I Am Not Free…

“As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”
—Virginia Woolf

For Women’s Equality Day, 26 August 2021

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

In recent days, the world has been shocked by the downfall of Afghanistan and the abandonment of millions of Afghan lives by the USA and its military allies – a betrayal of human rights that is a bad omen in particular for women, LGBT people and atheists. The invisibility of women under the Taliban, and the callousness with which the secular or Christian west has turned its back on these women, should be a cause for despair by any person of good will. The world needs a better standard of leaders and a better future to which we can aspire. That future starts closer to home, in our own lives and attitudes.

In 2012, the Global Atheist Convention attracted two sets of protesters who chose to partition themselves in separate doorways to the convention centre. At one door, a group of Christians (led by a strong-willed woman) warned of the fires of hell for atheists, drunkards, gays, dominant women, and others who mocked their narrow interpretation of their biblical deity. Outside the other doorway, a group of Muslim men waved placards warning us of similar fates in the afterlife. It was this second group that attracted the most attention due to their complete absence of women. A chant went up from the assembled atheist audience: “Where are your women? Where are your women?” It seemed a reasonable – if somewhat diversionary – question: how are women treated by your religion?

Well may we criticize their lack of female representation, as a reflection of their ideological misogyny. But are collective atheists any better? In the public new atheist discourse, where are our women? At atheist and skeptic and freethought conventions, how many women feature alongside public speakers Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett or Laurence Krauss? How are women treated in atheist groups and committees and social media platforms? In the traditional Australian Humanist of the Year Awards, what proportion over the last four decades have comprised women? In worldwide atheist and secular publications, do women get equal representation? Let’s be honest, how many popular lists of atheists, agnostics, secularists, skeptics, rationalists, humanists or freethinkers includes a fair and healthy proportion of women? Perhaps worst of all, various prominent men within the global atheist movement have, in recent years, been accused of personal behaviours that demean, belittle or objectify women. Unless we set a better example, we cannot criticise others for their failures.

In the end anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing: anti-humanism. - Shirley Chisholm

Amanda Marcotte summarises the problem in the atheist movement:

“At first blush, it would seem that an atheist movement would be exactly the sort of thing that would attract many women. After all, much of the oppression of women—from forced veiling to restricting abortion rights—is a direct result of religion… But despite the natural and cozy fit of atheism and feminism, the much-ballyhooed “New Atheism” that was supposed to be a more aggressive, political form of atheism has instead been surprisingly male-dominated.”

More widely, secularism has traditionally had an unhealthy gender ratio amongst its membership and activities. Is there hope for a better future?

We have strong grounds for being optimistic. If we look at atheism past, present and emerging, we find an increasing number of women becoming prominent in the ranks, and we need to recognise and acknowledge their leadership. Past leaders include Henrietta Dugdale, Rachel Carson, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and Olive Zakharov. They helped to shape the world in which we live.

Today, women are emerging within atheist communities across the world, including as leaders within traditionally oppressed communities. Mandisa Thomas, leader of Black Non-Believers, blogs about Christianity, White Supremacy, and True Liberation and thereby challenges us all to consider the intersectional nature of this oppression:

“It really is time for us to have serious discussions about whether the belief systems we have been raised with … aids and abets a system of white supremacy, and are also a hindrance to our liberation.”

In Australia, secular, atheist and freethought organisations that feature females in strong leadership roles include the long-standing Rationalist Society of Australia and the fledgling Humanists Australia; the CEO of this latter organisation, Heidi Nicholl, presents to The Guardian a positive and inclusive Humanist perspective:

Nicholl says that humanists are not “anti-religion and we’re not against religion, we’re actually pro-values, meaning and fulfilment”.

Meanwhile, longtime Australian LGBTQI+ activist Alison Thorne calls for Radical Women and their supporters to unite in the ongoing fight, and, in doing so, suggests a way forward for us all:

“It is time to unite, to take stock of the challenges and to build serious organisation from the diffuse community and broad radical milieu. We’re living in tough times with immense potential and real risks.”

Photo by Womanizer WOW Tech on Unsplash

Hence we might see the connection between our own attitudes and those of others who more pointedly burn witches (as do some Christians in Africa and PNG today) or who enslave women (as per the Taliban or some other Islamic cultures). To evoke the sentiment of humanist Virginia Woolf’s quote (above), the betrayal of women in Afghanistan does not stop at the national border – it is a betrayal of women’s rights everywhere: in Syria, Lebanon, Kenya, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, India, China, redneck towns in the USA and Australia, every UNHCR refugee camp in the world, and everywhere else that women are oppressed, ignored, demeaned, or subjected to violence or discrimination. We see it in every workplace where women are denied equal pay or opportunity, or are subjected to sexual harassment. The betrayal of women can also be found in the halls of Australian Parliament whenever allegations of rape are ignored or downplayed, and in western culture whenever the humanity of trans women is denied. I have written elsewhere that the downfall of Kabul is the moral downfall of us all.

Surely, if we want to improve the world, we must start with ourselves, and our own attitudes and behaviours. We need to build up those in our world who have been traditionally disempowered and ignored. The emergence of female leaders in secularism point towards one such possible, optimistic future. Kayley Whalen, a queer transgender Latinx Humanist, epitomises the rise of millennial women embracing atheism:

“We believe in social justice, that we can live a life with meaning, purpose, and dedication to social justice without the need for supernatural guidance.”

We cannot help but ponder how many millions of women in Afghanistan share that same perspective – today, tomorrow, next week and forever. And what will we do about it? To reclaim the humanity from the ancient Genesis myth, and to challenge the gender bias that it has engendered for millennia, we must consider: are we our sister’s keeper?

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” — Audre Lorde.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

An Open Letter

A Letter to Parents of A Science Fiction Fan

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

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Dear Mum and Dad,

You recently skimmed my bookshelves full of Babylon 5 DVDs, and novels by Clarke, Asimov and Le Guin. Then, you asked me your questions about “sci fi”. “Haven’t you outgrown these childish stories?” one of you asked. “Why does this fairy tale stuff appeal to you?” added the other, disparagingly. I felt like I was fifteen years old again, being chastised for staying up too late at night to watch a scratchy episode of Star Trek. But here is my answer.

I enjoy science fiction because it allows me to view the world through the eyes of a child – a youthful and enquiring mind. It gives me the chance to retain a childlike (not “childish”) sense of magic and awe at the world around me. Like a child, I can view everyone and everything as being full of potential and possibilities.

I enjoy science fiction because it is not fairy tale stuff. It is literature that dares to promise me possible utopias or warn me of possible dystopias. It challenges me to act, to take my individual place in the timeline of history, to actively create the future that I would want for myself and for those who will follow.

I enjoy science fiction because it renews my sense of wonder at the Universe. It reminds me of the insignificance of human ego when compared to the magnitude of galaxies, interstellar distances and planetary timescales. It tells me that our daily news – dominated by wars, politicians, economists and sports heroes – is fleeting and transitory. Science fiction reassures me that the beauty of the stars and galaxies will endure, long after our petty worries have been forgotten.

I enjoy science fiction because it promises me that humanity has a future, full of dreamers, explorers and heroes. It promotes the joy of diversity – including aliens, robots, cyber citizens, sentients, men and women, queer and trans and gender non-binary humans – all living together in peace and equality.

I enjoy science fiction because it prepares me for that future. It has introduced me to many concepts from tomorrow’s world – cloning, IVF, mobile phones, the Internet, space travel, ecological problems, robotics, computers and virtual reality – in many cases, years before the “mainstream” even considered the possibilities.

I enjoy science fiction because it has given me friends who represent the future. They are folk with open and enquiring minds, and they display a healthy scepticism about so many of society’s assumptions. They are true scientists in a world that too often equates science with militarism, religion or superstition.

I enjoy science fiction because I recall a television series, “The Invaders”, from the misty days of my childhood. The plot focussed on aliens invading the planet but symbolised American fears about communist infiltrators. In retrospect, I now see the show as an unintentional metaphor for gays and lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people living in every strata of society. We are here – get used to it.

I enjoy science fiction because it is a form of literature that will one day become “mainstream” literature – when the rest of the world is ready to accept its challenges.

I enjoy science fiction because it is all of these things – and more. It always promises me that the best is yet to come.

© 2002 Geoff Allshorn
Updated/reprinted version © 2021 Geoff Allshorn

Time and Friendship

To coincide with International Youth Day (12 August), I recall a young friend who I never met – but whose story changed my life, and who might teach us of the potential within us all.

“Time doesn’t take away from friendship, nor does separation.”
Tennessee Williams, Memoirs

Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay

The date 8 August 1988 might be one of vague mathematical curiosity (8-8-88) and yet it is etched into my mind as the day of a news report in which a young Sydney man lost his life; his story appearing in The Sun, a newspaper that is now also long gone.

He was reportedly infected with HIV in the days before modern multi-drug therapies made HIV a long-term medical condition instead of an almost-certain death sentence.

His last request was to return home from hospital, and his friends eagerly organised a party for his return.

This was an era when HIV was greatly feared and stigmatised, in no small part due to its popular conflation with newly-decriminalised male homosexuality and imagined contagion through normal social contact. Accordingly, his ambulance attendants wore ‘space suits’ as they delivered him home on a stretcher. His friends fled when they saw this and realised that he had AIDS.

Doctor Julian Gold told the newspaper that the young man, ‘died literally of a broken heart 48 hours later in my hospital’.

I was myself a young man when I read this story, and yet 33 years later, I remember being deeply touched by this tale of abandonment by mates and friends. We all recall the flush of youth and our eagerness to find special friends and share time and companionship with those who share our youthful enthusiasm for living and loving and learning together. This is part of the natural process of maturation, moving beyond close family, in search of our own more individualised, extended family. In his desire to find significance and belonging among his own friends – and in their failure to meet his expectations – this young man’s story touches something primal in us all.

(Wherever they are today, I hope that his friends have learnt from their past mistake – we are all only human, after all – and have gone on to redress their error of having been less than their best when the going got tough).

Photo by Womanizer WOW Tech on Unsplash

We might also learn from the yearning for companionship within his story – our common human condition means that we share a bond with others, regardless of their age, gender, culture, sexuality, or any other marker that has traditionally been used to separate and divide us. We share the ability to hope and dream; to yearn for significance and betterment; for living and laughing and crying. Like all sentient beings, we share the potential for suffering or flourishing, for intimacy or loneliness.

Whether they may be runaway or refugee, indigenous or ill, disempowered or discrimated against – our sentience surely compels us to empathise with others in need, and go out of our way to support them whenever we can. Indeed, I suspect that the fullest test of our humanity, ethics and compassion is whether or not we help those with whom we might ordinarily feel that we share the least in common, except for our common humanity.

I am reminded of a Biblical injunction to sacrifically offer help to others: “Greater love hath no man than he who gives his life for his friends…” and I see this saying immortalised on war memorials, building plaques, tomb stones, and used ubiquitously across common literature. However, I see deficiencies in this quote; after all, even serial killers and dictators care about their friends; and its wording suggests an elitism by implying that only friends are worth protecting rather than all humanity. I would respectfully amend and supercede this Biblical quote, emphasising its secular humanist ideal and removing it from any religious context, by expanding it to include everyone instead of just an insulated bubble of our nearest and dearest: Greater love hath no person than they who give their life to help another; turning strangers and enemies and their whole human family into friends.

Thirty-three years ago, that anonymous young man’s story convinced me that awareness of the suffering of others is our choice. His story inspired me towards activism. How many others are like him today, around the world, suffering in silence during modern-day plagues: HIV, COVID, disease, poverty, starvation, injustice, war, violence, discrimination, or the indifference of others? And what are we doing about it?

However we answer those questions reveals more about our own humanity than it does about those whose suffering we are challenged to confront.

Source:

Dan McDonnell, 1988. ‘A tragic test of friendship’, in The Sun, Melbourne, 8 August.

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(*My study of HIV/AIDS has been connected to a PhD study. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.)

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

A Kiss Is (Not) Just A Kiss

Image by Adam Evertsson from Pixabay

The popularity of the original series of Star Trek is based, in no small part, upon its portrayal of racial equality, possibly explained most succinctly by Star Trek actor George Takei (2015, @4:35 minutes) when he postulated that the starship Enterprise was a metaphor for starship Earth, adding that: “… the strength of this starship lay in its diversity…”. The show’s racial mix was exemplified in its most famous interracial kiss during a third season episode, Plato’s Stepchildren, originally telecast in November 1968. This legendary kiss forms one of Star Trek‘s most endearing urban myths, and serves as a focus of intersectionality entwining societal racism, misogyny and homophobia. The episode in question was a favourite of one of my Star Trek friends and mentors, Diane Marchant, because it also featured a kiss between Spock and Christine Chapel, but for some reason, even as an adolescent, I greatly detested the episode, although I could never quite clarify to myself why I disliked it so much.

Eric Greene (2006, 59) points out one of its obvious problems, and in doing so, he provided me with a personal revelation as to why I had always found this episode repulsive: ‘Kirk and Uhura were forced into that kiss – it was desired by neither and resisted by both. And a Black woman forced to kiss a white man against her will ain’t romance. It’s rape.’

Oops. It is time for Star Trek‘s 23rd century to have its own #MeToo moment.

Another major problem is that, according to this urban myth, the smooch was television’s first interracial kiss – which is incorrect. It was not even Star Trek‘s first interracial kiss. Kirk kissed Marlena Moreau in Mirror Mirror, an episode that aired the year before Plato’s Stepchildren (O’Boogie, 2015). Another, earlier interracial Star Trek kiss featured Khan Noonian Singh and Marla McGivers in the episode Space Seed; their romance having been made possible by the removal of an even earlier interracial relationship that had been planned for first season episode, The Alternative Factor (Cushman with Osborn, 2013, 474 – 476).

In all myths – urban and otherwise – the mythical and fictional dimensions grow as time passes, and mundane details can later assume Olympian proportions. We see this metamorphosis take place within living memory, wherein the mythology of Roswell grows from shattered weather balloon to alien visitation, and then to full-blown government conspiracy within a few short years. Similarly, having been a Star Trek fan for about fifty years, I can testify that in the 1970s, Plato’s Stepchildren was considered to be just another episode, and was not seen as being anything significant in Star Trek lore. It was only some years later, perhaps after The Next Generation, that I seem to recall ever hearing the idea that Plato’s Stepchildren gave us television’s first interracial kiss. This was not the only Star Trek urban myth that appears to have developed some years after the original events, to accommodate the needs of the franchise expanding to meet audience demands. But like all myths, this tale tells us perhaps more in its unpacking than in its telling: we desire racial equality, and a utopian story featuring utopian heroes is more uplifting and emotionally appealing than more mundane realities.

The realities are that various interracial kisses had already appeared on US TV as far back as 1951, when Lucille Ball kissed Dezi Arnaz Jr (Mcleod, 2015). In a wider scope, a television kiss between black and white participants actually first took place (O’Boogie, 2015) in a 1959 TV program called Pension Hommeles on Netherlands TV; followed by a similar kiss (Mcleod, 2015) in a 1962 UK TV play, You In Your Small Corner. Even the first season of US western series The Wild, Wild West – which I would see as a template for much of what happened later in Star Trek – featured an interracial kiss between a Caucasian man and an Asian woman in 1966 (Jay, 2019).

Image by mdherren from Pixabay

The presumption within all these kisses was heteronormativity. By contrast, David Gerrold (2014) points to a very early Star Trek episode, What Are Little Girls Made Of?, which includes a scene where Uhura spontaneously gives a ‘sisterly’ kiss to Christine Chapel in a moment of shared excitement. It is there that we find Star Trek‘s first interracial kiss, possibly overlooked for fifty years because it involves a same-sex kiss between two women. Yet the ‘groundbreaking’ kiss which Star Trek promotes in its urban mythology is the patriarchal, heterosexual rape kiss (with racist overtones) between Kirk and Uhura.

Our human adventure is just beginning; and we do not need to invent fallacious myths in order to find inspiration. By all means, let us find value and significance and vision in our modern literature and art, but let’s base these stories upon truth and positive human values. Star Trek was transformative as television; we do not need false folklore to fully appreciate its positive humanism.

Sources:

Marc Cushman with Susan Osborn, 2013. These Are The Voyages: TOS Season 1, (Revised Edition), San Diego: Jacobs/Brown Press.

David Gerrold, 2014. Facebook posting, 7 November, accessed 1 November 2016.

Eric Greene, 2006. ‘The Prime Question’, in David Gerrold & Robert J Sawyer (eds.), Boarding the Enterprise: Transporters, Tribbles and the Vulcan Death Grip in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, Dallas: BenBella Books, 57 – 86.

Kayla Iacovino et al, 2015. Oh Captain, My Captain (Kirk), Women at Warp, Episode 6, 10 May. (See also Rebecca’s response of 22 July 2015 on that webpage).

Maurice Mcleod, 2015. ‘Why TV’s first interracial kiss is a proud British snog’, The Guardian, 24 November.

Dr Winston O’Boogie, 2015. ‘Did Star Trek really show TV’s first interracial kiss?’, The Agony Booth, updated 22 November.

George Takei, 2015. In Neil DeGrasse Tyson (host), Star Talk, 20th Century Fox.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn.