Do You Remember the Era of AIDS?

‘Take Me To Paris, Johnny’, by John Foster

For Juan (and John)

In 1993, Minerva Books published a memoir written by Melbourne academic, John Foster, which immortalised the life and death of his partner. A generation later, we are experiencing another pandemic, and this book – subsequently reissued by Black Inc. in 2003 and most recently in 2016 by the Text Publishing Company – is something of an overlooked classic. Given its literary merit – Peter Craven (1994) praises this writing as “unparalleled in Australian letters” – it is surprising that John Foster’s book has not received wider acclamation.

The answer, it seems, might be found in the historical context of the times. A generation has now passed since the arrival of AIDS, and much of our societal ignorance, fear and hysteria have dissolved into the calm of complacency. AIDS, which was once loudly denounced everywhere from pulpit to Parliament, has instead succumbed to the ultimate stigma: that of being generally forgotten and invisible. Foster’s novel is both a victim of, and a challenge against, such invisibility. It reminds us that HIV/AIDS is still here – and that we are greatly diminished when we overlook the courage of its heroes.

Take Me To Paris, Johnny is the real-life story of Juan Céspedes, the Cuban refugee and US emigre who arrives in Melbourne in 1986 to begin a new life filled with love, cautious hope and limited possibilities – only to be struck down with AIDS. Foster’s affectionate testimony to Juan’s resilience transforms the young man into the human personification of John Donne’s call for compassion: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind…” Juan’s Cuban mother and grandmother – whose distant lives interweave a mixture of both compassion and heartbreaking tragedy – are also transformed by Foster into figures who, through their suffering and loss, are evocative of the mother of Jesus. Such religious allusion subtly enriches Foster’s writing at different times throughout the novel.

Foster’s devout religious convictions might puzzle anyone who believes the term “gay Christian” to be potentially oxymoronic – even more so in the 1980s, when religious-based vilification was aimed at many people with AIDS. Such contradictions, however, are apparently not unusual for John Foster: an administrator who hates bureaucracy (Robertson, 1994) and an academic who falls in love with a self-educated dancer. Most paradoxically, Foster is an historian who teaches his students about the horrors of the Holocaust whilst conceding in his book that history holds a callous disregard for mere mortals: “Mostly it neither absolves nor condemns; it simply forgets”. Like his teaching, Foster’s personal memoir is a protest against such oblivion – this latter being a tribute to his partner, Juan, whose deathbed exclamation of heartbreaking despair, “I have accomplished nothing”, sparks Foster’s determination to document his life and death (Rickard, 2003).

The story is large and literate in scope, evocative even of a Shakespearean epic. Foster’s star-crossed lovers battle both society’s disapproval of their relationship and a deadlier ‘plague on both their houses’. Whereas Shakespeare’s fictional characters die in suicidal despair, Foster’s real-life lovers find consolation within their relationship: “We made it, Johnny. Didn’t we?”

John and Juan’s relationship can also be seen as an Australian story because it is the embodiment of multiculturalism and diversity. Their potentially intergenerational partnership – common enough in the gay community (Wilde, 2008) – is complicated by differences of race, education, class, culture and language. Foster nevertheless demonstrates unconditional love and acceptance, for example by accepting Juan’s infidelities either by choosing wilful ignorance or through a dismissive attitude akin to “boys will be boys”. Such is the nature of their unconventional partnership; one which some religions might propound as being symptomatic of the ‘sinful’ nature of homosexuality, but which Foster, as a Christian, presents without apology or reservation – his is neither a tale of political activism nor moral turpitude (Dessaix 1994), but simply a narration exposing a facet of what he considers to be real life.

Despite this implicit documentation of ‘ordinariness’, Foster’s writing also resonates with his personal sense of ‘otherness’ as revealed in his earlier book about WW2 German Jewish refugees when he summarises the effects of war, flight as refugees and subsequent cultural assimilation: “In Melbourne, German Jews have ceased to be a community…It is the memory of a past which is proud, terrible and still problematic” (Foster, 1986). Such mixed feelings and fears are reflected in Take Me To Paris, Johnny when Juan’s difficulties as a refugee and a gay man with AIDS allude to the plight of “pariahs” within Australian society (Baker 1994); they imply a concern by Foster that AIDS might decimate his own gay family just as life’s harsh realities ravaged members of the German Jewish community. There may even be a further parallel concerning the struggle within Foster’s own faith as a gay Christian, a minority within a minority which was under attack from both disease and discrimination. It may indeed be John Foster’s very underlying assumption – that gay men can find acceptance and love within the religious community – which has contributed to the avoidance of this text by some Australian readers.

Artwork used with artist’s permission.

Juan’s more obvious ‘otherness’ exposes different possible interpretations of his life and motivations. Readers might criticise Juan for relying on the financial support of older men in order to compensate for his own lifelong failure to forge a successful career for himself (Dessaix, 1994). A more benign interpretation might see Juan as someone who strives to improve his lot (Hanrahan, 2003) but upon whom fate inflicts many cruelties – until he is blessed through the friendship of John Foster. Williams (1994) evokes this latter alternative in his character description of Juan: “attractively elegant, talented, flawed, and unlucky in just about everything, except his choice of lovers.” As an example of the fickle finger of fate, Juan lies dying just as the “Grim Reaper” campaign is terrorising Australian television in 1987, and this fills Foster with impotent rage. After all, the faceless ‘other’ who is being publicly vilified as someone to fear is none other than gentle Juan. In the end, it matters not whatever might form the course or cause of Juan’s life journey; readers are uplifted by the end of his vigil when he discovers the redemptive power of love.

“Who, in their right mind, would actually want to read a book … about AIDS?” – apparently wrote one reviewer of an early New Zealand AIDS anthology, and was soundly criticised for this comment by Tom McLean, a Scottish journalist who was living and dying in New Zealand at around the same time as the characters in Foster’s book. McLean wrote his own AIDS autobiography, If I Should Die: Living With AIDS, dying three days after its publication (Young, 2002?a) – departing this mortal coil, like Juan Céspedes, on a Good Friday (Young, 2002?b).

The vexed question remains: “Who would want to read a book about AIDS?” – particularly in this decade when AIDS is seen as being barely newsworthy. Perhaps the answer is obvious: Everyone, because in learning about John and Juan, we are learning about ourselves. Why?

Indeed, why did the world find Anne Frank’s diary about the Holocaust to be so compelling and personal? It is an endearing coincidence that Anne Frank and Juan Céspedes share a childlike optimism despite imminent disaster; moreover, both their testimonies resonate with a mix of inner personal voices and external human truths which echo poet Walt Whitman’s decree: “I am large, I contain multitudes”.

Robin Grove (1994/1995) summarises another parallel in Foster’s book: “JUAN is JOHN, John Juan, each in the language of the other…” and this is the first of many parallels which are replete within and without the memoir. Juan receives almost identical care at the start and end of his life; his compassion for the friend who probably gave him HIV is shown through his caring support as the other man lies dying of AIDS – and mirrors the care he receives in due course from Foster, to whom he probably transmitted the same virus; the lovers both have funerals at Easter (Brady, 2004) and are buried together in Kew Cemetery. Such is the level of connection which unites John and Juan in both life and death; such is Foster’s skill that he can weave together such disparate threads of memory into a colourful tapestry of love and loss.

The book’s original subtitle, A Life Accomplished in the Era of AIDS, was a refutation of Juan’s deathbed exclamation of despair and defeat. This subtitle was deleted for the subsequent reissues, and may reflect the changing face of AIDS in Australia since Foster’s book was first published. The genre of Australian novel-length AIDS life narrative was a transitory and largely overlooked phenomenon; commencing with an autobiography by Eric Michaels (Unbecoming: An AIDS Diary, 1990) and ending with another by Robert Newey (Lessons Learnt, 2005); the arrival of new drug regimes then ended the conspicuity of suffering and death. AIDS now inspires little interest for most Australians; they see it as affecting marginalised peoples who are geographically or emotionally distant from their own lives. This is another tragedy of the pandemic: we fail to recognise noble heroes and role models. As one character comments in Foster’s book: “I sense from your account… that many people are increased in their humanity because of Juan’s presence among them.” A common truism is equally fitting: those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

Most significantly, John Foster’s text is a story of humans and families: individuals, lovers, friends, biological versus adoptive families, religious and gay communities – and indeed the whole human family. In this mix, Juan is presented as both child and adult seeking his way in the world, while John Foster becomes both lover and mentor. The heartbreak of Juan’s biological family as they lose him to refugee flight is counterbalanced with the pain faced by Juan’s adopted Melbourne family as he is fades away with AIDS.

Take Me To Paris, Johnny has acquired extra layers of meaning since its initial publication. Juan originally escaped from Guantánamo in Cuba – a place which has taken on a new resonance around the world in more recent times as the location for other forms of cruelty – and his identity as a refugee also places his story within a more contemporary Australian context of discrimination and alienation. Most pointedly in recent times, the whole world has learn what it means to endure under the spectre of pandemic. Foster could not have envisaged that his book would remain as relevant as tomorrow’s headlines in the decades following his death.

John Foster shows his consummate skill as an author through his realism and compassion: love may not conquer all, but it makes everything bearable. His legacy is a work which echoes with the voice and essence of his departed friend, Juan Céspedes. In turn, readers can only wonder how many other Juans have been forgotten, with their stories left untold. Perhaps Juan’s greatest accomplishment is that, in the pages of this memoir, he speaks on behalf of them all.

This is based upon an unpublished book review written in 2010, related to my PhD Studies on, “A Social History of HIV/AIDS in Melbourne during the ‘Crisis Years’ 1981 to 1997”. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

References:

Mark Baker, 1994. ‘Gentle Critic of the Hills Hoist Culture’, in Michael Visontay (editor), ‘Time and Tide’ (obituaries), The Australian, 18 May 1994, p. 16.

Jim Brady, 1994. ‘Eulogy’, in Baker, Mark, editor (1997), History on the Edge: Essays in Memory of John Foster 1944-1994, University of Melbourne History Department.

Peter Craven, 1994. ‘A Rare Thing’, in Voices, Vol. IV Number 2, Winter, pp. 118 – 122; an excerpted version of this essay was reprinted as the Foreword to the 2003 reissue of John Foster’s book.

Robert Dessaix, 1994. ‘The Dark Rose’, in Meanjin #1.

Stephen Dow, 2003. ‘AIDS, Fragile Love and Dying’, in The Age, 28 September, Agenda section, p. 10.

John Foster (editor), 1986).Community of Fate: Memoirs of German Jews in Melbourne, Allen & Unwin.

John Foster, 1993. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Minerva.

John Foster (reissue), 2003. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Black Inc. (includes Foreword by Peter Craven and Afterword by John Rickard).

John Foster (reissue), 2016. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Text Publishing Company. (includes Foreword by Peter Craven and Afterword by John Rickard).

Robin Grove, 1994/1995. ‘A Memory’s Shape’, in Island No 60/61, Spring/Summer, pp. 68-71. (Note: this article contains a beautiful photograph of Juan which is not available in any of the other literature).

John Hanrahan, 2003. ‘Loving and Dying’, in Australian Book Review, November.

Tom Mclean, 1989. If I Should Die: Living With AIDS, Benton Ross Publishers, p. 56.

John Rickard, 2003. ‘Afterword’, in John Foster, 2003, as above.

Ian Robertson, 1994. ‘Obituary: John Foster’, in The Age, 14 May, ‘Extra’ p. 8.

Winston Wilde, 2008. Legacies of Love: A Heritage of Queer Bonding, Haworth Press.

Stephen J Williams, 1994. ‘The Personal Will Be History, One Day’, in Overland No. 136, Spring, pp. 84 & 85.

Hugh Young, 2002?a. ‘HIV/AIDS in New Zealand‘, in Queer History New Zealand: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender New Zealand History, Queer History New Zealand.
– – – – – – – 2002?b. ‘A Chronology of Homosexuality in New Zealand: Part 5 – From Law Reform to the Present’, in Queer History New Zealand: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender New Zealand History: Part 5, Queer History New Zealand.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

Where Is The Outrage?

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Image by joy engelman from Pixabay

I acknowledge and pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians and Elders of this nation, past, present and emerging; and to the continued cultural and community practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Based up indigenous.gov.au and Reconciliation Australia

Many years ago, I worked in a country town. I was somewhat startled by some local attitudes towards First Nations inhabitants – attitudes which wavered between open disinterest and openly racist. I was concerned at the social distancing between European and First Nations communities, and attempted to bridge the gap within my personal and professional spheres of influence. As a young, naïve, relatively uninformed but idealistic first-year teacher, I made an effort to learn and implement indigenous culture within my subjects.

I took aside my indigenous Year 9 students and apologised to them that the Australian History curriculum that I had been mandated to teach actively excluded the existence of their communities after 1788, and I invited them to contribute ideas or to put me in touch with local adults who could help me make the subject more inclusive. They shrugged casually and remarked, “Nothing personal sir, but we’ve been putting up with this shit of being overlooked all our lives”. Naturally this encouraged me to redouble my efforts – working with the union to incorporate indigenous perspectives into the curriculum; seeking counsel from a local Koori Liaison Officer; incorporating indigenous stories, perspectives and culture into my classes; taking my younger students onto the school oval to throw boomerangs and spears under the guidance and direction of appropriate local First Nations elders.

After I left the town, I bumped into one or two of my former First Nations students in other social settings, and we maintained a positive relationship until life took us in different directions.

I did not find out until some years later, however, that the year before I had arrived in the town, there had been a death that would ultimate feature within the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. During my time there, I had not heard a word – not amidst the social gossip, not within otherwise snide racist innuendo, not even in the context of professional concern at the social isolation of individuals with whom I worked – nothing. This man’s death had been invisible and ignored and unheralded in the town, like dirty laundry that nobody wanted to air.

One First Nations perspective regarding this same Royal Commission expresses profound human disappointment:

The Royal Commission produced many reports, including individual reports for each death investigated. The Royal Commission found that First Nations people were more likely to die in custody because they were more likely to be in custody. Almost 30 years later and First Nations people are still far more likely to be incarcerated than the non-Indigenous population. The final report was signed on 15 April 1991 and made 339 recommendations. The recommendations focused on health and safety procedures for people in custody, liaison with First Nations community groups, police education and improved transparency of records. According to the Federal Government’s own measures, most of these recommendations have either not been implemented or only partially implemented.

This human catastrophe continues today:

Since the Royal Commission handed down its findings in 1991, at least another 455 Indigenous people have died in custody, according to the latest-available statistics from the 2018-19 National Deaths in Custody program.

And so it is now, some thirty years after that Commission – its recommendations largely ignored; the societal discrimination that it attempted to address still remaining unresolved due to a continuation across Australia (and beyond) of the same attitudes I observed in my local country town all those years ago – a marriage of open disinterest and open racism.

Image by Zesty from Pixabay

We should all learn from Gamilaraay Kooma woman Ruby Wharton: Where is the outrage? In the name of our humanity, we need to do more than read (or write) blogs. There is a need for tangible and real action. People are dying; do we care? It is time – nay, it is a time long overdue – to take action, as individuals, as arbiters of humanitarian laws and standards, and as a community.

There is a saying: I used to wonder why somebody didn’t do something, and then I realised that I was somebody.

What can YOU do?

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Cosmonautics Day, Yuri’s Night

Commemorating Sixty Years of Humans in Space, 12 April 2021
International Day of Human Space Flight

“Looking at the earth from afar you realize it is too small for conflict
and just big enough for co-operation.” – Yuri Gagarin

1965 Soviet Union 12 kopeks stamp. Cosmonautics Day. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Sir Isaac Newton is famously attributed, in his 1675 letter, with the metaphor that: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We can certainly appreciate his allusion to the intellectual and scientific giants who have changed our world. And yet the metaphor has earlier attribution that includes Christian humanist Guillaume de Conches, and implictly accords greatness to people from many backgrounds and cultures across humanity. In 1961, a young Soviet pilot became one such giant by literally going boldly where no one had gone before.

I am lucky to have been born – with barely one fortnight to spare – into a generation that will, in the mists of history, be remembered as one which truly took a step into a new frontier and maybe changed forever what it means to be human. This revolutionary change was spearheaded by 27 year-old Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, born into a family with seemingly evocative Biblical overtones (his parents were a carpenter and a dairy farmer) whose trip on 12 April 1961 aboard Vostok lasted just 89 minutes. With his short cosmic jaunt, he plugged into the timeless dreams of philosophers and stargazers, and tapped into our most primal dreams of flight:

YURI GAGARIN Maj. Yuri Gagarin during training, April 1961. The black-and-white photo has been colorized. AP Photo / TASS / Mattias Malmer (public domain). Planetary Society.

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

– from “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee

Poet John Gillespie Magee recognises the common human need for awe, rapture and transcendence. We can all sense the wondrous, and feel transformed by its touch, even those of us who do not assign divine agency to such profound emotion. Thus the voyage of Yuri Gagarin into our night sky allowed us all to revisit the wide-eyed curiosity, exhilaration and pleasure of a child dipping their toe into the gently lapping waves of a cosmic sea shore.

While writing such testimony, I resist the conceit of mythopoesis, the process of creating myth; a human tendency that was evident in those who sought to recast Gagarin as a Russian icon, or ascribe him an aristocratic family background. Nevertheless, the reality is that Gagarin was a genuine pioneer and hero, and that his was a dangerous journey aboard a flawed, fragile capsule hoisted aloft by explosive propellant. The background stories behind his life, flight, and tragic death, are all shrouded in Soviet-style mystery, and certainly help to demythologise his narrative. In the early days of the space race, cosmonauts and astronauts were referred to in the USA as people with ‘the right stuff’, able to tap into inner reserves of resilience and indomitability. Gagarin’s background may have prepared him for such a hardy adventure. William Blake alluded to noble human attributes that can be found within the souls of such giants:

“In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?”

The Tyger by William Blake.

The boldness of such human spirit is demonstrated by the many changes that have served as a quantum leap for our species. These include the discovery of fire, our first modern DNA ancestral male or female, the invention of language or the printing press, the development of ancient/indigenous cultures, the invention of agriculture or cities, the abolition of slavery, gender equality, the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the invention of antibiotics or the Internet; or any of many other possible watershed moments in our history. Each of these has, in its own way, redefined what it is to be human – as may our evolution from Earthbound species to space-faring one, even though that evolution may seem imperceptible at the time to those who experience the change. Already, NASA has catalogued over 2000 spinoffs from the space program that have enhanced our lives and our world – many of these being ubiquitous items in our everyday space-age lives.

So it will be in the galactic era to come. Our human ability to dream and to grow will ensure that, pending survival from pandemic and parochial war, we have a potentially wonderful future ahead. Claiming a habitat in space may ensure our long-term survival as a species should a meteor or microbe threaten planetary extinction here on Earth. The harshness of environmental conditions on other worlds will hopefully make us mindful of the need to wisely and optimally utilise interplanetary resources, while also ensuring the backbone of a thriving space economy and perspective that has the potential to benefit all of humanity and other life in our planetary ecosystem. Learning to terraform other planets may give us the ability to also terraform our home planet back from climate catastrophe.

Yuri Gagarin, AZ Quotes

Any suggestion that space exploration is somehow a waste of time or money is really quite problematic for a number of reasons: it invokes the hypocrisy of creationists, religious fundamentalists, and anti-science denialists who wish to promote some form of luddite society while still enjoying the benefits of our scientific age; and it stifles the human impulse to look up in awe and seek to explore and evolve. It ignores the lessons of history that science has improved the quality and quantity of our lives, and that those societies which resist progress actually go backwards. Perhaps most pointedly (in contradiction to the populist maxim that the money spent on space should instead be spent on the poor), the space program actually has the potential – when adopted widely and wisely – to assist developing nations, to supply valuable infrastructure and to help the environment. We cannot fight poverty if we economically, scientifically or intellectually impoverish ourselves.

1961 Gagarin Souvenir
(Personal collection)

On this anniversary, let us celebrate the fact that humanity took its first tangible step into space on the first Cosmonautics Day, 12 April 1961 – the day when Yuri Gagarin soared (however momentarily) into space, and changed our world. Celebrated annually across Russia and aligned nations, Cosmonautics Day was officially declared International Day of Human Spaceflight in 2011. The occasion has been supplemented since 2001 with the addition of Yuri’s Night, described as ‘space-themed partying with education and outreach‘. Our future is coming, and we should prepare. Let us honour the dreams and wonderment of billions of people down through the millennia, as they looked up at the cosmos and into our possible future:

May our next trip into space be bold and ambitious, reflective of the utterance: “Poyekhali!!” (“Let’s go!”) that began Gagarin’s launch in 1961 – and turned our species forever from Homo sapiens into Homo galacticus.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

We Are All Spock

For First Contact Day, 5 April 2063

Image by p2722754 from Pixabay

“[Actor Leonard Nimoy] wrote autobiographical tomes variously titled, I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock; perhaps his next book should have been titled, We Are All Spock.” – (Allshorn, 2015, 12)

NBC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The original Star Trek series was created by Humanist Gene Roddenberry, who presented a utopian vision wherein science and society had evolved to create a future without war, injustice or other human foibles. Spock was one of his most noble, popular and inspirational creations.

Star Trek was a television series with ambitions that were larger than the television screen: “What Star Trek is, is a set of fables – morality plays, entertainments, and diversions about contemporary man, but set against a science fiction background.” (Gerrold, 1973, 48)

Spock was a true scientist and humanitarian. He explored the galaxy (and nature) with an open-minded sense of awe and wonder, frequently expressing his admiration for “fascinating” new discoveries. He also explored the structures and strictures of pure logic – and, in his case, concluded that the discipline was too constricting within a wider social context. His approach to life therefore incorporated a healthy respect for logic balanced with ethics and humanitarianism, reflecting his own inner struggle to balance his humanity with other aspects of his personality. Spock was capable of ignoring emotive considerations when there was a need for cold, hard logic; but he was also capable of great loyalty and self-sacrificial dedication to his science, his captain and his crew. His words to James Kirk echo his sentiment to millions of fans: “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.

Actor Leonard Nimoy, who portrayed Spock for nearly fifty years, spoke of his character’s widespread appeal:

“Here is an ET of superior intelligence and abilities. Capable of making difficult decisions free of ego and pressure, and emotional needs. Dealing (supposedly) only with the facts in each case and the logical conclusions. The period in which Spock arrived was one of polarization over major political and social issues. The war in Viet Nam, the drug culture, the black revolution, assassinations, etc. Perhaps Spock represents a wise father figure to whom humans could turn for solutions to thorny problems.” (Nimoy, 1975, 93 & 94)

In this era of science denialism, Trumpism, Brexit and conspiracy theories, perhaps we need Spock more than ever. We should all aspire to be more like Spock. It’s only logical.

Science is Golden

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Detlef Hartmann; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the series, Spock (representing science and logic) provided life-saving scientific data so that he and McCoy (a character representing raw emotion) could help Kirk (the decision-maker) to weigh up options and determine the most logical and ethical response to each of life’s challenges. Jeremy Nicholas affirms that ‘Kirk is caught between Apollonian Spock (rational, logical, ordered, controlled) and Dionysian McCoy (emotional, instinctive, passionate). In every episode Kirk faces a decision whereby he gets conflicting advice from his two trusted advisers that he is in a constant struggle to reconcile.’ Stephen Fry also examines this duality within Star Trek.

The conflict between Spock and McCoy might also be seen as an exploration of the gap between what CP Snow calls, ‘the two cultures‘ i.e. science and the humanities/arts – a gap that I argue is bridged by science fiction such as Star Trek.

The impact of the Spock character upon popular culture cannot be underestimated. It is acknowledged that Star Trek inspired many people – including women – into a career in science, innovation or technology. Nimoy recalled in 1995:

“On a recent visit to New York, I had the opportunity to speak with several people who warmly shared with me their gratitude towards Star Trek and Spock. It always amazes and touches me to discover how deeply the series affected so many people’s lives – people who chose careers in science, astronomy, space exploration, all because of one television show called Star Trek.” (Nimoy, 1995, 332)

May this cultural influence – like the fictional Spock character itself – live long and prosper.

Outer and Inner Space

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

This duality between logic and emotion, between science and humanity, was internal as well as external. The Spock character struggled – as might we all at times – to balance his emotions with rationality and logic. This was encapsulated in one of his famous sayings: ‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one’, which revealed his internal fight between seeking significance for the individual ego versus a willingness to subvert ego in order to serve the wider community – a common human struggle. Spock’s internal conflict was declared as resolved by creator Gene Roddenberry in 1968:

Spock’s stoic temperament, his refusal to say anything or do anything not based solely on logic, is… a reflection of his Vulcan heritage. Complete adherence to logic is the primary motivating factor in the Vulcan mental process. Of necessity, complete suppression of emotions is required, lest logic be influenced in any way.” (Whitfield & Roddenberry, 1968, 225).

However, it has been suggested that Spock’s stoicism was actually problematic:

“All in all, Spock is hardly the Stoic sage. Although he has some Stoic leanings, he consistently falls short of being the man of action. Furthermore, in completely suppressing his emotions, he conforms to the stereotype of the Stoic, in contrast to the real Stoic who aims to cultivate positive emotions such as joy and wishing others well.”

Therefore, we must be careful to consider the logic/emotion binary with an appropriate amount of nuance and depth; and be mindful that ‘Star Trek’s logic illustrates weaknesses in pop psychology’s models of emotions, intuition, logic, and morality.’ Blogger Hannah G gives a good reinterpretation of Spock’s internal logic/emotion binary:

“It would be easy to set up his arc as a conflict between logic and emotion, but really it’s more nuanced than that. It’s a transition from an attempt at emotionless logic to an understanding of “human logic,” a system that takes passions and emotions into account.”

In pondering the inner confict within each of us, Spock was able to exercise intellect while also extending respect and empathy, as demonstrated in this conversation about Kirk, which took place between Spock and his Vulcan protégé Saavik:
Saavik: He’s so – human.
Spock: Nobody’s perfect, Saavik.

The Alien Within

As something of an alien and outsider – as we all are – Spock not only celebrated diversity, but he epitomised the nobility and dignity that we all seek as we explore our own place within the cosmos and seek to make a difference. His culture contained the IDIC emblem – a mix of shapes combined to create a divergent symbol for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

Spock is an ‘Everyman’ figure for us all: he served as a metaphoric combination of alien and human. Spock gained pop culture significance in the 1960s and beyond because of this ‘Everyman’ status. He was literally an alien hidden in plain sight, particularly for adolescents/adults seeking role models:

“The teenager coping with the fiercely complex problems of adolescence often feels very much alone… Spock easily resolves this dilemma. He has superior insight. He can quickly understand the nature of the problem. He has studied the human race. He is a pure authority on the problem… He is future. He can be compassionate in his judgment and dispassionate in his help. To the young female, there is no sexual threat. Spock is asexual.” (Nimoy, 1975, 97 & 98)

I have previously written that ‘many fans upheld Spock an an archetype in that he embodied optimism amidst the universal human condition of loneliness’ (Allshorn, 2020, 90); I have similarly paid tribute within my 2015 eulogy to actor Leonard Nimoy:

“Spock was a kindred spirit, someone who had found strength, pride and nobility in being different … Spock’s resilience and quiet dignity in the face of intolerance, or bullying, or alien dangers; served as an example to ennoble and enable the lives of many fans who might otherwise have felt isolation or despair.” (Allshorn, 2015, 13; also cited in Allshorn, 2020, 91)

Or, as James Kirk said more concisely: “Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.

Modern Mythology

We all seek heroes. That is part of our human condition – to explore, emulate and aspire towards our role models, heroes and leaders. Across literature, heroic archetypes are often reboots of time-honoured templates. In this instance, Spock might be seen as a reboot of Sherlock Holmes, Merlin, or Odysseus. His captain, James Kirk, might be King Arthur, Jason (of Argonaut fame) or Robin Hood. Superman might be seen as a secular revisitation of religious figures.William Indick examines the Lord Raglan Hero Pattern and other cultural heroic archetypes, and examines how modern secular heroes are reworkings of old tropes:

“While science has replaced divinity and the superhero has replaced the demi-god in the expression of the hero myth, the basic archetypal structure of the hero pattern has not changed – and probably will never change, as the hero character serves the same function today as he did thousands of years ago. Heroes are simply ourselves projected outwardly. Their stories are our stories…” – Indick, 2002, 20).

To this end, we might examine how Spock shares characteristics of ancient heroic templates according to the Raglan mythotype:

(I have added my modern secular reworkings of how Spock conforms to archetypal characteristics).

Mother is a royal virgin (secular reworking: Amanda, Spock’s mother, was a homely school teacher; his step mother was a Vulcan princess)
Father is a king (Sarek was an ambassador)
Unusual conception (first Vulcan-human hybrid)
Hero reputed to be son of god (child of human mother and male from celestial domain)
Attempt to kill hero as an infant, often by father or maternal grandfather (Spock ‘rejected’ by Sarek as being ‘too human/emotional’ during infancy? Rejected by Sarek for many years after joining Starfleet)
Hero spirited away as a child (taught how to suppress emotions and hide his inner feelings from the outside world)
Reared by foster parents in a far country (adopted by ‘Enterprise’ family?)
No details of childhood (except for losing Sehlat as child)
Returns or goes to future kingdom (travels into space)
Is victor over king, giant, dragon or wild beast (is victorious on many alien adventures)
Marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor) (is betrothed to T’Pring)
Becomes king (becomes science officer, Starfleet captain, and ambassador)
For a time he reigns uneventfully (successful career in Starfleet)
He prescribes laws (he enjoys command as Starfleet officer and science officer)
Later loses favor with gods or his subjects (falls out with father over career choice, tension with some Vulcans who reject his emotional facets, killed by adversary Khan Noonien Singh)
Meets with mysterious death (‘Kobayashi Maru’ and Genesis resurrection following Khan space battle)
Often at the top of a hill (Enterprise engine room/Mount Selaya)
His children, if any, do not succeed him (His apprentices, Saavik and Valeris, do not succeed him as he had hoped)
His body is not buried (put in coffin/torpedo on Genesis planet/resurrected on Vulcan)
Has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs (Katra travels from McCoy to others then back to Spock)

According to my interpretation, Spock has more archetypical attributes of a mythical hero than does King Arthur, Jesus or Moses. As Spock might say: ‘Fascinating.’

What does this tell us about humanity? It is said that, ‘One of the chief purposes of literature is a means of exploring what it is to be human.’ In pondering the fictional Spock, we can examine ourselves.

“We Are All Spock” – Karin Blair (Blair, 1979, 160).

Image by mdherren from Pixabay

Author’s Note: I have not included any examination of the Spock character from the reboot movies and timeline. These other versions have insufficient background and character detail at this time to enable any informed assessment. They also appear to lack the archetypal nobility of Spock Xtmprosqzntwlfdb as presented in the original Star Trek series and movies.

References:

Allshorn, Geoff, 2015. ‘‘I have been, and always shall be, your friend’: A Tribute to Leonard Nimoy 1931—2015’, Captain’s Log, Austrek, May, 12—13.
– – – – – – – – -, 2020. “Life, but not as We Know It: Star Trek, fan culture, slash fiction and the queering of Starfleet Command”, Bent Street 4.1, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan Press, 89 – 100.

Blair, Karin, 1979. Meaning in Star Trek, New York: Warner Books.

Gerrold, David, 1973. The World of Star Trek, New York: Ballantine Books.

Indick, William, 2004. Classical Heroes in Modern Movies: Mythological Patterns of the Superhero. Media Psychology, 9.

Nimoy, Leonard, 1975. I Am Not Spock, Millbrae: Celestial Arts.
– – – – – – – – -, 1995. I Am Spock, Sydney: Random House.

Whitfield, Stephen and Roddenberry, Gene, 1968. The Making of Star Trek, New York: Ballantine Books.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Happy Birthday to Us All

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead. ” – Kurt Vonnegut

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Based on a talk given at the 2013 AGM for the Humanist Society of Victoria,
and recorded at Future Salon in Melbourne in 2013.

As I celebrate a significant birthday, I pause and reflect upon my life as an amalgam of past, present and future. Like the multiple birthdays we find in the science fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, life itself is full of births and rebirths and reboots. Every day we experience new opportunities and observe new directions in our personal and collective journeys towards the future. Like a modern Vitruvian Man, we can stand in a landscape vista and spread our arms wide with joy and wonderment at glimpsing myriad variations on the theme of life and cosmology.

In my case, I believe the year in which I was born to be a very important year – perhaps not surprisingly – but particularly because of other world events which would ultimately become seminal and significant in my own life.

A fortnight before my birth, Humanists Victoria held its inaugural meeting in Melbourne. A fortnight after my birth, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. A month after that, British lawyer Peter Benenson launched Amnesty International, an organisation which continues to promote human rights independent of any religious or political affiliation. Such secular worldly influences would inspire me to become an enthusiastic human rights activist and, more recently, an avowed Humanist. Gagarin and his successor, Neil Armstrong, would propel my lifelong interest in Science, space travel and science fiction, although to the astonishment of friends and family, I would not pursue any of these professionally. Thus 1961, while also serving as the backdrop for the Berlin Wall and the Tsar Bomba, nevertheless demonstrated that the human species has the potential for nobility as well as savagery. This was the world and era into which I was born.

More than that, 1961 might ultimately be seen by future historians and anthropologists as ushering in a new era of human evolution. The epoch of human spaceflight might prove to be as significant as the change brought about by the arrival of the Holocene era some 10,000 years ago (?), in which humanity was learning to transition from hunter to herder, from nomad to settler. In 1961, maybe we began our next human journey as cosmic nomads hunting for new places to settle.

Such transition is visible in both mega and mundane forms: the human animal evolves both collectively and individually. As a species, we appear to have undergone a philosophical and intellectual growth spurt about two millennia ago – known as the Axial Age. When individual humans go through a similar period of intellectual transformation, we call it puberty. Like all children going through that transition in my own life, I came to a realisation that our personal dreams do not match external reality, and that for all our wishes that we might live in the best of all possible worlds, there are many indications that reality falls far short of that ideal. After realising the many theoretical and practical failings of religion during my young adulthood – in particular, its treatment of LGBTQIA+ people, culturally and racially diverse communities, women, refugees and others living in deprivation, and the natural world around us – I became aware of the dangers of any philosophy which fails to adapt to an evolving world. Leaving behind this traditional upbringing, I went the way of an AI growing beyond its programming, and in my case I began a life journey as an atheist – full of yearning to express my optimism through activism.

“ Atheism offers the idea that this world is all we have. And it therefore offers the hope that we have the power to touch that world, and shape it, and shove it a little bit in the direction that we’d like to see it move.

“ And that’s a pretty big hope. ” – Greta Christina.

Along those same lines, possibly my most enduring early influence was the original Star Trek TV series, which nowadays I jokingly suggest turned me into a Trexistentialist, because some of its original philosophies still influence me today – and directly guided me towards Humanism.

The reason I mention all this is because I feel it demonstrates, on an individual level, that although we are all a product of our time and culture, we can evolve into something that is greater than the sum of those parts. It also demonstrates, to me, the human imperative for continued social and technological evolution.

But it also exposes the need for a reality check.

An Australian Christmas tree in its natural setting, Bonnie Doon, Victoria. (c) 2020 by Kirsten Trecento.

We Are The World

When Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson penned the title, ‘We are the World‘ in 1985, they probably had no idea how correct they were. Despite our speciesism and our propensity for believing ourselves to be ‘spiritual’ and somehow superior to our material world, we need to recognise our place alongside the flora, fauna and geology of our biosphere. Professor Robert M Hazen presents us with a view of the cosmos that is both awe-inspiring and as humbling:

For the past four billion years, life and minerals have coevolved in astonishing ways… the epic, intertwined sweep of life and rocks, with such dramatic innovations as the rise of algae that produce oxygen by photosynthesis, the evolution of complex cells with nuclei, the near extinction of life during episodes of extreme cold, the emergence of multicellular animals and plants, the gradual transformation of the land to an emerald planet, and ultimately to the modern world that is being shaped in part by human activities. (Hazen, 2013, 3).

Despite tending to think of ourselves as constituting some higher plane of existence, we need to recognise our place among the rocks and critters and furnishings of our world. That connection includes sharing life and life rights with the flora and fauna that inhabit our biosphere – not only humans. Author Andrew Boyd conflates this commonality with compassion:“When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others.”

Instead of perceiving ourselves as being the owners and sole occupants of our cosmic drawing room, we should – in the words of the old song – consider ourselves part of the furniture. This reassignment of perspective not only assigns us equality with our constituent atoms and with all organic life that comprises our biological cousins, it ennobles us as part of the cosmos. In the words of Carl Sagan: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

Amidst this dualism – within which we are both murky stardust and lofty ambition – humanity still enjoys a significant place within our cosmic biosphere. Our history as a species is replete with religions and philosophies that encapsulate our quest for significance, whereas the answer is actually to be found within our common humanity and our common organic sentience with other living things across biosphere Earth (the very existence and suffering of which provides strong evidence against a deity).

The Human Adventure

Humanism is a philosophy within which human beings are seen to have a currently unique capability to respond to the world’s problems, and a consequential responsibility to do so in profound and ethical ways. Humanism specifically excludes the possibility of supernatural options such as theism or disembodied life in metaphysical heaven – “up there”. I find it interesting to ponder a future where the evolution of AI, or the discovery of intelligent alien life “up there” in the material heavens, might one day create a need for the re-evaluation of current Humanist understandings. I wonder if cybernetic technology might somehow, eventually and in a most ironic way, ultimately fulfil traditional religious prophecies of an afterlife which Humanists currently discount: travelling down a tunnel of light and being uploaded into some virtual heaven or downloaded into some virtual hell. Instead of facing an afterlife in which we sit on a cloud and play a harp, perhaps we will one day sit in the cloud and synthesise orchestral symphonies of cybernetic synaethesia?

Possibly echoes of such a future can already be heard. In a world where some people fear genetically modified humans as potential Frankenstein creations, we can see the relatively primitive forebears of augmentation technology today. I am one such example. I carry in my chest a donor heart valve and artificial cardiac plumbing which are straight out of Doctor Who’s Cybermen or Martin Caidin’s Six Million Dollar Man or Star Trek’s Borg. I hope to live long enough to maybe receive a cloned heart, and a cloned ear to replace my deaf one. This already makes me a person who, within my own lifetime, would once have been considered to be at least a focus of societal ethical controversy. I am not, physically or conceptually, the same human being I was when I was born; through human-created ‘intelligent design’, I have evolved beyond my original potential.

Within my family tree, I can see similar social and individual transformations across many generations. I am old enough to have lived through social discourse – some decades apart – that promoted both interracial marriage (in the 1960s) and same-sex marriage (in the 2010s), both forms of debate helping to recontextualise the human condition. When my parents were young, the UN formulated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which, for the first time in history, granted every human being equality of worth, opportunity and dignity – at least in principle – and did so from the default position of secular humanism. Going further back, my grandmother was born on a day when the Suffragettes shut down Edinburgh for street protests, demanding equal humanity for women. Further back, my great-great grandfather made a fortune peddling homeopathic concoctions in the days when Darwin and the men of the Lunar Society were advancing the cause of science over superstition and redefining human understandings of our place within what was previously understood to be a theocratic cosmos. Our self-identity as human beings is fluid and ever-changing.

Image by DrSJS from Pixabay

Looking ahead, I envy my young nieces and nephew who may live to see interplanetary colonisation or Singularity or some other wonderful technological possibilities. My own family tree therefore provides – in its past, present and future – individual examples of people living during times of transition for what it means to be a human being. I imagine that this may be a universal phenomenon within every family tree and across every generation at least since the Enlightenment. When Creationists ask me for evidence of transitional forms, I have fun by telling them to go look in a mirror or at their own family tree.

Neanderthal by Petr Kratochvil (CCO Public Domain).

In the future we may almost certainly live in ways that transform our traditionally binary gender understandings, our patriarchal and sexist and racist and homophobic and transphobic and ageist societies, and our self-identities within traditional organic limitations and life expectancies. How then might we expect to adapt to new understandings or world views or self-identities which we likely cannot anticipate? Will technology lead us to devolve into tech-reliant simpletons or evolve into a tech-empowered singleton? What will it mean to be Humanist in a world heading towards transHumanity? Might my postHuman nephew and nieces one day look back upon me in my primitive, individual, organic shell in much the same way I might patronisingly (and somewhat arrogantly) regard neanderthals or denisovans?

Future Shock

Old Telephone by Greg Ptashny
(CCO Public Domain).

I am reminded of a story once recounted by Arthur C Clarke (Clarke, 1984, 4), in which the mayor of an American city was first introduced to a telephone in the late 19th century. The mayor reportedly enthused wildly about this new technology, predicting that he could see the day when, ‘every city will have one’. Clarke’s point was obviously that we cannot anticipate the impact of future technology based upon old understandings and paradigms. I look forward to the day when new forms of communication once again redefine the human being just as did their predecessors: the Internet, the telephone and the printing press. But what wondrous and awe-inspiring radical changes lie ahead, from nanotechnology to Boltzmann brains? Does our future contain an evolution of human rights into more general life rights so that we might move beyond what Peter Singer considers to be our current speciesism and embrace all sentient life, and cyberlife which might not yet exist? Will our future enemies be luddites who oppose some currently non-existent cybernetic relationships in much the same way as they currently oppose same-sex marriage?

Daniel Dennett records possibly the ‘first robot homicide’ as taking place in 1981, when a Japanese workman in an automated factory failed to shut down a robotic arm and was crushed to death (Dennett, 1997, 351). Similarly, a female pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona was killed by an experimental self-driving car in 2018, some 121 years after another pedestrian in London became the first pedestrian to be killed by a horseless carriage. Such incidents foreshadow the fear of future sentient AI wreaking death and calamity upon humanity, if/when they should develop capabilities beyond that of automated and mindless computers aping human error. Even this week, I note concerns being expressed about robots that date back to the original invention of the term ‘robot’ and mirror the fictional experience in the Robocop franchise. Such fears actually mirror our own human frailties and imperfections – particularly the current problem with AI development in that it largely excludes the participation of women and other traditionally excluded cohorts: ‘There is mounting evidence that without the input of women, the technology has been left vulnerable to an alarming number of biases.’ Similarly, we see the evolution of technology as corresponding to the rise of empowerment for Africans and Latinos and Indigenous cultures.

I believe that whatever happens in the future, exciting times lie ahead – and I am not alone in this view. Humanist Alisdair Gurling writes about the rise of Artificial Intelligence as ‘adaptive digital prosthetics’ to assist us in our own evolution. This, he proclaims, could lead to ‘a second renaissance – the intelligence renaissance. The impacts could be profound, irreversible, and far-reaching’ (Gurling, 2020, 10). By extension, if we aimed to fulfill the dreams of science fiction author Isaac Asimov by creating robots who are ‘a cleaner, better breed than we are’ (Asimov, 1973, 11), wouldn’t we in fact also be guiding ourselves towards betterment? I say bring it on.

I see Humanism as having the potential to offer us an ethical and viable philosophy for a future which will redefine our humanity. I note that it has already done so many times over recent decades and centuries, and I see no threat that Humanism might become as outdated as intransigent old religions or superstitions of the past. It contains principles which may help to guide future generations as they develop new lives and technologies. I hope that through continued contribution to public and legislative discourse, we might contribute to the development of new answers and redefinitions of humanity in our global, trans-national village.

Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final – resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” – Edward Said

However, like any other example of human endeavour, Humanism itself must also be prepared to evolve. As part of some research into the history of Humanism in Australia, some years ago I undertook an admittedly somewhat cursory skim through past issues of Humanist newsletters and magazines dating back to the 1960s. I was surprised to find effectively no Humanist discourse on the space program even at the height of the Apollo missions. It appears to me that in past times, maybe local Humanism relegated science and technology to a secondary interest after social issues. I understand that much of traditional Humanism focussed heavily upon evolutionary change through education and legislative reform rather than through science and technology. However, I also fear that such an approach represented a ‘qwerty’ mindset that was at risk of being left behind by accelerating social and technological change. Today, I hope to see Australian Humanism focus more on Greta Thunberg and diversity, global justice and sentientism; instead of debating the minutiae of dusty theology and perpetuating forms of affluent white culture and privilege. To capture its truly universal human flavour, Australian Humanism needs to incorporate what US scholar Anthony B Pinn cites from Martin Luther King as somebodyness, or a refusal to be ashamed of being black (Pinn, 2015, 70) – which I take by extension as claiming pride in every form of difference and diversity, particularly those who are oppressed or marginalised.

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

A colleague once asked aloud whether Humanists are dreamers or activists. I submit that we are both, and that the two interdependent activities – dreaming and activism – are merely different sides of the same proverbial coin. Similarly, I see TransHumanism as providing both a glimpse into future dreams and an opportunity to forge activist pathways in preparing humanity for imminent change. Humanism challenges people to work for change here and now, whereas Transhumanism (as I understand it) looks ahead to the future and plots how we may arrive at that point. Rather than being at odds, I see these differing approaches as working interactively to unleash our fullest human potential. I hope that we might learn from each other and continue to work in our respective spheres for the evolution – and for the continued transformation – of our world. I can hardly wait to see what is birthed next.

DeGrasse Tyson 2014 Christmas Day tweet

Which of course, brings us back to birthdays, which is where we began. Happy birthday to the 20 million people who likely share my birthday, and more than that, happy birthday to the world and the chance for renewal and a fresh start every day. What future is being born today? That surely depends upon us, and whether or not we are willing to anticipate the future that we want (or do not want) and take steps accordingly. It is up to us – AI notwithstanding, we will get no help from elsewhere.

Personal Birthday Request: Don’t just read or think – do!
Please help change the world for hundreds of people
by supporting this cause with which I am connected:

Humanity in Need: Rainbow Refugees
Thanks for your humanity and compassion.

An earlier version of this article, based upon the original talk, was published in the Australian Humanist and Victorian Humanist magazines in 2013.

References:

Isaac Asimov, 1973. I, Robot, London: Granada (Panther) Books.

Arthur C Clarke, 1984. 1984: Spring/A Choice of Futures, New York/Toronto: Del Rey (Ballantine) Books.

Daniel C Dennett, 1997. ‘When HAL Kills, Who’s to Blame? Computer Ethics’, in David G Stork (ed.), HAL’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer as Dream and Reality, Cambridge/London: MIT Press, 351 – 366.

Alisdair Gurling, 2020. ‘The Intelligence Renaissance: The Coming Era of the Artificial Muse’, in Australian Humanist #140, Humanists Australia, Summer, 8 – 10.

Robert M Hazen, 2013. The Origin and Evolution of Earth: From the Big Bang to the Future of Human Existence, The Great Courses: Course Guidebook, Virginia: The Teaching Company.

Anthony B Pinn, 2015. Humanism: Essays on Race, Religion and Popular Culture, London: Bloomsbury.

Jake Sturmer, 2013. Science literacy on the decline among young adults, ABC AM radio, 17 July.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Happy #AtheistDay!

For World Atheist Day, 23 March 2021

Atheist Day Symbol

Welcome to a day that celebrates NOT having a belief. One Internet source claims:

Atheist Day was originally about a fictional case of an Atheist who had decided to sue the government. The reason for the fictional lawsuit was a simple one—unlike all the major religions, there was no day for Atheists, to which the judge said that April 1st (i.e. April Fool’s Day) was their holiday. While this case was just a hoax, the story spread quickly and was actually accepted as fact.

The Atheist Republic website explains that the circular symbol (above) stands for a null set (as in zero belief in god) and a fertile wholeness of completion that results. In a city that recently celebrated ‘donut days’ (days when our COVID cases dropped to zero – or a donut) perhaps we should celebrate Atheist Day as Cosmic Donut Day, giving it an almost Australian vernacular.

The Atheist Republic also explains:

A central component of Atheist Day is raising awareness of the discrimination and stigma faced by atheists around the world. Atheists are your loved ones, your friends, your doctors, your social workers, your teachers, your police officers and in short, the people in your life who are hiding in plain sight.

Having a day to celebrate and commemorate a lack of belief might seem to be somewhat frivolous or vexatious. After all, we do not (yet) have a day to celebrate those who disbelieve in Santa Claus or aliens with anal probes. And yet the right to celebrate atheism is as fundamental as any other right to freedom of thought, belief or religion.

Thanks to BrainyQuote.

To me, atheism represents non-conformity with tradition and faith; it demonstrates a willingness to be different and to think divergently. It resists tradition and dogma for their own sake, and potentially offers an open-minded approach to diversity of race, sexuality, gender and gender identity. Atheism and agnosticism and freethought and secular humanism demonstrate a wish to think critically and autonomously, and hopefully exemplify a keenness for seeking evidence via science and rationality. Free from the shackles of anthropocentric religions, atheism inspires the courage to admit that our human existence is pretty insignificant within a cosmos that is wondrously awe-inspiring, but vaster and stranger than we can possibly imagine:

There is a place with four suns in the sky — red, white, blue, and yellow; two of them are so close together that they touch, and star-stuff flows between them. I know of a world with a million moons. I know of a sun the size of the Earth — and made of diamond. There are atomic nuclei a few miles across which rotate thirty times a second. There are tiny grains between the stars, with the size and atomic composition of bacteria. There are stars leaving the Milky Way, and immense gas clouds falling into it. There are turbulent plasmas writhing with X- and gamma-rays and mighty stellar explosions. There are, perhaps, places which are outside our universe. The universe is vast and awesome, and for the first time we are becoming a part of it.“- Carl Sagan, Planetary Exploration (University of Oregon Books, Eugene, Oregon, 1970), page 15

Agnostic astronomer Heather Couper acknowledges that there is plenty of discovery still to be made in our human quest for knowledge:

“Have we discovered our Galaxy yet?” And I think the answer to this question is “No, not quite”. There is plenty of work ahead for the next generation of astronomers.”

Amidst this immensity, it is up to each of us to find or create meaning in our own lives.

Part of our answer is surely celebrating the very human essence that lies at the center of our existence – and beyond that, the moral and intellectual biocentric imperative to uphold other sentient life. Perhaps Carl Sagan expressed it best:

“You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”
― Carl Sagan, Contact

Happy Atheist Day – may you enjoy whatever meaning you create for yourself.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

The Writer’s Plight

For Trinidad
(a poet and reader, and human rights activist who died on 12 April 2021 after being attacked by a firebomb terrorist in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, on 15 March)
and Jordan
(who I hope will survive and be strong)

To scratch an itch,
To quench a thirst,
To meet a need
From deep inside;

To take a seed,
Nurture its growth,
Then spread its fruit
Both far and wide;

To leave a thought,
A part of self,
A spark of life
Upon a page;

To dare to seek
Immortal stuff,
Regardless of
Critic or age;

It’s not mere pride
Nor vanity,
It’s part of who I am,
It’s me.

And so I write
As I must breathe,
Or feed, or share
An inner wealth;

An act of love,
Creating life,
To procreate
My inner self.

Ideas birth
And seek to grow –
I write them down,
And let them go.

© 1991 Geoff Allshorn
This reprint © 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Choose to Challenge

In commemoration of International Women’s Day 8 March 2021.

Image by pasja1000/Pixabay

As a child, I had an elderly relative who was the stereotypical maiden aunt – an ‘unmarried spinster’, an eccentric who possibly modelled herself after Margaret Rutherford’s version of Miss Marple, a slightly tomboyish figure who once bicycled interstate dressed in khaki – and someone who spent many years being zealously involved in her local church. She spent decades doing voluntary work to assist her local male clergy, undertaking many of the same duties without official acknowledgement or credit or payment. She was happy to be exploited by a church that denied her equality based upon her gender.

What may have been the most tragic aspect of this dear lady’s life was that her unmarried status, and her close friendship (in younger days) with a ‘special friend’, suggested that she may have been lesbian – a largely unspoken suspicion within my family until years after her death. I was puzzled why such a woman would desire to devote her life to a homophobic institution. Was her cloister a closet? Did she suffer from some ingrained self-loathing religious impulse that encouraged her to live in denial for her entire life, in much the same way that closeted gay men might seek sanctuary within a homophobic church, or in the way that cognitive dissonance features disproportionately within religious LGBT populations?

A more famous female ancestor of mine – though geograpically and psychologically more distant, and I never actually met her – was also religious, also single, and founded a Ugandan religious community which later relocated to England. In its day, her community was subjected to suspicion from varied perspectives, ‘ridiculed as a naïve group of ‘do-gooders’, or, worse, as supporting the Mau Mau insurgency’. Distance and unfamiliarity prevent me from drawing any specific conclusions about her sexuality, except that she, like my other family ‘maiden aunt’, appears to have lived a life of celibacy and religious devotion. Curiously, she appears to have become concerned about ‘the need for love between missionary colleagues‘ and she ultimately founded a retirement home for unmarried former missionary women – ironically, what might have been the perfect possible retirement home for my other, aforementioned relative.

Image by wajari/Pixabay

Their stories are not uncommon when we acknowledge that women are often asserted as being more religious than men, despite the inbuilt sexism and misogyny that is rampant within so many religious communities and societies. It has always puzzled me why women give so much support to a sexist institution such as a church. Perhaps it is Stockholm syndrome, perhaps it is a desire to feel significant given a lack of understanding of the true glories of science and the surrounding universe – seeking instead to be an individual living example of the metaphoric ‘Bride of Christ‘ that is more traditionally attributed to the collective Christian Church. Such women are represented by my ‘maiden aunts’, who like 95% of women with traditional religious backgrounds, have been brought up to believe that female sexuality is ‘bad’ (Hite, 1976, xxix) as a wider reflection of their theologically asserted gender deficiencies. Why in turn, do so many women support the very religious traditions that oppress them? They have other options available.

“Love your rage, not your cage.” ― Alan Moore, V for Vendetta.

Other oppressed groupings also suffer from religious entrenchment. Decades before the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement helped to propel the struggles of US African Americans into the spotlight, Ishmael Jaffree observed: ‘African Americans are among the most religious people in the world. Religion offers us hope – hope that we will receive some benefits in the hereafter, though the cruel realities of the present seem like living hell.’ (Jaffree, 1991, 187). Often, the contribution of African-American (and Latino) atheists, agnostics and humanists, has been overlooked even by the very communities they have helped.

A generation ago, Humanist Emmanuel Kofi Mensah attributed the persistence of Eurocentric African religion, in part, to a resistance among some people to engage in rational debate which may question religious assumptions: ‘You are an Antichrist! Go away!…I am going to call my pastor.’ (Mensah, 1991, 203). The continuation of these religious ideas has caused untold suffering across Africa. Despite this, I observe modern-day African LGBT refugee communities (some in the adoptive nation of my missionary ‘aunt’), comprising individuals who have suffered family rejection, terrible forms of community discrimination and violence, and who yet cling to the same religious consolation that fueled the very homophobia which victimises their lives. Even in the USA today, African American diasporas struggle to acknowledge the oppressive traditions of religion upon their predominantly religious (and homophobic) communities.

In Australia, traditional indigenous societies (Ford & Beach, 1965, 139, 141) appear to have mirrored those of other ancient cultures (GLAA, 1994) in their acceptance of gender and sexuality diversity (Burg, 2002; GLAA, 1994; Greenberg, 1988). Andrew Farrell cites Troy Anthony Baylis as noting that ‘since European contact, Indigenous Australians have been stripped of their diverse and customary sexual and gendered practices through the imposition of a new social and cultural order’ ie. the white man’s Christianity which even today still seeks to impose itself over indigenous cultures. Some First Nations communities have adopted the culture and religion of their oppressors, and coined a popular viewpoint that homosexuality is a ‘white man’s disease’ (GLAA, 1994, 9). Despite this, the very existence of brotherboys and sistergirls reveals the reality of trans and non-binary folks as exemplars of LGBTQIA+ people within these ancient cultures – as one sistergirl stated, ‘The Gender Binary Arrived With The Boats‘, meaning that colonisers brought Christianity and homophobia/transphobia with them. (In response, perhaps we should invert modern-day white-Australia xenophobia as fuelled by some self-proclaimed Christians in Australian Parliament, and use their own words against them: in terms of entrenched colonial attitudes, it is surely time to ‘stop the boats’).

“We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets”
Harvey Milk

I note the same entrenched religiosity within LGBT communities, where theists get priority treatment at queer conferences and in LGBT media (Allshorn, 2018 & 2019). Religion is a major rationale behind the promotion of gay conversion therapy. Ex-Muslim atheist Eli Heina writes of queer spaces in the USA:

“It is bizarre, to say the least, to sit in a room filled with LGBT folks and hear nothing but praise for religion and disdain for criticism of religion. Any mention of the homophobia in Christianity or any other religion was treated as if it were taboo, or at least unnecessarily hostile.”

US blogger Alex Gabriel makes a plea for queer inclusion of atheists, and an end to gaslighting the godless:

“Attempts to be ‘inclusive’ of religious queer people by godding up our community with sermons, prayers, clergy and promotion of religious groups often mean excluding us… if you’re a secular queer person and you feel uncomfortable around religion, that is absolutely valid. It is not hate, it is not bigotry.”

Greta Christina observes the same queer religious privilege: ‘… I’m finding that I feel more at home – more welcomed, more valued, more truly understood – as a queer in the atheist community than I do as an atheist in the queer community’. Similarly, US trans atheist blogger, Tab, calls for LGBT communities to practice greater critical thinking: ‘The queer community desperately needs skepticism, much more than it needs to kowtow to the religions that despise it. It needs the humanism that provides a system of equality…’

Therein lies a solution…

“The Women’s Movement and the movement for homosexual rights have thus far traveled on a dark road which has posted many obstacles in their way. Now it will become brighter and brighter around us and in the hearts of the people.”
– Dr. Anna Rueling, Berlin, 1904. (Daley, 2010, 23).

Unweaving the Rainbow

Henrietta DugdaleMargain & Jager, Place Grenette, Grenoble, France, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

On 13 April 1869, London-born Camberwell resident, Henrietta Dugdale, became possibly the first Australian woman to publicly call for gender equality. She is attributed with being ‘a pioneer Australian who initiated the first female suffrage society in Australia‘.

Her published work became a spearhead for societal evolution and social reform: ‘The new claim of woman to a political status is itself an honourable testimony to the civilization which has given her a civil status new in history.’ Dugdale promoted gender equality and female emancipation, and a humanist world view through science and social justice. According to Humanist Leslie Allan: ‘She gave hope to the utopian ideal of the perfectibility of humankind, which she saw as the lesson to be drawn from the science of evolution.’ Dugdale stands as an example of a woman who rejected religious oppression by imagining a future, secular world that was far removed from her own society within which religion had left an indelible footprint:

“What a happy age is this far-off one! No skeletons of mythology are here deadening or vitiating one-seventh of these people’s lives. How different are those faces to those of my century! – where nine-tenths are stamped with the hideous seal of hypocrisy.” (Dugdale, Chapter XXII, 103).

Vashti McCollum, Wikimedia Commons.

The fight for humanity and against oppressive religious tradition has also been fought overseas. While Madalyn Murray O’Hair is most famous for her stand against religion, earning her the nickname, ‘The Most Hated Woman in America’; it was another, earlier female US activist who impacted most directly upon her country’s religious supremacy: Vashti McCollum, a Humanist who admitted that her activism had also made her ‘a very unpopular woman‘. An Illinois housewife, mother and academic, Vashti changed her country by challenging religious education that was being taught to one of her children:

She believed that public schools had no business allowing outside groups to come in and promote their religious views… When she told school officials that Jim would not participate in any school-sponsored religious education, an uproar ensued… Unable to persuade public schools officials to reverse course, Vashti turned to the courts.

She and her family endured a protracted trial that Time magazine and The New York Times observed shared “features that made the Scopes ‘monkey trial’ a sideshow’’ of the 1920’s”. The traumatic and expensive trial aftermath caused ongoing personal and professional difficulties for family members, and their family cat was brutally killed.

Part of the scandal was the equation of atheism with godless communism during this era, as explained by Humanist Robert Bender (p. 14):

The atheism of communists was seen as an essential part of communist evil, so all things atheist were by definition dangerous and evil. Therefore supporting religion as an integral part of the American way of life was one way of declaring one did not share the nastiness of ‘godless communism’.

Ultimately, her case was upheld by the US Supreme Court, and reinforced the separation of church and state in that nation by establishing that public school facilities cannot be used to promote religious instruction. Freedom of belief and speech includes the right to freedom from belief and freedom from the speech of those who seek to dominate and oppress others.

“Love your rage, not your cage.” ― Alan Moore, V for Vendetta.

This story began with two women – members of my biological family – whom I see as having suffered from oppression; it ended with two other women whose humanist efforts contributed to freedom from such oppression. They are sisters to each other, and to our larger human family; we can learn from them all. On International Women’s Day – and every other day – let us learn to uphold the voices, the experiences, and the empowerment of women. They can change our world.

Non-Digital References:

Geoff Allshorn, 2018. ‘A Case for Rainbow Atheism’, in Tiffany Jones (ed.), Bent Street #2, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan Press, 115-119.
– – – – – – – – , 2019. ‘Sodom Today, Tomorrow the World: Gay Liberation and Atheist Liberation’, in Tiffany Jones (ed.), Bent Street #3, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan Press, 172-180.

Robert Bender, 2012. ‘Vashti McCollum and separation of church and state in the USA’, in Rosslyn Ives (ed.), Australian Humanist #106, Council of Australian Humanist Societies Inc., Winter, 13 – 14.

B R Burg (ed.), 2002. Gay Warriors: A Documentary History from the Ancient World to the Present, New York: New York University Press.

James Daley (ed.), 2010. Great Speeches on Gay Rights, New York: Dover Publications.

Henrietta Dugdale, 1883. A Few Hours in a Far Off Age, Melbourne: McCarron, Bird and Co.

Clellan S Ford & Frank A Beach, 1965. Patterns of Sexual Behaviour, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.

Gays and Lesbians Aboriginal Alliance (GLAA), 1994.’Peopling the Empty Mirror: The Prospects for Lesbian and Gay Aboriginal History’, in Robert Aldrich (ed.), Gay Perspectives II: More Essays in Australian Gay Culture, University of Sydney, 1 – 62.

David F Greenberg, 1988. The Construction of Homosexuality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 25 – 241.

Ishmael Jaffree, 1991. ‘The Quest for Humanist Values’, in Norm R Allen Jr. (ed.), African-American Humanism: An Anthology, New York: Prometheus Books, 186 – 188.

Shere Hite, 1976. The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, New York: Macmillan Publishing.

Emmanuel Kofi Mensah, 1991. ‘Thoughts from Africa’s Leading Secular Humanist Atheist’, in Norm R Allen Jr. (ed.), African-American Humanism: An Anthology, New York: Prometheus Books, 191 – 209.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Child To Man

Originally published in Solar Spectrum #2, Spaced Out, Melbourne, 2002.

Image by Lorraine Cormier from Pixabay

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.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Loving Thy Neighbour

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

In commemoration of World Day of Social Justice 20 February 2021 and International Mother Language Day 21 February 2021

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.

“G’day Mate” (Australian ‘strine’)
“Uraho” – “Muraho” (Kinyarwanda – Rwanda)
“Oli Otya” (Luganda – Uganda)
“Selam” (Tigrinya – Eritrea)
“Tadiyass” (Amharic – Ethiopia)
“Ma Nabad Baa” (Somali)
“Kudual” (Dinka – South Sudan)
“Mbote” (Lingala – Congo)
“Amosi” (Luo – Kenya)
“Hujambo” or “Habari Yako” (Kiswahili)
“Marhaba” (Arabic – Yemen)

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.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

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.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

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.

Yet these young people give me hope for the world. They demonstrate the power of Martin Luther King’s declaration that ‘Darkness is only driven out with light, not more darkness.’

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.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

Disclosure: Geoff Allshorn is President of Humanity in Need – Rainbow Refugees. Uncredited photos were supplied by LGBT+ refugees from Kakuma, and are published with the consent of those people.

Of Cabbages and Kings

“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.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

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).

Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay

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.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

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.

Image by Robert Balog from Pixabay

.

“I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”
– G W Bush.

.

.

Our place within the animal world encourages us to discover the awe and glory of other life forms. Humanism points towards sentientism because humans aren’t the only sentient beings. We can expand upon our self-identity as human individuals and as collective communities within our planetary biosphere:

“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.

In honour of Darwin Day 2021.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

the meaning of life is fortran too

Originally published in Solar Spectrum #1, Spaced Out, Melbourne, 2001.

Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

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
and planets
and life
and consciousness.

He awoke
……..and wondered,
…………….and understood
just a fraction.

And as he grew,
he became aware of computers
and programs
and languages
and mathematics.

He learned
……..and he loved.
He followed his own programming
and began to imagine
……..to define
…………….to create
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,
……..their sexualities,
…………….their courage
and their fears.

He studied their religions,
……..their philosophies,
their cults
and their conformities.
And they struggled to learn
……..and define
…………….and monopolise
their own programming.

His biology ran,
and he learned
and loved
and aged
and sickened
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 experiments
…………….and terminates mistakes
and allows other sub-programs to run their full term.

His own life work
had been with computers,
to build
and invent
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 thoughts,
……..our needs and reactions,
…………….our heroes and villains,
and it judges the success of our programming.

He ended
……..and slept,
…………….and understood
just a fraction.

And the Universal program runs on
towards perfection
towards heaven
towards infinite.

Reprinted in honour of Clean Out Your Computer Day 2021.

© 2001 Geoff Allshorn

Protect Women and Girls Now!

International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation

WARNING: This is a sensitive issue that should disgust any civilised person.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

It is not often that a barbaric cultural practice continues from the Stone Age into the scientific era – and when it does, it is time for a rethink.

Female genital mutilation is one such practice; the World Health Organisation estimates that over 200 million women and girls have been victims of this cultural (and misogynistic) act of violence, which extends across Africa, Middle East and Asia (including India), and beyond into western nations where immigrants might send their children back to home countries for ritual mutilation.

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.

Stories from victims can be easily found on the Internet. It is not some problem far removed from our world and our reality: it is here and now. It is estimated that 53,000 overseas-born Australian girls and women have been victims to this barbarity. Fortunately, my own country of Australia has – after informed investigation – banned this practice which serves no useful purpose except to inflict pain and oppression upon women. It is even illegal for Australians to take a child overseas for this purpose. Many other countries are also banning this human rights abuse.

By Amnon s (Amnon Shavit). – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36598467.

“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

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

Ban LGBT+ Conversion Therapy Now!

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Dear Member of Victorian Parliament,

Please Support the Change or Suppression Conversion Practices Prohibition Bill 2020

Some years ago, I was psychologically tortured and gaslit by religious therapists who advocated various forms of LGBT+ conversion therapy.

None of these people was a qualified psychologist or medical practitioner.

None of the religious communities or individuals who promoted this practice did so from a medically or scientifically informed background.

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.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

Thank You For Being A Friend

‘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.

Gus Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee (NASA Photo)

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.

Geoff and Kate at Equal Love Rally, Melbourne, 28 November 2009 (Personal Photograph).

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.

Kate prepares to attend the Rainbow Sash protest on 31 May 1998 (Personal Photograph).

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.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Acknowledgement of Country

Image by joy engelman from Pixabay

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.

Tribute for Invasion Day, 26 January 2021.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Sodom Today, Gomorrah the World!

Rainbow Atheist banner by Miriam English.

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.

Atheist liberation

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).

References

Phillip Adams, 2010. Speech at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention, Melbourne; as recorded on DVD © Atheist Foundation of Australia & Atheist Alliance International, Siren Visual Australia & New Zealand.

Geoff Allshorn, 2018. ‘A Case for Rainbow Atheism’, in Bent Street #2, Melbourne: Clouds of Magellan Press, 115-119.

Tommi Avocolli Mecca, 2009. Smash the Church, Smash the State! The Early Years of Gay Liberation, San Francisco: City Light Books.

Greta Christina, 2008. ‘How to be an Ally with Atheists’, Greta Christina’s Blog, 16 December. Accessed 23 July 2019.

Martin Duberman, 1991. About Time: Exploring the Gay Past, New York: Penguin/Meridian Books.

EssenceOfThought, 2019. ‘The Death Of The Atheist Community Of Austin—Testimonies From Volunteers & Service Users’, EssenceOfThought, 20 July.

Beatrice Faust, 1966. ‘Ethics and Morality’, in The Australian Humanist, No. 1, December, 1—6.

Emma Finamore, 2018. ‘Who Was Magnus Hirschfeld? Meet the Doctor and LGBT+ Activist Who Became A Nazi Target’, Pink News, 17 April.

GALA Board, 1989. GALA Realist, October; at

Bert Gasenbeek and Babu Gogineni (eds.), 2002. International Humanist and Ethical Union 1952-2002: Past, present and future, Utrecht: De Tijdstroom uitgeverij,(IHEU ebook).

Jessica Geen, 2010. ‘‘First gay rights activist’ Antony Grey dies aged 82’, Pink News, 4 May.

Houston LGBT History’ web page.

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.

Sue-Ann Post, 2010. Speech at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention, Melbourne; as recorded on DVD © Atheist Foundation of Australia & Atheist Alliance International, Siren Visual Australia & New Zealand.

James Randi, 2010. ‘How To Say It?’, 21 March. JREF Swift Blog, James Randi Educational Foundation.

Carl Reinganum, 1971. ‘Homosexual Law Reform Sub-Committee’, in Victorian Humanist, January, 6 & 7.

Thomas Rolfsen, 1978a. Editor. ‘The Impossible Dream: The Sacramento Story’, GALA Review Issue 8, 2-7.

——————–, 1978b. Editor. ‘Harvey Milk: In His Own Words’, GALA Review Issue 9, 2-5; at

Don Sanders, 1993. (Editor) ‘Mark Franceschini’, The American Gay and Lesbian Atheist, Vol 10 Issue 9, AGA, September, 4.

Society Five, 1974. The Homosexual and the Law — A Humanist View.

EJ Sorrell, 2018. ‘Is There Room In Atheism For Trans People?’, Center for Inquiry, 15 June.

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.

Texas Obituary Project, 1995. ‘Don Sanders’.

Rob Tielman, 1997. ‘Homosexual Rights: Why Humanism Cares’, Free Inquiry, Fall, Vol 17 No 4, 21 & 22.

Kaye Tobin and Randy Wicker, 1972. The Gay Crusaders, New York: Paperback Library.

Lex Watson, 1971. ‘But Would You Marry One?’, The Australian Humanist, No. 8, December, 36—38.

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From Bent Street 3, published 10 December 2019.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Shame Australia Shame

Humanists protest outside the Park Hotel in Carlton

Imagine a lockdown that goes on for eight years

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?

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Second Chance

From Kampala with Love

“No man is an island and no man stands alone.”

Yassin and his adoptive mother.

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.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Looking Ahead With Optimism

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

Diane Marchant with Star Trek actor Walter Koenig (‘Chekov’) at a convention in Melbourne, 29 Sept 1986. Photo courtesy of Irene Grynbaum.

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.

To boldly go.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn