It’s Life, Jim

It’s Life, Jim: Star Trek, Fan Culture, Slash Fiction
and the Queering of Starfleet Command

Originally published in Bent Street 4.1, 24th July 2020.

Image by p2722754 from Pixabay

‘Beam Me Up, Scotty!’

Many will immediately recognise this catchphrase as a testimony to nerd culture and cult television. Yet in its day, it was a somewhat covert signal between adherents in much the same way as talking about being ‘a friend of Dorothy’ indicated membership of another fringe group.

When considering how technology has transformed social norms regarding sexuality and intimacy, we might think most readily of Grindr, social media, and even more rudimentary tech such as mobile phones and the Internet. My story begins before any of this technology existed, back in the days of what may now be considered dinosaur tech, such as free-to-air television, the typewriter, the fordigraph machine, and the film camera. This now-outdated tech helped plug me into a Matrix of alternate reality that introduced me to my first ‘out’ gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and queer friends, in an era when male homosexuality was still illegal and LGBT people were shunned by polite society. This dinosaur tech also introduced me to a counter-culture of bohemian people whose lifestyles and views were open expressions of inclusion, diversity and difference.


There was a time when the apex of popular communication technology in Australia was recently-colourised free-to-air television, comprising a stand-alone box with an antenna. There were no videotapes or DVDs, no satellite or cable TV, no streaming or iTunes, so viewers relied totally upon the whims of local TV station programmers for whatever content they might get to view. Those seeking other visual entertainment could go to the local movie cinema.

Amidst the cultural fare of programs like The Beverley Hillbillies, Are You Being Served? and The Paul Hogan Show, my young teenage self sought somewhat higher inspiration and aspiration. I found the world of Star Trek. It was a wondrous place, filled with spaceships and aliens, diverse peoples and galactic technological marvels. Although it offered no explicitly queer themes or characters, its variety of aliens implicitly endorsed the principles of diversity and inclusion. The addition of the half-human, half-Vulcan character, Spock, was also extremely popular with audiences, with many people admiring different aspects of his complex character. Stephen Fry asserts the Spock character to be a Nietzschean counterbalance to his two closest human associates as a symbolic representation of different aspects of the human psyche (Knight, 2010). Barbara Jacobs has even suggested that Spock serves as a possible role model for those with Asperger’s Syndrome (Jacobs, 2003, 38); while SF author Joanna Russ explores the idea that ‘Spock is a woman’ in that he displays attributes or characteristics that were common to gender expectations for women in earlier times – cyclical and uncontrollable sexuality, a submissive and subservient nature, etc (Russ, 1985, 29). This gender subversion would arguably become important within a cultural phenomenon that I will discuss shortly.

Many fans upheld Spock as an archetype in that he embodied optimism amidst the universal human condition of loneliness: ‘This is an optimism that says it is possible to find somebody who understands your innermost silent and lonely battles’ (Lichtenberg et al, 1975,101). Such sensitivities within the character appear to have come directly from the background of Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry, who spoke of his childhood as a time when he felt different and isolated (Roddenberry, 1976). The universal nature of Spock’s inner conflicts: balancing logic with emotion, and alien with human, led one Star Trek analyst to declare that, ‘We Are All Spock’ (Blair, 1977,160). He became popular among many adolescents such as myself, who were seeking a role model as a metaphoric other exploring the strange new world of adult life. Added layers of nuance within his character were undoubtedly familiar to young LGBT kids in my day: being someone who was ‘emotionally guarded’ and living a life that testifies: ‘it’s no big jump from alien to alienated…’ (Russ, 1985, 29). In a 2015 fan eulogy for the actor Leonard Nimoy, I wrote of his character’s significance in my own life some decades earlier, when I had faced stigma, prejudice and discrimination:

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

Star Trek was a utopian fantasy that explored galaxies of diverse ideas. While Australia was grappling with the idea of multiculturalism in the 1970s, I was absorbing the Star Trek philosophy of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC). The Star Trek fan base has always been welcoming of those whom normal society might consider to be aliens in our midst. Star Trek actor and LGBT activist George Takei elaborates on this conjoining of diversity with inclusion: ‘The show always appealed to people that were different — the geeks and the nerds, and the people who felt they were not quite a part of society, sometimes because they may have been gay or lesbian’ (Lang, 2015). Even after Star Trek’s popularity had peaked, it was reported that Star Trek Voyager was equal third most popular TV show (alongside The Simpsons) in San Francisco (PlanetOut staff, 2000). LGBT viewers have always been attracted to this TV program – even though its implied diversity has not explicitly included queer characters or themes – and they have been prepared to translate its sense of inclusion into real life.

As part of this inclusive mindset, enthusiastic fans sent letters to the Star Trek offices offering constructive suggestions for future Star Trek adventures. Among their suggestions back in the early days of gay liberation was a request that gay characters be included in order to demonstrate and promote tolerance (Sackett, 1977, 166). This call was ignored by Star Trek creators, so the fans created their own reality. They took ideas from television and translated them into real life.

Image by Valeria Moschet from Pixabay

Typewriters and Fordigraph Machines

Star Trek fandom attracted a large influx of female authors and participants, indicating that something specific within Star Trek must have attracted the interest and passion of such women. Part of the attraction, it seems, was an interest in what became known as the Kirk/Spock relationship. This was possibly first glimpsed in a 1967 episode of Star Trek called Amok Time, which featured exotic Vulcan (hetero)sexuality with just a hint of homo-suggestive entanglement. (Sinclair, J. and D’Anne, eds, 2016).

Eager for more Star Trek adventures, fans wrote their own. Female Star Trek fans grabbed their typewriters and fordigraph (or similar hand-operated spirit duplicator) machines to assertively self-publish fan fiction (‘fanfic’ or ‘fic’) stories within amateur fan magazines (‘fanzines’ or ‘zines’). Actor Leonard Nimoy acknowledged the popularity of heterosexual fanfic written by these women, whose zines ranged from generic Star Trek stories to others that were outright erotic – some of which transgressed beyond heterosexuality into the homoerotic:

The cover of one of these ‘fan-zines’ in particular shows `a very well done drawing of Mr Spock stripped to the waist, his lower portion covered for the most part with a draped toga exposing one bare leg, his hands manacled and a belt from the manacles chaining him to a post. The title boldly reads ‘Spock Enslaved!’ The obvious suggestion is that Spock in this case is a love slave, much in the same way that women have been used for years in erotic or semi-erotic literature. I suppose in this case, turn about is fair play. (Nimoy, 1975, 55)

Expanding upon this idea, heterosexual Australian fan Diane Marchant wrote a story entitled A Fragment Out of Time, which was published in a 1974 issue of an adult US Star Trek fanzine called Grup (Roberts, 2015). Her story is widely recognised as being the first zine-published slash story (so-named after the coded slash symbol in ‘K/S’ being shorthand for ‘Kirk/Spock’), although there are other claimants to the actual origins of slash (fanlore, 2020b). The slash symbol refers to stories containing what became popularly known as ‘the premise’, that is the practice of taking established or potential character relationships and extending them into deeper same-sex attraction (fanlore, 2020 b & d). Diane was a friend and mentor of mine, and I know that her reticence to identify Kirk and Spock within her story – and her reluctance to ever talk about it – reflected a lifelong sensitivity regarding material which may create contention, friction or scandal, evocative of the era when ‘… gay relationships of any variety, even fictional, were considered deviant, overtly sexual and perverted’ (Smith, 2018). Nonetheless, the precedent she set, and the aspects of Star Trek fandom that arose in response, gave women an avenue for expression of ideas which were, for their time, quite unconventional:

As the first depiction of a love scene between Kirk and Spock, it wasn’t just hot; it was a way of making visible the thread of attraction that runs through the complex bond between the two characters. It elevated subtext to text. In doing so it gave rise to an entire writhing, sweating universe of romantic and sexual pairings. But slash isn’t just about making porn out of things that weren’t already porn. It’s also about prosecuting fanfiction’s larger project of breaking rules and boundaries and taboos of all kinds. (Grossman, 2013).

In the historical context, the burgeoning female fan movement helped to provide women with liberated and liberating expressions of recognition, sexuality and empowerment, and many chose this freedom to lend support to other marginalised forms of sexual or gender identity. They also expanded their scope to other science fiction and TV/literary identities: Blake’s Seven, Starsky and Hutch, Babylon 5, and many others. However, slash as a genre is not without its potential problems: ‘Slash is important in creating queer representation; it’s fun and pleasurable for many people and that’s important too; but slash can sometimes be regressive, sexist, or fetishizing.’ (Flourish, 2017).

As a young gay man, I personally never found slash fiction to be particularly appealing or authentic to my life. I concluded that slash was not exploring the gay experience so much as it was presenting women’s fantasies of idealised romantic/sexual love liberated from oppressive patriarchal and homophobic traditions. In my day, slash was believed to be the purview of predominantly heterosexual women, but later fan media discourse began to recognise the presence of LGBT authors and readers (NB, 1992) and then go beyond the gay/straight binary into fuller recognition of a spectrum of ‘queer’ identities (Lackner et al, 2006, 193 – 4). By the early 2000s, women had greater freedoms to ‘come out’ than they had in earlier decades and this has led to the increased visibility of LGBT people: ‘Anecdotal evidence and informal polls suggest that the number of not-straight women is proportionately higher in fandom than in the population at large’ (Busse, 2006, 208).

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

This female fan cohort may have actually resuscitated and saved the Star Trek franchise (McNally, 2016) and forever changed the gender ratio within the science fiction community. Many of these women became prominent in Star Trek and science fiction clubs, convention committees and fanzines, reshaping the role of women in such community activism. The number of Star Trek clubs and fanzine titles worldwide peaked at approximately 450 each in 1977 (Verba 2003, 35). These fanzines – predominantly written, illustrated, edited and read by women – were often comprised of multiple issues of adult or slash content. This helped to not only promote female self-empowerment, but their gender subversion included voluntary exploration of non-heterosexist, liberated, erotic, subversive, female-directed, queer-normative literature:

Many fans took it upon themselves to read more into the Kirk/Spock relationship than had ever been hinted at on screen. In the early days of fanzines, some were dedicated to amateur fan stories that explored various facets of this non-canonical relationship. This was never recognised on screen, and in general Star Trek has been heavily criticised for its relative failure – at a time when the television landscape was becoming even more diverse – to depict lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) characters or to craft stories dealing with the issues of LGBT rights … (Robb, 2012, 184).

Now long superseded by digital publishing, paper fanzines have gone the way of other dinosaur tech and been replaced by online fanfic repositories such as Archive of Our Own. Slash also proliferates on the Internet via apps such as Pinterest and Instagram. Meanwhile, fanfic continues to grow (Joyce, 2016). The Star Trek franchise has never officially acknowledged the role of these fans, nor the immense marketing potential of slash or other fanfic.

New Tech, New Trek

Star Trek fans have always been at the forefront of using or adapting technology. For their originally rudimentary forms of costumed roleplay (cosplay), they created costumes out of velour and glitter and papier-mâché and tinfoil, and cobbled together props out of whatever was at hand; they took photos off the TV screen, and they recorded episodes on audio cassettes. For social networking and Star Trek news, they might join a local club and await its fordigraphed monthly newsletter. Those wanting international networking generally relied on the snail-mail postal service (and maybe an occasional operator-assisted overseas phone call from their home phone). International pen-pal (and free holiday visit) networks sprang up around the world. This tendency to innovate and reinvent led many fan authors, artists, scientists, computer wizards, astronauts, medical specialists and others to change the world with new ideas and tech ranging from medical scanners to mobile phones (Evangelista, 2004; Handel & Jones, 2005).

In the early 1970s, after the original Star Trek had been cancelled, the explosive growth of paper fanzines helped to revive the franchise, until their eventual demise in the 1990s. More recently, during the early years of the 21st century, fans once again began to reclaim the temporarily-stalled franchise through their increasing use of more modern technology: fan films. Such films have been around since at least 1974 (Wikipedia, 2020) and Melbourne’s own local Star Trek club, Austrek, produced its own fan films in 1979 and 1993 (Maxwell, 2017?), but the arrival of digital technology led to an explosion of fan films on the Internet from the early 2000s onwards.

One fan film series, Star Trek: Hidden Frontier, included gay characters and queer outer space romances that were treated with the same acceptance that the original Star Trek extended towards heterosexuality. One episode even featured Star Trek’s first openly, out-and-proud gay on-screen kiss (Hidden Frontier, 2004) – not a relationship layered in metaphor (Wong, 2018).

Another fan film series, Star Trek: New Voyages, featured a two-part story that gave Star Trek writer, David Gerrold, the chance to revisit his Blood and Fire episode which had been rejected by Star Trek back in the 1980s. The story featured a gay couple and allegorised the AIDS epidemic which was at its height when the script was originally written. One commentator spoke with hope about the optimism inherent in such fan films and within Star Trek in general:

… its central theme of a future where mankind actually gets along no matter what our race, gender, age, hairline, or even species is a very positive one that I think appeals to a gay audience. (Cross, 2007).

Once again, fan fiction would precede the franchise in promoting LGBT rights.

I have been, and always shall be, your friend

The Star Trek franchise has a long history of homophobia and LGBT erasure (Author Unknown, 2003). Although modern-day audiences today often interpret older episodes or characters to be queer-supportive or queer-friendly (Hennessy, 2019), an analysis of these same characters and allegories within their contemporaneous settings reveals heteronormativity and covert homophobic insinuation (Ex Astris Scientia, 2020; McNally, 2020). Conversely, Star Trek has been appropriated by its legions of LGBT and other followers – if not in a strictly legal copyright sense, then certainly as a source of intellectual and philosophical inspiration. Although the franchise has avoided LGBT characters and stories – prompting one Australian LGBT commentator to lament: ‘… there are no poofs and no dykes in the future’ (McKee, 1996, 13) – the LGBT community and slash supporters continue to be fascinated by the implied diversity in its fantasies. It is interesting to see how Star Trek as a Hollywood franchise has evolved – or not – in response to this social evolution.

In 1979, the novelisation of the first official Star Trek movie contained a cautiously coded reference to slash fiction by acknowledging the Kirk/Spock relationship as being t’hy’la – somehow more than brothers but less than lovers – and firmly rebutting any suggestion of sexual interaction (Roddenberry, 1979, 18 & 19). Subsequent Star Trek movies toyed with coded gay comic references (‘Please, Jim, not in front of the Klingons’) and in 2016, the most recent Star Trek film contained an acknowledgement of the character Sulu being gay in a scene that actor George Takei described as, ‘If you blinked, you missed it’ (Kooser, 2016). The most recent Star Trek shows, Discovery and Picard have somewhat reluctantly begun including LGBT characters but still cannot not resist deferring to problematic old Star Trek tropes such as killing off their queer characters (Duffy, 2018; Diaz, 2019; Opie, 2020). The Star Trek franchise – one that proclaims itself to ‘boldly go where no one has gone before’ – is still struggling to be out and proud, falling behind any number of other television and film franchises, over fifty years after its tech-savvy LGBT-friendly fan base built an inclusive community of queer-friendly bohemians and others who not only proclaimed diversity, but actually lived it. These pioneers are heroes in the history of LGBT civil rights; may their memory live long and prosper.

The author wishes to thank Dr Mirna Cicioni for her assistance with this article.


Allshorn, G. (2015). ‘‘I have been, and always shall be, your friend’: A Tribute to Leonard Nimoy 1931 – 2015’, Captain’s Log, Austrek, May, 12 – 13.

Author Unknown. (2003). Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Characters on Star Trek.

Blair, K. (1977). Meaning in Star Trek, New York: Warner Books.

Busse, K. (2006). ‘My Life Is a WIP on My LJ’, in Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse (eds.), Fan Fiction and the Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, London: Mcfarland, 207-224.

Cross, D. (2007). Quoted in Stewart Who?,, ‘Star Trek Goes Gay’, Advocate, 17 to 19 March,

Diaz, E. (2019). ‘STAR TREK: DISCOVERY Just Fixed Its Biggest Mistake’, Nerdist, 15 February,

Duffy, N. (2018). ‘There was a major twist on Star Trek: Discovery and gay fans are pissed off’, Pink News, 8 January.

Evangelista, B. (2004) ‘TREK TECH / 40 years since the Enterprise’s inception, some of its science fiction gadgets are part of everyday life’, San Francisco Chronicle, 15 March,

Ex Astris Scientia. (2020). ‘Homosexuality in Star Trek’, Ex Astris Scientia,

Fanlore. (2019). Main page, edit dated 20 January.

Fanlore. (2020a). ‘Another Addict Raves About K/S’, edit dated 1 March.

= = = = (2020b). ‘Kirk/Spock (TOS)’, edit dated 20 May

= = = = (2020c). ‘Nome (Star Trek: TOS zine published in the US)’, edit dated 25 February.

= = = = (2020d). ‘Slash’, edit dated 30 January.

Flourish, E. (2017). Interviewed in Henry Jenkins (editor) & William Proctor (Associate Editor), ‘The Multiplicity and Diversity of Fandom: An Interview with Fansplaining’s Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel (Part Three)‘, Henry Jenkins: Confessions of an ACA-Fan, 12 December.

Gonzalez, C. (2010). ‘Stephen Fry and Jennifer Byrne Q&A’, in Stephen Fry Live at the Sydney Opera House, ABC DVD, Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Sydney Opera House.

Grossman, L. (2013). ‘Foreword’, in Anne Jamison, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, (Kindle edition), Texas: BenBella Books.

Handel, A. & Jones, J. (2005). How William Shatner Changed the World, Handel Productions (ST) Inc.
Harvey, E. (2018). ‘The A. Bertram Chandler Award: What Goes Around Comes Around’, in Bruce Gillespie (ed. & pub.), Science Fiction Commentary #97, August, 9 – 15.

Hennessy, C. (2019). ‘8 Reasons to Watch DS9 During Pride Month’,, 18 June.

Hidden Frontier. (2004). ‘CROSSROADS: Star Trek: Hidden Frontier – Episode 4.05’.

Jacobs, B. (2003). Loving Mr Spock: The Story of A Difference Kind of Love, London: Michael Joseph/Penguin.

Joyce, H. (2016). ‘To Boldly Go…’, The Economist, August/September.

Kooser, A. (2016). ‘George Takei calls ‘Star Trek Beyond’ gay Sulu scene ‘a whisper’’, CNET, 5 August,

Lane, J. (2019). ‘The very FIRST Star Trek fan film ever to be SHUT DOWN by the studio lawyers was in…1968???’, Axanar, 8 September.

Lackner, E; Lucas, BE; Reid, RA. (2006), ‘Cunning Linguists. The Bisexual Erotics of Words/Silence/Flesh’, in Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse (eds.), Fan Fiction and the Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, London: Mcfarland, 189-206.

Lang, B. (2015) ‘George Takei on Same-Sex Marriage, Why ‘Star Trek’ Fans Are Gay Friendly, Variety, 26 June.

Lichtenberg, J; Marshak, S; Winston, J. (1975). Star Trek Lives!, New York: Bantam.
Maxwell, D. (2017?). ‘The History of Austrek – How It All Began’, Austrek.

McKee, A. (1996). ‘Star Trek Voyeur’, Brother Sister Issue #105, 2 May.

McNally, V. (2016). ‘Women who love ‘Star Trek’ are the reason that modern fandom exists’, Revelist, 8 September.

McNally, V. (2020). ‘Your Guide to Queer Identity and Metaphor in Star Trek’, StarTrek.Com, 1 July.

Miller, S. M. (2017). ‘‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Cast and Crew: If You Don’t Understand Diversity, You Don’t Understand ‘Star Trek’’, Indie Wire, 22 July.

NB. (1992). Quoted in ‘Camille Bacon-Smith and Henry Jenkins at Gaylaxicon 1992 (Part Two)’, in Henry Jenkins (editor) & William Proctor (Associate Editor), Henry Jenkins: Confessions of an ACA-Fan, 24 February 2010.

Nimoy, L. (1975). I Am Not Spock, Millbrae: Celestial Arts.

Opie, D. (2020). ‘Star Trek: Picard missed an opportunity to correct Discovery’s big mistake’, Digital Spy, 28 January,

PlanetOut staff. (2000). ‘Gay TV Viewing Habits’, PlanetOut, 24 November.
Robb, BJ. (2012) Star Trek: The Essential History of the Classic TV Series and the Movies, Constable & Robinson/Running Press.

Roberts, TR. (2015). ‘Diane Marchant & Kirk/Spock [SF Women of the 20th Century]’,, 26 August,

Roddenberry, G. (1976). ‘The Star Trek Dream’, Inside Star Trek, Columbia Records, July; reissued in the 1999 two-CD set, Star Trek: The Motion Picture – 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition. See also

= = = = = = = = (1979). Star Trek – The Motion Picture, London: Futura Publications.

Russ, J. (1985). ‘Another Addict Raves about K/S’, in Victoria Clark and Barbara L. Storey (eds.), NOME #8, May, 27 – 37. Note that Russ credits Dr Patricia Frazer Lamb with the idea that, ‘Spock is a woman’. Note that the editors of this publication were identified in fanlore and those related web pages (fanlore, 2020 a & c) are also listed in this reference section.

Sackett, S. (1977). Letters to Star Trek, New York: Ballantine Books.

Sinclair, J. and D’Anne (eds.). (2016). Short History of Kirk/Spock Slash, 15 October,

Smith, A. (2018). ‘A 50-year Trekkie bestows Star Trek history upon the next generation: How fandom and fanfiction sparked the galaxy’s most controversial romance’, 8 August, Colorado Springs Indy.

Takei, G. (2004). To the Stars: The Autobiography of George Takei, New York: Pocket Books.

Verba, JM. (2003). Boldly Writing: A Trekker Fan and Zine History 1967 – 1987, 2nd edition, Minneapolis: FTL Publications.

Wikipedia. (2020). ‘Star Trek fan productions’, Wikipedia, edit dated 19 June.

Wong, CM. (2018), ‘How ‘Star Trek’ Made History 22 Years Ago With A Same-Sex Kiss’, Huffpost, 4 March.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

A Privileged Life

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
― Margaret Mead

The Amnesty International stamp (on its first day cover) issued in Australia to commemorate the organisation’s fiftieth anniversary, after three years of campaigning by me and a local group of activists.

I recently wrote an entreaty on human rights activism, encouraging others to come out of their comfort zone if they want to change the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is because I have been privileged to live such a life, which introduced me to literally some of the worst humans in our lifetime – but also some of the best.

In 1961, British lawyer Peter Benenson wrote a newspaper article about people who were imprisoned around the world for political rather than criminal reasons. He issued an APPEAL FOR AMNESTY, and this quickly led to the formation of the human rights group Amnesty International, which still exists today. Its goals have expanded and changed since 1961, but its unofficial goal – to make itself obsolete – is sadly far from being reached. Human rights abuses still exist around the planet.

I can speak with some familiarity about Amnesty International and its operations – although of course I have no official authority to do so – because I was involved within Amnesty International Australia (AIA) for some 33 years. During that time I spearheaded a campaign to get an Australian stamp issued for the fiftieth anniversary of Amnesty International, and received two human rights awards within the organisation as a result. (My parents, who were also in AIA, remarked ironically that our local group had contributed a great deal of revenue to Australia Post through our letter writing to Leopoldo Galtieri, Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert Mugabe, and a legion of others). I was once told by an AIA staff member that my local group was doing more for human rights than the rest of the entire Australian branch combined, because we wrote over 50,000 letters during the group’s lifetime (and I personally wrote an average of 500 letters per year during each of the years that I was involved).

My involvement within an AIA local group based in Ivanhoe, Australia, was itself the source of some remarkable times. We worked on behalf of people who were christened ‘Prisoners of Conscience’ (POCs) because of their political rather than criminal imprisonment. When calling for the release of one POC in a political prison in Morocco that contained 450 prisoners, we ultimately saw the closure of the entire prison. We actually met another POC from the Black Sash movement in South Africa, whose freedom we had secured after her imprisonment for her own human rights activism in apartheid-era South Africa.

I am honoured to have walked the same corridors – either literally, conversationally, metaphorically, or by correspondence – with the likes of Rebiya Kadeer, Mordechai Vanunu, Aung San Suu Kyi (before her fall from grace), Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Troy Davis. I received a specially created, artistic thank you postcard from a prisoner in one country, and a hand-drawn thank you card from the children of another prisoner in another country. One letter from a prisoner pleaded for help against the “hellish worry” of AIDS in prison; while an offer was received from three South African MPs to present to their Parliament a petition against apartheid. I have interacted with the Black Sash, the Shiministim, the Mothers of the Disappeared, and advocates for the Tiananmen Square protesters.

My local group worked against torture around the world, for human rights in countries around the globe, and we campaigned against violence targeting women. We wrote submissions to the Australian (and other) governments, and helped to change laws. We lobbied against the death penalty in a variety of countries, and sadly two of our most heartbreaking failures during that time were to save the lives of a Van Nguyen in Singapore and Troy Davis in the USA.

Not all our work was appreciated. After writing to the Russian embassy regarding human rights in that country, I received a reply from a diplomatic aide criticising Australians for our national treatment of refugees (it was hard to argue against that point). The attaché of another embassy once replied, “Bullsheet to Amnesty International”; while MPs in successive Australian governments responded to our concerns with form letters that implicitly misrepresented asylum seekers as being “illegals”.

And yet our activist work continues to impact. I recall meeting a church minister from post-dictatorship Argentina who told me that he could not walk down a street in his town without bumping into people whose lives (or the lives of their family members) had been saved because of Amnesty letters. He implored me to keep doing whatever we were doing. Decades later, I occasionally pause and ponder how many descendants of those same people now walk down those same streets. When you save a life, you save the world.

Amnesty International changed, probably in response to a changing world. I was pleased to assist one other activist in AIA during the early 1990s who managed, as we sat in a pub in Fitzroy, to write a letter challenging the publication of homophobic letters in the AIA newsletter, and confronting their organisational reluctance to adopt LGBT+ cases. Within a few short years, AIA was marching in Sydney’s Mardi Gras (although some decades later, in the early 2010s, it was still reluctant to send a speaker to the Marriage Equality rallies in Melbourne). I left Amnesty around that latter time, and my local group closed, with recognition of our existence and work disappearing from the AIA website almost immediately. But our legacy continues to live on, in the lives of the individuals, families, communities and nations whom we impacted.

While my activist work forced me to sacrifice a great deal of time, money and effort, I feel that I was rewarded with a remarkable life in which I met many heroes. While I grew up in relative privilege – white, male and relatively affluent – I learnt to use that privilege to raise my voice on behalf of those who had no voice. In doing so, I became genuinely privileged (in a much fuller sense) because I was introduced to a world filled with people of nobility and grace and courage and conviction; people who put the passion into compassion and who enriched my life by showing me that it is better to light a candle than to curse that darkness. When I walked away from AIA in 2015, I knew that I left behind a legacy of having made a genuine difference in the lives of thousands of people directly, and an indirect impact upon many more beyond that. I have touched and been touched by a mass of humanity that surpasses the immediate sphere of my circle of friends. Can life be any more fulfilling than that?

“No man is an island… For I am involved in mankind.” – John Donne, 1624.

I know there are many others around the world who are also involved with similarly aspirational work. I admire Rotary, a group that since 1988 has helped to eradicate 99.9% of polio cases and who deserve the plaudit that Rotary cured Polio. What a fine tribute to their humanity.

Whether it’s the School Strike for Climate, Black Lives Matter, or the #MeToo movement, what Ferdinand Marcos learned to his regret is that People Power has the potential to change the world. But we have to believe it – and live it.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

Roslyn Mould Embraces Equity

In commemoration of International Women’s Day 2023

– – – – –

Roslyn is a young woman who grew up in a conservative culture within a conservative country, and she works to bring progressive change in Ghana – and beyond. Everything from secularism to feminism, from religious accusations against alleged witches to human rights for LGBT+ people – she has worked passionately for change.

Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African nation to gain independence from UK imperialism on 6 March 1957, and the nation celebrated the anniversary of its independence this week as President Akufo-Addo encouraged unity, modern democratic principles and governance, and the advancement of human rights: “We cannot allow those who seek to divide us along the lines of ethnicity or religion to succeed.”

And yet this glowing picture hides a complex reality. A former slave colony, Ghana traditionally comprised over 40 tribes and cultures; it has relatively recent post-colonial history of military coups and a difficult record on human rights, as demonstrated by the Human Rights Advocacy Centre in Accra. The 2021 Report from Amnesty International summarises recent abuses:

“Cases of excessive use of force were reported. Prisons remained overcrowded. Women continued to suffer discrimination and gender-based violence. Attacks against LGBTI people intensified… Forced evictions left some people homeless.”

Ghana still a very long way to go. Along with Scott Douglas “Nana Kwesi” Jacobsen, Roslyn Mould notes: “Ghana has achieved appreciable steady growth levels since the late 1990s to the present day, such growth has translated much into lifting many people out of poverty… however, this increase in income levels has been highly unequal and for many people, they have in fact gotten poorer and more vulnerable… Growth has benefited the rich extremely more than it has done for the poor.”

Roslyn was born into this nation, raised in a Catholic school and a culture where religious perspective was deemed to be normal and ethical. African humanists see Ghana as possibly “one of the world’s most religious countries”; the 2010 Census lists Christians as comprising 71.2% of the population, Islam 17.6%, Irreligion 5.3%, Traditional religion 5.2%. Wikipedia notes that other faiths include Hinduism, Buddhism and Nichiren Buddhism, Taoism, Sōka Gakkai, Shinto and Judaism. The World Atlas confidently declares that Ghana enjoys a strong degree of ‘religious tolerance’. Yet this tolerance may not extend beyond religious entitlement into civic and secular life. There are virtually no official atheists due to stigma and discrimination.

This religious problem is rising in Ghana. In The Conversation, Professor Jeffrey Haynes notes the rise of the Christian religious right in Ghana over recent years, under the guise of protecting religious freedoms. He asserts: “Traditionally in Ghana, religion and politics did not mix. Christian nationalism is an explicit attempt to mix them. My argument as a scholar of religion and politics is that it puts the human rights of minorities in jeopardy.”

Against this trend, Roslyn eventually came to terms with a new atheist perspective after being introduced to evidence-based critical thinking. In a 2016 interview, republished in 2021, she spoke about the trauma of outgrowing her religion:

“I went through stages of grief, disappointment, sadness, anger, and finally stopped going to church. Even when I stopped going to church I felt that God would strike me with lightning for disobeying him or ‘betraying’ him, but as time went by and nothing bad seemed to happen, my fear lessened. I did not know how to explain it to my family and friends. So for years, I kept my non-belief to myself and gave excuses for not attending church and sometimes hoped that I could be proven wrong with my non-belief so I could go back to worshipping God but that time never came.”

She also acknowledged how her humanist perspective inspired her to undergo activism:

“I became active in activism after joining the Humanist Association of Ghana. I gained confidence to ‘come out’ then as atheist and I wanted to help share what I knew now just as I was as a Christian but this time, based on evidence. I also realised how religion was destroying my country and continent due to ignorance, lack of education, and human rights abuses, and I felt I had to do something to help change things for the better. I felt that if I knew of an alternative to the dogmatic teachings I was given, I might have been atheist earlier and maybe, I could give someone else the opportunity to be a freethinker, which I was never given.”

Subsequent activism includes working as an open humanist in a nation where religion holds an unhealthy handgrip on power. Wikiwand reports: “She began her work in activism when she joined the Humanist Association of Ghana in 2012. Between 2015 and 2019, she became Organizing Secretary, and later, President and Council Member of Humanist Association of Ghana.” Under her tutelage, the Humanist Association of Ghana began to run conferences that addressed issues including communicable diseases (Ebola, etc), health and medicine; science, technology and reason; witchcraft accusations; LGBT issues; sex and relationships for African atheists; and feminism. Roslyn has subsequently spoken publicly on the history and customs of her country, and used her own experience to encourage others to nurture a humanist, human rights culture of activism.

Website of the Humanist Association of Ghana, 2023.

In 2016, as a member of Young Humanists International (and later to become a Board member within Humanists International), she demonstrated her penchant for tireless work when she spoke up for women’s rights in Ghana, confronting these issues:
• female genital mutilation;
• public ‘initiation’ or announcement of a pubescent girl as available for marriage;
• exploitation, arrests and stigma related to prostitution;
• health issues (including maternal mortality rates, STD rates usually caused by their male partner, breast cancer and cervical cancer – this last of which accounted for 35% of all female cancer in Ghana);
• religious rites relating to marriage (including child-marriages, polygamy, forced conversion, and the dowry ‘purchase’ of a woman as property, diminishing her individual human rights);
• accusations of witchcraft;
• sexual harassment and rape;
• domestic violence;
• and the unavailability of menstrual pads for schoolgirls.

Despite these ongoing human rights abuses, Roslyn writes optimistically for women in her country given the gradual evolution of human rights away from these traditional problems: “Ghana has come a long way in the last 3 decades in terms of equality and there are many more opportunities for women of today.” Her work has been a factor in leading such changes.

Humanists International reports of Roslyn: “As President of [the] Humanist Association of Ghana she helped to build the young group to become the umbrella organization for non-religious groups in Ghana and the biggest allies to the LGBTI+ community and feminist movement in Ghana.” Nigerian activist Leo Igwe stated in 2017: “A few years ago, such a humanist group sounded like a pipe dream but today it is a reality. I thank Roslyn Mould and her team for diligently delivering on this key humanist promise.”

In 2019, she was appointed the Coordinator of the West African Humanist Network, stating: “We all need to work together to achieve positive and progressive change in Africa.” That same year, she opposed the visit to Ghana of a US-based anti-LGBT hate group, publicly stating:

“Homophobia was foreign to Africans until colonization and here we are again with history repeating itself. As a Humanist, I condemn the actions of these groups in their promotion of hate, inequality, undermining of women’s rights to reproductive health, and their imposition of their religious ideas of ‘family’ on us. This reeks of imperialism and a total disregard of human rights.”

She also attended an international protest against a virulent 2021 Ghanaian anti-LGBTI bill, stating: “Ghana is a peaceful society, but this bill will make people turn against each other.” She later stated: “The current Anti-LGBTI bill before the Ghanaian Parliament dubbed ‘Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill 2021’ is a hate bill under the guise of Freedom of Religion and Belief… The Bill will set Ghana back… and puts every Ghanaian at risk. We call on the International Community to help us to kill this Bill (#KilltheBill).”

Such homophobic hatred in Ghana resembles that from Uganda and Kenya and other African nations, fuelled by religious conservatism and political scapegoating. Roslyn’s work for activism, advocacy and human rights is needed more than ever. In her 2016 interview, she notes that she spent earlier years advocating for the rights of animals and the plight of near-extinct species, the rights of girls, and within awareness campaigns such as HIV/AIDS and Breast Cancer. Now, she sees her current activism as being vital: “I believe that becoming atheist made me more aware of my passions and my part to play in advocacy and the promotion of human rights based on the realisation that there is no one and no god to help us other than ourselves as people.”

In what is seen as a male-dominated culture (atheist activism), Roslyn Mould is a role model at the forefront for change and equal rights for all. Her life and her work are a living intersectional testament to his year’s theme for International Women’s Day:

“Imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women’s equality. Collectively we can all #EmbraceEquity.”

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

We Are All Spiderman

Finding Meaning in Modern Mythology: From Sherlock to Spiderman; from The Rocket to Star Wars.

How does New York City connect to modern-day Laos or to a galaxy far, far away? They are all the settings for movies that portray different aspects of modern humanity’s quest for significance in a post-religious era. They demonstrate that humanism, not heroism, provides the inspiration for modern mythologies.

I’m old enough to remember when Spiderman was some vaguely adult-aged superhero, running around to the tune: “Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a spider can”. Gone are those days. Now, he is a modern-day affluent teenaged American dude, imparting his white saviour complex upon the denizens of Europe while simultaneously worrying about whether or not to pack his Spiderman cozzie in his suitcase for his trip to Italy.

It is this human duality that contextualises the movie, Spiderman: Far From Home (SFFH), and the underlying philosophy that can be found in this film (and I presume in the companion movies of the modern Spiderman series). In SFFH, teenaged Spidie spends as much time worrying about girls as he does fighting the super-villain. Meanwhile, his school friends protect his secret and appear almost equally able to confront many types of change that range from puberty to possible armageddon.

SFFH is not a superhero movie so much as a teenage drama set in a superhero universe, almost a bowdlerised version of Heartstopper. Its feel-good nature is reminiscent of the adolescent energy from the Back to the Future movies. But it extends the superhero empowerment to all teenagers: you are future citizens who can change the world, starting today.

This touches upon themes in another unrelated film, the charming Australian movie, The Rocket (2013), which is about a young Laotian boy (Ahlo) and his family as they struggle against the intergenerational after-effects of the Vietnam war and the lingering pollution of imperialism from both the USA and Australia. One character (“Uncle Purple”) lives as a Laotian version of a fanboy from US culture, and viewers are left to decide for themselves whether such cultural influence is beautiful or ugly. The Australian imperialist influence comprises the capitalist exploitation of environment and the forced displacement of whole villages of disempowered people in the name of corporate profits. It seems no wonder Hollywood ignored this covert rewriting and cultural terraforming of themes from the first Star Wars movie, and that Laos banned it. But its ultimate climax testifies to the power of human nobility and triumph in the face of adversity.

Similarly, forget the bland villain plot in the Spiderman movie, which is dominated by special effects and vacuous scripting. In Spiderman, as in The Rocket, not all heroes wear a cape, but they all play their part in changing the world. Their message is that if their audiences want to implement positive change in their local community (fight climate change, promote science and STEM, or whatever) then it is up to them to take the lead.

Here we see that, possibly despite themselves, the creators of modern mythology have transcended their own craft. The trend for pop culture movies, initiated by the runaway success of the first Star Wars movie – wherein modern movies now often rely more heavily upon special effects than they do upon a coherent script – has evolved into something more. In trying to capture modern paying audiences, movie makers have been forced to resort to common human existential tropes, and in doing so, have transformed modern movie mythology from mindless capitalist consumerism into more thoughtful human inner reflection. Whereas traditional mythology focussed upon gods, demons, angels and other supernatural agency, modern mythology finds the same inspiration through the better angels within our own humanity.

And while some audience members today bewail the rebooting of Doctor Who or James Bond movies, the rewriting of Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton novels, or the reworking of traditional straight white male hero stereotypes to be more inclusive and diverse – “god save us from censorship and the cancelling of old, white people!” – the reality is that cultures have been rewriting and reinventing heroes since forever. Zeus became Jupiter, and Jesus became Superman, while Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer became Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, and the Famous Five became Scooby Doo. Romeo and Juliet were copies of pre-Shakesperean versions of themselves. The original story of Robin Hood and his domestic partner Little John evolved into a heterosexualised series of Sherwood Forest tales featuring heroic outlaws who were eventually rebooted as the space age Blake’s Seven. We can even document how medieval France became the setting for a cultural reboot of the Camelot mythology – transforming King Arthur’s court from rebellious, anti-imperialist, post-Roman, Saxon England into a more refined medieval setting that introduced modern understandings of chivalry, courtly romance and nobility.

Similarly, we can understand Spiderman to be a modern-day Beowolf reboot that puts the ‘human’ back into ‘superhuman’.

But even more than that: modern Hollywood reboots of ancient mythologies demonstrate that our common humanity and existential angst provide deeper meanings than modern mindless consumerism: go to watch a seemingly mindless movie, and come out inspired or transformed into being more than you were at the start of that movie. It’s a philosophy that encapsulates fan fiction and fandom such as that found in the world of Sherlock Holmes over a century ago – fans who were transformed by their culture, and who in turn appropriated, reshaped and transformed that culture.

Modern-day activism does not involve attending lectures in a public library and then enjoying an oh-so-polite cuppa tea; it involves more than angrily marching down public streets while chanting slogans in support of some worthy cause or another. It is not exclusively donating to your favourite charity by painless monthly credit card payments if you want your life to represent more than tokenism. Activism is a way of life and it involves wholistic enactment of change. It hurts, it challenges, and it transforms its practitioners. Ahlo, Peter Parker and Rey Skywalker are role models for how to change the world: change begins with ourselves. Just ask their real-life superhero counterparts: Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai or X González.

Thanks for the reminder, Spiderman.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn