Love Don’t Need A Reason

“ ‘Cause love don’t need a reason
Love don’t always rhyme
And love is all we have for now
What we don’t have is time.”
Love Don’t Need A Reason

In memory of Michael Callen
(11 April 1955 – 27 December 1993)

They Are Falling All Around Me

Michael Callen was a US singer and gay man who became an important AIDS activist during the terrible pandemic that swept the world in the 1980s and 1990s – and which continues to this day in many parts of the world. One of his legacy songs, Love Don’t Need A Reason, was co-written by Australian-born singer Peter Allen (who also died of AIDS) and singer Marsha Malamet.

My personal introduction to Michael Callen took place at the US National March on Washington on 25 April 1993, not because I attended the event, but because I watched film clips from the March on the ABC News in Australia. I was visiting a lesbian friend who has since passed away, and we were captivated by Michael’s song – a moment of beauty and peace during a stormy era when our civil rights were under attack and many of our friends were suffering and dying from a dreadful epidemic.

Do Not Turn Away

Michael Callen was a musician in The Flirtations, but his long list of activist achievements forms an impressive resume in itself. He rallied People With AIDS, formed support networks, led activist protests, wrote and edited activist books and literature, and appeared in a number of HIV/AIDS-related films during an era of terrible stigma.

Although he came from a background where he had enjoyed a lifestyle of sexual freedom and ‘promiscuity’ within gay male communities, he later spoke against this behaviour in the era of AIDS, and expanded his activist work to support all who were affected by HIV/AIDS – women, children, minorities, haemophiliacs, and others.

He ‘coined the term “people with AIDS” (PWAs) to replace the early characterizations of PWAs as AIDS victims’ and spoke of empowering them:

“Michael Callen used to say there was ‘a special magic in the room’ whenever a group of people with AIDS got together. Because our lives were at stake, we generally did our best to share what we were learning without judgment, without personalizing our arguments, without any agenda except to learn.”(Strub, 2014, 296)

Michael Callen worked passionately to agitate for those with AIDS. He even helped to invent the then-revolutionary concept of safe sex. Impressive work for one individual – a musician by trade, an activist by calling.

Living in Wartime

I do not know if he considered himself a Humanist, but he was an atheist and he certainly undertook activist work that upheld Humanist principles, by working for the dignity of others and empowering the dispossessed. Although he testified to members of New York Congress in 1983 that, ‘At age 28, I wake up every morning to face the very real possibility of my own death’, the most recent book on his life and works notes that his atheism contained elements of ‘hope and optimism’ (Jones, 2020, 349), which I see as another Humanist trait.

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1988, he noted the insidious nature of living with AIDS:

“Two weeks ago… I looked down and noticed my first KS lesion on my leg. A biopsy has confirmed my suspicion. I thought I’d made a separate peace with AIDS, but it’s continually negotiating in bad faith. AIDS is a wily adversary. One cannot turn one’s back for an instant.” (Callen, 1988, xix)

Two years later, he displays a more positive attitude during the era when HIV remained a virtual death sentence:

“While I would never have wished for AIDS, the plain truth is that I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. Having AIDS has been like going through ten years of therapy – every week.

“AIDS has taught me the preciousness of life and the healing power of love. I’ve been more productive than at any time prior. I’ve travelled the world and met hundreds of wonderful people that I’m sure I would not have met any other way. I’ve tried to see AIDS as a challenge to begin living, instead of a sign to begin dying.

“AIDS forced me to take responsibility for my own life – for the choices I had made and the choices I could still make. For better or worse, AIDS has made me the man I am today.” (Callen, 1990, 10)

We could surely all learn from his uplifting attitude.

The Healing Power of Love

Perhaps one of Michael’s greatest gifts to the world was his strong hope. Author Sean Strub reports of Michael’s 1990 book, Surviving AIDS, written at a time when HIV was largely seen as a death sentence:

“In Surviving AIDS, Callen interviewed people with AIDS about why they thought they were alive. He found that those who had survived the longest shared three important traits: They believed survival was possible; they could identify a reason to get up in the morning; and when asked how they treated their illness, they could rattle off a list of different strategies. What was on the list wasn’t important. Survivors sought survival; seeking and experimenting with various treatments and strategies was the key.

“Callen told me he was accused of offering people with AIDS ‘cruel hope’ by suggesting that survival was possible. “I tell them there’s no such thing as cruel hope,” he said, “Hope is hope – either you have it or you don’t.” ” (Strub, 2014, 236).

Such a concept as ‘hope’ might be open to accusations of demonstrating a religious mindset. Lawrence Rifkin suggests an alternative view of hope, divorced from the populist vision of a utopian, dreamy-eyed fantasy that denies the ugly face of reality:

So let’s admit straight out: humanism is not about hope. It’s about facing the world as it actually exists and making the best of it. It’s about looking this real world in the eye and, using imagination and initiative, building castles in the sand, not castles in the sky. It’s about finding goodness within the spectrum of what’s real and what’s possible. And in facing such truths, humanists don’t look outside nature for salvation; they don’t seek change through wish fulfillment. This perspective is not a limitation. It’s a motivator. It’s the ground for positive action and results.

It seems to me that this is actually the form of hope that Michael Callen grasped and shared widely. A gay cliché of dark humour during that same era was that if life offers you lemons, make lemonaids. This is what Callen did, not denying the world’s problems but defying them; offering enlightenment to those facing darkness; offering a tomorrow for those whose today offers little. We can learn a lesson from him a generation later, whether facing cancer or COVID, poverty or prosperity, pride or prejudice.

On The Other Side

Australian AIDS historian Nick Cook recalls Michael Callen’s ‘show-stopping speech’ at Australia’s Third National Conference on AIDS in Hobart in August 1988, where he ‘gave a rousing address about refusing to be ashamed of his infection’ (Cook, 2020, 143). This encouraged, ‘the first major coming out of people with HIV’ in Australia, led by activists Chris Carter and Terry Giblett (Menadue, 2014, 20) – a virtual takeover of the conference by HIV-positive Australian activists gatecrashing the stage, coming out to the world – and to each other – for the first time; amidst applause, cheers, tears, hugs and a standing ovation from the audience – in defiance of widespread stigma and discrimination across the nation (Cook, 2020, 144 – 150). In that event, Michael Callen changed Australia.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

I am fortunate to own a copy of Michael’s books, in one of which he has inscribed to its previous owner: “Celebrate diversity and heal AIDS with love!” Such words are surely worth remembering during this current pandemic and beyond.

“Together we have come this far
Don’t wonder where the heroes are
You are one!”
– The Healing Power of Love,
(c) 1986 by Michael Callen & Marsha Malamet
(Callen, 1987, 94)

Michael Callen died of AIDS at age 38 on 27 December 1993. Had he been spared that fate, he would have celebrated his 66th birthday just this month. We can only wonder what music, what activism, and what hope he might have offered the world during those fruitful years of life that he was denied. Maybe that is his last lesson to us: to grasp every day and every opportunity while we can. Because love is all we have for now, what we don’t have is time.

Thank you, Michael.

This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

References include:

Berkowitz, Richard & Callen, Michael, with editorial assistance by Dworkin, Richard (1983). How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, New York: News From the Front Publications, May.

Callen, Michael, ed. (1987). Surviving and Thriving with AIDS, New York: People With AIDS Coalition Inc.

Callen, Michael, ed. (1988). Surviving and Thriving with AIDS Volume Two: Collected Wisdom, New York: People With AIDS Coalition Inc., August.

Callen, Michael (1990). Surviving AIDS, New York: HarperCollins.

Cook, Nick (2020). Fighting For Our Lives: The history of a community response to AIDS, Sydney: NewSouth Publishing/University of New South Wales Press Ltd.

Jones, Matthew T (2020). Love Don’t Need a Reason: The Life & Music of Michael Callen, punctum books, 11 May.

Menadue, David (2014). ‘Stigmatised but largely invisible’, in John Rule, ed., Through our eyes: Thirty Years of people living with HIV responding to the HIV and AIDS epidemics in Australia, Newtown: NAPWHA, July, 18 – 21.

Strub, Sean (2014). Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival, New York: Scribner.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

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.


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 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