Today

Commemorating the Apollo 11 Anniversary
54-08-05 ∇ 18:48:34

Lunar Standard Time (LST)
on 20 July 2021 20:17:40 UTC.

Image by FelixMittermeier from Pixabay

When I look at the stars,
I am filled with wonder,
Awe and joy –
I revel in their beauty,
I pay homage to my birthright
And my destiny.

I am a Child of the Universe,
Made from star dust,
Sculpted and crafted
From billions of years
Of cosmologic, geologic,
biologic evolution.

I am a pinnacle of what has gone before
And a glimpse of what is yet to be.

+ + +

Adapted from material originally published in
Solar Spectrum #1, Spaced Out, Melbourne, 2001.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

With Stars In Our Eyes

Commemorating 54-07-30 ∇ 16:54:07
Lunar Standard Time (LST)
on 16 July 2021 0:0:0.

From Anthropomorphism to Apollo
– outgrowing ancient myths, creating new ones.

Launch of Apollo 11, 16 July 1969 (NASA Photo)

“LIFT-OFF! We have a lift-off, 32 minutes past the hour. Lift-off on Apollo 11.” – NASA Public Affairs Officer Jack King utters the first words to confirm lift-off.

On the 52nd anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 towards the Moon, it seems an appropriate time to pause and reflect upon the philosophical questions posed by that scientific achievement. The story of the Apollo missions is the stuff of modern legend – and is destined to become modern mythology. Perhaps it is no surprise that even as the Apollo missions were preparing to land men on the Moon, the archetypical astronaut was being conflated with pop mythology comprising gods and celestial beings, courtesy of Erich von Daniken.

Another remake of astronauts as mythical heroes took place towards the end of the Apollo program, when Martin Caidin created the Six Million Dollar Man – arguably a cross between astronaut, cybernetic superhero and James Bond. Colonel Steve Austin, astronaut, did not spawn much of a mythical industry beyond his girlfriend – possibly because his formulaic attributes were better represented in comic book superheroes; and if so, perhaps his most enduring legacy may have been the fuelling of the prosthetic industry.

Taking this idea of prosthesis and osmosis one step further, it is possible to understand that the space age has transformed us – and is still doing so, upgrading humanity one mobile phone at a time. Our ever-accelerating hardware and software updates mean that we have become humans with different capabilities and expectations than our parents during the Apollo Moon missions. It is hard to remember the world before the Internet, before ubiquitous mobile phones and streaming and tablets and wifi transformed us into a species that is closer to a lived experience of the ‘global village’ than any other in history. This merging of humanity with heroic high-tech might be the next step in our evolution from organic to something more. Such change is something to be celebrated and not feared:

“Asked if he felt the pervasive spread of technology was beginning to dehumanise us, [Arthur C] Clarke replied, “No, I think it’s superhumanising us.” “ (Benson, 2018, 432)

This evolution may even extend from the human to the posthuman. Francesca Ferrando suggests with some qualification that:

“Etymologically, the term “human” comes from the Latin term “humus” meaning “soil”, which, in our solar system, is only present on Earth. We can thus see migrating to space as the linguistic and semiotic step towards the literal creation of post-humans…”

Thus we may be evolving into the beings that we currently imagine in our dreams and myths: better, stronger, faster. Arthur C Clarke asserts in his Third Law that, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ and maybe we get a glimpse of this advancement when we ponder our futuristic posthuman societies scattered across the solar system. Perhaps we are in the process of becoming our mythological heroes.

Hit and Myth

Image by Craig Clark from Pixabay

My introduction to science and myth-making came via two avenues: the first being the flying saucer craze of the 1970s (which really excited a teenager who had been inspired by the space program) until I began to realise – as I came of age – that the science and critical thinking in these conspiracy theories was abysmal. I later came to understand a fundamental truth about the UFO craze as explained by Alexander Geppert (2012, 335):

Seldom can historians observe the making of a ‘modern myth’ in real time, over the course of several decades; the emergence of the UFO phenomenon immediately after the Second World War constitutes such a case.‘.

My faith in UFOs began to decline along with my wishful thinking about Chariots of the Gods and the possible circumstances surrounding the tragic disappearance of Fred Valentich as a local case of alleged alien intervention. Even as a callow youth, I could see that UFOlogy was more wishful thinking than scientific investigation. I was maturing into a youth who esteemed critical thinking and scientific evidence over excitement and superstition. If only the rest of the world could do the same!

My second introduction to science and mythopoeia came via a humble pulp magazine that was on sale in my local newsagents in 1979. I was attracted to the front cover and content of a magazine that proclaimed; “SCI FI – Religion of the 80’s”. Inside, Christian evangelist Mal Garvin proclaimed:

We believe that science fiction is replacing some of the functions of religion. Though it may be doing it for the wrong reason.” (Garvin, 1979, 24.)

In that same issue, the Superman story was conflated with Biblical figures (ibid, 37 – 40). Even then, as a tender young teen, I sensed that this conflation of science and myth was somehow intended to lend scientific credibility to mythical/religious archetypes instead of acknowledging the grandeur to be found in science. If anyone was using the wrong reason to conflate science and religion, it was not the scientists.

Art by Dick ‘Ditmar’ Jenssen

Utopia, Dystopia, Mythopoeia

It is perhaps in human nature to construct a whole pantheon of mythologies, spanning from past and present into the future. As children, we seek role models in order to learn by imitation. As adults, although we have outgrown the need for imitation, we retain the instinct and use it to construct mythologies, religions and archetypes in order to personify what ideals we would seek to emulate or take as a warning of our fears. JRR Tolkein spoke of this myth-making in his poem Mythopoeia:

“He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued.”

Star Wars creator George Lucas created a breathtakingly successful franchise by borrowing extensively from other science fiction stories or literary tropes – including Flash Gordon, Dune, Lord of the Rings, Yojimbo, Gone with the Wind, and ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensmen – and creating modern mythology which will undoubtedly echo our culture in the annals of history as much as the legend of Troy documents the culture of ancient Greece.

Damien Walter suggests that mythopoeia (myth making) is potentially interwoven with science:

“Science gives us far more accurate answers to our questions than ever before. But we’re still dependent on myths to actually comprehend the science. The multi-dimensional expansion of energy, space and time we call the Big Bang wasn’t literally a bang any more than God saying “Let there be light” was literally how the universe was created. They’re both mythic ideas that point at an actual truth our mammalian minds aren’t equipped to grasp.”

Such a conflation can be awe inspiring as we discover the glories of science. But David Ludden Ph.D. warns us that this conflation of science and mythology has its potential dangers, including the rise of conspiracy theories that undermine public confidence in science:

“Because conspiracy theories sow the seeds of distrust in our governmental and social institutions, they can have a destabilizing impact on politics and society.”

Whether 5G, COVID (or other) vaccines, HIV/AIDS denialism, climate catastrophe, Moon landing hoaxes, September 11, lizard aliens… and probably a thousand other conspiracies… Ludden suggests that such theories express the desire for understanding and certainty, control and security – particularly among those who do not understand modern science or who might feel threatened by the modern world. I would suggest that such theories also promote the false equivalence of expertise versus ignorance – a favourite among religious fundamentalists – where uneducated and unqualified people believe that their ignorance is equal to the knowledge of world experts. Conspiracy theorists want to bypass years of hard study and academic rigour, and declare themselves as being equal to Stephen Hawking, Anthony Fauci or Katherine Johnson. This is a rather astonishing act of laziness, arrogance and hubris. Do you want to know about the COVID vaccine? Go ask your doctor – YouTube is not a university; and Facebook is not a scholarly source. Do you want to determine if climate change is real? Don’t take my word for it – ask a climate scientist, not your fundamentalist pastor who relies solely on a Bronze Age prescientific book as his sole source of information.

Barry Vacker warns us that the conflation of science with mythopoeia is filled with the danger of these human frailties:

“The Apollo missions, 2001, and the original Star Trek TV series blasted us into a sublime future with the opportunity to build a unified planetary civilization, but we rejected it because we were unwilling to accept that we are a single species inhabiting a watery rock orbiting a flaming ball of hydrogen in an infinite universe. Apollo and Hubble forced us to confront cosmic nihilism, or the fact that there is no obvious meaning to human existence in a godless universe. Via Apollo, we’ve walked on the 4.5 billion-year-old moon, and via the Hubble Space Telescope, we’ve peered across 13.7 billion years of space-time — and there is not a Creator in sight. As Nietzsche famously said long before Apollo and Hubble: “God is dead.” But most everyone can’t accept it. Apollo’s photos of Earth from space and the Hubble Deep Field images have obliterated the rationales supporting the dominant narratives (theology, nationalism, and tribalism) we use to explain our origins, meaning, and destiny. Yet our species remains in utter denial.

We humans apparently can’t handle the paradoxical meaning of our greatest scientific achievement and most important philosophical discovery: The universe is vast and majestic, and our species is insignificant and might be utterly meaningless” – (Vacker, 2018, 3).

Dr. Pham Trong Van points out that knowledge comes after a long process of hard study: “You must identify clearly that studying is arduous and “the path of science” is not like others. Through difficulties, we find the glories of science and sympathize with those who sacrifice their whole lives for science.” And Armond Boudreaux reminds us that mythologies serve a more pointed purpose in our modern human endeavours:

“One of the reasons that I think superheroes are important at this particular moment is how good their stories are at helping us think about questions of power. And perhaps more now than in any other time, we need to think about what it means to seek and to wield power.”

Perhaps our myths and deities tell us more about ourselves than we realise: our gods are anthropomorphic versions of our aspirations, dreams, or nightmares.

Future Imperfect

A generation has now passed since men walked on the Moon, and this has allowed sufficient time for eye witnesses to become wizened historians; for formerly fresh and vibrant memories to be recast as ephemera within a larger repository of lifetime memories; and for exciting progressive events to be recontextualised within the mundane modern culture that they have helped to create.

Like the charming angels on the frontage of Bath Cathedral – many climbing Jacob’s ladder and some falling back down – we are a mix of aspiration and frailty, nobility and weakness. Our science and our dreams are limited by our failures and foibles. But still we strive and evolve beyond our mundane limitations, even though – on the scale of an individual human lifetime – such evolution seems to take forever. Our small steps become a giant leap when combined.

Meanwhile, adults and children continue to pause and gaze up at the night sky in awe and wonder – we are glimpsing our past, our current place in the cosmos, and our future destination. As we outgrow our pantheon of deities from Mount Olympus or the Garden of Eden, we might find another source of inspiration when we climb the dizzy heights of Olympus Mons on Mars, or create our own interstellar Garden of Eden on an exoplanet. Leaving behind our ancient mythologies, perhaps we will create new ones that are more authentic, engaging and exciting. Stardust to stardust.

Non-Digital References::

Michael Benson, 2018. Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Francesca Ferrando, 2016. ‘Why Space Migration Must Be Posthuman’, in Schwartz, J., Milligan, T. (eds.) Ethics of Space Exploration, Springer, Vol. 8, 137-152.

Mal Garvin (ed.), 1979. ‘SCI-FI – Religion of the 80’s’, Tell Magazine, Fusion Australia, Autumn, 20 – 25.
– – – – – – – – – – – – . ‘Superman, Supermyth’, Tell Magazine, Fusion Australia, Autumn, 37 – 40.

Alexander C.T. Geppert, 2012. ‘Extraterrestrial encounters: UFOs, science and the quest for transcendence, 1947–1972’, History and Technology Vol. 28, No. 3, September, 335–362.

Barry Vacker, 2018. Specter of the Monolith, The Center for Media and Destiny.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

It’s Time to Reclaim the Human Truths in an old Biblical Myth.

Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash

I imagine that everyone knows at least one portion of the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Babylonian epic based upon an earlier version of the same generic flood myth, and which was in turn plagiarised by ancient Hebrew mythicists and rewritten as the story of Noah’s Ark, two versions of which appear in Genesis in the Bible. (The tale also appears in Hindu tradition as Manu’s Boat, and other cultures also feature equivalent myths.)

The story itself has become ubiquitous in western literature and culture, inspiring movies, children’s songs, books and games; science fiction and fantasy reworkings, and it led a former Moonwalking astronaut to go in search of the Ark on Mount Ararat in Turkey. In more recent times, it has inspired the building of a pseudoscientific creationist ‘museum’.

Although the idea of an ark itself is kinda cool and evocative, it is located within a larger and somewhat unappealing story. Most people would probably know the generic details within the tale: of how the Genesis deity decided that humanity was thoroughly too evil to live, and caused a great flood to descend upon the world, exterminating the entire human race except for Noah and his family, who constructed an ark and conducted what one Christian source enthusiastically claims was ‘the greatest animal rescue of all time’. The story ends with god inventing the rainbow as a reminder of his promise to never again send another flood.

Despite the generally light hearted tone in which the story is recounted for children in popular culture, I believe that any serious reflection regarding its details reveals a deity who is, in the words of Richard Dawkins:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” ― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Well, that certainly escalated quickly. Seriously though, the god of the Noah story reminds me of the stereotypical wife beater who proclaims that ‘she made me do it’. Is this really a story and an ethical position that we want to teach to children – or to anybody else?

This is one human truth that we need to reclaim from the Noah myth: that violence is never acceptable, not even in the name of someone’s preferred deity. Historically, everything from violence within the family, the death penalty and public lynchings, through to slavery, the Crusades, wars, witch burnings and the Holocaust have been rationalised by ethics such as those found within this flood story.

Hit and Myth

Today, we can see the immorality of this cultural template emblazoned in our everyday lives. We live in our own insulated arks of relative luxury and affluence while ignoring the floods of poverty that overwhelm those around us. Even our Prime Minister, emboldened by lazy theocratic thinking, proudly boasts how he ‘stopped the boats’ and thereby turned back real-life Noah’s Arks that held the hopes and dreams and lives of others.

Let’s face it: God is a poor role model, and deferring to such archetype is not only intellectually lazy but makes us lose touch with our compassionate, empathic human nature. I do not mean to imply that all religious people promote such negative behaviours; some are touched by what I would call the humanist call for enlightenment.

Future Shock

We can see the damage promoted by the Noah story not only in our past and present, but also in our possible future – as exhibited in attitudes towards the environment. Only God can control the weather, claim some religious folk, including our Penetecostal Prime Minister’s peers. This head-in-the-sand denialism is inherently dangerous for our environment and our world. The climate is changing to disastrous effect, and we must respond rather than continue to carelessly destroy our environment. We do not live aboard Noah’s Ark, so we are not immune from climate change disaster – and even if we were somehow immune, that does not absolve us from the moral responsibility to show a better morality than a man who builds a big boat for himself but blithely allows the rest of humanity (including, it appears, his own grandfather, Methuselah) to drown.

Doing the exact opposite of Noah and taking whatever steps are necessary to save the whole world, saving the environment through ethical and responsible human choices… now that really would be the greatest animal rescue of all time.

Reclaiming the Rainbow

It is surely time to reclaim the colourful and ubiquitous rainbow from the clutches of this story.

We should acknowledge the many cultures that have interpreted the symbolism of rainbows within their own mythologies. From the Epic of Gilgamesh interpreting rainbows as a call to war (possibly the origin source of the nastiness in the Genesis account), through to a more charming Hindu idea of rainbows being the godly archer’s bow used to shoot bolts of lightning, through to indigenous American and Japanese cultures using rainbows as a form of bridge. Even Australian indigenous cultures speak of the Rainbow Serpent with a rather charming connection to rivers and waterways as a source of rainbows and creation.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

I enjoy the old Irish legend about a sneaky leprechaun hiding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow – symbolising the idea that every storm in life is followed by a new start that is as invigorating and fresh as the air and soil that crackle and sparkle after a spring shower. This leprechaunic folklore is a much more uplifting a story than a stone age fantasy about a violent, mass-murdering god drowning all the men, women, children and babies in the world.

I have engaged in discussions with an occasional Christian who has bewailed the ‘hijacking’ of the rainbow from the Genesis story. They usually complain about the rainbow flag used by LGBTQIA+ communities, for whom they appear to hold special dislike. They rarely express contempt for gay icon Judy Garland singing, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, nor for indigenous American rainbow stories that present more environmentally connected alternatives to Christian theology than the idea of a disembodied deity that is distinct from cosmology.

The Rainbow Connection

Richard Dawkins writes about Unweaving the Rainbow – unlocking its secrets and determining how a rainbow is created under natural laws and fundamental scientific principles. He points out that this does not detract from the colour, majesty and awe of the rainbow, but rather helps us to fully appreciate the glories of science in our the natural world:

“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”
Richard Dawkins.

In this sense, I would much rather deconstruct the malevolent ancient flood myth and its constituent rainbow, leaving behind its nasty and barbaric morality, and instead find glory and wonder within our universe and in laws of nature that reveal a rainbow in a mundane drop of water.

Ultimately, I would imagine that most people would much rather prefer the inclusive LGBT rainbow flag – a legacy to the world from gay activist Gilbert Baker who spoke of rainbows being an ancient symbol of hope. Here we see a symbol not of genocide, but of life and love and celebration. Baker’s aspirations for the rainbow flag are quoted on his Foundation website:

“What I liked about the rainbow is that it fits all of us.
It’s all the colors.
It represents all the genders.
It represents all the races.
It’s the rainbow of humanity.”

Photo by Agustin Gunawan on Unsplash

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Something Has Happened

Forty years ago today, a worldwide epidemic was unknowingly announced in a newspaper. Unlike COVID in 2020, this other virus had been unforeseen and undiscovered and, ultimately, politically stigmatised until it was on track to cause irreparable loss of life.
A generation later, it still has no vaccine.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

His name is not recorded in Australia’s history books. He was just an average Australian bloke, but he became possibly the first casualty – the proverbial Unknown Soldier – in one of Australia’s most frightening wars.

He was born in Australia in 1909, when our nation had barely reached Federation. He spent his infancy during harsh drought, in an era of horse and cart, electric trams and the telegraph.

As a young boy, he would have seen older lads – possibly his father and older brothers – go off to the Great War. Later, he would have witnessed those who survived the war returning home to live with possible shell shock or disfigurement – and to face the worldwide pandemic named Spanish Influenza.

National Museum of Australia http://collectionsearch.nma.gov.au/object/216331

As a young adult, he saw the opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge, survived the polio era, lived through the Great Depression and he may have served in World War Two.

As an older adult, he saw many changes and challenges: television and antibiotics, automobiles and aircraft. He witnessed the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile Crisis, the Apollo Moon landings, US assassinations and civil rights demonstrations.

His world was shaped by the Cold War and his lifestyle may have been oppressed by McCarthyism. He lived through the early days of Gay Liberation and he may have marched in the original street protest which led to the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

Like many Australians of his generation, he had never travelled far nor done anything particularly significant or notorious. Tragically, the end of his life would be most significant.

Around February 1981, he began to get sick – at the same time when millions of Australians were becoming distracted by the engagement of Prince Charles to Lady Diana. By the time of the Royal wedding in July, our friend’s prolonged illness had developed into a persistent cough and he had pronounced difficulty with breathing.

The illness which struck him was testimony to the international travel that had become a ubiquitous aspect of our modern jet-setting lifestyle, despite the fact that he had personally never travelled overseas. He was afflicted with what was then called Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia (PCP), a fungal pneumonia that had first been identified in 1909 (Grmek, 1990, 116) – ironically the year of his own birth. It was only after World War Two that PCP began to appear in malnourished children who lived in overcrowded orphanages of post-War Europe – and a link was established between PCP and humans whose immune systems had been damaged or compromised (Shilts, 1987, 34.) A symbolic link had also been established between PCP and the concept of war or deprivation – a metaphor which would not be forgotten in the coming years, including in Australia.

Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay

All this background probably meant little to our friend, who battled his chronic breathing problem without being aware that others around the world had also recently puzzled their doctors with similar or related medical difficulties: people such as 47 year-old Grethe Rask, a female Danish surgeon who died in December 1977 (Shilts, 1987, 6 & 7); two pediatric siblings in San Francisco who were diagnosed in 1978 and 1979 (Cochrane, 2004, 28) while gay men in Los Angeles were being diagnosed with strange diseases around 1979 (Black, 1986, 20 – 21); an unnamed gay 27 year-old African-American hospital guard in New York City who died in December 1979 (Hooper, 1999, 57); a young gay man named Nick in New York’s Fire Island, who became sick in March 1980 (Black, 1986, 18 – 19); an anonymous gay 36 year-old dairy industry agricultural engineer who died in Denmark’s Rigslhospitalet, Copenhagen, in September 1980 (Shilts, 1987, 34 & 35); a Portuguese taxi driver and two women in Paris who all succumbed in late 1980 (ibid, 36 & 37). Ominously, a number of young gay men in Los Angeles had also been identified as getting sick and/or dying from the same ailment in 1981 (CDC, 1981) while nine gay men in San Francisco were also diagnosed in July of that same year (Cochrane, 2004, ch. 3). These people were merely the tip of a metaphoric iceberg.

Image by Darwin Laganzon from Pixabay

In Africa, the danger had already been spreading silently for years. Swiss author Henning Mankell reports anecdotal evidence that mysterious ailments were being noticed among people in Uganda as far back as the 1970s. According to one story, a young man named Lukas had become afflicted in 1974 with an increasingly-debilitating mystery illness which included swollen glands, weight loss and an outbreak of sores. Lukas, and his two wives, all got sick and died – followed, in subsequent years, by other people in Kampala. One of Lukas’ workmates had explained this mystery to his child through a simple but hauntingly significant truth: “Something has happened” (Mankell, 2004, 52 & 53).

Something was indeed happening – and a killer virus was silently spreading; its first likely identified victim in the USA being an African-American teenage boy who was retrospectively diagnosed some decades after his death in 1969, at around the time that the rest of the world was being distracted by the scientific and social watersheds of Apollo 11 and the Stonewall riots.

But the silent killer continued to build its strength, and gay activist Cleve Jones recalls:

“I have memories from 1978 and 1979 of friends of mine contracting diseases that I’d never heard of, or that I’d heard of but only in the context of impoverished countries. I remember a friend came down with meningitis, and that seemed to me to be odd. There was also quite a bit of hepatitis going around. So here was sort of a glimmering realization, but nobody took it too seriously, because the sexually transmitted diseases were easily treated with just a few doses of antibiotics.”

Our anonymous Aussie battler would most likely have been totally oblivious to this community of suffering when he was admitted to a Sydney hospital in August 1981, after six months of progressive deterioration. He died the following month, aged 72.

Twelve years later, doctors tested a preserved medical specimen that had been collected from the patient in January 1980. Using a test which had been unavailable and unimaginable back in 1980, they discovered that the patient had died of a condition which we now call AIDS. Yet when this patient died, AIDS had barely even been recognised as a problem overseas; it was still so new and mysterious that it had not yet been accurately identified nor assigned its name; and its existence in Australia had been unknown at that time. This led Australian doctors to make a worrying declaration in 1994 following their retrospective diagnosis of this patient:

“Whether this represents an isolated case in a man who progressed rapidly because of his relatively advanced age, or whether HIV was present earlier in Australia than previously thought, remains unanswered” (Gerrard et. al., 1994).

“Patient X” had never had a blood transfusion nor any record of injecting drug use – and yet his blood told a chilling story. Somehow, he had been exposed to the virus here in Australia in late 1979 or possibly earlier (Carter, 1994; Davies, 1993).

A new pandemic had arrived in Australia and silently claimed its first casualty.

HIV-budding-Color

Then, forty years ago today, the looming larger catastrophe was announced to the world. The New York Times – not the first to publish an article, but the first to publish one that gained widespread public attention – announced that a “rare cancer” had been found in 41 homosexuals (Altman, 1981). It revealed the worrying aspects of an emerging pattern: rare diseases were being caught as an indication of a compromised immune system among young gay men who should not normally be victims to such medical oddities (McKie, 1986, 21 & 22).

One of the people who read that newspaper report was John Foster, an Australian historian who was on study leave in New York City. He later recalled the day which would forever announce the public arrival of slow-creeping catastrophe into the lives of millions of people around the world:

“On Friday 3 July 1981 I went early to Mass. By the end of the Mass the priest was sweating. Summertime in New York, I was discovering, was drenched in sweat, though it was rarely so pure an essence as the kind that impregnated the wafer I received from the priest’s damp hand. On the subway, sweat sickly mingled with cheap scent; in the gay bars on Christopher Street it hit you in a mixture of amyl or diffused in the acrid drift of marijuana smoke; on the streets it came at you out of peripatetic hot-dog stands or the open doors of greasy-spoon cafes.

“Walking home from church, with my shirt already wet on my back, I bought a copy of the Times and turned in at Nick the Greek’s for my usual eggs and coffee. On the eve of a holiday weekend it was less than normally busy. There was room at a corner table to spread out the paper, a small but significant luxury which disposed me cheerfully to the day ahead. There was no news of any moment, which may explain why I spent so long reading the almost full-page advertisement of the Independence Savings Bank. ‘Sing out on the Fourth!’ it said, and to encourage this holiday spirit it printed the music and three verses of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’…

“So much glory is hard to take at breakfast, and so the Times, which is a newspaper of impeccable taste, balanced this rich fare with a thin column of more astringent medical reporting. Doctors in California and New York had diagnosed among homosexual men forty-one cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. The cancer appeared in violet-coloured spots which might be taken for bruises and which often turned brown before they spread throughout the body…

“It seemed to have something to do with promiscuous sex. Most of the cases had involved homosexual men who had had multiple and frequent sexual encounters each night up to four times a week…

“This was definitely not serious. Or at least, it did not concern me. I was not in the violet-spot league.” (Foster, 1993, 39 & 40).

Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Three weeks later, on 25 July 1981, John Foster was to meet another man – and this meeting would change both their lives. On 14th Street, by the Steps of Our Lady of Guadaloupe’s chapel, he met young Juan Gualberto Cèspedes (ibid, 41) and they struck up a casual friendship which quickly became a long-term relationship. Since his arrival in New York as a refugee some twelve years earlier – just in time to experience the culturally inspirational effect of watching the Apollo 11 Moon landing – Juan had subsequently been unable to realise his personal ambition of becoming a dancer due to the prejudice of others and following an unfortunate encounter with a New York taxi cab. His relationship with the Australian academic John Foster would provide him with new hopes – and it would provide John Foster with companionship and confidence.

Foster’s mistaken belief that he and Juan were not in any danger of belonging to the “violet-spot league” was a continuation of the same confidence which had been experienced by a younger Juan Cèspedes in the days of Gay Lib – and yet they were later to discover that such confidence and dreams would ultimately turn into ashes.

A new epidemic had been silently creeping into our world for some time, creating a concurrent epidemic of discrimination, stigma and disempowerment, and thereby giving rise to great ongoing needs for activism both in Australia and overseas. Ebola, SARS and COVID were not the first major epidemics in living memory, but our response to these others has been shaped – rightly or wrongly – by the lessons we have learnt (or failed to learn) from HIV/AIDS.

References:

Altman, Lawrence, 1981. “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals”, in The New York Times, 3 July, A20.

Carter, Helen, 1994. “HIV Dates From ‘70s – Doctors,” in The Herald Sun, 7 March, 9.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1981. “Pneumocystis Pneumonia — Los Angeles,” in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR ), 5 June, 30(21), 1-3.

Cochrane, Michelle, 2004. When AIDS Began: San Francisco and the Making of an Epidemic, Routledge.

Davies, Julie-Anne, 1993. “Australia’s First AIDS Death in 1981: Doctors,” in The Sunday Age, 7 November, 1.

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

Gerrard , John, et. al., 1994. “Australia’s First Case of AIDS?” in The Medical Journal of Australia, Vol. 160, 7 March, 247 – 250.

Grmek, Mirko D., 1990. History of AIDS, Princeton University Press.

Hooper, Edward, 1999. The River, Allen Lane/Penguin Press.

Mankell, Henning, (translator Laurie Thompson), 2004. I Die, But the Memory Lives On: The World AIDS Crisis and the Memory Book Project, Harvill Press (Random House).

McKie, R., 1986. Panic: The Story of AIDS, Thorsens Publishing Group, UK.

Pneumocystic Pneumonia – Los Angeles”, in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Centers for Disease Control, 5 June 1981, 30(21); 1-3.

Shilts, Randy, And The Band Played On, Penguin Books.

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

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn