of which UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi speaks?
As each day dawns in Kakuma, LGBT people count their blessings, as explained to me recently by one trans refugee when recounting the previous night’s attack of having a number of shelters pelted with stones:
“Here every day, night, stones come from every corner, and we all live in fear. Great thing no one got hurt yesterday, but they [were] attacked.”
(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).
“It is Better to Light A Candle Than to Curse the Darkness” – W L Watkinson.
They are fine young adults who seek to make a difference in the darkest of settings, offering medical assistance and seeking to build shelters for the homeless and the endangered. One young man explains his idealism:
“I just wanted to say to you that I actually believe very strongly that the homophobia that is driven by some Christian people, and lots of churches and lots of people have faith in Africa. It is wrong. And the message that I understand of the Gospels is about love, and it’s it’s not about judging people. But you will find that through history – you know, there were times in the Bible when lepers were put outside the camp, they were untouchable. And in modern times, we know that lepers don’t carry disease, that you can’t pick up their disease from them. And it’s the same thing. And the different groups all throughout history, who have been ostracized, you know the word ostracized. It means to be not accepted to put out… they’re not part of us. And there’s been all kinds of different groups of people who’ve been treated like that. And it’s very, very sad that some Christian people today have such a cruel and oppressive attitude for another human being. But that’s why we’re trying to help you in some way. And let you know that there are Christian people, and people who don’t have a faith in God at all, but they have hearts that want to reach out and help. Just like you want to reach out and help the people around you.”
(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).
Although I do not share his specific faith, I do share his faith in humanity and a positive human future. I have become involved with Humanity In Need – Rainbow Refugees, an unincoporated non-profit group that seeks to assist these young people in building a better future for their people. Would you like to help build their world?
Another of my young friends reports:
Am working with a team Humanity In Need (HIN) to help support fellow queer refugees here in the camp with mobilisation, counselling and advice where necessary.
All this we have managed to reach with the support of our Australian friends who with there support we have managed to reach to help provide emergency medical assistance which is very necessary because the UNHCR medical centers are filled with homophobia.
As well as food availability to some LGBTIQ mates and we are planning to provide shelters to many homeless mates. All this is done to help create some safety before the UNHCR intervenes.
(Anonymous – used with author’s consent).
So far, through the miracle of modern social media, I know that they have saved lives from typhoid and malaria and homophobic attack, they have built (or rebuilt) shelters and provided hope for many people who otherwise might feel hopelessness. To me, their humanist precepts of kindness and decency and compassion cut across race or religion or resistance. I believe that this is possibly the most compelling form of immortality – through assisting the lives and betterment of our extended family, endeavouring to create a better future, and leaving a legacy of an improved world around us.
I publish this to coincide with World Day of Social Justice and International Mother Language Day because social media gives us new opportunities for social justice – and surely the commonest mother tongue we all share is the power of the human heart. Amidst their trauma, my young friends have (hopefully) experienced kindness to some degree, and I know that some of them seek to pay it forward by being kind to others. I invite you to join them: Humanity in Need – Rainbow Refugees
Stop Press: As this blog article is reaching publication stage, news has come in that UNHCR Kenya and related agencies are holding a meeting with LGBT refugees in Kakuma. It is hoped that protection, shelter, food, water, medicine, mosquito nets and resettlement will come out of this meeting.
“What a piece of work is a man,
how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties,
in form and moving, how express and admirable
in action, how like an angel
in apprehension, how like a god.”
(Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2)
Shakespeare’s monologue – or what these days we might call his ‘meme’ – from Hamlet, encapsulates for me the essence and message of what these days we would call Humanism. With layers of meaning, irony and transcendance beyond the oppressive sexist and religious understandings of his day, Shakespeare’s words capture our place in nature as a ‘paragon of animals’ with the potential to aspire towards higher ambitions. Of course, what he defines as ‘this quintessence of dust’ is today understood in the words of Carl Sagan and Neil De Grasse Tyson, as ‘stardust’. Shakespeare did not know or create our modern concepts of Humanism, yet I see his words as symbolising the potential of Humanism to arise from pre-scientific or other archaic understandings of the world and evolve into a movement that hopefully inspires human beings to strive for betterment through science and human rights.
King of the Animals?
Bill Bryson continues this praise of our glorious human grandeur:
“To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialised and peculiar that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, co-operative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally under appreciated state known as existence.” (Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, p. 17).
And yet, amidst all this scientific and humanist exploration of our species’ significance, we must consider more: that other life forms are equally praiseworthy.
Historically, some religions have preached that ‘Men (and women) are made … to rule and subdue the earth as God’s representatives.’ This form of human supremacy or speciesism has denied the reality that microbes and viruses are capable of bringing down our presumed superiority as easily as we are of constructing a narcissistic hubris through the proliferation of atomic weaponry or systemic world poverty.
Traditionally, humanity has considered itself to be somehow more highly evolved, or on a higher plane of worthiness, compared to other animals. Our tendency to judge our fellow life forms as comprising ‘ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties‘ is a demonstration of how strange and dissociated we have been from our fellow sentients – a sign of our own arrogance and vanity, the same social distancing that enables us to so readily dismiss mass extinctions that are caused by our own anthropogenic climate change.
And yet we are a part of the glorious cornucopia of life; we dance and sing as part of the carnival of the animals; our human languages and song add to the vast chorus of life that bespeaks our world – croaks and chirps and roars and hoots. The family resemblance between us and other living things is not only physical, but also a measure of biology and sentience. As a science fiction fan, I wonder if one day some truly alien beings will arrive from another planet and remark on what they see as the family resemblance between us and cabbages or starfish.
Marriage of Equals?
While it is understandable and even natural for humans to have an affinity for their own species – this is, after all, the lens through which we view our world, and can potentially be ‘a boon to survival‘ – our attitudes towards animals nevertheless need to expand and encompass new perspectives just as we seek to expand our understandings of our own condition. Humans are no more, and no less, evolved than any other species within our planetary biosphere, and indeed we are all interconnected on many levels. Richard Fortey emphasises one example:
“What is abundantly clear is that all life – from bacterium to elephant – shares common characteristics at the level of molecules. There is a common thread that runs through the whole of biological existence. Individual genes on the ribosomal RNA are common to all life, and these are complex structures… We all share a common ancestor.”(‘LIFE: An Unauthorised Biography‘, London: The Folio Society, 2008, p. 36).
Scientists are even uncovering how interactions between divergent life forms may ultimately enrich our understandings of our own. We not only live interdependently with our fellow life forms, but in various forms of symbiosis within which we rely upon each other for our mutual survival – another reason why anthropogenic climate change is suicidally stupid.
“I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.” – G W Bush.
“Humans are special. We have developed phenomenally oversized brains which grant us expanded purposes. We can learn about far more than just the things our survival depends upon, and in that learning we can see that all life is interwoven and that we depend upon all those around us, so we need to look after all life, not just our own. We can see beyond ourselves, and our family, and our tribe or clan, beyond our village or city, past state and national borders, even past species boundaries to realise we are all brothers and sisters — not just all humans, but all the other mammals, even all other vertebrates, all other animals, and even all life.” – Miriam English.
For all our special abilities and capacities, we have no more, and no fewer, rights than any other life form – it is our human arrogance that presumes superiority, and our Humanism that calls us to accept humility.
“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… In a world older and more complete than ours they moved finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” – Henry Beston, 1928 (Wikiquotes)
Opening commentary taken from a talk given at the 2013 AGM for the Humanist Society of Victoria, and recorded at Future Salon Melbourne 2013.
Originally published in Solar Spectrum #1, Spaced Out, Melbourne, 2001.
The Universal program ran
with cosmic swirls,
with violent explosions,
with timeless passings of time,
and coalescence into novas and galaxies.
The sub-programs ran
and evolved into stars
just a fraction.
And as he grew,
he became aware of computers
……..and he loved. He followed his own programming
and began to imagine
and to see that it was good.
He wondered at his world,
at the others who shared his walk,
at their sameness –
and at their diversity. He queried their humanity,
and their fears.
He studied their religions,
and their conformities. And they struggled to learn
their own programming.
His biology ran,
and he learned
and headed towards termination of his program.
And as the lines of programming
began their loop,
to define and shape his last few lines,
he began to wonder:
They say we make god in our image –
but maybe it’s the other way around.
The Universal computer
runs and plans and programs
…………….and terminates mistakes
and allows other sub-programs to run their full term.
His own life work
had been with computers,
and evolve a new life form.
Ashes to ashes,
……..stardust to stardust,
…………….the divine evolution:
from Computer we came, and to computer we shall return.
Maybe Life itself does this.
It studies our responses,
……..our needs and reactions,
…………….our heroes and villains,
and it judges the success of our programming.
just a fraction.
And the Universal program runs on
UNICEF makes it clear that FGM has no health benefits, only harm:
FGM has no health benefits and often leads to long-term physical and psychological consequences. Medical complications can include severe pain, prolonged bleeding, infection, infertility and even death. It can also lead to increased risk of HIV transmission.
Women who have undergone genital mutilation can experience complications during childbirth, including postpartum haemorrhage, stillbirth and early neonatal death.
Psychological impacts can range from a girl losing trust in her caregivers to longer-term feelings of anxiety and depression as a woman.
“No woman should be told she can’t make decisions about her own body. When women’s rights are under attack, we fight back.” Kamala Harris
The United Nations and aligned bodies (including Humanists UK) talk of ending FGM around the world by 2030 – but this will only happen if education, social pressure and activist rage make it impossible for parents and communities to consider further abusing their daughters, sisters and mothers in this way. Attitudinal change is needed by us all – to recognise that women’s issues are not marginalised – and this must translate into action. It is not enough for us to merely disapprove – we must change the world. Perhaps somebody reading this would like to take action.
“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”
― Marie Shear
I ask that you please ensure that such misinformed individuals and practices are no longer tolerated in a society that protects human life and human dignity.
Please follow the science and the principles of human rights. Please support the Victorian Bill to outlaw LGBTQ+ conversion practices.
I appreciate that this legislation (like all legislation) has various nuances and considerations, and I welcome your assurance of consideration. However, I do not accept the arguments being offered to you that this Bill goes ‘too far’ in curbing religious expression or parental rights – it merely bans the right to abuse the human rights of vulnerable people.
Using similar arguments, extremist men’s rights groups might argue against legislation which bans family violence on the grounds that such legislation goes ‘too far’ by curbing their rights to express their masculinity, or white supremacists might argue that anti-discrimination laws go ‘too far’ by stopping them from mistreating others whom they believe to be inferior.
I trust that you agree: nobody should have the right to mistreat others based upon any claim of presumed superiority, or based upon faith rather than science – especially when they openly admit that their views are informed by pre-scientific religious texts rather than by modern scientific knowledge:
Our deeply held and unchanging beliefs are firmly rooted in each religious community’s’ respective Holy Books and Oral Traditions which provide contrary constructs to those imposed by the Bill.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) makes it clear that freedom of thought and belief is paramount, and that people are certainly within their rights to believe whatsoever they choose. However, the UDHR also specifies that such a right – like all other human rights – must be proscribed in order to prevent expression of those beliefs having a negative impact upon the lives, rights and welfare of others. We already proscribe such beliefs – we do not allow religious people to burn witches or engage in female genital mutilation, nor do we allow parents to mistreat their children.
I respectfully ask you to please support the LGBT+ Conversion Bill and to disregard those people who argue that they should have the right to continue abusing the human rights and welfare of vulnerable people under the pretence of religious freedom or parental rights.
Thank you very much for your continued and ongoing considerations to ensure that you exercise your vote conscientiously and responsibly in order to protect the human rights of Victorians and to make a difference in bringing about a better society for all people.
‘For every human being who looks up at the Moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.’ – Unread public tribute to lost astronauts.
On 27 January 1967, the US space program came crashing back to Earth. In a disastrous launch pad fire, during a test run for an Apollo 1 space mission, three astronauts were killed. The cause would later be attributed by astronaut Frank Borman, at least in part, to ‘failure of imagination‘ in that contingencies were not fully anticipated. It was improvements in subsequent spacecraft design and operations that undoubtedly contributed to the successful Apollo Moon landings two-and-a-half years later.
Further tragedies would happen for the US space program effectively during the anniversary week, on 28 January 1986 (with the loss of the Challenger space shuttle and its crew in flight) and on 1 February 2003 (with the loss of the Columbia space shuttle). These tragedies – borne from engineering, management, and political failures of imagination – led to some ‘hard-won lessons‘ that we could possibly learn from today in a variety of life lessons.
One person whom Astronaut Remembrance Week touched personally was Kate Doolan, a lifelong space enthusiast and a close friend – a woman of eclectic interests. After catching the space bug while viewing the Apollo Moon missions on TV as a child, she spent her life studying and writing about space, meeting many astronauts and becoming an expert on the topic.
Kate was a close friend for about thirty years, and in recent years she called me her ‘BFF’. Many people will have different memories of Kate, including those who will recall her as being loud, assertive, forthright in her opinions, and somewhat abrasive with her language. She liked to present herself as being what we both jokingly called, ‘big and butch’. Her exuberance meant that life with Kate as a friend was never dull. But as a close friend, I came to realise that some of this facade, her bluster, her boisterousness, was, at least in part, a self-defence mechanism. Kate may have, on occasions, roared like the dinosaurs she loved, but her heart resembled the koalas and kittens that she loved. Kate hid a sensitive and tender side: her idealism, her childlike sense of awe at the universe, and her almost childlike vulnerabilities. Kate was a complex character.
I met Kate in 1989 through the Space Association of Australia. Everyone who knew Kate knows that space was her deepest passion and interest. She held herself to the highest standards of professionalism when researching, writing or presenting space material. Kate got to meet astronauts, go to special movie screenings, attend space conferences and diplomatic functions, speak on the radio, and write articles for newspapers and magazines. Kate gave talks on space to anyone who would listen. This included a local ‘Star Trek’ club. Kate was like an evangelist for the space program. Whenever I was preparing a space project for my secondary school students, Kate always provided relevant research materials for the kids, and supplied sufficient quantities of space stickers or lithographs to ensure that every student received a small, inspirational memento. On more than one occasion, upon learning that one of my students had a special admiration for an astronaut, she secured a signed photograph for that student from that astronaut. Her knowledge of space trivia was breathtaking. She knew what was Neil Armstrong’s favourite music, or when was John Glenn’s birthday, or which astronauts had been honoured by having puppets named after them in the TV series, ‘Thunderbirds‘.
Kate is probably most famous for co-authoring the book ‘Fallen Astronauts‘, along with Colin Burgess and Bert Vis. She had hoped it would lead to further opportunities to write books, such as her frequently expressed desire to write a biography on astronaut Ed White – an ambition which sadly, never came to pass. On occasion, she expressed to me her frustration at not having qualifications in journalism, or a PhD in aerospace engineering, as she felt that such credentials may have helped to open doors for her writing. Once, she even complained that her one book was insufficient. I told her that in a thousand years’ time, after most of the 20th century was long forgotten, her book will serve as a primary source for historians studying the early space program. I truly believe she has left that as a legacy for the world.
Kate had other interests outside space that are not so well-known. She loved her cats, Costner and Benedict. Regarding her love of dinosaurs, I have fond memories of the many times we went to see ‘Jurassic Park’ at the movies, with the scary scenes always resulting in her repeatedly screaming, jumping out of her chair, swearing aloud and then apologising to everyone around her – and she loved it. She also loved to suggest that we go out and buy some Kentucky fried dinosaur. She loved Abba, cricket with beer, US politics and military history, the movie ‘Dances with Wolves’, actress Emma Thompson, the TV series, ‘South Park’, and giving her ‘Muttley’ laugh. She was word perfect on many of the bawdy jokes in the TV series, ‘The Golden Girls’. She dabbled in casual jobs, including working at a book shop in Prahran, where she shared her extensive military and space knowledge in conversations with her customers.
In the 1990s, Kate joined the Melbourne chapter of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and was a volunteer and committee member with the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives. She also joined the Rainbow Sash, an LGBTI group that protested against specific forms of religious homophobia. Among her other LGBTI activism, she marched in Melbourne’s annual Pride March, and attended Marriage Equality rallies. Such involvements waned in recent years due to her declining health.
Kate joined me in attending the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne in 2012, even while expressing misgivings about what she called her lingering Catholic guilt. Such inner conflict was typical of Kate. She could be happy, sad, funny, bawdy, outraged and reconciliatory – all on the same day – and yet she also knew when to be the consummate professional, especially when being a public space advocate. I am thankful for her complex friendship. Among the many things it taught me was how to be a more understanding person. I admired her because her life journey embodied the Latin motto, ‘per ardua ad astra’ – through hardship to the stars. Kate learnt from some of life’s hard-won lessons and triumphed in her own way. We could all learn from her very human example.
In the last few years, Kate largely withdrew from face-to-face social contact. Instead, she sought – and found – a supportive network of friends online. I was pleased to learn that when she went overseas, to attend Spacefest, and to visit military monuments and museums, she was offered friendship, support and hospitality by what she called her ‘extended family’ from the Space Hipsters, Space History, and Fallen Astronauts groups on Facebook, and from other kind, welcoming people whom she had met online via social networks. At the time, her real-life friends wondered why she had socially withdrawn into a world of virtual friends. More recently, after a year of pandemic and Zoom teleconferences, I now realise that she was ahead of the rest of us.
In the last few years of her life, Kate became quite enamoured with crocodiles. I never actually asked her why. I assumed that she may have seen some physical resemblance between crocodiles and dinosaurs. But upon reflection, I think her fondness for crocodiles held a deeper meaning. I wonder if she may have fancied herself as a female version of Crocodile Dundee – hence her twitter name, @crocodilekatie. Like Crocodile Dundee, Kate probably imagined herself to be a lovable Aussie larrikin who could out-drink and out-swear the best of them. Like Crocodile Dundee, she could wrestle what she saw as her life difficulties – her metaphoric crocodiles – and emerge victorious. And like Crocodile Dundee, she had a habit of, shall we say, being ‘somewhat creative with the truth’ in order to spin a good yarn. And she loved to be the centre of a good yarn.
Kate wrote in detail about the Apollo 1 astronauts, and in a touch of ironic cosmic timing of which she would have tacitly approved, she also tragically passed away during Astronaut Remembrance Week on 28 January 2019.
“I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”
– Sarah Williams.
As my parting tribute here, I write something to Kate instead of about her. In doing so, I quote from her favourite TV series, ‘The Golden Girls’: Kate, thank you for being a friend.
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
Out of respect for indigenous art and associated autonomy/copyright/ownership or cultural appropriation issues, I have not used so-called ‘public domain’ Aboriginal art to illustrate this Acknowledgement of Country. I would welcome indigenous Australian advice on this matter.
In 2019, I attended a public event where speakers criticised the Australian government’s proposed ‘Religious Freedoms’ Bills as a license to permit homophobic and transphobic discrimination. There, one prominent LGBTQIA+ community leader thanked ‘queers of faith’ for their ongoing work to defend LGBT rights—as well she should. And yet she failed to also thank queer non-believers, many of whom have also worked for queer rights. Perhaps she should have contemplated the words of heterosexual atheist Phillip Adams:
There are some parallels here between atheism and homosexuality, ‘the Love that dared not speak its name’ as Oscar Wilde pronounced it, leading to millions living their life in the closet. Atheism was, and to a large extent still remains, the philosophy that dared not speak its name. And it’s only recently that I’ve observed atheists coming out, finally confident enough—to borrow a gay slogan—to be loud and proud. Incidentally, spare a thought for gay atheists. (Adams, 2010, 2:37)
The concept of gay atheism is hardly a new idea: I have been living this reality for decades. Queer communities comprise individuals who have undertaken their own personal journey to arrive at a place of autonomy and empowerment, difference and diversity. Atheist communities are the same.
Losing my religion
I recall the exact moment when I realised that I had finally lost the last shreds of my religious world-view in the early 1990s. I was surrounded by my new, queer friends, at workshops for the AIDS Memorial Quilt, where people came in to make panels for those who had been lost to the epidemic. Together, we all shared cups of tea, shoulders to cry on, and lots of hugs. As a former Christian, I was momentarily dumbstruck to realise that there was more genuinely unconditional love in that room than in any church I had ever attended. This shell-shocked group of social outcasts, volunteer activists, and carers, taught me that treating others with basic love and respect was not the self-proclaimed monopoly of any one religion or philosophy, but was actually a pragmatic expression of our shared, common humanity.
And yet history tells a different story. It speaks of marginalisation and exclusion. Particularly under the historic influences of the Abrahamic religions, queers and atheists have been largely proscribed and persecuted: from the burning of witches, faggots and heretics, to family disinheritance and conversion therapy; from the execution of sodomites and apostates, to the ongoing cultural genocide of queer youth, and more.
I have previously noted Camille Beredjick’s observation that religious homophobia can cause a queer person to become atheist (Allshorn, 2018, 116), and this is no more apparent than in the case of gay activist Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, a decorated Vietnam War veteran in the US Air Force. Coming out on the front cover of Time magazine in 1975, he was subsequently court-martialled and discharged by a panel of military personnel who were all religious (Duberman, 1991, 315). His Mormon church then excommunicated him, effectively not once but twice. Ultimately, ‘his faith and spirituality were crushed and he considered himself somewhere ‘between an agnostic and an atheist’.’ (O’Donovan, 2004) His personal resilience and courage enabled his survival until his 1988 death from AIDS, but his loss of faith is rarely mentioned by biographers.
A similar case involves Henry Gerber, who founded the Society for Human Rights, which historian Jonathan Katz records as being the earliest documented gay rights organisation in the USA. Established in 1924, the Society was quickly targeted by police, who arrested its members and confiscated its documentation. This meant that both Henry Gerber and his Society—along with their altruistic ambitions—were largely erased from queer civil rights history. Gerber later attributed this fate, at least in part, to a mixture of ‘religion and politics’, self-identifying as ‘now an avowed atheist’ and openly espousing atheist views, such as: ‘In America, where the Christian religion is losing ground, the horizon is growing brighter for homosexuals’ (Katz, 1994, 419 & 554-557).
Such stories reflect an ongoing experience within our communities. When Israel Folau recently declared that gays and atheists (and other ‘sinners’) are going to hell, his was a familiar historical and cultural narrative regarding a purported hellish afterlife for people who are different—and a hell which many theists throughout history have seemed willing to create for us in this life as well.
‘Smash the Church!’
The Stonewall riots and gay liberation are often proclaimed as being definitive moments in our fight for collective civil rights. But these were not explicitly the start of our collective queer journey out of oppression and towards liberation. Ultimately, this journey began whenever the first individual human being began to think independently and fight against his/her/their oppression. Thus we see the most basic parallel between queers and atheists.
Nor was this journey an easy one. Gay liberation was a war, a declaration of independence, and a call for social revolution. In the UK, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) disrupted the 1971 launch of the Festival of Light (mudlark121, 2019). In the USA, one early GLF street slogan was: ‘2, 4, 6, 8, Smash the Church, Smash the State!’ (Avicolli Mecca, 2009, back cover). Daughters of Bilitis co-founders Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin noted: ‘Everything that’s happened to oppress homosexuals today stems from organised religion. If it hadn’t been for all that shit, we wouldn’t have our problems today.’ (Tobin & Wicker, 1972, 53-4) The 1971 Manifesto of the ‘Third World Gay Revolution’ stated: ‘We want an end to all institutional religions because they aid in genocide by teaching superstition and hatred of Third World people, homosexuals and women…’ (Jay and Young, 1992). One meme expressing such sentiment can be found on a Melbourne badge from that same era: SODOM TODAY, GOMORRAH THE WORLD.
In seeking to be all-encompassing, gay liberation created its own downfall. One GLF activist recalls: ‘GLF didn’t last. We got involved in these endless theoretical debates about what we should do and what our relationship was to other organisations… GLF disintegrated into so many splinter groups that it just disappeared’ (Marcus, 1992, 185-6). In its wake, gay liberation seeded many other activist groups that shared its socially revolutionary aims, including some that subverted religious traditions. These included the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the Radical Faeries.
This culture war continues today in other forms. Since losing the Marriage Equality postal survey, Australian religious right-wing conservatives have extended their attacks on the Safe Schools program and trans rights. They continue to advocate gay conversion therapy. They demand new ‘religious rights’ to discriminate against queer people. In our increasingly secular twenty-first century world, such religious bigotry provides a strong argument for atheism. It also demonstrates how inadequate are outdated dogmas to provide guidance in a future that may contain new understandings of life, habitat, self-identity, human rights, gender and sexuality. Humanity will surely find fresh perspective in the quote from JBS Haldane that the Universe is queerer than we can suppose.
The history of queer atheism is the story of striving to build such a future.
The rise and fall of militant gay atheism
A formal LGBT atheist movement was born during the ascendancy of gay liberation idealism in the 1970s. This was an era when ‘Kill A Queer For Christ’ bumper stickers adorned some US motor vehicles (Perry & Swicegood, 1991, 13) while anti-gay campaigns were led by US conservatives such as Anita Bryant and John Briggs. The anti-gay Briggs Initiative of 1978 was soundly defeated after US President Jimmy Carter publicly spoke against it, following a rally by gay atheist protesters at a public meeting (Rolfson, 1978a, 7). In his last column in the Bay Area Reporter before his assassination, gay atheist Harvey Milk credited gay atheist Tom Rolfsen with being instrumental in ensuring President Carter’s public support: ‘And Tom Rolfsen pulled it all together in Sacramento last week. Tom’s idea, Tom’s work, Tom’s money, and a group went up there to confront the President of the United States. The rest is history. Congratulations Tom …’ (cited in Rolfsen, 1978b, 5).
Rolfsen and his lifelong partner, Chal Cochran, became founding members of GALA (the Gay Atheist League of America, later renamed Gay And Lesbian Atheists), in 1976. Their San Francisco chapter ran social events and meetings, and published a monthly newsletter and various magazines. The GALA Review began publication in 1978 and continued until 1989, at which point it boasted over a thousand readers; however, the workload upon then-76 year-old Rolfsen forced a scaling-back of their activities (GALA Board, 1989, 1).
It is Texas where perhaps the most controversial gay atheist activities were led by gay couple Don Sanders and Mark Franceschini. The ‘Houston LGBT History’ web page is a good source of material regarding the social, activist, and outreach activities of this Houston group, and of the openly hostile reception it frequently received from religious members of their local community. Operating since 1981, the group began its decline in September 1992 following the death of 38 year-old Franceschini, whose obituary testified: ‘From gay pride parades to ACT UP demonstrations, Mark Franceschini could be counted on to yell the loudest and walk the proudest’ (Sanders, 1993, 4). His partner, Don Sanders, died three years later (Texas Obituary Project, 1995).
These atheist groups—once fueled by gay liberation anger and outrage—are now largely forgotten by queer historians and social commentators. A new generation appears to prefer a less confrontational form of atheist activism.
Humanism and human rights
Australian-born UK activist Peter Tatchell is one example of a gay atheist for modern times. He has been a prominent humanist and human rights activist for many years, and is director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation. He observes, ‘A decent, better world is possible—and we don’t need religion to make it happen. All we need is love and people willing to turn that love into political action for human freedom’ (Tatchell, 2009, 309).
Another prominent example is someone who dates from the earliest days of queer rights. Gay activist pioneer, Magnus Hirschfeld, was a secular Jew, a humanist, and a socialist (Tielman, 1997). He co-founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, which advocated for homosexual rights. He even joined the feminist movement because, as a gay man, he saw a link between the need for queer rights and women’s rights (Finamore 2018).
Other overseas queer humanists have also been prominent activists. Antony Grey has been called ‘Britain’s first gay rights activist’ after helping to secure law reform via the passage of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act (Geen 2010). Rob Tielman is credited with having played a ‘prominent, pioneer role in the Dutch gay movement’ (Gasenbeek and Gogineni 2002, 64), a movement which he documents as having existed continuously since 1911 (Tielman 1997, 21). Dan Savage is known for his writings and podcasts, and perhaps mostly for his 2010 founding of It Gets Better, an Internet website offering bullied GLBTIQ teenagers hope and positivity. Groups like the LGBT Humanists UK, the Pink Triangle Trust (UK), and the LGBTQ Humanist Alliance (USA), also enjoy a long history of activism.
Australia has its own proud history of humanist LGBT activism. In December 1966, the first issue of the Australian Humanist (AH) featured an article in which heterosexual women’s rights activist Beatrice Faust supported gay rights (Faust, 1966, 2). Public meetings, networking, and other activism ensued. Subsequent discourse included gay activist Lex Watson writing subversively in the December 1971isue of AH that: ‘Homosexuality is an alternative sex role, an alternative life style, as inconsequential in one sense as a preference for red hair to black.’ (Watson, 1971, 38).
In 1970, the Humanist Society of Victoria produced a pamphlet entitled, The Homosexual and the Law — A Humanist View, and sent a copy to every member of State Parliament. Further copies sold out in bookshops, necessitating at least one reprint run (Reinganum, 1971, 6). The 5-page booklet criticised the law for its foundation in Biblical scripture, reinforced by its prohibition of what was legally termed ‘the abominable crime of buggery’—an emotive word that prevented Australian society from adopting a more ‘reasoned approach’ to the issue (HSV, 1970, 1 & 2). The booklet was later reprinted by Society Five, an early Melbourne gay rights group (Society Five, 1974).
Humanism offers more than simply an atheist version of liberation theology. It provides ethical cogency for atheists, agnostics, secularists and the non-religious. Humanism proposes more than a negative attitude (‘atheist’ = ‘non-theist’) and provides opportunities to contribute positively to society.
Love thy neighbour
Lesbian atheist comedian Sue-Ann Post quips: ‘I once auditioned for the part of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar. I gave what I thought was a very realistic rendition of, I Don’t Know How To Love Him.’ (Post, 2010, 6:02) Levity aside, the problem of ‘feeling the love’ is very real in Australia, where I see religious privilege in our queer communities. I observe queer theists dominating public discourse and setting queer agendas, while openly atheist speakers are largely excluded from queer conferences, rallies, newspapers, publications, coalitions and networks. Only in independent social media discussions (and in Bent Street!) am I most likely to see any public acknowledgment that queer non-believers even exist.
Queer atheist blogger and author Greta Christina writes of similar experiences within US queer communities: ‘I’ve heard LGBT leaders talk about how important it is to reach out to people of different religious faiths… with no mention whatsoever made of reaching out to people with no religious faith. Not even in lip service’ (Christina, 2008). It must be questioned why queers cling so strongly to dying religious philosophies that have traditionally oppressed them.
While many religions claim a monopoly upon good works or virtue, the reality is that good people proliferate across space and time because of common humanity. Atheists are a part of this ubiquity. We can revisit the old GLF ideal of social transformation instead of assimilation, and use our difference to make a difference. This would surely marry the human existential desire for significance with a pragmatic, humanist response to the world’s injustices.
In seeking to change the world, we should start with ourselves. Transphobic ideologies appear to have been adopted in some atheist circles (Sorrell, 2018; EssenceOfThought, 2019), demonstrating a need for queer atheists to participate in greater community discourse and thereby contribute to what gay atheist and HIV/AIDS activist Michael Callen advocated: ‘The Healing Power of Love’.
Gay liberation may yet make way for atheist liberation—as exemplified in the life of US magician and atheist James Randi, who came out as gay in 2010 at the age of 81, stating on his website: ‘Here is where I have chosen to stand and fight. And I think that I have already won this battle by simply publishing this statement’ (Randi, 2010).
Humanist Society of Victoria, 1970. The Homosexual and the Law — A Humanist View.
Karla Jay and Allen Young (Eds.), 1992. Reprint of ‘What We Want, What We Believe’ from Gay Flames No.11, in Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, twentieth anniversary edition, London: GMP Publishers, 363-367.
Jonathan Ned Katz, 1994. Gay/Lesbian Almanac, New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers.
Eric Marcus, 1992. ‘The Radical Activist—Martha Shelley’, in Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Rights, New York: HarperCollins, 175-186.
mudlark121, 2019. ‘Today in London religious history, 1971: the Gay Liberation Front mash up reactionary Christian Festival of Light’, Past Tense, 9 September; at
Connell O’Donovan, 2004. ‘Leonard Matlovich Makes Time’, on Affirmation: Gay & Lesbian Mormons website, September. Retrieved from Wayback Machine Internet Archive.
Troy D Perry & Thomas LP Swicegood, 1991. Profiles in Gay & Lesbian Courage, New York: St Martin’s Press.
Peter Tatchell, 2009. ‘My Nonreligious Life: A Journey from Superstition to Rationalism’, in Russell Blackford & Udo Schüklenk (eds.), 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, 300-309.
Australians have generally reacted kindly towards those impacted by COVID, although we have struggled with lockdowns. Sadly, that kindness does not extend to everyone. Imagine a non-COVID lockdown that goes for eight years, courtesy of Scott Morrison, Anthony Albanese, Jacquie Lambie, and Australian Parliament.
On 10 January 2021, I was one of some hundreds of protesters who braved the warm weather and COVID restrictions in order to protest outside the Park Hotel, where refugees are detained without trial or charge. These men have suffered for years in offshore detention, and were brought to Australia because doctors declared that they needed medical intervention. Many months later, they continue to languish without appropriate medical treatment.
Two decades ago, under another name, this very same hotel hosted a number of science fiction conventions, where I and many of my friends wistfully imagined a positive, utopian future. Today, it is a place where innocent people suffer imprisonment. It was heartbreaking to see these people crammed up against the windows, waving at protesters and yearning to be free and healthy again. As I stood there, giving them the solidarity salute and sobbing into my COVID face mask, I vowed to write this blog note.
As Australians, we are better than this. As humans, we are better than this. Why is our Parliament composed of so many people who treat others so cruelly? Why do we allow our MPs to behave like this?
Yassin has lived a life that is – in both geography and lived experience – far removed from the lives of most readers of this blog. His ‘mother’ is also in some ways far removed from me (she was a Christian whereas I am an atheist) but her life and mine have become connected through Yassin: she plucked him off the streets of Kampala as a child and raised him in an orphanage in Kenya; through the wonders of modern technology (social media), I have got to know the man he has become. Sadly, she passed away in 2020, but her legacy lives on in his life and that of many others.
A guitar player and a gentle soul who responds with grace and longsuffering patience to all of life’s injustices, Yassin serves as an an example to me of how to respond positively to whatever life may dish out.
Yassin speaks in his own words:
At the age of three years I lost my biological mother and at six years old I lost my father. I became a street boy almost immediately for five years I lived on streets, life was a nightmare each day, threats from police and bigger street boys made life even more harder.
One day out of blue while on the streets this white lady approached me and started talking to me in a language I couldn’t understand, once she realised I couldn’t understand her she called someone to help her. Speaking in my native language I explained why I was on the streets as stated above and immediately she started crying.
I couldn’t understand why she was crying but what she told me next was the first feeling of hope In five years, she said she wanted to help me go to school and that she loved me. Something I wished for as a kid, from that day onwards she kept her words, since she had only come to visit a church and as a tourist she had to go back to England. Before she left she made sure I was in school and well taken care of, after three months she came back and she started an orphanage and to this day hundreds have been given a second chance in life from this great woman of God.
After growing up, he decided to write a song to sensitize the world to the suffering faced by orphans and street kids. He adopted the artistic nickname ‘MOS-D’ (meaning ‘Man Of Spiritual Deeds’) and recorded a song called ‘Second Chance’, donating all the proceeds to the orphanage:
In particular, he feels these lyrics from the second part of the song have special meaning, and I agree that his ideas should challenge us all:
“I see kids walk down the streets,
craving for a better life,
shelter, clothing and food to eat.
“They need a better life in this world,
in our societies,
and I am their voices.
“You better hear their cry
their souls are lost,
they need your help
in this world today.”
From ‘Second Chance’ by MOS-D, used with permission.
Yassin has many songs that he would love to produce given a chance. Are there any musicians or philanthropists out there who would like to help this young man share his messages to the world?
Our common humanity builds a bridge whereas other life circumstances seek to create difference and division. He and I live in different generations, continents and cultures, but I am proud to call him friend.
As we bid goodbye to a year of COVID-19 and world upheaval,
let’s remember that the human adventure is just beginning.
“O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!” – The Tempest
A lot of populist art and literature is dystopian in nature, possibly none more so than the genre of science fiction and fantasy. As we look ahead, it seems a natural human inclination to anticipate the worst. But not always.
As a young SF fan, I was lucky: I discovered the utopian visions of the original Star Trek TV series.
Star Trek was born in the 1960s, during the era of the Vietnam War, the hippie counter-culture, and civil rights. The series aspired to reflect progressive ideas and to ‘boldly go’ where TV had seldom ventured. It portrayed noble people who were living in a utopian future that had arisen from the ashes of a conflict-ravaged 21st century. Such ambitious ideals are sorely needed today.
Star Trek introduced me to an extended family of fans who shared this optimism for the future, including two women who I was proud to call friends: Diane Marchant (above) and Theresa De Gabriele (left). Their lives as fans was one of service to others and living as an example of lofty aspirations. Tessie and Diane demonstrated everything noble and optimistic that I believe may lie ahead in humanity’s future, if we have the courage to make it so. They are both loved and missed.
Diane (1939 – 2006) was a long-time fan who personally knew Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek), and in many ways she became the mother figure of Star Trek fandom in Australia. She helped to found an international fan organisation called the Star Trek Welcommittee, and for many years was its overseas and/or Australian representative. In the days before the Internet, mobile phones or social media, she connected fans to support/friendship networks and local clubs, including my own fledgling effort at the time. Her informal Friday night home gatherings became a tradition for many fans. Diane dabbled in fan fiction (published in paper fanzines, not online), sometimes using the pen name of Kert Rats (or ‘Star Trek‘ backwards), and she helped to make fanfic history (see below). Today would have been her birthday. Happy birthday, my friend. May your ideals live long and prosper.
Tessie (1947 – 2020) was also a mother figure within local fandom; offering caring advice and support to any fan who needed it, and happy to befriend everybody. She was known for her hospitality to taxi others safely to and from fan activities in her combi van. She edited fanzines and newsletters, helped to organise and run conventions, and assisted in hosting tourism activities for international science fiction notables when they visited Melbourne. Tessie had strong opinions on various topics, but she always listened respectfully to the opinions of others – I miss her impassioned late-night phone calls to discuss how the latest TV science fiction program may have treated an issue of social justice. Tessie was a no-nonsense social justice warrior: always rolling up her sleeves to help others; initiating ‘Book Day’ wherein we could swap used books while also raising money for charity; I even know a fan whom she rescued from an abusive family situation.
Diane and Tessie were both raised in a particular religious faith, but they offered unconditional friendship and support to everyone, without fear or favour. They both remained single, but loved their families deeply, and broadened that perspective to include their extended fan families. They not only believed in the Star Trek philosophy of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC), but they actually lived it, celebrating diversity and difference. Tessie once wrote admiringly of, “IDIC in action” (see the Fanzine of the Captain’s Log, Austrek, 1990, p. 32) and her earliest cosplay character (to my recollection) was Gem, a Star Trek character who was so empathic that she took on the burdens of others. Diane wrote what has been identified as the first published ‘slash’ fan fiction story – one which endorsed same-sex relationships – while Tessie befriended some of the first openly-LGBT people that I ever met. Such was their loyalty to the principles of a TV series that had been created by a humanist and which reflected the spirit of the era, a time when other science fiction programs such as Thunderbirds and Doctor Who also promoted our common humanity, and our human capabilities for responsible activism to make a difference in the world around us.
For the 25th anniversary of Star Trek in 1991, Diane wrote about the inspirational influence of the original series, ideas which I have no doubt were shared by Tessie and many of our fannish friends:
“Here many of us beheld ourselves, our dreams, our ideals… Tenets we hold dear and by which we fashioned our lives… Life is valuable, there’s a lot more to everything than just mundanity… humane ideals will win through, mankind will survive… ever growing, ever striving for peace, harmony, equality, tolerance and revelation, and that even with success in all these areas, will still go on to greater and more magnificent challenges.” – Captain’s Log #170, Austrek, September 1991, p. 9
Such optimism was a reflection of the original Star Trek concept:
“‘Star Trek’ speaks to some basic human needs: that there is a tomorrow – it’s not all going to be over with a big flash and a bomb; that the human race is improving; that we have things to be proud of as humans.
” – Gene Roddenberry
To have shared Tessie’s and Diane’s joyous, pragmatic optimism – and to have been their friend – is both an honour and a privilege.
The world has changed over the last fifty years, and during that time, Star Trek has remained a topical context for a variety of morality tales that reflect each era, from civil rights and the Cold War to the fall of the Iron Curtain, the arrival of a post-911 world, and the 2020 world of trauma and darkness. I do not know how Tessie and Diane would have responded to the current shift away from utopian idealism within the Star Trek franchise, but I suspect they would have acknowledged its metaphor while remaining loyal to Star Trek‘s original philosophies such as ‘Let Me Help’ and IDIC. Theirs are the heights, the principles, and the nobility to which we must all aspire as we rebuild a post-COVID world.
Tessie and Diane could not have anticipated 2020 as a year of COVID, but they would have believed that something better had the potential to rise from its ashes. While many of us look ahead to what we hope will be a Happy New Year and Happy New Decade – and better times for our world – Diane and Tessie would simply smile and say that this is to expected… and that we should not only make it so but make it soon.
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.
In honour of advancing critical thinking and placing myth and tradition in a place of cultural memory, this filk song is to be sung to the tune of Silent Night*
(*With acknowledgement to Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr)
Mythical guy, cultural lie.
We believe – why, oh why?
Jesus, Moses and Abraham,
Each of them is a mythical man.
Use your brain to make good,
They’re fiction like Robin Hood.
Critical thought, freedom long fought,
Adult life – much hard bought.
Accept your responsibility,
Live up to capability.
God and his holy cause
They’re as real as Santa Claus.
Life is too short, do as you ought,
Use your critical thought.
Superstition we leave behind,
Forge a future that’s hopeful and kind.
Use your passion to live,
Use your compassion to give.
Racism? No. Sexism? No.
Watch our education grow.
Prejudice and homophobia,
Hatred and Islamophobia.
We reject as we grow.
We look ahead as we grow.
No reliance upon what’s past,
Use science to make life last.
Education and evidence,
Using reason and your common sense.
Learn and research and share,
The future is ours if we dare.
10 December each year marks the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document compiled by many people including possibly LGBT-aligned Eleanor Roosevelt. It has shaped much of our modern world with a secular humanist framework against which some modern forces of religious intolerance are actively agitating.
We should pause every day to commemorate our human rights and recommit ourselves to protecting and enacting these precepts. Most emphatically, we should celebrate the human rights activism that is undertaken by many people around the world.
I pay homage to the activism of Ruth Coker Burks*, who, back in the days before modern medications turned HIV into a largely manageable medical condition, worked selflessly to help those afflicted with AIDS. She recalls her first AIDS patient, a young man dying alone in hospital after being abandoned by family, and whose pleas for his mother were being ignored by nursing staff. When she – a visitor to the hospital and a total stranger – went into his room to comfort him, he had an emotional reaction:
“”Oh Mama, I knew you’d come,” he said, in that small, reaching voice. I was so confused that I just stood there, my feet glued to the floor. Then he started to cry…
…But then he tried to reach his hand out to me. I couldn’t not take his hand in mine.
“Mama,” he said again.
“Yes,” I said, squeezing his hand gently, “I’m here.”
(“All The Young Men”, by Ruth Coker Burks)
I pay testimony to those who look beyond their own civil rights and seek to promote wider human rights, such as those activists who look beyond Marriage Equality in their own country and seek to assist LGBTQIA+ people who face much harsher conditions in Africa or Russia or across the Commonwealth or elsewhere.
Human rights are not simply about whether or not people should feel compelled to wear face masks in order to protect themselves and others from a viral pandemic (that is not human rights, that is basic human decency); nor is it about granting special rights to an elite group and allowing them to discriminate against others. Human rights is about recognising the equality of all people: our right to life, to joy, to kindness and to dignity, to be treated as part of our human family. Sascha Sagan encapsulates this in her recent book:
“Being alive was presented to me as profoundly beautiful and staggeringly unlikely, a sacred miracle of random chance. My parents taught me that the universe is enormous and we humans are tiny beings who get to live on an out-of-the-way planet for a blink of an eye. And they taught me that, as they once wrote, “for small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love”.”
(“For Small Creatures Such As We”, by Sasha Sagan, p. 5)
We do not need to seek meaning or purpose in esoteric, supernatural or external sources. Our search ends much closer to home: in our common humanity. In our human quest for significance, we can find no greater purpose than to enrich the lives of others; anyone seeking immortality should ponder how fighting for human rights leaves a legacy that endures.
Christmas in Australia has an antipodean flavour. In recent years, some Aussies have bewailed those who proclaim ‘happy holidays’, declaring that there is a ‘war on Christmas’ even while they offer libations to our cultural symbol of consumerism: an obese bloke overdressed in a heavy red suit, who sprinkles gifts like confetti during sweltering bushfire season.
Perhaps I am living proof of George Carlin’s notion that, “Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.” I was not always so caustic. As a child, I used to wonder whether the star on top of the Christmas tree represented enlightenment or some similar paragon of virtue shining its light on the world. Despite my atheism today, I wish that Christmas – or religion in general – still deserved such symbolism. It would give the religious community a just reason to feel proud.
Instead, Christmas today seems to represent two things: gluttony on Christmas Day (please pass the turkey!), and the bestowing of gifts aplenty upon children and other family members as evidence that the prosperity doctrine is correct: God or Santa rewards good people with abundance, while punishing bad people with scarcity. Maybe someone should throw a spare turkey bone at hippie, socialist Jesus and his proclamations of helping the poor and oppressed?
If I could make a Christmas wish for Australia, it would be that Christians – including those Members of Parliament who profess such a faith – would revisit the human truths contained within the fable of infant boat person, Moses, who was accepted and welcomed into a new family and culture; and of refugee Jesus, seeking shelter in a nation that told him they had no room.
I would also hope that non-Christians and those of no religious faith – a growing and significant percentage – would look beyond the hypocrisy and affluence of Australia’s Christian elite, and find sanctuary in the supposed aspirations of a Parliament which professes certain ethical tenets but fails to practice them, and in a national culture that pays lip service to providing a “fair go” for the underdog while openly favouring the privileged. May our lives be the answer to the prayers of those whose faith allows them to pray away the world’s problems. “She’ll be right mate” should be a self-fulfilling Australian ambition to help others rather than a casually dismissive retort.
Let’s be honest. Despite platitudes of good will and peace on earth, the reality is that life – and death – go on, even during Christmas. For people affected by physical or mental health issues, homelessness, domestic violence, poverty, entrenched discrimination or myriad other problems, will this really be the season of good will, or simply another time of being overlooked?
In this sunburnt country, this stolen land, this vast panorama of yabbies and yobbos, of fires and football, we still largely defer to the cultures and religions of overseas nations and times. We have yet to formulate a collective culture of our own, born in the dusts and ochres of our home soil and underneath the stars of the Milky Way Galaxy that seeded our world and sheltered our indigenous cultures for millennia. Australians need what might be termed spirituality – not religious waffle, but a way of being authentic to their humanity and to their world.
If there is surely one ‘real’ meaning of Christmas, it that it’s for life, not just for Christmas. Learning from First Nations cultures, perhaps the wider Australian experience should adopt a Dreaming that does not focus upon ghosts of Christmas past, present, or future, but upon ‘everywhen’, a timelessness where we can come together and live in a way that respects people, environment, and planet.
As a Humanist, I do not experience Christmas in terms of religious devotion or worship, but as a time when the importance of family – whether nuclear or blended or extended or alternative, whether biological or technological or communal or universal – is celebrated. What will we each do this Christmas to help others in our universal human family? Are we our brother’s (or sister’s) keeper?
Perhaps we could learn from the life and altruism of Australian hero Sidney Myer, whose benevolence extended into Christmas and beyond the Great Depression:
On Christmas Day 1930 he had endeavoured to cheer the unemployed by holding a vast Christmas dinner for over 10,000 people at the Exhibition Building; free tram travel was provided, a band played, and every child received a present.
We do not all have the financial resources of Sidney Myer, but we can have the greatness of spirit if we dare. This is why I have published this Christmas blog article some weeks ahead of the event; I hope to inspire people to change their plans for Christmas, and instead consider the following possibilites…
Instead of buying that self-indulgent Christmas gift, might we instead donate the money to kiva or a charity to help others? Instead of purchasing generic greeting cards, why not buy charity greeting cards? Instead of attending that expensive Christmas social event, perhaps instead volunteer that time (and money) to a local homeless shelter or humanitarian cause? Why not forego the artificial Christmas tree, and spend an afternoon doing some real-life tree planting or helping some other environmental cause? Instead of stocking your home full of extraneous trinkets and baubles, why not gift the money to a homeless person? Maybe forego buying that ostentatious set of Christmas lights for the front garden, and instead use the money to light up the life of someone in need?
Are there ways we can invert the consumerist nature of Christmas and make it truly a time of sharing and celebration: for example, turning the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ into a 12-day marathon of creatively gifting to others in need? Better still, why not work out how to do some of these things all year round?
That would surely be a worthwhile Christmas gift to humanity. Happy holidays.
While the world largely regards COVID-19 as an unusual and singular event in living memory, the reality is that many epidemics and pandemics have swept the world. We can learn from another pandemic in our recent past that has killed millions and changed our cultural and human landscape – or have we already forgotten its many, many lessons?
While flags, uniforms and banners might arguably be seen as aligning with nationalism, elitism, or other forms of division, fabrics can also be used to bring people together in widespread community bonding – none more self evident than with the AIDS Quilt, which formed a strong public testimonial between the late 1980s and the early years of the 21st century. Fighting stigma and prejudice, the Quilt served a public function during a public health emergency.
Today, a COVID-impacted world could learn from the achievements of the activists, mothers, families and volunteers who formed a virtual underground army. Their activism during the catastrophe of AIDS led to reforms in social attitudes, religious homophobia, decriminalisation, anti-discrimination protections, sex education and sexual autonomy, family and inheritance rights, health care, and marriage equality. Will long-term positive benefits somehow also arise from the modern-day catastrophe of COVID-19? Such social and societal reforms could help to improve lives across the developing world in particular, especially in places such as Africa, where LGBTQIA+ people today suffer from the same abominable treatment that they endured in western society during the era of AIDS some two or three decades ago.
As a committee member/supporter of the AIDS Memorial Quilt Project Melbourne for over twenty years, I recall its many educational and support roles for those who were grieving, memorialising, or trying to overcome ignorance, prejudice and stigma. This essay comprises a talk I gave to an LGBT History Conference in Sydney on 24 September 2010.
The Australian AIDS Quilt is our nation’s most evocative public response to AIDS and it remains our largest ever example of activist and community art. Following the 1987 founding of the American AIDS Quilt, called the NAMES Project, the Australian AIDS Quilt was launched on the first annual World AIDS Day, 1 December 1988. Panels were made by families, partners, friends, colleagues, workmates, nurses, carers or others in memory of people who had been lost to AIDS. Panels were sewn into blocks of eight, and these quilt blocks were then displayed individually or collectively. Each quilt panel was a unique testimony to an individual, a group or to a slogan such as “See It and Understand”. Names, dates, photos, personal messages, badges, clothing, teddy bears or more exotic personal items were often included on a panel. It is estimated that approximately 900 panels were eventually produced across Australia.*
Although the AIDS Quilt might be seen as an example of gay activism and a radical appropriation of a traditionally conservative crafting form, it is simply one manifestation of quilts being used for activist purposes. Despite its being an offshoot of the NAMES Project, the Australian AIDS Quilt also has historical and cultural precedents from elsewhere and elsewhen.
Quilts enjoy a long tradition around the world. It has been suggested that quilting may have travelled from Asia, where early surviving examples include grave goods; to Europe, where it became popular as clothing for knights during the Crusades (von Gwinner, 1988, 12 & 13). These early symbolic links between quilting and death or warfare would prove to be a recurring motif.
The 11th century Bayeux Tapestry is a famous example of medieval embroidery. Its pictorial form resembles surviving medieval quilts which suggest that such textiles were commonly used during those times to present information to largely illiterate populations – and once again, we see themes relating to warfare and death.
US medieval historian Norman Cantor reports that tapestries were hung across doorways and windows of medieval churches to alleviate common fears of airborne plague contagion (Cantor, 2002, 22) and German art historian Schnuppe von Gwinner reports that African burial cloths, resembling AIDS Quilt panels, were used in colonial Dahomey and Nigeria (op cit, 29 – 32). Thus we can see that such crafting has been a popular tool in response to plague and in memorialising past lives.
In 17th century France, bed quilts were hung from windows to commemorate religious processions (ibid, 16). This connection between quilts and street marches resembles the AIDS Quilt being displayed in conjunction with AIDS Candlelight Vigils during the 1980s and 1990s.
Socially isolated groups in the USA, such as pioneer and Amish women, included this quilting within their traditions. During the US Civil War, women sewed quilts in order to raise money and awareness for the abolitionist cause (Brackman, 1997, 12). It is also claimed – probably incorrectly – that quilts may have been used as markers for the “underground railway” to guide escaping slaves to freedom (Dobard & Tobin, 1999; Brackman, 1997, 14 & 15; Wikipedia, 2020). Clearly, there is a long association – both real and reputed – between quilting and providing a voice for disempowered peoples.
Australian quilting historians Annette Gero and Margaret Rolfe report that quilting has enjoyed a long history in Australia, where quilts have been used not simply for comfort but also to convey messages. Some quilting traditions have also provided clear parallels between war, mortality, crisis and AIDS, and have supported disempowered peoples.
Aboriginal women made decorative patchwork cloaks and sleeping covers from possum skins (Gero, 2008, 9; Rolfe, 1987, 14). One surviving cloak includes what may be representations of clan patterns (Beasley & Conte, 1995, 33).
Quilting also offered some degree of self-sufficiency for female convicts and an opportunity for colonial women to provide both bedding and social narrative within their families. Subsequent immigrant women have also made quilts to acknowledge significant life transitions. One recent group of Australian Iraqi women has used quilts to promote compassion for asylum seekers – a marginalised group in our modern society (Gero, 2008, 13 & 14; Marshall, 2004, ii).
The National Quilt Register lists over 1000 quilts from Australia’s history, many of which represent life transitions such as birth, war, marriage, illness, hard times and death (National Quilt Register, 2020) and some include recycled materials due to a scarcity of cloth among pioneer women. Such recycling was revisited and reinterpreted on the AIDS Quilt, through the occasional inclusion of a deceased person’s clothing on their panel.
In the Australian AIDS Quilt, a sampling of 190 panels (an estimated 20% of the entire Quilt) reveals that men comprised approximately 40% of identifiable quilt makers in the sample. Their contribution within a traditional “female” activity gives us another reason why the AIDS Quilt was a significant community project. But it must be stressed that, within this sample, women comprised approximately 60% of identifiable Quilt makers and they extended the traditional “female” roles of nurturing and quilting into activism on behalf of their gay sons, brothers, friends and patients – yet their contribution is largely overlooked by the gay male community’s social appropriation of the AIDS Quilt.
Australian quilts made during times of war provide the greatest parallel to the AIDS Quilt. Both forms of quilting were created at times when many young men were dying, and were a personal response to battles that involved love, loss, community, death and grief. In a break from the traditional female stereotype, war quilts were made by men (Gero, op cit, 129) as were many AIDS Quilt panels. Australia’s first war quilt was made in 1806 by a Prussian soldier who had been imprisoned during the Napoleonic wars (ibid). Later war quilts encompass a range of conflicts including the Boer War, both World Wars and Korea.
During the World Wars, women reclaimed their role in quilting by creating “Red Cross Quilts”, which were fundraisers for the Red Cross (ibid, 161). One example is a World War One “signature quilt” created by women in Williamstown, Victoria, who were inspired by one of their sons who sent home patches of cloth containing signatures from the battlefield. Some of those who were featured, including the young man at the centre of the quilt, did not survive the war (Author unknown, 2010). Further “Red Cross” quilts continue to be made. Although they are intended primarily as fundraisers, they enable local communities to publicly show their support for a humanitarian cause and have parallels with signature panels connected to the AIDS Quilt, which also enabled visitors to leave messages of support.
The Australian War Memorial reports that women imprisoned in Changi Prison during World War Two also compiled signature quilts which included personal messages, the meaning of which has now been lost (Australian War Memorial, 2017). Some AIDS Quilt panels also contain cryptic personal messages.
Australian scholars such as Robert Ariss and Jennifer Power have written of the role of the AIDS Quilt in providing both ritual and structure for shared grieving among the gay community during the 1990s. Ariss drew upon a parallel from the 1980s, when an AIDS diagnosis was often seen as a public and unintended double “coming out”. He suggested that “The Quilt is death coming out” (Ariss, 2004, 282), thereby breaking another social taboo. Perhaps this explains why the Quilt has almost disappeared from public view now that AIDS has largely faded from our collective awareness.
The AIDS Quilt began its decline during the mid to late 1990s. Death rates, activist burnout and the arrival of new medical treatments for AIDS may all have contributed to this decline. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some Australian gay men grew tired of visiting what had been nicknamed, “the doonah of death”. As the era of AIDS gave way to the era of living with HIV, the AIDS Quilt quietly disappeared from public view. It might therefore be seen as a product of its historical context rather than as a major contributor to ongoing discourse. The other Australian quilts discussed in this study also appear to follow this pattern of transitory fame.
Even though much of the AIDS Quilt has disappeared, some of it is still available for public viewing via live displays or on the Internet. Meanwhile, quilting has become a popular method for presenting memorial tributes. Recent examples include memorial quilts for those lost to other diseases, violence or armed conflict. The Australian Salvation Army has launched a “Life Keeper Memory Quilt”, a memorial to people lost to suicide (Benson, 2009). Thus quilting continues its perennial connections with conflict and death.
The Australian gay community founded and operated the AIDS Quilt as an assertive activist entity for over a decade, and the high participation rate of other groups of people provides a testimony to the creation of a memorial which promoted respect and diversity. A study of its place in both history and society enables us to fully appreciate how gay people operated in neither a cultural vacuum nor social isolation, and it also enriches our appreciation of the AIDS Quilt within a wider historical and cultural context. With its disappearance from public prominence, we are challenged to consider how best to ensure that its people do not fade from the rich tapestry of our lives, cultural memory or folklore.
*Estimate provided during conversation by the Secretary, Quilt Project Melbourne on 6 September 2010.
The above talk was preparation for 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.
Robert Ariss, 2004. ‘Re-Inventing Death: Gay Community Memorial Rites in Sydney, Australia’, in Robert Aldrich (editor), Gay Perspectives II: More Essays in Australian Gay Culture, University of Sydney.
I look up at the sky, at the complexity and wonder of our natural Universe – so much more than we currently understand – and I marvel that I am a part of it.
What does Humanism mean to you? A #hashtag campaign being run by Humanists UK encourages people to publicise what Humanism means to them: “share and celebrate the values and convictions that underpin [your] approach to life.”
For me, I see Humanism reflected in people and events from my past, present and future – even those who may not self-identify as Humanist, because their attitudes and actions reflect the basic philosophy of respect for common humanity and other Humanist precepts.
For a start, Humanism allows us to balance our scientific curiosity with our sense of wonder and transcendence:
I recall one woman whose children were students of mine. She was a friendly, happy woman who instilled in her kids a happy countenance and a keen desire for learning and knowledge. Sadly, she passed away from cancer, and I attended her funeral as a mark of respect. Her teenage son greeted me with a pleased smile, a warm handshake and a friendly chat. Even in his grief, he was facing reality with a cheerful disposition. We talked about his studies and his hobbies in Science. He told me that the night his mother had died, he had gone outside to study the stars and to marvel at the Universe. I wished that I was half the educator his mother had been.
An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal” (Natasha Lennard and Cary Wolfe, The New York Times, 2017.)
Humanism can be found in a future for which we must strive:
Whether it is #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter, the Global Climate Strike or Marriage Equality; whether it is peaceful protests and call for political change in Hong Kong or Nigeria or Thailand or USA; we see progressives – especially younger people – demanding change. They want to live in a better future, and they are prepared to make it happen. I see the same in the ongoing saga of local Humanists as they seek to expand beyond their traditions, and in the imminent birth of Humanists Australia, a (hopefully) twenty-first century form of activism that focuses on common humanity. I find inspiration in popular literature that optimistically conflates science with the human condition. Our future visions are perhaps best encapsulated by Star Trek creator, humanist Gene Roddenberry, who proclaimed: “We are a young species. I think if we allow ourselves a little development, understanding what we’ve done already, we’ll be surprised what a cherishable, lovely group that humans can evolve into.” For Roddenberry, and for millions of us who look to the future, the human adventure is just beginning.
For me, Humanism is greater than a faith-based philosophy. It reflects the evidenced reality that humanity is evolving into a better species due to the rise of Humanist thought and values. I am proud to add my own small, humble contribution to that quest.
And perhaps most exciting of all – we are all on that journey together.
There are many reasons to commemorate this time of year, including many events which usually occur between November – February as a demonstration of the fact that humans love to invent excuses for celebration and solemnity. During this season of impending holiday greetings, I invite people to commemorate whichever of the following holidays or other events are most special for them. Or please add one of your own. Enjoy!
Evolution Day Samhain (Celtic New Year’s Day) World Vegan Day All Saints Day/All Souls Day/All Hallows’ Day (Christian) Culture Day (Japan) Armistice/Remembrance Day National Independence Day (Poland) Universal Children’s Day International Migrant’s Day World Television Day Diwali (UK – Hindu Festival of Lights) World Soil Day Al-Hijira (Islamic New Year) Thanksgiving Day (USA) Hanukkah (Jewish Festival of Lights) World Diabetes Day Bodhi Day (Buddhist) White Ribbon Day (Australia) Armed Forces Day (Bangladesh) Day of the Dead (Latin America – syncrectic Christian) National Day (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Mauritania, Central African Republic, Romania, Laos, United Arab Emirates, Burkina Faso, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Bhutan, Niger, Sudan) Independence Day (Suriname, Barbados, Finland, Haiti, Burma) Proclamation of Independence Day (Timor-Leste) St Andrew’s Day (Scotland) The King’s Birthday Anniversary (Thailand) Jamhuri Day (Kenya) Guy Fawkes Night (UK) National Youth Day (Albania, India) World AIDS Day The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery Kwansolhaneidmas (Facebook) Marie Curie’s birthday International Day of People with Disability Karen New Year Celebration (Burma) World Fisheries Day Human Rights Day Las Posadas (Mexico – Christian) Black Awareness Day/Black Consciousness Day (Brazil) Makar Sankranti (Hindu) World Pneumonia Day Feast Day – Our Lady of Guadalupe (Catholic Christian) Day of Reconciliation (South Africa) Pongal (Tamil) Calan Gaeaf (Welsh) Koliada (Slavik) Lupercalia (Ancient Roman) Christmas and Boxing Day (Eastern/Western Christian) Christmas and Boxing Day (secular holidays) Christmas and Boxing Day (Coptic Orthodox Christian) Indigenous Christmas (Australia) Kwanzaa (African American) Yule (Wicca-northern hemisphere, Pagan) Litha (Wicca-southern hemisphere) Humanlight (Humanist, secular, atheist) Chalica (Unitarian Universalist) Montol Festival (Cornwall) Yalda (Persian Winter Solstice) Rosa Parks Day (USA) Darwin Day National Day of the Horse (USA) Anti-Bullying Week (UK) Luci d’Artista (Italy) Id el Maulud (Muslim) World Kindness Day National Blood Donor Month (USA) Zamenhof Day (Esperantist) Festivus (Seinfeld secular) Newtonmas/Isaac Newton’s birthday (secular/scientific) Quaid-e-Azam’s Day (Pakistan) Lohri (Hindu) Martin Luther King Jr Day (USA) International Human Solidarity Day National Sorry Day (Australia) Intersex Day of Remembrance Hogmanay (Scotland) Laba Festival (China) Solstice, or Midwinter (various cultures) St Stephen’s Day /the Feast of Stephen (Catholic Christian) International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation Wren Day (Ireland) Puyuma New Year Ritual (Thailand) Movember (Australia) Transgender Day of Remembrance New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day (secular holidays) Berchtoldsta (Switzerland, Liechtenstein and the Alsace ) Gantan Sai or Shogatu (Japan – Shinto) Mahayana (Buddhist) World Cancer Day New Year (Russian Orthodox) International Polar Bear Day Bikarami Sankrant (South India – Hindu) Liberation Day (Cuba) Feast of St Basil (Orthodox Christian) Heart Research Day (Australia) Imbolc/Brigid’s Day (Gaelic) Lantern Festival (China – variable date) Armenian Christmas (Armenia) Nativity of Christ (Orthodox Christian) Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) World Radio Day
Seasonal school holidays (varied nations) World Religion Day (Baha’i) Blessings of the Animals Day (Hispanic Christian) Australia Day/Invasion Day Birth of Guru Gobind Singh (Sikh) Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) Tu Bishvat (Jewish New Year of the Trees) World Wildlife Conservation Day International Holocaust Remembrance Day Ramadan (Islamic) – variable date Losar (Tibetan New Year) – variable date Hmong New Year Festival – variable date Saturnalia (pagan) International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women Sesame Street Day Republic Day (India) Midsumma (LGBTI festival, Melbourne, Australia) International Day for Tolerance World Choral Day Antarctica Day National Science Fiction Day/Isaac Asimov’s birthday (USA) Valentine’s Day (Christian/religious/commercial) Groundhog Day (North American) Hogswatchday (Discworld) Life Day (Kashyyyk – Wookiee)
“Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.” – Douglas Adams.
What does it mean to be human?
My background in science fiction demonstrates my own intersections of the personal with the political. In 1999, as the founder of a Melbourne-based LGBTI science fiction club called Spaced Out, I authored the club’s draft charter. Its goals included a recognition of diversity and a challenge to our science fictional friends and peers:
“We recognise that science fiction is a fun and popular medium and we no longer wish to be excluded from its fiction, art, cyberworlds or other creative forms…” Spaced Out, 1999.
I recall the energy and enthusiasm of the club’s early days: we published a number of newsletters and two fanzines, and our website won an Australian science fiction ‘Ditmar’ award. A professional author and other local luminaries became guests at our meetings while we, in turn, hosted panels at a Worldcon (Aussiecon 3). Our very existence, as both geeks and queers, identified us as a minority grouping within both communities; it was fun to confront double prejudice and it was interesting to see who supported us in either context.
Within a few short years, however, our creative impetus dwindled and our club focus narrowed, until the group became little more than a social locus for queer consumers of media science fiction – removing us from the stereotype of affective fans who appropriate culture and relocating us within the more commonly-held stereotype of passive consumers (Grossberg, 1992, 51 & 52). Thus we redefined our aspirations from Worldcon to Comicon. In hindsight, it can be asked whether our original club aims may have been, in some perverse way, too self-defensive: to reinterpret the ‘other’ in both real life and speculative fiction as being merely a figure worthy of acknowledgement and tolerance.
This was not my first adventure into such territory: the figure of the ‘other’ was more than an academic concept to me. I recall, as a child, watching a TV series from the late 1960s, The Invaders, which combined the ‘flying saucer’ craze with anti-communist fears from the McCarthy era. Even at my young age, I somehow knew that its conspiratorial warning – that ‘they’ were among us – held a more ubiquitous meaning.
Within a few years, as a teenager coming to terms with my awakening homosexuality, I would come to understand the larger metaphor of the ‘other’ in the midst of our heteronormative culture, wherein queer identities were (at the time) subject to both moral and legal sanction – an isolation that was most empathically evoked in such tales of alienation as Ted Sturgeon’s short story, A Saucer of Loneliness. In 1975, I instinctively recognised kinship with the young man who silently and momentarily cruised Logan within the cyberspace ‘Circuit’ from the film Logan’s Run. Later in my teens, my enthusiasm for Star Trek reinforced the concept of the alien being both within and without. By then, however, I had also started to question why science fiction explored the diversity of alien life forms but somehow managed to often overlook genuinely bohemian human characters and cultures.
The irony of how life can come full-circle was emphasised to me in 2012, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation commissioned a six-part series entitled, Outland, telling the story of an imaginary ‘gay science fiction fan club’ that was curiously located within the Australian city which really did have such a club. The series was advertised as being an exploration of inclusion but it excluded its real-life counterparts: its generic disclaimer dissociated its fictional characters from any real-life role models, and its fictional ‘otherness’ was further emphasised by its predominantly white male characters displaying very little real diversity. To me, its stories lacked the excitement of our real-life exploits in Spaced Out, where we had taken ‘one small step’ into groundbreaking territory and attempted to ‘boldly go where no fan had gone before’. Ultimately, Outland inverted media science fiction subtext: whereas LGBTQIA+ SF fans had traditionally sought to interpret ‘otherness’ as metaphoric queerness; we could now interpret our queerness as comprising metaphoric ‘otherness’.
This challenges us to ponder the nature of ‘queer science fictions’ and our place as creators, audiences, and participants. More than that, it reveals science fiction at its most humanistic: encouraging us to shape a better future – from the pages of his most famous story, we can find inspiration in the words of humanist and SF author Arthur C Clarke, himself purportedly gay: “For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something.”
Literary Science Fiction: A History of the Future
“Science fiction encourages us to explore… all the futures, good and bad, that the human mind can envision” – Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Science fiction is an intellectual exploration of one of Arthur C Clarke’s famous Three Laws which states that, “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible” – by extension, SF seeks to explore this idea in secular humanist terms: “The only way of discovering the limits of the human is to venture a little way past them into the transhuman, posthuman or sentient“.
Any consequent definition of science fiction is bound to be incomplete. Broadly, the genre might be defined – according to its very title – as comprising fiction about science, or how the human condition may be redefined by such technology. Traditionally, this has included stories about possible technological developments (spaceships, robots, time travel etc), or possible futures derived from real or potential science (climate change, nuclear apocalypse, alien life, virtual realities etc). In essence, this speculative fiction examines the human condition and how it may change in the future. Such exploration is potentially ripe for queer issues which examine emerging concepts of what it means to be fully human, and – beyond that – to extend this recognition to incorporate what biologist Bruce Baghemi refers to as the ‘polysexual, polygendered’ biosphere which is found across planet Earth (Baghemi, 1999, 7). By extension, our galactic dreams and visions could all be equally strange, inclusive and diverse.
The literary genre has arguably addressed this potential. As far back as True Story – the satirically-named spoof written by Lucian in the second century AD, complete with queer genders and sexualities (Richardson, 2001) – science fiction has been a genre replete with alien characters and situations of chaos that echo with queer sensitivities and themes. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a story detailing prejudice and alienation. We can all grok the alien within Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Isaac Asimov’s robotic character, Daneel Olivaw, and his ground-breaking female roboticist, Susan Calvin, are people reflecting the humanity of loneliness borne from difference.
In their definitive 1990 reference guide, Uranian Worlds, Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo have listed 935 stories featuring ‘alternative sexuality’ within science fiction, horror and fantasy genres. Stories include Ted Sturgeon’s The World Well Lost, which Garber and Paleo state is ‘often credited with having introduced the subject of homosexuality into the genre’, (Garber & Paleo, 1990, 203 & 204) through to ‘Joanna Russ’s introduction of lesbian feminism into science fiction’ via stories such as The Female Man. There is even a range of dystopian futures wherein gay men with AIDS are incarcerated in concentration camps (Garber & Paleo, p. xiii). Many of these stories explore ideas or identities outside of traditional cis heteronormative formulae. It seems a shame that many queer science fiction readers appear to be unaware that such a rich smorgasbord of literary science fiction is available for their consumption.
Within this twilight area of alternate realities, we find our first example of queer agency. Joseph Hawkins identifies a link between early literary science fictional utopias and the emergent gay rights movement as can be seen in the fanzines produced by Lisa Ben and Jim Kepner during science fiction’s early era; the skills they honed and the pre-Internet social networks which they nurtured may have laid the groundwork for their later publication and dissemination of seminal gay literature. Hawkins posits: ‘I think a really great case can be made for the fact that they learned how to do their gay publishing from their involvement in science fiction’. This suggests that futuristic fantasies of strange new worlds are sympathetic to the adoption and incorporation of queerdom and other non-traditional ideas.
The Other Science Fiction
“Sometimes it takes a human life to balance a cold equation
in the black geometry of the Twilight Zone.”
– Narration from “The Twilight Zone” episode “Cold Equations.”
Today’s more populist forms of science fiction are found within media-based material, which tends to focus less on storyline and more on what science fiction author Isaac Asimov refers to as mere spectacle (cited in Hipple, 2008). Media science fiction attracts greater numbers of followers, in part, by diluting challenging ideas into relatively inoffensive material, including allegorical stories regarding the ‘other’.
Ideally, science fiction should be a fertile ground for introducing people to diversity and difference. After all, if we spend time absorbing material that features interaction between humans and aliens, it will hopefully encourage people to have open minds when approaching any cultures or communities that differ from their own. Science fiction should – theoretically at least – encourage a bigot-free zone. (If only!)
Hart suggests that virtually all Hollywood movies narrate a narrow binary of ‘otherness’, as demonstrated in westerns: ‘hero versus villain, civilisation versus savagery, individualism versus democracy, strength versus weakness, garden versus desert.’ (Hart, 2000, 15). By extension, media science fiction often explores this same duality through polarised perspectives: humans versus aliens, survival versus destruction, colonists versus frontiers, scientists versus luddites, and ‘man’ versus machine. The linkages between westerns and media science fiction are more blatant than simple acquisition of forms and templates: Star Trek was originally conceived as comprising a ‘Wagon Train to the stars’ and more recent science fiction TV programs, including Space Rangers and Firefly, have incorporated western tropes – although the latter did so in order to invert the craft.
Possibly the strongest parallel between westerns and media science fiction can be seen in ‘male same-sex friendships… and rivalries, both of which constitute complex love-hate relationships’ (Allmendinger, 1999, 224) which are traditional in westerns, and almost ubiquitous in media science fiction. However, an implicit homophobic culture within SF films ensures that no homosocial astronaut or alien can be acceptably queer. A gay but coyly chaste Sulu in the 2016 Star Trek movie serves as both a token Asian and a token gay male, and his anaemic characterisation can be interpreted as a queer-baiting exercise which reflects the uninformed perspective of white heteronormative creators.
Ultimately, the ‘other’ in media science fiction has its limitations due to its association with victimisation (Shawl & Ward, 2005, 58.) The fleeting ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ reference found within the 2008 mini-series, Andromeda Strain, might be seen as a welcome progression from earlier treatments such as that found in the 1990 movie, Moon 44, which features a homosexual rape. However, the reality is that neither portrayal is acceptable for modern audiences.
Representations and Permutations
“If we can’t write diversity into sci-fi, then what’s the point? You don’t create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones.” ― Jane Espenson.
In 2016, I attended a convention in Melbourne which boasted a number of panels that examined issues relating to queer science fictions. One panel consisted almost entirely of panelists and audience swapping suggestions for the whole hour, in order to compile a necessarily incomplete list of queer SF novels. Within my experience, such a search for queerdom within SF usually tends to be a passive one – seeking out what already exists, and assigning it significance as part of our quest for validation. This may be a necessary starting point, but I see it as being insufficient for those seeking to express perspectives and voices outside of the heterosexist structure of traditional SF.
In past times, subtext or heterosexually-sanitised representations have dominated our search for significance. Subtext in Blake’s Seven nominally satiated one desire for queer visibility (Lilley, 2000, 5). The TV series, Alien Nation, tackled gender roles and same sex marriage, which may explain why the series was quickly cancelled. Quantum Leap explored heterosexual AIDS, gender issues, and one 1992 episode confronted the reality of gays in the military:
“This is the most controversial episode Quantum Leap has yet aired. When it was in production, threatened advertiser defections caused a storm of charges and countercharges in Hollywood. Amidst threats of boycott and charges of censorship, the episode aired, essentially as written, to high ratings” (Chunovic, 1993, 83).
Even so, Quantum Leap remained a flawed product. Using the plot device of time travel to have its main character ‘leap’ into the body of a stranger each week and thereby explore issues of racial and gender equality, the series nevertheless chose to play it safe:
“…The series missed many opportunities. Sam never leaped into an openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person. He never contracted AIDS, fell into same-sex love or got queer bashed. On a more subtle level, Sam’s romances were always heterosexual and featured him, within a male body, kissing a woman. Why didn’t he ever have a romance within a woman’s body, kissing a man?” (KR, 2000, 7),
Other media science fiction has queer-baited its audiences, with teasing references to homosexuality that go nowhere: Babylon 5 featured a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bisexual/lesbian relationship between two main characters, and it parodied same-sex relationships between two pairs of male characters. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine featured a symbiont character who occasionally changed gender but remained firmly, comfortably heterosexual. Modern incarnations of Doctor Who and its spin-off series, Torchwood, have dabbled in queer characters, themes and relationships. Writers of The Big Bang Theory have included frequent queer subtext for comic effect, but ultimately chose to redefine Sheldon’s asexuality and the ‘ersatz homosexual’ relationships shared by other bohemian characters in the series. It took the Star Trek franchise over fifty years to acknowledge the existence of positive LGBTQIA+ characters, and Star Wars still has to get there after forty years – both of them long after SF like Sense8 had already led the way.
The sister genre of media fantasy – wherein the rules which govern our physical and metaphysical universe are bent or broken more readily – appears to lend itself to a more free expression of bohemian ideas via vampires, werewolves and other fringe characters. We have seen homosocial relationships in Xena and Smallville, and we have met our allegorical selves in X-Men and Buffy. This evolution is palpable: in the 1985 movie, the eponymous Teen Wolf reassures his buddy that he is not a ‘fag’; whereas a generation later, his titular spin-off series is replete with queer characters and fan discussion on the need for comprehensive exploration beyond tokenism. Such tokenism might also be glimpsed in Dumbledore’s ‘coming out’ only after the Harry Potter book and film series were safely concluded. But while such tokenism mitigates against queer invisibility, it is insufficient to address the full potential of what Patricia Juliana Smith posits as ‘the queer imaginary’ (Smith, 1999, xiii).
In Search of An Identity
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken” – Oscar Wilde.
Ultimately, what makes science fiction ‘queer’? Is it the inclusion, by straight authors, of effeminate homosexuals, as Joe Haldeman admitted, during a 2002 interview, when speaking of his 1975 novel, The Forever War: ‘I’m certain that if I wrote it today, I wouldn’t have this feminisation of the gay people’? (Allshorn, 2002, 10). Is it a romance between Riker and a (clearly-female) androgynous alien, in one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where the ultimate message of the episode is that sexual deviance can be cured? (Roberts, 1999, 117 – 122). Might we consider the recent Australian film Predestination, along with its source material, the classic short story, All You Zombies–, by Robert Heinlein? These attempts reflect the understandings of their heterosexual creators, however well-intentioned, and suggest that queer agency may itself be a necessary prerequisite. Lawrence Schimel points out that defining queer perspective is itself problematic (Schimel, 1998, 9) – and, I would add, probably as difficult as trying to confine science fiction within one all-encompassing definition.
Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward encourage us to be mindful of what they refer to as ‘parallax’ (borrowed from the astronomical term); that is, recognising that reality can be viewed from differing perspectives (Shawl & Ward, 2005, 21). Following their example, we should acknowledge that a science fiction story written by an affluent white gay man in Melbourne will present a different parallax from one written by an African American man in Boston – or a white lesbian in Buenos Aires, a Jewish heterosexual F2M in Beirut, a Latinx person in Orlando, an indigenous sistergirl in Alice Springs, or a gay Catholic man in Lagos. To further extend our understandings of parallax, we should also note that literary SF and media SF have their own traditions and paradigms, as do manga, graphic arts and novels, RPG and MMORP and LARP and cosplay, fanfic, and social media. Such varied formats provide opportunities for the portrayal of diverse voices and lives.
One empowered approach towards ‘queer’ agency within science fiction should be to consider its intersections with other ‘minorities’ or cohorts who have also been traditionally excluded, marginalised or stereotyped within the genre. Hawkins suggests that gay rights pioneers who were inspired by science fictional ideals also found parallels with feminism and racial equality. Conversely, Shawl suggests that a wise approach for transcultural explorers is to understand the differences between being a ‘tourist’, a ‘guest’ and an ‘invader’ of other cultures; thereby avoiding cultural appropriations (Shawl, 2005, 75 – 84). I concur that cultural appropriation of feminist, Afrofuturist or indigenous perspectives is, in itself, not appropriate within queerdom, except where these overlap within LGBTIQ identities – and they may often do so. However, we can also learn from these other examples and forge our own unique perspectives and self-empowerment.
Racism has been problematic within the science fictional tradition. Although people of varied racial and cultural groupings have contributed to science fiction for many years, their contribution has often been overlooked in favour of white authors. Only after 1993 – when the term ‘Afrofuturism’ was invented (Miller, 2014) – did serious recognition reportedly emerge that ‘the canon is not monolithically white’ (Vint, 2014). As recently as August 2015, a report commissioned by a science fiction journal indicated that ‘of the 2039 (science fiction) short stories published in 2015, only 38 were published by black authors’. Despite possible questions arising from survey methodology, it seems appalling that a reported 60% of science fiction magazines had failed to publish one story by a black author that year, and that no black authors had been published for at least most of 2016. Other recent academic study has expanded awareness of underlying race issues within and around science fiction, such as DeWitt Douglas Kilgore’s reference to issues of race and evolutionary superiority within H G Wells’ War of the Worlds, and to the politics of segregation in Asimov’s Robot stories. He adds:
“Perhaps the greatest challenge or potential of contemporary science fiction is to imagine political/social futures in which race does not simply wither away but is transformed, changing into something different and perhaps unexpected” (Kilgore, 2010, 17).
We can find parallels between race and queerdom. Jeffrey M. Elliott suggests that we shared the same traditional stigma within SF: ‘In many ways, gays/lesbians were treated much like blacks: as non-existent’ (Elliott, 1984, 9). In seeking queer visibility, it is therefore up to us to assert our autonomy and to develop cultural identities that express our own differences and present our own viewpoints. In exploring our own post-Stonewall heritage, we should be prepared to create new and unique forms of futurism.
In 1959, C.P. Snow wrote about the chasm which he saw between what he termed the ‘two cultures’: broadly speaking, the sciences versus the humanities. He bemoaned the intellectual poverty each had of the contribution to life and society being made by the other (Snow, 1959/1960, 16). Science fiction has subsequently been proposed as a literary form to bridge the gap between these two aspects of human inquiry and intellect (Westfahl & Slusser, 2009). I submit that it may also provide us with opportunities to bridge a divide between divergent forms of self-identity, including those of sexuality and gender identity. Our own ‘coming out’ stories may provide a broader context for evolution within the human condition.
From Slipstream to Queer Pride
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect)” – Mark Twain.
Grace L Dillon presents important perspectives via the parallax of indigenous science fictions. These include ‘native slipstream’, or alternative universes and timestreams ranging from multiverses and cyberpunk through to the application of ecologically sustainable sciences (Dillon, 2012, 3 – 5, 7 – 8). Significantly, she also identifies two aspects of indigenous SF which, I submit, may serve as examples to guide queer science fiction participants who seek directions for their own narratives.
Dillon examines ‘Biskaabiiyang’ (or ‘returning to ourselves’) wherein ‘the knowledge of the past histories of fighting back and resistances throughout time is a necessary component of predicting the future’ (ibid, 217). This is one area within which unique histories and traditions have been combined to create unique perspectives. In queer parlance, might similar journeys of self discovery include a celebration and cultural commemoration of Stonewall, or maybe finding ubiquitous forms of ‘coming out’ from varied ‘closets’?
In identifying and positing ‘native apocalypse’ within SF literature, Dillon posits a post-colonialist perspective within indigenous speculative fiction:
“Apocalyptic tales usually portray a future scenario related to the abuse of advanced technologies, such as the aftermath of nuclear bombs detonated with terrorist intent on US soil. Native SF often points out that historically the apocalypse has already occurred” (Dillon, ibid, 149).
In 2016, Sydney gay magazine Star Observer published a short science fiction story which thematically and allegorically addressed indigenous apocalypse through the perspective of a gay male protagonist (Sheather, 2016, 62). It demonstrated that an overlap of queer and indigenous identities can provide an evocative focus for mutually-beneficial agency, in this case affirming the power of memory and living testimony as forms of cultural witness and legacy.
Similarly, a queer perspective of our own pre- and post-Stonewall histories indicates that we may have our own specific dystopian stories to recount and interpret. One ‘cranky old queer’ Doctor Who fan explains how a fictional queer character like Jack Harkness can provide new forms of subtext in their real-life post-trauma world:
“For Jack, we know there must have been lovers lost not to aliens, but to AIDS, and scars no longer visible from a beating or a thrown bottle. If it’s true for us, it somehow must be true for him, surely” (Maltese, 2013, 121).
I await the writing of queer science fictional narratives regarding the long-term impact of our own experiences of stigma, cultural erasure and epidemic. Similarly, I look forward to queer reinterpretations of the future human condition as contextualised through the lenses of gay liberation, queer pride, marriage equality and same-sex parenting.
Praxis Is Not Just A Klingon Moon
“After all, a person is herself, and others. Relationships chisel the final shape of one’s being. I am me, and you.” – N.K. Jemisin.
Just as women’s liberation and gay liberation emerged out of the same era and civil rights impetus, we can examine an overlap of feminist and queer praxis. Science fiction has a chequered history in its treatment of women, who were portrayed (if at all) as being ‘negatively constructed… gendered passive, self-denying, obedient, and self-sacrificial’ (Liang, 2015, 2037). SF literature attempted to confront its sexism as far back as the 1940s and 1950s, a time during which Justine Larbalestier reportedly recalls a rudimentary feminist discourse (Duchamp, 2004, 31). Marion Zimmer Bradley similarly recalls the controversy which arose when the ‘almost obscenely sexless’ genre evolved beyond its pulp origins and began to consider the inclusion of women as part of a conflation with emergent sexuality: ‘Is sex valid in SF?'(Bradley, 1976, 8). Sarah Lefanu notes the later ‘incursion’ into SF during the 1970s by women who were keen to exploit the genre’s potential for expression of political ideas in line with women’s liberation (Lefanu, 1989, 179 & 180). This ‘second wave’ of feminists coincides with the arrival of Star Trek fans upon the wider SF convention scene, anecdotally recalled as providing ‘the first Australian Con with a reasonable gender ratio’ in 1969 (Johnson, 2015). This era fueled the rise of slash fiction which was largely driven by women as creators and consumers.
Some activists continue to call for queer characters to appear in populist media science fiction (Pearson, 1999, 1 – 22) – and in past times, this was also my position (Geoff and Miriam, 2001, 2 & 3). However, I have come to realise that such representation simply reinforces tokenism within uninformed heterosexist parallax. Genuine queer ownership and agency are required.
Our communal acronym of LGBTIQ is itself expanding and evolving to also recognise intersex, pansexual and polysexual, non-binary and sexually fluid and genderfluid, bigender and trigender and pangender and genderqueer, fa’afafine and Two Spirit and kathoey and tongzhi, sistergirl and brotherboy, drag king and drag queen, androphilic and gynecophilic, asexual and non-monosexual, questioning, queer, rainbow, and allied individuals – among others. Similarly, our futurisms need to acknowledge and adopt new and celebratory understandings of biological, sociopolitical and technological diversity; I submit that queer SF creators and consumers have a unique ability to contribute new perspectives. Queering humanity adds humanity to queerdom.
It is time to leave behind Frankenstein’s Monster, Spock, and the aliens who are hidden in plain sight. Where once we were satisfied with the subtextual and metaphoric ‘other’, it is time for us to raise new voices and ‘come out’ with pride and celebration, helping to redefine science fiction – and humanity as a diverse collection of aliens, bohemians, and others. One such example may be David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself, a story which features homosexualities amongst its paradoxical time travel permutations:
“So this is love.
The giving. The taking.
The abandonment of rules. The opening of the self.
And the resultant sensuality of it all.” (Gerrold, 1991, 82)
Therein we might find both an invitation and a template for our human future.
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