Gays and God, Stigma and Sin: It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

The Kampala Syndrome: Why Have We Failed to Learn From History?

On a significant AIDS anniversary, a young lesbian refugee reminds me of how we forged nobility in the tragic past, but ignore those lessons today.

Image by Darwin Laganzon from Pixabay

Forty years ago today, Australia began its fightback against an epidemic. No, not COVID, nor monkeypox, not SARS nor flu – but a virus that was much harder to catch than any of these others, and many times more lethal.

This virus had attacked the world by stealth, first appearing in impoverished nations and then in disempowered or marginalised communities in the western nations: gay and bisexual men, women and related paediatric cases, trans people, CALD communities, injecting drug users, blood or organ donor recipients, and haemophiliacs. Australian activist Dennis Altman later summarised the problem:

“That AIDS was first diagnosed and named among homosexual men in coastal American cities and not in central African villages, where it probably originated, is hardly surprising, and is due to the dominance of western biomedicine. Dying villagers in Zaire or Uganda were unlikely to be seen by oncologists or dermatologists who could draw the necessary conclusions to conceptualise a collapse of the immune system due to an unknown infection.” (Altman, 1997, p. 182.)

By the time this virus was discovered within the relatively affluent gay male communities of New York City and San Francisco, it had infected and affected many people – and its mortality rate was close to 100%. In March 1983, gay activist Larry Kramer wrote an article for the New York Native about the mounting AIDS crisis. Entitled, 1,112 and counting, the article challenged gay men to rise out of their complacency:

“If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.” (Kramer, 1989, p. 33.)

The US government was conducting its own campaign of “malignant neglect” concerning AIDS (Stryker & Buskirk, 1993, p. 93), but the gay community was rising to the challenge. The gay community began to publish and distribute its own health information, and AIDS Awareness campaigns and Candlelight Vigils commenced. Although gay men were the dominant cohort of those affected, lesbians in also became involved in AIDS activism: some women donated blood in order to assist gay men who might need blood transfusions. Others, who were nurses or social workers by profession, helped to run the first Kaposi’s sarcoma clinic and the Shanti Project.

The Australian Situation

“I know that prejudices will surface. At times, although I hope not, there will be sounds of ‘poofter bashing’, if you’ll excuse the expression. I guess we will hear from people who think it is God’s revenge for some sort of abomination.” – Journalist Derryn Hinch, 1987, p. 3.

Any LGBT person in Australia over a certain age will undoubtedly recall incidents and events of that era which hark back to times of stigma, homophobia and discrimination. I recall certain politicians calling for the quarantining of all gay men on an otherwise unoccupied island and leaving them there to die, while others called for homosexuality to be outlawed in order to protect children or ‘normal’ people. I recall workers refusing to work with people they suspected of being gay, and hairdressers or ambulance attendants similarly refusing to attend to such clients. Restaurants smashed crockery that may have been used by gay people, and funeral directors refused to bury those suspected to have died of AIDS. Public walls were decorated with slogans like “GAY = Got AIDS Yet?” or “AIDS = Anally Inserted Death Sentence”; one newspaper targeted a front-page headline to a dying gay man: “Die, You Deviate!” Religions proclaimed that “God hates gays” and that homosexuality was unnatural; and they called for laws to reflect their heterosexist morality because of the presumed superiority of their religious views. Families, schools, churches and communities rejected their LGBT children, teachers, clergy, and community members. Families even lied at funerals and proclaimed that their ‘lifelong bachelor’ son (even those who had been in long-term gay relationships) had actually died of cancer or car accidents.

In the gay community, gay venues emptied as rumours and fear spread. Where was Johnny – had he died in Fairfield Hospital? Could we get AIDS from a drinking glass in a gay venue, or from shaking someone’s hand, or from breathing the same air? Many people stopped going out socially. If they got sick, they simply ‘disappeared’ and died alone and in shame. Gay partners were denied hospital visitation rights, inheritance rights, superannuation rights of deceased partners, or even the right to return to their shared home once the estranged biological family of the deceased claimed legal next-of-kin status.

Gay refugees had fled homophobic families and cultures in country towns and sought safety and a new life in the big cities. Tragically, they found themselves part of a deadly locus of concentrated viral infection. Whole friendship networks died out.

The mainstream press filled with almost daily stories of how many gay or bisexual men were suffering from symptoms that might indicate they had ‘prodrome AIDS’ – a suspected, undiagnosed form of the disease in the days before HIV testing became available. It would not be long before the LGBT community rallied here to form care teams, activist movements, and to use its independent LGBT media to publish accurate and unbiased information that was largely absent from the mainstream media. In response to homophobia and hysteria, gay authors tried to alleviate panic within their community by publishing articles with headlines like “Will We All Die of the Gay Cancer?” while trying to actually address the issue in an informed and calm manner. Finally, following the confirmed case of an overseas visitor being diagnosed in Sydney in March 1983, and a forthcoming July 1983 AIDS death in Melbourne, the times were right for a public groundswell in support and response.

Image by truthseeker08 from Pixabay

Sydney – The AIDS Action Committee

“Silence equals Death” – Old slogan from ACT-UP.

On 15 May 1983 – two months after the brief but turbulent visit to Sydney of someone who was later known to have died of AIDS, and a few days after the NSW blood bank called for gay men not to donate blood – a public meeting was held at the Sydney Gay Centre at 41 Holt Street, Surry Hills (Brass & Gold, p. 101; The News (Perth), 1983).

Fifty people came together to discuss AIDS. Dr. Harry Mitchell-Moore spoke in defence of the Blood Bank’s position and this reportedly “provoked lively debate”, especially after activist Lex Watson postulated that AIDS was being used as a political weapon against gays (Johnston, 2000, p. 3).

Activist Alison Thorne was the lone lesbian in attendance. Although AIDS was an issue predominantly affecting gay men, she voiced her concern that AIDS was a lesbian issue as well:

“…I know that lesbians have been feeling the effects of the media hysteria and the homophobic jokes. We cannot stick our heads in the sand and say this is a ‘boys’ issue’. An anti-gay backlash will affect us all. As lesbians, we have a lot to contribute to gay community action around the AIDS issue.” (Thorne, June 1983, pp. 3 & 39).

She reported in the gay press that a number of outcomes arose from this meeting. Those present agreed to form a number of working groups to assess the available literature on AIDS, and to provide financial and emotional support to anyone with the condition. They also resolved to call upon the State and Federal Health Ministers to convene a meeting of all relevant groups to help meet the challenge posed by AIDS (Thorne, August 1983, p. 5).

Decades later, the AIDS Action Committee (quickly renamed the AIDS Council of New South Wales, or ACON) has overseen medical, health advocacy, and LGBT rights activism that has helped to save countless lives and change civil rights across the country.

Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay

Victorian Action

Further action was underway: as one man lay dying in hospital, public meetings were held in Melbourne in June and July 1983 to establish the Victorian AIDS Action Committee (VAAC) – later the Victorian AIDS Council and now known as Thorne Harbour Health.

Other AIDS activist groups were started across Australia, and joined with Sydney and Melbourne to save lives and reshape civil rights to this day. Such organisations – arising from emergency, empowered by activism and anger, helped to change the course of the epidemic, save lives, and introduce new and enlightened attitudes into a homophobic, misogynist and elitist world. They stood alongside the marginalised, the stigmatised, the rejected and those who were dying – and, in doing so, they represented life at its noblest, and humanity at its most vital and vibrant and aspirational. There were many heroes in this epidemic.

Such activists and activist groups deserve a special place in history, and as another generation of LGBT+ and other oppressed peoples face new challenges, we can learn from the accumulated wisdom of these pioneers and the hard lessons of their times.

But are we?

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

People today living in lucky countries might be forgiven for thinking that the human rights they enjoy today are the norm. But such gains were only achieved at great expense. We owe those who suffered and died for the relatively good life we enjoy today. Everything from anti-discrimination legislation to marriage equality, from needle exchange programs to the public sale of condoms, from dying with dignity to inheritance laws, have been shaped by HIV/AIDS activism. It look a lot of sacrifice and suffering, but we ultimately learnt a lot from the tragedy of those heroes and those times. It took a worldwide tragedy to help create a better world.

Medically, our world has been transformed by the response to HIV/AIDS. Dr Anthony Fauci, who gained expertise tackling AIDS before he became involved in fighting COVID, acknowledges that government-funding of HIV/AIDS programs probably saved twenty million lives. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, acknowledges the sea-change in medicine wrought by AIDS activism working collaboratively with the medical fraternity: “We now see steady progress in controlling the [Monkeypox] outbreak based on the lessons of HIV and working closely with the most affected communities.”

Even things that went badly during the era of AIDS could ultimately help us to learn today from our mistakes. As activist Bill Bowtell recalls about the Australian experience:

While there were many lapses in judgment, and many unfortunate stories about HIV/AIDS that gave vent to ignorance and prejudice, the Australian mass media’s coverage of HIV/AIDS was a crucial factor in shaping public opinion to support enlightened and effective national HIV/AIDS policy-making.

But sadly, the ugliest aspect from those times – bigotry and religious-based homophobia – lives on in certain unenlightened minds today, across the world from Kentucky to Kampala. Most dangerously, a lingering after-effect of toxic religious cross-cultural contamination can be found in one of the early epicentres of HIV/AIDS, which today remains a locus of another form of unnecessary suffering and death.

The Kampala Syndrome

“Am I really as evil and unnatural as my parents say I am?”

A couple of years ago, a young lesbian woman sought a confidential discussion with me by social media. Rejected by her family and community, and fleeing her nation for fear of her life, she had wound up in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where her life and safety remains in danger today. She timidly asked me a painful question: “Am I really as evil and unnatural as my parents say I am?” It’s hard to know how to respond – surely the most unnatural thing on earth is for parents to reject a child.

But the homophobia I remember in Australia when I was this young woman’s age, the stigma, the discrimination, the victim blaming of those being bullied and persecuted, the hatred and violence, the association with disease, the declared sin against man, god and nature, the smug assumed superiority of heterosexuals, and the judgementalism against LGBT+ people as openly proclaimed from pulpit to Parliament – this was her reality today. Kenya and Uganda and Tanzania and aligned (disproportionately Commonwealth) homophobic nations may be geographically far from me, but they are a generation behind the civilised world in terms of political and human rights culture.

While we commemorate the worthy anniversary of local community activism against a biological virus, President Museveni of Uganda and his Parliament seek to spread a lethal mind virus by enacting ‘the most extreme anti-gay laws in history‘ – a deliberate genocide that could potentially kill more than 10% of all Ugandans – greater than the number of Ugandans killed by Idi Amin or AIDS. Encouraged by this bigotry, in neighbouring Kenya (where only 14% of the population accepts homosexuality), the govrernment proposes to institute a similar law. Echoing bigotry from a generation ago, Ugandan and Kenyan churches today proclaim that “God hates gays” and that homosexuality is unnatural; and they call for laws to reflect their heterosexist morality because of the presumed superiority of their religious views. They even call for homosexuality to be outlawed in order to protect children or ‘normal’ people…. and this is in 2023 – not 1983.

Meanwhile, I see LGBT+ communities across the western world today look elsewhere – they are too busy enjoying affluence, narcissism and comfort. Local queer networks are dominated by religious elites who speak for maybe 30% of the LGBT+ communities that they claim to represent, and who respond to human rights abuses (such as those today in Uganda and Kenya) by arguing over whether or not their god really does hate gays. Dennis Altman notes the disparity between affluent nations and the rest of the world, epitomised by a recent LGBT+ walk over Sydney Harbour Bridge with the Australian Prime Minister, even as Uganda enacted a terrible law that promotes hatred and death towards LGBT+ Ugandans, and while countries including Russia, Ghana, Afghanistan and Indonesia all wind back sexual freedoms and diversity.

Seriously, do we care today about our queer family in Africa and elsewhere? Do black lives really matter? Does our compassion for humanity stop at a border?

Silence Still Equals Death

Our response to a pending genocide in Uganda should surely reflect the words of Holocaust survivor Halina Strnad: “Learn of past evils and say NEVER AGAIN. Check your prejudices.” And if you wonder about the rise of homophobic and transphobic prejudice around the world, ask yourself why Ashraf, Sheila or Trinidad Jerry are not as well-known as George Floyd. Perhaps we need to re-read and ponder anew the relevance of gay activist Larry Kramer’s words, which still challenge us from forty years ago:

“If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, [LGBT+ people] have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.”

Here is one chance to possibly save a life today*:

Humanity in Need – Rainbow Refugees.

(*The views expressed in this article are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Humanity in Need or any other individual or organisation mentioned herein.)

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay


AFP, 2023. Most extreme anti-gay laws ever passed in Uganda,, 3 May.

Author not attributed, “Will We All Die of ‘Gay Cancer’?” in Gay Community News, Vol. 4 No. 1, February 1982, p. 5.

Author unknown, “Meeting to be held on AIDS” in The News (Perth), 11 July 1983.

Dennis Altman, 1997. Defying Gravity: A Political Life, St Leonards NSW: Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd.

Dr Alister Brass & Dr Julian Gold, 1985. AIDS And Australia: What Everyone Should Know, Kensington: Bay Books.

Derryn Hinch, 1987. AIDS: Most of the Questions. Some of the Answers., Port Melbourne: Bay Street Publishing.

C. Johnston, 2000. Notes on the ‘life and times’ of the Gay Rights Lobby…1980 – 1988 (version 6, October).

Larry Kramer, 1989. Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist, New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Jacob Poushter & Nicholas Kent, 2020. The Global Divide on Homosexuality Persists, Pew Research Center, 25 June.

Bruce Schreiner & AP, 2023. Lawsuit Targets Kentucky Ban on Gender-Affirming Care for Youth, WKU Public Radio, 4 May.

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

Alison Thorne, June 1983. “Bad Blood and Bad Politics”, in Outrage No. 3.

Alison Thorne, August 1983. “Woman and AIDS” in Outrage No. 5.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn.

The Lark Ascended

In Memory of Roger

Photo from the Melbourne AIDS Memorial Quilt Project

On a quiet Sunday afternoon in December 2002, a small group of people gathered in a Melbourne park to have a picnic in memory of Roger, a science fiction fan activist whose fan picnics were apparently quite legendary. Roger was clearly very much loved, and very fondly remembered. This became apparent at the picnic to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his death, when his friends spoke of him with a smile in their voices and a tear in their eyes. They spoke of his active participation in Melbourne’s science fiction community, of his Ditmars and DUFF activism, and his variety of life experiences.

Roger died thirty years ago today, from a medical condition that was rarely spoken about then or now: AIDS. Had he lived, I have no doubt that he would have continued to make his mark in the Australian science fiction community, and who knows what achievements he might have accomplished over recent decades as our creative, communications and digital social media opportunities have evolved?

As a fledgling member of certain SF groups at the time, I barely knew Roger myself, but I caught up with his partner and some of his close friends a year after he died, when they made a panel in his memory and presented it to the Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt Project. They poured their love, trinkets, memories and creativity into every stitch. I felt that they brought a spark of Roger’s soul to the remembrance as well. They created a testimonial which – in the form of a book with pages that could be turned – was distinctive, unique and which stands out from the hundreds of other entries in the AIDS Quilt. I even recall his partner bringing an iron to the Quilt display a year later, in order to iron Roger’s panel as part of his loving maintenance of his memory.

His partner also offered me his tribute, which I publish here proudly today in memory of Roger to coincide with the anniversary of his passing.


by Geoff Roderick

At the funeral, we played one of his favourite pieces of music: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. It was fitting music, as it is sublimely beautiful, with a soaring freedom of spirit, a little like Roger’s take on life. There is also the obvious Roger pun. Roger Weddall was a lark: the little boy was never far away; cheeky, forever inquisitive, with a thirst for knowledge and a great concern for all those around him – from his family and friends to the nursing staff at Fairfield Hospital – he was genuinely interested in their lives. He was also passionate about puns and very good (or bad) at them.

He discovered MUSFA at university in early 1974 and eventually made his way into general fandom by the late seventies. He became infamous for his parties and, gaining confidence in himself, he became a great socialiser and developed a remarkable skill for helping people to relax and have a good time – if the table of ten wasn’t getting on swimmingly at a restaurant, he would have everybody change chairs. Of course, the waiters were not amused! Roger could hold three conversations with three different people, and not only listen but remember everything. Often, upon meeting an old friend, he would launch straight into the topic they had been previously discussing, sometimes years earlier.

During Roger’s second overseas trip in 1983, still deeply puzzled with his sexuality, he met a man at a London gay bar. While having sex, Roger realised that his partner wasn’t using a condom. He related to me, years later, how he had known exactly what he was doing and wanted to ask for a condom, but didn’t want to appear silly. Also, he couldn’t bear the thought ot the guy dumping him as he was feeling so overwhelmingly lonely. This was Roger’s first male sexual experience. He was 27 at the time.

We met through an ad I had placed in Outrage magazine in June 1988. His was the first of many replies. After an extraordinary two days and two nights together, I turned down all the other replies! It took us only a few days to fall in love.

It took him nearly three months to tell me that he was HIV positive. He had not told another soul… once again, his fear of rejection. He found it extremely difficult to tell me. I was shocked, as I hadn’t seen it coming at all (although I had already dealt with an AIDS-related death; a friend’s lover had stayed at my house before and after city visits to doctors. He had LOOKED sick!) On our way out to dinner, I filled my car with petrol, my mind reeling from Roger’s news, and I forgot to pay the attendant (he ran after us and I paid up, very embarrassed).

We shared exactly four and a half years together. It was the closest I have ever been to another living soul. I had been happy with my handful of wonderful friends. Roger quickly became a great mate to all in our ‘little family’. We played canasta and scrabble and drank cheap wine and bragged of our sexual conquests. He spoke many languages, he joked and laughed in Arabic with my Egyptian friend Osny, and shared deep and meaningfuls with Graham, and later – after Graham was diagnosed – compared their HIV medications and assessed the latest supposed ‘miracle cure’. He made everyone he met feel special.

Roger had friends too – he had THOUSANDS of friends! – from university, and Triple RRR, where he had been an announcer, from science fiction both in Australia and many, many overseas fans he had met on his travels. Friends from his work at Bridge House where he had cared for mentally handicapped adults (his clients respected him greatly, and many came to his funeral) and from Lifeline where he was a telephone counsellor and a highly esteemed counsellor trainer.

I recall the night he came home from a training session and he had performed in a role play, where he had played an HIV-positive gay man. Apart from his sister, he had still not told another soul! That was one of the few times I saw him deeply distressed by his HIV status. That night, he wept and wept.

Roger’s friends were very important to him and he regularly went to restaurant nights and meetings and Nova Mobs, helping to organise conventions and, sometimes – to the annoyance of some fans – the Ditmar trophies. Stuffed cane toads featured at SunCon in Brisbane in 1990, resulting in a rethink, and sparkling new paperweight glass trophies were awarded some weeks later. These closely resembled butt plugs, but this time there were no complaints.

That same year, Roger also introduced a new award category: Best Fannish Cat. His beloved pet, Typo, was voted the winner (Typo passed away on 9th March 2002, aged 17).

Roger spent thousands of hours producing his fanzine, THYME. He kept another fanzine, LHYFFE, waiting up his sleeve.

I sometimes found it daunting with so many people, as I was very shy, and at times I very selfishly regretted having to share his time with others.

He also treasured his time alone, to write and read and listen to music. Breakfast (preferably after 11am) was usually composed of sitting on the floor, listening to Todd Rundgren or Beethoven, with an enormous bowl of Coco Pops, reading comics and playing gleefully with Typo. Late at night, Roger’s brain was ON!!! This was his time to be creative, writing and reading. Often, at about three o’clock in the morning, I would wake up, and he would be sitting up in bed with his postcards and letters and LOCs and books; his cats, Typo and Shelly, purring at his side – and me purring on the other.

A generation after the arrival of HIV, we live in a world where AIDS is largely forgotten and HIV is largely a manageable lifelong condition. As we acknowledge 1st December as the annual World AIDS Day, it is fitting to pause and remember our many friends and heroes and mentors who were lost to this epidemic. In a COVID world, many people seem to think of this newer virus as mainly an inconvenience and they see vaccine denialism as some sort of heroic claim to individual freedoms. How quickly we forget that, within living memory, the earlier epidemic of HIV/AIDS was so terrible and traumatic and devastating, and that real heroism was shown by those affected and infected – as it still is today by many people in many places.

I personally recall Roger telling me that, without forewarning, he had once visited Arthur C Clarke in his Sri Lankan home, and I admired him for his boldness and initiative. I stand with Geoff and so many others in pausing to remember Roger, and, in doing so, I paraphrase HIV/AIDS activist and musician Michael Callen: “Love is all we have for now, What we don’t have is THYME.”

Vale Roger.

© 2022 Geoff Allshorn

Why Science Fiction?

Commemorating International Day of Living Together in Peace.

Art by Dick ‘Ditmar’ Jenssen

The Sky Is The Limit

I admit that I have not been blogging so much this year – I have been distracted by a need for activism in the world around me. My desire to help create a better world is not only my human instinct kicking in, but a manifestation of my interest in sci fi.

And in my quieter moments, I have been doing voluntary work for the Australian Science Fiction Foundation, especially helping to create their new website (soon to be launched) as my latest contribution to advancing futurism and cultural innovation. This is a refreshing exploration of other worlds and other realities, far from our mundane world of COVID and war and politics and world poverty.

And no, I have not been seeking mere escapism. I do not subscribe to the cliché that science fiction is a crutch for those who cannot cope with reality. Instead, I have been using the ideals and visions within SF to replenish my optimism for the real-life future and to contribute, in lateral ways, to building a better world by (hopefully) encouraging others to look upwards and ahead. Fictional character Sarah Connor once commented that a storm is coming, and her words should inspire us to prepare for whatever that storm may be – climate catastrophe, nuclear war, pandemic, political upheaval, or whatever the future may hold.

Which of course brings up an obvious question: why science fiction?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The Human Adventure Is Just Beginning

Humans have probably been telling stories since our distant forebears leant how to communicate. Those stories reflect our cultures, our values and our circumstances.

Where Jason and his Argonauts once explored unknown vistas, we now have James Kirk and his astronauts exploring strange new worlds. Where King Arthur or Robin Hood once fought for justice against corruption and oppression, we now have Harry Potter and Leia Skywalker. Superman and the Marvel Avengers police the ethereal skies where Olympian deities or other divinities once claimed exclusive sovereignty.

In the past, we had Pythia or Merlin or Sherlock Holmes as our fictional or mythological guides for morality and rationality responding to technology and circumstance; today Spock or the Doctor or R. Daneel Olivaw serve as transHumanist and secular reworkings of our template Everyman.

Through such timeless motifs – including the use of metaphoric humans disguised as robots, superheroes, artificial intelligence, or other forms of sentient life – science fiction holds up a mirror to ourselves and teaches us what it means to be human.

Fair use,

Mission to Planet Earth

Climate change and pollution are hardly new kids on the science fictional block. They have been explored for decades. Through SF films like Silent Running, I became aware of the looming threat of environmental catastrophe, while The Omega Man introduced me to the dangers of epidemics a decade before HIV/AIDS appeared on the world scene and a generation before COVID. Through the Planet of the Apes books and films, I became aware of the power of metaphor and nuance in exploring religious or philosophical themes, while 2001: A Space Odyssey taught me that the Universe’s poetry could be visual if we gaze into the cosmos.

Perhaps most powerfully, Star Trek and Thunderbirds showed me the power of people working together to explore strange new worlds and helping each other out of natural disasters.

And all of this before I hit puberty (which is testimony to the power of sci fi – as a genre that explores the future, it has special power to inspire and empower young people especially).

In the wider world, science fiction has the ability to warn us (The Handmaid’s Tale) or inspire us (Hidden Figures). I have known people whose career choices were inspired by SF: authors, teachers, human rights activists, scientists, doctors, even astronauts. And in turn, the real-life space program has helped to create the technological and scientifically literate cultures in which we live today.

More than all that, space and science fiction have already saved our planet, through NASA’s ‘Mission to Planet Earth‘ (launched in 1991) which led the world response in solving the hole in the Ozone layer.

I have previously written about the inspiration that can be found within science fiction:

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, [variously] queer and trans and gender non-binary humans – all living together in peace and equality.

We can do more than dream of such a world: we can help to create it. Make it so.

© 2022 Geoff Allshorn

Eric Michaels: Becoming

[This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the discovery of AIDS, and this World AIDS Day it seems fitting to remember an Australian pioneer who lived and died near the first official World AIDS Day in 1988, towards the start of the epidemic. His life and battle and death have lessons for our COVID world today.]

* * *

“If one is going to go to all the trouble to be gay, one ought to do a more interesting and useful job of it. Models exist in our very recent past. They should be recalled.” – Eric Michaels, 1990b, 192.

These were the last words documented in Australia’s earliest public AIDS diary. Possibly penned in 1982, and later added to his diary from 1987 and 1988 before being posthumously published in 1990, the words of Eric Michaels speak to us from the days of a terrible epidemic – one that was perceived to target people who were disempowered, stigmatised, invisible, and/or socially undesirable. At a time of terrible stigma, discrimination and open homophobia, Michaels encouraged the gay community to find role models and create its own pride amidst the prejudice. In doing so, he became one of those role models.

Stigma and invisibility continue today, in that the AIDS epidemic remains largely overlooked and forgotten. On a personal level, my introduction to Michaels’ book was when I first sought out a copy in a prominent public library; upon my request, the book was duly collected from the stacks and delivered to me – missing its colourful cover, which appeared to have been removed with surgical precision along the edge of its spine. When I asked the librarian what happened to the book, he carelessly shrugged. I later purchased another copy of the book online and donated it to the same public library, so that Eric Michaels’ words would be available to the public in the exact condition that he would have wanted.

It seemed fitting to help memorialise a man who foreshadowed many admirable outcomes from those terrible times.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography reports that Eric Michaels was born in 1948 to Jewish parents in Philadelphia, USA, and became a hippie studying cultural anthropology, examining groups as disparate as Christian fundamentalists in Texas, USA, and the Yanomami people of Brazil. He arrived in Australia in 1982 and ultimately became a lecturer at Griffith University in Brisbane, dying with AIDS in 1988. (Cunningham, 2012)

A tragic coincidence of timing meant that he arrived in Australia at approximately the same time as another US import: a particular strain of HIV and AIDS. Michaels thereby became somewhat of a potential double outcast: disapproved in mainstream Australia because he was gay, and also socially isolated from some sections within the Australian gay community because he was American in the days when the origin of AIDS was attributed to gay Americans (and well might we learn from his experience today, during another pandemic, when some people seek to scapegoat others from another country where COVID is meant to have originated – as though its geographic origin has anything significant to do with its treatment or mitigation). Paul Foss notes that ‘Eric’s sense of personal loss and betrayal’ – at his rejection at least as much as his actual AIDS mortality – contributed to an ‘accusatory tone’ as well as ‘vemom and impish humour’ in his writing (Foss, 1990, 13). In harnessing and harvesting this anger, Michaels foreshadows the rise of ACT-UP, an activist group borne of self-empowerment and anger.

For Eric Michaels, it is likely that this ‘otherness’ may have contributed to his writing/publishing his AIDS diary in the days before any Australian gay man had the interest or opportunity to do so. Those early days saw women such as Suzi Lovegrove take that same opportunity to bypass the dominant homophobic prejudice against the epidemic in Australia and create autobiographical documentation, such as the film, Suzi’s Story, or varied biographies. Michaels’ diary was the earliest such effort from a gay man to break out of what he termed the ‘lavender prison’ of homophobia (Michaels 1990b, 191).

It also seems probable that this ‘otherness’ similarly motivated Eric Michaels to spend much of his professional life assisting similarly disempowered voices. His academic career in Australia had revolved around, ’empowering Aborigines through the appropriation of new technology’ (Cunningham, 2012) and he had asserted that, ‘a cultural future can only result from political resistance’ (Michaels, 1987, 78). And yet he was also very conscious of the ‘politics of speech’ in empowering the very voices he wished to highlight (O’Regan, 1990; see also Michaels 1994).

Such empowerment foreshadowed the empowerment of indigenous and other voices during the AIDS epidemic; from gay men to women and others who fought for their lives as well as their civil rights. Their battle resonates a generation later, after male homosexuality has been decriminalised and destigmatised, in no small part due to these foot soldiers.

Michael’s situation and perspective seem to echo those of his contemporary, Scottish journalist and New Zealand resident Tom Maclean, whose own AIDS pathography, If I Should Die: Living With AIDS, reflects the life and times of his trans-Tasman gay compatriot. Whereas Michaels implicitly evokes a firm resolution to choose life and activism, McLean more pointedly speaks about this stark choice among the last words in his own book, which was published four days before his death in 1989 at age 40 (PA, 1989). “There’s a lesson in everything if you look for it,” McLean writes, “Even in AIDS” (McLean, 1989, 98).

His friend John Hobson eulogised Michaels with recollections of their life and times together, but spoke frankly about his last photograph:

“The last image of Eric shows the ravages of Kaposi’s Sarcoma; a rare form of skin cancer prevalent in the early years of the epidemic. It is almost unheard of these days thanks to advances in treatments. It is definitely a shocking image, but one that Eric chose to be published as his final one. As well as a clinical photo to evidence his ultimate reality, it was also clearly one last opportunity for him to poke his tongue out at the world.” Hobson, n.d (b).

Hobson also notes that after his death, Eric Michaels’ Warlpiri and Kardiya friends from Yuendumu created an AIDS Quilt memorial panel in his memory. (Hobson, n.d.(b).)

The title of his diary, Unbecoming, is a play on words: tapping into the societal disapproval of gay men as being somewhat unbecoming, it also implicitly examines his own unravelling life due to AIDS and questions whether he is, in some inverse act of creation, literally un-becoming himself. Ultimately, he demonstrates that in his becoming less or other than himself, he is also becoming much more – perhaps the perfect symbolism for an activist seeking to create something positive out of loss. A generation later, as the world seeks to rebuild or redefine itself after the ravages of another pandemic, we might learn valuable lessons from this experience.

Although written during the era of AIDS, Michaels’ words resonate during our era of COVID:

“Maybe the lunatic right wing will mobilise and we will have to drag ourselves out of this languor to protect ourselves and respond. Or maybe the baby boom will eventually reach their sixties and, upon looking back, develop a more powerful criticism than any advanced so far.” (Michaels, 1990b, 192).


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


Stuart Cunningham, ‘Michaels, Eric Philip (1948–1988)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 14 November 2021.

Paul Foss, 1990. ‘Foreword’ in Eric Michaels, 1990b.

John Hobson, n.d (a). Queers of the Desert: AIDS Quilts (1990).

John Hobson, n.d (b). Queers of the Desert: Eric Michaels.

Eric Michaels, 1987. For A Cultural Future: Francis Jupurrurla Makes TV at Yuendumu, Melbourne: Artspace.

Eric Michaels, 1990a. ‘A model of teleported texts (with reference to Aboriginal television)’, in Tom O’Regan (ed.), 1990, Communication and Tradition: Essays after Eric Michaels, Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, Vol. 3, No. 2.

Eric Michaels, 1990b. Unbecoming: An AIDS Diary, Rose Bay: EMPress.

Eric Michaels, 1994.’Aboriginal Content: Who’s Got It, Who Needs It?’, Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media, and Technological Horizons, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 21 – 48.

Tom McLean, 1989. If I Should Die: Living With AIDS, Glenfield: Benton Ross Publishers.

Tom O’Regan (ed.), 1990. ‘Preface‘, Communication and Tradition: Essays after Eric Michaels, Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, Vol. 3, No. 2.

PA, 1989. ‘Author dies of A.I.D.S.’, The Christchurch Press, 27 March.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn