National Volunteer Week

Image by truthseeker08 from Pixabay

“What is the essence of life? To serve others and to do good.” – Aristotle

I recall some years ago, an Australian politician thought he would demonstrate how ‘in touch’ he was with the common folk. He suggested that volunteering was a great thing to do, and proposed that everyone in Australian should volunteer one hour per week to a voluntary cause. Sounds great and noble, eh?

The response from one national social service organisation was probably not what he expected – they observed that if everyone in Australia donated only one hour per week to volunteer work, the entire economy would collapse in a heap. From sports teams to school lunches, from meals on wheels to fire fighting, from human rights to home care, from activism to animal welfare – volunteering comprises a large component of our individual and collective civic life.

Although statistics are somewhat fluid, it appears that some six million volunteers in Australia donate over 700 million hours of volunteer work per year.

I recall stories of my own.

“Speaking out on behalf of the disadvantaged is my way of justifying my existence” – Halina Wagowska

In the 1980s, I began my volunteer involvement with a human rights organisation that included writing letters to overseas governments in the days when the pen was mightier than the keyboard. My friends and I wrote in particular to a certain government whose human rights abuse of its own citizens made it a target of activist letters. Word was that the President of the nation became quite agitated because his government had to actually employ extra staff to open and respond to the many letters they received from around the world.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Some years later, that government fell and was replaced with a civilian government that rewrote its national Constitution in order to enact new human rights protections for its citizens. Around that time, I met a church minister who was visiting Australia from that nation. I told him that my friends and I had written letters to their former government, and I asked whether or not such activism was helpful or simply a sanctimonious waste of time. He smiled warmly and told me confidentially that he could not walk down a street in his town without talking to people whose lives – or the lives of their families and friends – had been saved by activist letters.

“My friend,” he told me warmly, “Whatever you are doing, keep doing it. You are changing lives.” Those words fuelled my activism for many years because they taught me that volunteers really can change the world.

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”
Barack Obama

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

By the time we met, she was already an older woman depending upon a walking stick for personal mobility – and yet her spirit was indomitable. She was a front-line fighter in an epidemic that has now extended for forty years, and like a commendable few around the world, she was there at the height of the battle. While others (mainly young gay men, often rejected by family and Australian society) were becoming ill and succumbing to what we now call AIDS, she donated countless hours of volunteer time to be their mum. She befriended them, cared for them, took them shopping or to medical appointments, visited them and held their hands as they lay dying in hospital, attended their funerals, and then began again with the next young man in need. She stopped counting their funerals when they reached one hundred, but she never stopped caring.

I met her because our volunteer work overlapped at the AIDS Memorial Quilt, where she memorialised many of her extended family of lost young men, attended workshops to support the grieving, marched with those living with HIV/AIDS, and demonstrated that a little old lady’s heart was a formidable weapon against widespread social stigma and discrimination. She was living proof that although love cannot cure the world’s ills, it can make them more bearable. Now gone herself, Mary was my hero.

“Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more.” – H. Jackson Brown Jr.

Image by carol_austin1 from Pixabay

Two students of mine – a quiet boy and girl – had volunteered to visit an old folks’ home as part of their weekly community service activities. They had avoided the loud, popular activities, featuring crowds and kudos and other youngsters, choosing instead to chat quietly to grandmas and grandpas. At the end of that year, a woman arrived at the school and asked to speak to the teacher in charge of sending teenagers to that nursing home. She was greeted with some trepidation (“what have those kids done wrong?”). Instead, she explained that her mother was a resident at the nursing home, and that she had visited her mother that week while the students were there. It turns out that, unknown to anyone else, these teenagers had smuggled formal evening wear and a disc player in their school bags, had dressed up when they reached the facility, and had waltzed with each of the residents in turn, while playing old melodies. This woman had seen the sparkle in her mother’s eyes, and those of the other old folk, as these shy teenagers had danced and laughed and shared, and had then given out Christmas gifts of biscuits and cakes that the girl and her mother had personally baked at home. None of this was ever spoken about at school by the kids involved. They wanted no fame or glory; they were just happy to treat these elders with grandparently care, respect, and human love. (Naturally, I ensured that they got a letter of commendation from the school – a quiet reward that did not publicly draw attention to them with their peers, but which still acknowledged their efforts). Those kids learnt an important lesson: in seeking to create a better world, we also improve ourselves.

“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” — Dr Syed Muhammad Zeeshan Hussain Almashhadi

National Volunteer Week

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

A Tale of Two Cities

A Comparison of Community Responses to HIV/AIDS
in San Francisco and Melbourne.

In honour of the fortieth anniversary today of the first article to ever be published on AIDS, by Dr Lawrence Mass in the New York Native.

Image by Brigitte makes custom works from your photos, thanks a lot from Pixabay

In 1988, a mere seven years into the epidemic, the Mayor of San Francisco told the US Presidential Commission on AIDS that his city had already lost more young men to AIDS than it had to World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam – combined and doubled. (Agnos, 1988, 1).

This rather horrifying thought evokes the assertion by Leslie Banks that ‘geographical aspects of disease date back to the earliest of written records’, linking locality and disease as being both interdependent and interactive (Banks, 1959, 199). Thus historians have traditionally examined how local conditions may have given rise to the spread of disease across place and time, as demonstrated in the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, where we can see the clustering of cases around a polluted water pump in London (Snow, 1854).

A study of place, however, can also show vectors of infection through forms of human migration, as demonstrated by the spread of diseases such as Bubonic Plague beyond their place of origin (May, 1953, 22 – 27). HIV/AIDS may have been the first worldwide pandemic to enjoy international transmission at the speed of the jumbo jet, but it will not be the last.

The trans-national spread of HIV/AIDS has been compounded through its interweaving with what Dennis Altman refers to as the ‘globilisation of human welfare’ (Altman, 2001, 73). His concern over the dominance of western medical discourse is understandable when considering its possible incompatibility or inappropriateness in other places or cultures. In studying the responses to HIV/AIDS in San Francisco and Melbourne, we can see a mix of varied outcomes within two locations that are geographically distant but culturally and socially interactive.

The arrival of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s transformed both San Francisco and Melbourne. Rodgers et al assert that: ‘During the early 1980s, when the epidemic began, AIDS had no social meaning. Individuals had to create meanings regarding its definition, social context, epidemiology, and causes.’ (Rodgers et al, 1995, 665) While the USA and Australia were still formulating their national, political and cultural responses to HIV/AIDS – responses that would at times include hysteria, fear, stigma, vilification and discrimination – it was the gay communities that led the fightback, which they defined within the context of saving lives, caring for the sick, celebrating diversity and promoting gay rights.

San Francisco and Melbourne can be seen to share some historic and social intersections. Both are locations in relatively affluent ‘western’ democracies which were originally inhabited by indigenous peoples who were later dispossessed by white European colonizers; both cities received a boost in economy and population from the mid-19th century Gold Rush; and both places are now seen as centres of culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

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Despite such similarities, San Francisco and Melbourne also have differences of population, status and local culture which are as disparate as are San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge with Melbourne’s Westgate Bride. San Francisco is both a city and a county, registering some 805,235 residents in its 2010 census (US Census Bureau, n.d.; Office of the Mayor, n.d.) but serving as a major focus for the San Francisco Bay Area, comprising 7.1 million residents (Focus: Bay Area Focused Growth, n.d.) A 2006 study reports that 15.4% of San Francisco’s residents identify themselves as being gay, lesbian or bisexual, the highest percentage of any city in the USA (Turnbull, 2006). The municipality of Melbourne contains an estimated 100,611 residents (2011 estimate) and its greater metropolitan area covers some 4,169,103 residents (City of Melbourne, n.d) but there are no known estimates of the size of Melbourne’s gay community.

While Melbourne was traditionally viewed by many as a city where much of its culture appeared to stop upon six o’clock closing, its post-war immigration encouraged the evolution of a more cosmopolitan, multicultural society. Meanwhile, San Francisco was popularly known as a centre for bohemian culture. In 1950, legal protections for gay people were already being established by law in San Francisco (San Francisco History Index, n.d.), while this did not commence in Melbourne until the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1980. In the 1960s, Scott McKenzie was encouraging people to join the hippie counter-culture by travelling to San Francisco – and ‘be sure to wear a flower in your hair’ (Phillips & McKenzie, 1967). In the 1970s, the Village People encouraged young gay men to ‘Go West‘ and to join the gay community of San Francisco because ‘life is peaceful there’.

Both cities became a destination for an influx of young gay men who were seeking escape from oppressive country towns, as fictionalised in San Francisco’s Tales of the City books by Armistead Maupin. San Franscisco’s gay culture was epitomised by Harvey Milk and civil rights activism. Historian Alan Petersen gave an example of the dichotomy between Melbourne’s private/public spaces and the restrictions that were traditionally placed upon Melbourne’s gay community, with a cluster of gay venues as the central, covert focus of its social existence and the majority of gay people being more hidden in suburbia (Petersen, 2012, 4). In my own studies, I have been told by gay men that they socialised in Melbourne’s gay venues on weekends and then went and lived more closeted lives at home and work.

Image by PatternPictures from Pixabay

In November 1980, a gay man named Ken visited his doctor’s office in San Francisco and was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a type of cancer connected with AIDS, and he would later become the first officially registered Person With AIDS (Stryker and Van Buskirk, 1996, 85 & 86). His life and death are documented, along with those of other early protagonists in the fight against AIDS from San Francisco and New York City, in Randy Shilt’s study And the Band Played On. It is reported that by 1989, almost half of the gay men over age 26 in San Francisco were infected with HIV (Rodgers et al, 1995, 669) and that by 1995, the city had the highest per capita infection rate of any city in the USA as well as the highest percentage of AIDS-related deaths (1.7%)” (ibid, 666).

In December 1981, young Bobbi Campbell from San Francisco publicly disclosed his status as a person living with Kaposi’s Sarcoma. He created a poster about “Gay Cancer” which he placed in a pharmacy window (Stryker and Van Buskirk, 1996, 86 & 87.) Campbell was one of the first gay men to attempt to seize control of his situation and agitate for public education and action. We can see the start of local activism that would affect not only San Franciscans but also have an international impact. San Francisco not only served as a place where local conditions – in this case, a large collectivised gay community – would provide one locus for an infective agent; the city also demonstrated that epidemics – and human responses to such epidemics – could ebb and flow into and out of localised geographical centres and travel the world.

San Francisco received no prior warning of AIDS, and by the time they rallied, many people had already been lost. By contrast, Melbourne’s gay community received warnings in advance, and they had time to develop community support networks and distribute information. There are no statistics available on the estimated number of gay men living in Melbourne in the 1980s or 1990s due to the covert nature of homosexuality at the time and due to the absence of a strongly united gay community as there had been in San Francisco. Statistics do show that in the early 1980s, hundreds of gay men were diagnosed annually with HIV/AIDS (Author unknown, 1999).

At the 25th anniversary of the Victorian AIDS Council, founding President Phil Carswell recalled the dread and apprehension which they all felt back in those early days and their inability to fully grasp the gravity of the coming problem:

Looking ahead, we thought we could see a tsunami was coming. What we failed to understand was that it wasn’t a tsunami; it was a whole climate change” (Carswell, 2009).

Image by Siggy Nowak from Pixabay

In 1983, when Australia’s first AIDS fatality occurred in Melbourne, the story appeared on page 3 of The San Francisco Chronicle (United Press, 1983). Its prominence in this newspaper might suggest that the patient – known to have lived in the USA for some years – may have had friends in San Francisco.

A number of comparisons could be made between community responses in San Francisco and Melbourne, and this is the first and most obvious. In San Francisco, the Kaposi’s Sarcoma Foundation was started in April 1982 and was later to be renamed the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF, 2012). In Melbourne, the Victorian AIDS Action Committee was founded in July 1983, later renamed the Victorian AIDS Council. Both organisations were started by coalitions of gay activists and doctors, and both were born out of a groundswell of community concern. There was open liaison between both cities, as is demonstrated in this 1984 Melbourne document, which talks of the San Francisco response (Carr, 1986 (1990) 196 – 203; Author unknown, n.d. (Ian Goller Collection); Goller & Carswell, 1985; Scroope & Carswell, 1987.

The San Francisco model of health care became somewhat of a template for the Melbourne response. This ‘model’ encompassed medical staff, carers and volunteers working collaboratively in every aspect of patient care and treatment, including collaborating closely with local community organisations. This included the emergent, grass-roots volunteer care teams and other support structures; thousands of hours of volunteer work from both homosexual and heterosexual people, possibly the first time that so many volunteers had rallied to confront an epidemic.

Randy Shilts wrote of this model in 1992:

The importance of San Francisco General Hospital in the history of the AIDS epidemic cannot be overstated. The model of care now used the world over was pioneered in those buildings.” (Shilts, 1992, ix and x.)

My own study in 2011 suggests that Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne was also a centre of medical excellence and innovation, one of synergy between doctors and activists; a place where patients became self-empowered to define and determine their own treatment options (Allshorn, 2011). Although it was closed in 1996, the hospital’s legacy is a paradigm of collaborative discourse between patients and doctors, a redefinition of the medical discourse away from the traditional western model proposed by Foucault, in which medicine has been constructed and regimented as a form of social control (Gordon, 1980, 175).

When we look at both cities, we can see differences emerge even when close correlation is apparent: the SFAF expanded its services to assist affected cohorts, including gay men, injecting drug users, women, and CALD communities (SFAF, 2021). By contrast, the VAC focussed its work predominantly on gay men. This may reflect differing social hierarchies in these cities: San Francisco’s gay community had enjoyed greater civil rights, whereas Melbourne’s gay community was more covert and emergent, and evidently saw a need to establish their own exclusive support structures.

Strangely, the activism in both cities may have been energised by converse governmental responses to HIV/AIDS. In the USA, Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, just as AIDS was being discovered. Many commentators criticise his failure to significantly address AIDS as a public health issue for the first seven years of his eight year administration. Suggested one critic: ‘Ronald Reagan cared more about UFOs than AIDS’ (Pareene, 2011). The San Francisco Mayor stated in 1988 that: ”What threatens to overwhelm San Francisco is not the increased caseload of AIDS, but the continued lack of leadership from the federal government’ (Krohn, 1988).

In Australia, our federal government took steps to work cooperatively with affected communities in order to develop effective responses to the epidemic (Carswell, 1986). This meant that unlike San Francisco, where the activist community was forced into activism due to the inaction of their national government, Melbourne’s activists were being empowered by governmental recognition. Despite somewhat tangential political actuation, both cities achieved a similar result and created a powerful local activist movement.

Community activism in both cities did include forms of protest. The group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was a radical protest group founded in New York City to fight for those with AIDS, particularly to demand their access to potentially life-saving drugs. Chapters of ACT UP formed around the world. ACT UP Melbourne was enthusiastic but short-lived, perhaps lacking the rage of their US counterparts because of our more collaborative government.

AIDS memorial rituals were also developed in San Francisco and exported to the world. These include Candlelight Vigils, starting in San Francisco in 1983 and continuing to this day (SFAF, 2012). Melbourne’s Candlelight Vigil has almost disappeared in recent years. Similarly, San Francisco boasts a National AIDS Memorial Grove, while Melbourne’s AIDS Gardens remain largely forgotten.

The AIDS Quilt, created by San Francisco gay activist Cleve Jones in 1987, remains available for display across the USA, while most of Australia’s AIDS Quilt is now stored in a Sydney museum and Melbourne – perhaps surprisingly – boasted its longest surviving chapter. These varied outcomes demonstrate that even when community activism is directly transmitted by human and cultural interaction, the resulting outcomes are reliant upon local conditions and personalities.

Photo by Womanizer WOW Tech on Unsplash

Rodgers et al assert that “When a major event threatens the stability of a system, it forces the members of the system to construct new and changing meanings of their community.” They also suggest that HIV/AIDS reconstructed the social fabric of San Francisco (Rodgers et al, 1995, 676). Dennis Altman has recently called for greater acknowledgement that HIV/AIDS has contributed to the development of Australia’s modern gay community. My study demonstrates the complexities faced by trans-national communities even when they are facing a similar problem or share some cultural antecedents and aspirations. This comparison also shows the ability of local communities to develop their own systems of self-empowerment and to adapt templates to suit local needs when facing challenging times. Such a template might be adapted to suit local conditions in other places.

The world needs to learn lessons from this history because there will be another time, another place and another epidemic. Cleve Jones recalls that the SFAF’s phone started to ring before they had even advertised its existence. He evokes a universal symbolism for local activist communities everywhere: ‘The phone never stopped ringing. Thirty years later, it’s still ringing’ (SFAF, 2012).

Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay

Original paper entitled, ‘AIDS Response in San Francisco and Melbourne’ was presented at the ‘Putting History In Its Place’ Conference, La Trobe University, 28 September 2012, and can be found here as part of the conference program that was available on iTunes. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.



Geoff Allshorn, 2011. Heroes of the Epidemic: A Social History of HIV/AIDS in Melbourne during the 1980s, unpublished Masters Preliminary thesis, La Trobe University.

W K Anderson, 2002. Fever Hospital: A History of Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital, Carlton South: Melbourne University Press.

Author unknown, n.d. ‘Visitors to AIDS Conference’ (undated note), Ian Goller Collection, Box 2 Folder 3, South Yarra: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

John Ballard, 2003/2007. Untitled Review, in Neal Blewett, AIDS in Australia: The Primitive Years: Reflections on Australia’s policy response to the AIDS epidemic, Sydney: Australian Policy Institute, University of Sydney, Commissioned Paper, 35 – 38.

Neal Blewett, 2003/2007. AIDS in Australia: The Primitive Years, Sydney: Australian Health Policy Institute, Commissioned Paper Series.

Phil Carswell, 1986. ‘International AIDS Memorial’ (Press Release by Victorian AIDS Council), 23 May.

Phil Carswell, 2009. Founding President’s speech, VAC 25th anniversary celebration, Fawkner Park, South Yarra, 5 April. Quote confirmed by private communication 25 September 2012.

Adam Carr (ed.) 1986 (1990). Meeting the Challenge: Papers of the First National Conference on AIDS, Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1986; reissued Abbotsford: La Trobe University, 1990.

Adam Carr, 2011. ‘When We Were Very Young: The Early Years of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Victoria’, in Graham Willett, et al, eds, Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne, Parkville: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, pp. 149 – 152.

City of Melbourne, n.d. ‘Melbourne in numbers’, at accessed 23 September 2012; dead link.

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John Foster, 1993. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Port Melbourne: Minerva.

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David Menadue, 2003. Positive, Crow’s Nest: Allen and Unwin.

Alan Petersen, 2012. A Historical Geography of Melbourne’s Gay and Lesbian Club Scene c. 1970 – 2000, seminar paper, La Trobe University, 26 April.

Prostitutes Collective of Victoria, n.d. The Hussies Handbook: A Guide for Sex Workers and the Law, St Kilda.

Allen Scroope & Phil Carswell, 1987. ‘Report of Visit to San Francisco and Conference on Health Department Leadership and Community Response’, Melbourne, Attachment 4: ‘Shanti Project’, Ian Goller Collection, Box 14 Folder 7, South Yarra: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

VAAC News: Official Newsletter of the Victorian AIDS Action Committee, No. 1, October 1983, ALGA Collection.

VAAC News: Official Newsletter of the Victorian AIDS Action Committee, No. 2, March 1984, ALGA Collection.

San Francisco:

Art Agnos, 1988. Quoted in An Epidemic of Loss: AIDS in San Francisco’s Gay Male Community 1988 – 1993, report from conference of 30 October 1987, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, 25 March.

Author unknown, 1999. ‘Estimated HIV Incidence, observed AIDS Diagnoses and projected AIDS Incidence’ in National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research (ed.), HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and Sexually Transmissible Infections in Australia: Annual Surveillance Report 1999, Darlinghurst: National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, Figure 2, p. 8.

Author unknown, n.d. San Francisco History Index, z Publishing.

Author unknown, Visitors to AIDS Conference, undated note, Ian Goller Collection, Box 2 Folder 3, South Yarra: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, accessed 20 September 2012.

Wyatt Buchanan, 2006. ‘SAN FRANCISCO: Pride parade salute for an unlikely ally / Police officer who reached out in 1960s to be grand marshal’, San Francisco Chronicle, 23 June.

Adam Carr, ed., Meeting the Challenge: Papers of the First National Conference on AIDS, Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1986; reissued Abbotsford: La Trobe University, 1990, pp. 196 – 203.

Focus: Bay Area Focused Growth, n.d. ‘Population and Land Area’, at, accessed 23 September 2012; dead link.

Matthew Kane, ‘Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria’, Cineaste, Volume 31 Number 4, Fall 2006, ProQuest Central, p. 104.

Susan Krohn, 1988. ‘Agnos lobbies Washington AIDS – Reagan criticized for ‘lack of leadership’ on AIDS’, United Press International, 26 March.

Gary Laderman, 2003. Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 140 – 144, 198 – 200.

Leon McKusick et al., ‘AIDS and Sexual Behavior Reported by Gay Men in San Francisco’, American Journal of Public Health, Volume 75 Number 5, May 1985, pp. 493 – 496.

Alex Pareene, ‘Ronald Reagan cared more about UFOs than AIDS‘, Salon, 11 February.

John Phillips (writer) & Scott McKenzie (singer), 1967. San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair), MCA Music Publishing.

Carol Pogash, 1992. As Real As It Gets: The Life of a Hospital at the Center of the AIDS Epidemic, New York: Birch Lane Press.

Everett M Rodgers, et al, 1995. ‘Communication and Community in a City Under Siege: The AIDS Epidemic in San Francisco’, Communication Research, Volume 22 Number 6, December, pp. 664 – 678.

Office of the Mayor, n.d. ‘Mayor Lee Announces U.S. Census Bureau Results for San Francisco Population’, Office of the Mayor, City and County of San Francisco, at; accessed 23 September 2012; dead link.

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E Stephen Searle, 1987. ‘West Coast Lessons – AIDS in San Francisco’, Health Education Journal, Volume 46 Number 3, pp. 130 – 133.

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SFAF, 2012. The View from Here: Cleve Jones & Dr. Marcus Conant, San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

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SFAF, n.d. (b). ‘AIDS Walk San Francisco 1987’, San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Randy Shilts, 1987. And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1987.

– – – 1992. ‘Foreword’, in Carol Pogash, As Real As It Gets: The Life of a Hospital at the Center of the AIDS Epidemic, New York: Birch Lane Press, pp. ix – xii.

Susan Stryker and Jim Van Buskirk, 1996. Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chronicle Books.

Lornet Turnbull, 2006. ‘12.9% in Seattle are gay or bisexual, second only to S.F., study says’, Seattle Times, 16 November, at, accessed 23 September 2012; dead link.

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David Weisman, 2011. We Were Here, Peccadillo Pictures, 2011.


Dennis Altman, 2001. Global Sex, Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

A. Leslie Banks, 1959. ‘The Study of the Geography of Disease’, The Geographical Journal, Vol 125, No. 2, June.

Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, 2006. Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, New York : Basic Books, 1 & 2.

Laurie Garrett, 1995. The Coming Plague, New York: Penguin Books.

Colin Gordon (ed.), 1980. Michel Foucault: Power/Knowledge, Selected Interviews and Other Writings, New York: Pantheon Books.

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Dr John Snow, 1855. “Dr. Snow’s Report,” in Report on the Cholera Outbreak in the Parish of St. James, Westminster, during the Autumn of 1854, in Peter Vinten-Johansen, The John Snow Archive and Research Companion, accessed 20 September 2012 and 5 May 2021.

©2012 Geoff Allshorn

Religious Rights, Human Wrongs

Image by Brigitte make custom works from your photos, thanks a lot from Pixabay

Some years ago, I applied for employment in a religious school.

I was young and full of enthusiasm, with a respectable religious background and church upbringing. I had appropriate teaching qualifications and impeccable references.

The job interview went well, and we all seemed mutually happy, as a panel of administrators and parents asked me to respond to their school ethos, educational requirements etc. It was going swimmingly, and we were discussing educational practice until one parent asked me a hypothetical question out of the blue:

“Imagine you are on Yard Duty, and one of the students in the schoolyard asks you the question: ‘Are Adam and Eve in the Bible true?’ – How would you answer?”

I immediately recognised that this was a potential trap and that they wanted me to say: “I would tell them that if it is in the Bible, of course it is true.” But I also knew that such an answer was unsatisfactory to me. As someone who had been taught to think for myself within my Christian upbringing, and as a teacher, I could not ethically encourage children to blindly accept indoctrination.

Pausing for a moment, I came up with an answer which I felt would be acceptable to me as a teacher, and to them as Christians: “I would tell the student to go read the Bible, read their student Bible commentary, ask their parents, ask their teachers, ask their pastor, ask their friends, and then make an informed decision.”

“Thank you for coming,” replied that parent immediately, smiling thinly and gesturing to the door. I thanked them for their time, and left the room with my head held high. I had not betrayed my professional ethics as a teacher, and therefore I was useless to them.

This is one of many reasons why religious freedoms – the fake news being peddled by our federal government in an attempt to introduce a law that would abuse human rights under the cover of religiosity – must be opposed.

Everyone expresses concern about the ability of religious schools to fire gay teachers, Muslim gardeners or single mothers whose ‘chosen lifestyle’ is incompatible with the proclamations of religious bigots. I agree – but I wonder if the greater long-term damage might be in teaching students to NOT think critically about themselves and the world around them?

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

Fandom of the Opera

Remembering the birthday of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith (2 May 1890 – 31 August 1965)
and commemorating Star Wars Day (May the 4th).

Art by Dick ‘Ditmar’ Jenssen

I miss space opera.

I recall my younger days, travelling into town and visiting Space Age Books. As I stepped through those bookshop doors, the everyday sounds of traffic and mundane life were left outside and I was free to explore other worlds and other times. I felt as if I had traversed a cosmic portal and left behind my mundane existence as a schoolboy to become, for all too brief a period, an adventurer and researcher at Hogwarts or in a modern-day Library of Alexandria.

I miss the days of looking upward, of being inspired by Moonwalkers who held much of the planet breathless in shared excitement. I miss Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, who encouraged us to consider the stellar void as testimony to both our cosmic beginnings and our future as a species. I recall my imaginary explorations as a crewmember aboard the Skylark, the Spacemaster, or the USS Enterprise; or as a citizen of Trantor or Arrakis. I admire the modern equivalents of these vistas, but somehow (to me at least) these newcomers lack the grandeur of the old masters – or maybe that is simply my nostalgia instinct kicking in and giving special deference to my halcyon days as an avid and excitable teenage SF reader.

It has been reported that 60% of post-war baby-boomer children in the UK were avid readers of Dan Dare comics during the 1950s (Holland, 2008, 6). They later matured by watching Thunderbirds and 2001: A Space Odyssey and Armstrong’s one small step on the Moon. It may have been inevitable for me to join this same cohort, as I was born between the launch of Ham the Chimp and Yuri Gagarin.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

As someone who was first exposed to SF via television programs such as Space Patrol, Lost in Space and Space: 1999, and the pulp SF novels of Captain WE Johns, I recognise that the science in these stories was often embarrassingly inadequate, but they nevertheless portrayed something marvellous – the grandeur of the universe and the sense of wonder which can be inculcated by our viewing of cosmic vistas.

Nowadays, the demands and realities of mundane existence have largely replaced my youthful dreams and visions – I have not gafiated so much as fafiated. And yet, when I pause and look up into the night-time sky, there is a primal call which echoes in my soul. Despite my attempts to ignore this compulsion, I still miss space opera, that traditionally maligned sub-genre of science fiction which encompasses both the grandeur of Apollo and the ordinariness of pulp culture.

Defining the Undefinable

NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In its purest form, SF holds the potential to not only anticipate a variety of possible futures, but to actually contribute to such outcomes (Bonfiglioli, 2010, 40; Kreuiter, 2009, 26-28). This holds true both sociologically and technologically, as demonstrated by the public silence that largely greeted NASA’s 1996 announcement of possible Martian microbial fossils inside Meteorite ALH84001. No politician mocked the concept of little green men; no religious leader proclaimed the divinely-ordained anthropocentric nature of creation. Life on Earth continued as before – evidence that SF had prepared our species to accept news of possible ET life.

I observe a similar lack of controversy in the discovery of thousands of extrasolar worlds circling nearby stars. Once again, our cultures and cosmological understandings have been prepared in advance for exciting discoveries. This shows that SF has an incredible, literally world-changing power, in no small part due to its implicit optimism. SF has even helped students to understand and learn scientific concepts (Laprise and Windrich, 2010) and has inspired many people to enter scientific careers or to create technological inventions (Jones, 2005; Easton & Dial, 2010).

‘Flight 16’ – Art by Dick ‘Ditmar’ Jenssen

Science fiction inculcates an open mindset in which its practitioners might explore all sorts of possibilities: diversity and learning to appreciate the metaphoric alien in our midst, wondrous scientific discoveries, future utopias and dystopias available to humans, new human identities and futuristic societies, vast cosmic vistas that transcend space and time and humanity. I have previously noted how Carl Sagan has invoked the sense of wonder that can be found in the cosmic vistas of science. Science fiction pioneer and monster afficionado Forrest Ackerman was one person who embraced and popularised many science fantasy elements, but he personally disavowed any belief in religion or the supernatural, and embraced hard science. As an atheist and secular humanist, he looked ahead with hope to the future awaiting possible construction by humankind:

“My hope for humanity – and I think sensible science fiction has a beneficial influence in this direction – is that one day everyone born will be whole in body and brain, will live a long life free from physical and emotional pain, will participate in a fulfilling way in their contribution to existence… I hope to be remembered as an altruist who would have been an accepted citizen of Utopia.” – Forrest J. Ackerman

Bridging the Gap

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

CP Snow suggested that we need to bridge the gap between the ‘two cultures’, ie. the chasm that exists between science and arts (Snow, 1959). I would suggest that science fiction may be one way to popularise science and critical thinking in ways that are artistic, creative and innovative. This may help to steer our culture away from fake news, Trumpism and Brexit, conspiracy theories, religious fundamentalism, and pseudoscience.

Science fiction has a potential to transcend its own limitations and expand further into the paeans of literature. It can do this by borrowing extensively from other literature for its theme, character and setting (Casimir, 2002) or by utilising mythical archetypes that allow Luke Skywalker to be Odysseus. SF can give expression to feminist and other progressive ideas. Among its many fans, science fiction attracts those who are marginalised by mundane society and we should listen to such voices:

I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.
Octavia Butler.

We need women to be able to participate fully and equally in science fiction’s conversations about humanity’s future – to shape how women are portrayed in those visions, to consider the roles women might play in those futures, and to imagine what a truly evolved and advanced society might look like for women.
Dr Bronwyn Lovell.

We have the right to imagine what is possible beyond the systems that try to destroy us. Black and queer writers have long imagined worlds beyond this one.
Shayla Lawz.

Science fiction can therefore be an antidote to bigotry and intolerance, and an educational tool for promoting diversity and difference. How can someone hate their fellow humans after they learn to appreciate the ‘alien’ within SF literature?

The Fandom Menace:

In SF, we meet people who are forever changed by the advances in science which have affected both their world and their very humanity. It is when we stretch these boundaries, not only of science, but of our concepts of what it means to be human, that we achieve the level of classical literature.

August 1930 Amazing Stories. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

It is thus we see a connection between Jules Verne’s The First Men in the Moon and Plato’s stories of Atlantis; we understand that Star Trek is a modern-day reworking of Jason and the Argonauts or Gulliver’s Travels; we can view Asimov’s Robot stories as 20th century modellings of medieval morality plays. We understand that tales of astronauts exploring strange new worlds are re-visitations of Robinson Crusoe or The Odyssey. We appreciate the Superman stories as secular retellings of Biblical folklore; and that Sarah Connor’s space opera adventures reboot female archetypes Athena or Minerva.

All such mythologies examine the timeless themes of what it means to be human in a wider, breathtaking cosmos.

Perhaps most of all, science fiction gives us a mirror within which we can glimpse who we are, and who we might become. In creating the possible worlds of science fiction, we are also creating ourselves:

“The Martians were there – in the canal – reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad. The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water …” ― Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles


Catriona Bonfiglioli, 2010. ‘Science ↔ Society’, in Chemistry in Australia, RACI, Volume 77 Number 9, October.

John Casimir, 2002. ‘Clone Wars’, in The Age, 16 May, B3.

Thomas A. Easton & Judith K. Dial (eds), 2010. Visions of Tomorrow: Science Fiction Predictions That Came True, Skyhorse Publishing Inc, Canada.

Steve Holland, 2008. ‘Introduction’, in Steve Holland (ed.), Rick Random: Space Detective, London: Prion/IPC Publishing Group.

Julian Jones (writer and director), 2005. How William Shatner Changed the World, Handel Productions Inc.

Allan Kreuiter, 2009. ‘The Science of Science Fiction’, in Australasian Science, Volume 30, Issue 10, Nov/Dec.

Shari Laprise & Chuck Winrich, 2010. ‘The Impact of Science Fiction Films on Student Interest in Science’, Journal of College Science Teaching, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 45 – 49.

C.P. Snow, 1959. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn