Forty years ago today, a worldwide epidemic was unknowingly announced in a newspaper. Unlike COVID in 2020, this other virus had been unforeseen and undiscovered and, ultimately, politically stigmatised until it was on track to cause irreparable loss of life.
A generation later, it still has no vaccine.
His name is not recorded in Australia’s history books. He was just an average Australian bloke, but he became possibly the first casualty – the proverbial Unknown Soldier – in one of Australia’s most frightening wars.
He was born in Australia in 1909, when our nation had barely reached Federation. He spent his infancy during harsh drought, in an era of horse and cart, electric trams and the telegraph.
As a young boy, he would have seen older lads – possibly his father and older brothers – go off to the Great War. Later, he would have witnessed those who survived the war returning home to live with possible shell shock or disfigurement – and to face the worldwide pandemic named Spanish Influenza.
As a young adult, he saw the opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge, survived the polio era, lived through the Great Depression and he may have served in World War Two.
As an older adult, he saw many changes and challenges: television and antibiotics, automobiles and aircraft. He witnessed the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile Crisis, the Apollo Moon landings, US assassinations and civil rights demonstrations.
His world was shaped by the Cold War and his lifestyle may have been oppressed by McCarthyism. He lived through the early days of Gay Liberation and he may have marched in the original street protest which led to the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
Like many Australians of his generation, he had never travelled far nor done anything particularly significant or notorious. Tragically, the end of his life would be most significant.
Around February 1981, he began to get sick – at the same time when millions of Australians were becoming distracted by the engagement of Prince Charles to Lady Diana. By the time of the Royal wedding in July, our friend’s prolonged illness had developed into a persistent cough and he had pronounced difficulty with breathing.
The illness which struck him was testimony to the international travel that had become a ubiquitous aspect of our modern jet-setting lifestyle, despite the fact that he had personally never travelled overseas. He was afflicted with what was then called Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia (PCP), a fungal pneumonia that had first been identified in 1909 (Grmek, 1990, 116) – ironically the year of his own birth. It was only after World War Two that PCP began to appear in malnourished children who lived in overcrowded orphanages of post-War Europe – and a link was established between PCP and humans whose immune systems had been damaged or compromised (Shilts, 1987, 34.) A symbolic link had also been established between PCP and the concept of war or deprivation – a metaphor which would not be forgotten in the coming years, including in Australia.
All this background probably meant little to our friend, who battled his chronic breathing problem without being aware that others around the world had also recently puzzled their doctors with similar or related medical difficulties: people such as 47 year-old Grethe Rask, a female Danish surgeon who died in December 1977 (Shilts, 1987, 6 & 7); two pediatric siblings in San Francisco who were diagnosed in 1978 and 1979 (Cochrane, 2004, 28) while gay men in Los Angeles were being diagnosed with strange diseases around 1979 (Black, 1986, 20 – 21); an unnamed gay 27 year-old African-American hospital guard in New York City who died in December 1979 (Hooper, 1999, 57); a young gay man named Nick in New York’s Fire Island, who became sick in March 1980 (Black, 1986, 18 – 19); an anonymous gay 36 year-old dairy industry agricultural engineer who died in Denmark’s Rigslhospitalet, Copenhagen, in September 1980 (Shilts, 1987, 34 & 35); a Portuguese taxi driver and two women in Paris who all succumbed in late 1980 (ibid, 36 & 37). Ominously, a number of young gay men in Los Angeles had also been identified as getting sick and/or dying from the same ailment in 1981 (CDC, 1981) while nine gay men in San Francisco were also diagnosed in July of that same year (Cochrane, 2004, ch. 3). These people were merely the tip of a metaphoric iceberg.
In Africa, the danger had already been spreading silently for years. Swiss author Henning Mankell reports anecdotal evidence that mysterious ailments were being noticed among people in Uganda as far back as the 1970s. According to one story, a young man named Lukas had become afflicted in 1974 with an increasingly-debilitating mystery illness which included swollen glands, weight loss and an outbreak of sores. Lukas, and his two wives, all got sick and died – followed, in subsequent years, by other people in Kampala. One of Lukas’ workmates had explained this mystery to his child through a simple but hauntingly significant truth: “Something has happened” (Mankell, 2004, 52 & 53).
But the silent killer continued to build its strength, and gay activist Cleve Jones recalls:
“I have memories from 1978 and 1979 of friends of mine contracting diseases that I’d never heard of, or that I’d heard of but only in the context of impoverished countries. I remember a friend came down with meningitis, and that seemed to me to be odd. There was also quite a bit of hepatitis going around. So here was sort of a glimmering realization, but nobody took it too seriously, because the sexually transmitted diseases were easily treated with just a few doses of antibiotics.”
Our anonymous Aussie battler would most likely have been totally oblivious to this community of suffering when he was admitted to a Sydney hospital in August 1981, after six months of progressive deterioration. He died the following month, aged 72.
Twelve years later, doctors tested a preserved medical specimen that had been collected from the patient in January 1980. Using a test which had been unavailable and unimaginable back in 1980, they discovered that the patient had died of a condition which we now call AIDS. Yet when this patient died, AIDS had barely even been recognised as a problem overseas; it was still so new and mysterious that it had not yet been accurately identified nor assigned its name; and its existence in Australia had been unknown at that time. This led Australian doctors to make a worrying declaration in 1994 following their retrospective diagnosis of this patient:
“Whether this represents an isolated case in a man who progressed rapidly because of his relatively advanced age, or whether HIV was present earlier in Australia than previously thought, remains unanswered” (Gerrard et. al., 1994).
“Patient X” had never had a blood transfusion nor any record of injecting drug use – and yet his blood told a chilling story. Somehow, he had been exposed to the virus here in Australia in late 1979 or possibly earlier (Carter, 1994; Davies, 1993).
A new pandemic had arrived in Australia and silently claimed its first casualty.
Then, forty years ago today, the looming larger catastrophe was announced to the world. The New York Times – not the first to publish an article, but the first to publish one that gained widespread public attention – announced that a “rare cancer” had been found in 41 homosexuals (Altman, 1981). It revealed the worrying aspects of an emerging pattern: rare diseases were being caught as an indication of a compromised immune system among young gay men who should not normally be victims to such medical oddities (McKie, 1986, 21 & 22).
One of the people who read that newspaper report was John Foster, an Australian historian who was on study leave in New York City. He later recalled the day which would forever announce the public arrival of slow-creeping catastrophe into the lives of millions of people around the world:
“On Friday 3 July 1981 I went early to Mass. By the end of the Mass the priest was sweating. Summertime in New York, I was discovering, was drenched in sweat, though it was rarely so pure an essence as the kind that impregnated the wafer I received from the priest’s damp hand. On the subway, sweat sickly mingled with cheap scent; in the gay bars on Christopher Street it hit you in a mixture of amyl or diffused in the acrid drift of marijuana smoke; on the streets it came at you out of peripatetic hot-dog stands or the open doors of greasy-spoon cafes.
“Walking home from church, with my shirt already wet on my back, I bought a copy of the Times and turned in at Nick the Greek’s for my usual eggs and coffee. On the eve of a holiday weekend it was less than normally busy. There was room at a corner table to spread out the paper, a small but significant luxury which disposed me cheerfully to the day ahead. There was no news of any moment, which may explain why I spent so long reading the almost full-page advertisement of the Independence Savings Bank. ‘Sing out on the Fourth!’ it said, and to encourage this holiday spirit it printed the music and three verses of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’…
“So much glory is hard to take at breakfast, and so the Times, which is a newspaper of impeccable taste, balanced this rich fare with a thin column of more astringent medical reporting. Doctors in California and New York had diagnosed among homosexual men forty-one cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. The cancer appeared in violet-coloured spots which might be taken for bruises and which often turned brown before they spread throughout the body…
“It seemed to have something to do with promiscuous sex. Most of the cases had involved homosexual men who had had multiple and frequent sexual encounters each night up to four times a week…
“This was definitely not serious. Or at least, it did not concern me. I was not in the violet-spot league.” (Foster, 1993, 39 & 40).
Three weeks later, on 25 July 1981, John Foster was to meet another man – and this meeting would change both their lives. On 14th Street, by the Steps of Our Lady of Guadaloupe’s chapel, he met young Juan Gualberto Cèspedes (ibid, 41) and they struck up a casual friendship which quickly became a long-term relationship. Since his arrival in New York as a refugee some twelve years earlier – just in time to experience the culturally inspirational effect of watching the Apollo 11 Moon landing – Juan had subsequently been unable to realise his personal ambition of becoming a dancer due to the prejudice of others and following an unfortunate encounter with a New York taxi cab. His relationship with the Australian academic John Foster would provide him with new hopes – and it would provide John Foster with companionship and confidence.
Foster’s mistaken belief that he and Juan were not in any danger of belonging to the “violet-spot league” was a continuation of the same confidence which had been experienced by a younger Juan Cèspedes in the days of Gay Lib – and yet they were later to discover that such confidence and dreams would ultimately turn into ashes.
A new epidemic had been silently creeping into our world for some time, creating a concurrent epidemic of discrimination, stigma and disempowerment, and thereby giving rise to great ongoing needs for activism both in Australia and overseas. Ebola, SARS and COVID were not the first major epidemics in living memory, but our response to these others has been shaped – rightly or wrongly – by the lessons we have learnt (or failed to learn) from HIV/AIDS.
Altman, Lawrence, 1981. “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals”, in The New York Times, 3 July, A20.
Carter, Helen, 1994. “HIV Dates From ‘70s – Doctors,” in The Herald Sun, 7 March, 9.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1981. “Pneumocystis Pneumonia — Los Angeles,” in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR ), 5 June, 30(21), 1-3.
Cochrane, Michelle, 2004. When AIDS Began: San Francisco and the Making of an Epidemic, Routledge.
Davies, Julie-Anne, 1993. “Australia’s First AIDS Death in 1981: Doctors,” in The Sunday Age, 7 November, 1.
Foster, John, 1993. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Minerva.
Gerrard , John, et. al., 1994. “Australia’s First Case of AIDS?” in The Medical Journal of Australia, Vol. 160, 7 March, 247 – 250.
Grmek, Mirko D., 1990. History of AIDS, Princeton University Press.
Hooper, Edward, 1999. The River, Allen Lane/Penguin Press.
Mankell, Henning, (translator Laurie Thompson), 2004. I Die, But the Memory Lives On: The World AIDS Crisis and the Memory Book Project, Harvill Press (Random House).
McKie, R., 1986. Panic: The Story of AIDS, Thorsens Publishing Group, UK.
“I do not think we have a ‘right’ to happiness. If happiness happens, say thanks.”
― Marlene Dietrich.
“Why were gay men, lesbians and everyone who challenged compulsory heterosexuality or didn’t conform to the strict gender binary reviled?”
― Alison Thorne.
Around 1968, Frank Kameney coined the slogan ‘Gay is good’ in response to the chant, ‘Black is Beautiful’. While that may not seem so extraordinary these days, back in that era his was quite a radical and extraordinary claim. From the 1974 days of gay liberation, John Lauritsen explains why:
“In almost every state, anti-homosexuality statutes describe the prohibited acts with such phrases as: “unnatural intercourse”, “unnatural crimes”, ‘infamous crime against nature”, and “the abominable and detestable crime against nature”.
“In opposition, the gay liberation movement has put forward the slogan, “Gay is Good!” ” (Lauritsen, 1974/2012, 5).
28 June marks the anniversary of an event in the USA that has mythic overtones. The Stonewall Riots in New York City were not the first time that queer people had protested and rioted – indeed, the US-centric nature of their commemoration is problematic – but they mark what might be called a shocking change of consciousness for the world and serve as a demarcation point for historians and activists alike. Stonewall was like a queer version of Pearl Harbour, Eureka Stockade, and Arab Spring all rolled into one. The western world has never been the same again.
Oppression and Liberation
“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of
who do the things no one can imagine.”
― Alan Turing
“Perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret beauty to people
— the beauty within themselves.”
― Langston Hughes.
“We try to take out lesson from the typical tactics and history of other oppressed groups… It seems to be that in our society, if a group of people can bind themselves together into an effective power bloc, then they attain rights and social respectability and the protection of the law. And if they can’t, they have trouble.”
― Arthur Evans (Tobin & Wicker, 1972, 194).
“In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.”
― Simone de Beauvoir.
Stonewall was connected to the fledgling movement known as ‘gay liberation’, a concept that later evolved and expanded to include lesbians, bisexuals and trans people – all of whom brought into the collective community a variety of challenges, and redefining self-definitions – and more recently has included intersex, gender variant, non-binary, asexuals, pansexuals and a host of others. The ever-expanding LGBTQIA+ alphabet, and the furious debates that are aroused, can be seen as a successful demonstration of acceptance of diversity and pluralism; often summarised today in the reclaimed formerly-derogatory slur ‘queer’.
The active inclusion of drag, trans and gender variant people within Stonewall demonstrates how the protest was a minor (if visible) part of a much larger and longer continuum of queer diversity within human society. Many ancient kinship societies openly equated sexual and gender diversity with nature (Baghemi, 1999, 214 – 262) and extended a special reverence to transgender, gender-variant, cross dressing, drag and related diverse people, who held a long and respected role in their societies – often with links to shamanism or ritual as a recognition of their being living exemplars of difference. Such peoples can still be found today around the world, from the berdache of North America to the fa’afafine of Samoa (Greenberg, 1988, 40-60). Due to lack of surviving archaeological evidence, it is not possible to link them with earlier shamans – in the Paleolithic era, or Stone Age ritual dancers – although given their known cultural contributions, it seems reasonable to speculate on the possibility (ibid, 63). Is it just possible that the same diverse cohorts, who may have led our frenetic ceremonial dancing during the dawn of modern humanity, also choreographed the outraged and outrageous processional street protests during the dawn of secular gay liberation? We could learn from such a possibility. From Stone Age to Stonewall, from sacred to secular, from Mattachine to Mardi Gras; such a journey of individuality and defiance should be our template.
“The Homosexual Revolution”
“The Christian oppression of women and Gay people was no accident. Their freedom and high status in the old religion made them prime targets for the new religion, which was profoundly anti-sexual.”
― Arthur Evans (Evans, 1978, 99).
“My own feeling of concern arises from seeing how much moral injury and suffering is created by the superstitions of the Christian mythology.”
― Harriet Martineau.
“I’m militant about the church as an institution because of the damage done to the minds of homosexuals by the churches. Most of organised religion has been the mortal enemy of thinking people. I don’t want to destroy the churches, but I want to save young homosexuals from being damaged by the churches.”
― Jim Owles (Tobin & Wicker, 1972, 31).
“I say that homosexuality is not just a form of sex, it’s a form of love, and it deserves our respect for that reason.”
― Christopher Hitchens.
Stonewall and gay liberation comprised a time for challenging the status quo and for redefining and reinventing ourselves. Traditional attitudes and values were challenged; this pointedly included organised religion, business and medicine (Duberman, 1993, 223). Conformity and assimilation were discouraged in favour of outrage and intersectionality. Such protests from that era became open expressions of solidarity with other groups of people who were similarly seeking civil rights, natural justice, equality, elimination of entrenched disadvantage, and empowerment. (Ashley, 2015, 28).
A generation later, the civil rights push for marriage equality by LGBT communities, along with the abandonment of trans rights by some TERF elements of those same LGBT communities, would have surprised and shocked many of the original gay lib cohort:
“In many ways, the new millennium gay movement is the antithesis of the early ’70s gay liberation. It cavorts with politicians who may be good on gay issues, but not on concerns affecting other disenfranchised communities… It courts corporate support for its gala events, even its pride parades, which used to be protest marches and celebrations of the Stonewall Riots. Now those marches seem more of a market than a movement… The queer movement still hasn’t entirely gotten its act together about sexism, racism or the exclusion of transgenders.” (Avicolli Melli, 2009, xiv).
One prominent gay libber from that era – the man who literally wrote the book on gay liberation – came out some years ago as questioning why LGBTQIA+ communities supported marriage equality while ignoring the murder and oppression of their queer colleagues overseas. He also asks what happens to communities whose identity becomes dominated by a culture of consumption rather than activism. His views are not unique among gay lib era pioneers, and such questions of priorities remain largely unanswered even today. His compatriot Peter Tatchell clarifies the difference between gay liberation and modern day queer ideologies regarding the adoption of religion: “The Bible is to gays what Mein Kampf is to Jews.”
From Activism to AIDS
“I’m a twenty-year metastatic lung cancer survivor and a fifteen-year AIDS survivor. And I really believe that activism is therapeutic.”
― Kiyoshi Kuromiya.
“Celebrate diversity, and Heal AIDS with Love!”
― Michael Callen (Callen, 1990, iii, personal inscription).
“This epidemic is going to be with us for 50, maybe even 100 years. Its impact will be felt for many generations to come. You must build groups of activists, even if you have only 5 or 10 people, even if the obstacles are daunting and you’re poor.”
― Zackie Achmat.
“What I found was that people are going through exceptionally difficult times. Many are married in heterosexual relationships but have lesbian relationships on the side.”
― Midi Achmat.
The optimism of the gay liberation era was short-lived for two reasons. With the arrival of a new, cruel, epidemic, AIDS, countless gay men’s lives were shattered, and many men like Rock Hudson were forced out of the closet and into activism that would not have been their personal choice. AIDS also meant that many gay lib era activists and community heroes were struck down with the new affliction. People such as Kiyoshi Kuromiya and Michael Callen had to adapt the communal activist skills that had been refined during gay lib protests, and use them instead to deal with the tragic new situation – in their case, both becoming involved in groups such as ACT UP and People With AIDS. Similarly, South African gay man Zackie Achmat also had to use his anti-Apartheid activist skills to deal with AIDS both on a personal level and as a generic scourge in his country (Nolen, 2007). For all three activist gay men, their world had changed, but not in any way they might have anticipated.
For Achmat’s whole family, the world was turned upside down – when Zackie and his lesbian sister Midi both came out as gay, they were rejected by their Muslim parents, but their activist strength gave them the capacity to walk away and turn their attention to LGBT+ and HIV/AIDS activism that has helped people across their country.
“I do not believe in belief.”
― E M Forster, ‘What I Believe’.
“She thought there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.”
― Virginia Woolf.
“… Atheists have a responsibility to support human rights issues like LGBTQ equality; and most importantly… it’s crucial that we do so without delay or hesitation.”
― Camille Beredjick.
“I’ve often thought the Bible should have a disclaimer in the front
saying this is fiction.”
― Sir Ian McKellen.
Some years ago, I attended the launch of an academic report on gay conversion therapy. As a past victim, I wanted to hear what might be said about addressing the religious dogma that fuelled this pseudo-scientific form of psychological torture. Significantly, the launch itself took place inside a church – the very same generic environment wherein such religious-based abuse often took place. None of the academics who wrote the report, none of the religious queers who used their privilege to obtain the venue, none of the former victims who spoke publicly about their involvement in the study, nor any of the gay Christians who spoke hopefully about ‘welcoming these lost sheep back into the fold’ – not one of them had the sensitivity or empathy to openly question whether or not a religious venue was an appropriate place to launch a report about religious-based abuse, whether or not it was a safe place for former torture victims to visit, or whether any self-respecting victim would even want to be ‘welcomed back’ into a church or religious community.
Similarly, I also attended a queer conference some years ago which was widely advertised as promoting equality, inclusion and diversity. While many openly religious queers were included in the main program – including the chairman of the conference’s organising committee, himself an openly gay Christian – no openly secular or non-believing queers were included – except for myself, shunted into a side room to give a talk to a mere handful of people during a non-peak time when the conference was officially shut for breakfast. Organisers ignored my subsequent email in which I respectfully asked for a more inclusive program next year. Similarly, another multicultural queer network deflected my speech into a small side room for its conference, and excluded openly atheist perspectives from a publication on multicultural queerdom which otherwise overflowed with multi-faith perspectives. This appears to be the template within queer communities – where ‘multicultural’ equates with ‘multifaith’ and brazenly excludes atheist, agnostic or non-believing queers. Given that approximately 75% of LGBTQIA+ people in Australia indicated in 2020 that they have ‘no current religion or spirituality’, (Private Lives 3, 26), this means that the majority of the queer community is being effectively bullied by the 25% who enjoy religious privilege.
“The effort within queer spaces to be inclusive towards religious people is disproportionate and can be downright exclusionary towards non-religious people.”
Our people survived and thrived due to Stonewall. And yet another form of stonewalling is common today – the bullying by exclusion of queer non-believers and their views, with their needs and counsel being excluded from queer conferences, media, community networks and events. My own personal experience, since coming out as an atheist in the Australian LGBTQIA+ community, echoes the words of blogger Greta Christina:
“I’m finding that I feel more at home — more welcomed, more valued, more truly understood — as a queer in the atheist community than I do as an atheist in the queer community.”
The myth that has encompassed the Stonewall Riots has been diluted by a generation of modern assimilationists. Instead of respecting and promoting diversity, queer communities have become passive receptors of the same religious dominance that oppressed and murdered queer people for millennia – and still does in many places such as Africa. Tom Morris acknowledges the high rates of disbelief in the queer community (something that queerdom itself seems reluctant to admit) and offers an obvious reason why:
“Every single attempt to increase the rights and well-being of LGBT people has been militantly opposed by religion… everything that LGBT people have done in terms of activism and reform has been opposed by religion in some form. ”
I have to say it: sorry, religious queer compatriots, your bullying and exclusion of queer atheists does not demonstrate equality – but it does demonstrate a smug sense of superiority and elitism. Your self-affirming testimonies of self-acceptance and acquiescent assimilation within religions that have practiced queer genocide are not utterances of liberation but of narcissism and complicity. Your dominating public discourse does not win debates and converts, but simply alienates others and drives them away. Your privilege does not demonstrate your morality as much as it does your adoption of affluent, straight, white culture. Your silent ethnic cleansing of gay liberation goals and aspirations may lack the open brutality of homophobes who stretch from Tanzania to Texas, but it is no less real and no less deadly – instead of fists and iron bars, your weapons are the pink dollar and pink vote and pink media and pink assimilation and pink conferences and pink ghosting.
As someone who has spent decades agitating for human rights and equality, I am the first to endorse the principle that queers can choose any religion or philosophy they like, even though it means that many conform too closely for my liking to other ‘spiritual but not religious’ populations. But what profoundly disappoints me is the tendency for those same LGBTQIA+ peoples to so openly practice forms of religious apartheid, totally excluding non-religious queers in what should be safely queer space and places. As an LGBTQIA+ atheist and humanist, my non-belief perspective is almost never acknowledged as valid, nor presented in queer discourse, whereas queer astrologers, Christians, spiritualists, alternate philosophies, Jews, Muslims, and reactionaries are given prominence in queer discussions, debates, speaking engagements, networking coalitions, publications and radio airtime, public inquiries and media representation; they are delegated leadership and eldership within the queer community. But they do not speak for me – and I am not alone. Alex Gabrieldoes speak for me:
“Attempts to be ‘inclusive’ of religious queer people by godding-up our communities with sermons, prayers, clergy and promotion of religious groups often mean excluding us.”
It must be said that not all openly queer community leaders and speakers are openly religious. Some are what might be termed as being religion-neutral – possibly secular, possibly atheist but politely discrete, perhaps even possibly religious but not always asked to speak about topics that are religiously-suited. Their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) remain unknown or unclarified, which reminds me of pre-Stonewall times when queers stayed firmly in the closet if they wished to have a public voice or respectability. Why are queers forcing other queers back into a lateral closet? What happened to being out and proud?
Out and Proud
“Those of us who live with the tyranny only of our own conscience and belief that an ethical life can be lived without reference to the supernatural are called humanists – or atheists, or in my case anti-theists.”
― Christopher Hitchens.
“And you have to give them hope.
Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow…”
― Harvey Milk.
“Do your part. Give ’em hope.”
― Dan Savage (Savage & Miller, 2012, 8).
“As a humanist I hold to an innate human value and see education as the emancipator of all humanity.”
― Peter/Ethel Thurston.
In exploring earlier times and eras, it is interesting to see how they may differ from our own, even though we might see ourselves as belonging to the same communities as those from earlier times. Our earliest era of solidified gay liberation was one in which queer atheism, bohemian lifestyles, intersectionality, and protest activism, were commonplace and part of the culture. Today, we seem to have a queer community which believes that equality with heterosexuals means adopting their mores and values, their lifestyles and their traditions – from voting conservative to appropriating heterosexual marriage. It was not always so. All of the people whom I have named and quoted directly within this article are pioneers and heroes in their own way, and significantly, they are all known rainbow atheists – with the possible exception of Hughes and Martineau, for whom the jury is still out. Although their atheism is often excluded from modern narratives, these people have pride of place within the wider picture of gay liberation, Stonewall, and today. Representation matters. Inclusion matters. Diversity matters. And we are all better off when we cast aside our comfort zone and see the world – and each other – as we really are. Stonewall was not the end of the journey, but a step along the way. It is time for individual rainbow atheists to:
“…Counterbalance the predominance of religiously-oriented organisations within the Lesbian and Gay male movement.”
― (GALA Review, 1989).
“Come Out of Both Closets.”
― Doug Randolph (GALA/SF, 1985).
“I am deeply pessimistic of any hope that the churches, especially the Fundamentalists will change their mind about the homosexual.”
― ‘Retired Serviceman’, Washington DC (Lucas, 1964-66 n.d., 4).
“My sexuality and my humanism are connected. A big part of why I’m so passionately committed to the godless community and the godless movement is that I’m passionately opposed to how religion has traditionally dealt with sexuality—sexuality in general, and LGBT sexuality in particular. I’m fiercely opposed to the traditional homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and general sex-negativity of most traditional religions, and to the terrible harm they’ve inflicted on millions of people… And a big part of what first drew me to the godless community was how queer-friendly it generally is. ”
― Greta Christina.
Bruce Baghemi, 1999. Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, New York: St Martin’s Press.
Michael Callen, 1990. Surviving AIDS, New York: HarperCollinsPublishers.
Martin Duberman, 1993. Stonewall, New York: Dutton Books.
Arthur Evans, 1978. Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture, Boston: FAG RAG Books.
GALA Review, 1989. ‘Preamble to The Constitution of Gay and Lesbian Atheists’, Volume 12, Number 5, September, 3.
David F Greenberg, 1988. The Construction of Homosexuality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Adam O. Hill, Adam Bourne, Ruth McNair, Marina Carman, & Anthony Lyons, 2020. Private Lives 3: The health and wellbeing of LGBTIQ people in Australia, ARCSHS Monograph Series No. 122, Melbourne, Australia: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University.
John Lauritsen, 1974 (2012). The Religious Roots of the Taboo on Homophobia: A Materialist View, New York/Boston: Pagan Press. (This is a 2012 reprint of a 1974 pamphlet).
In 1988, a mere seven years into the epidemic, the Mayor of San Francisco told the US Presidential Commission on AIDS that his city had already lost more young men to AIDS than it had to World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam – combined and doubled. (Agnos, 1988, 1).
This rather horrifying thought evokes the assertion by Leslie Banks that ‘geographical aspects of disease date back to the earliest of written records’, linking locality and disease as being both interdependent and interactive (Banks, 1959, 199). Thus historians have traditionally examined how local conditions may have given rise to the spread of disease across place and time, as demonstrated in the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, where we can see the clustering of cases around a polluted water pump in London (Snow, 1854).
A study of place, however, can also show vectors of infection through forms of human migration, as demonstrated by the spread of diseases such as Bubonic Plague beyond their place of origin (May, 1953, 22 – 27). HIV/AIDS may have been the first worldwide pandemic to enjoy international transmission at the speed of the jumbo jet, but it will not be the last.
The trans-national spread of HIV/AIDS has been compounded through its interweaving with what Dennis Altman refers to as the ‘globilisation of human welfare’ (Altman, 2001, 73). His concern over the dominance of western medical discourse is understandable when considering its possible incompatibility or inappropriateness in other places or cultures. In studying the responses to HIV/AIDS in San Francisco and Melbourne, we can see a mix of varied outcomes within two locations that are geographically distant but culturally and socially interactive.
The arrival of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s transformed both San Francisco and Melbourne. Rodgers et al assert that: ‘During the early 1980s, when the epidemic began, AIDS had no social meaning. Individuals had to create meanings regarding its definition, social context, epidemiology, and causes.’ (Rodgers et al, 1995, 665) While the USA and Australia were still formulating their national, political and cultural responses to HIV/AIDS – responses that would at times include hysteria, fear, stigma, vilification and discrimination – it was the gay communities that led the fightback, which they defined within the context of saving lives, caring for the sick, celebrating diversity and promoting gay rights.
San Francisco and Melbourne can be seen to share some historic and social intersections. Both are locations in relatively affluent ‘western’ democracies which were originally inhabited by indigenous peoples who were later dispossessed by white European colonizers; both cities received a boost in economy and population from the mid-19th century Gold Rush; and both places are now seen as centres of culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
Despite such similarities, San Francisco and Melbourne also have differences of population, status and local culture which are as disparate as are San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge with Melbourne’s Westgate Bride. San Francisco is both a city and a county, registering some 805,235 residents in its 2010 census (US Census Bureau, n.d.; Office of the Mayor, n.d.) but serving as a major focus for the San Francisco Bay Area, comprising 7.1 million residents (Focus: Bay Area Focused Growth, n.d.) A 2006 study reports that 15.4% of San Francisco’s residents identify themselves as being gay, lesbian or bisexual, the highest percentage of any city in the USA (Turnbull, 2006). The municipality of Melbourne contains an estimated 100,611 residents (2011 estimate) and its greater metropolitan area covers some 4,169,103 residents (City of Melbourne, n.d) but there are no known estimates of the size of Melbourne’s gay community.
While Melbourne was traditionally viewed by many as a city where much of its culture appeared to stop upon six o’clock closing, its post-war immigration encouraged the evolution of a more cosmopolitan, multicultural society. Meanwhile, San Francisco was popularly known as a centre for bohemian culture. In 1950, legal protections for gay people were already being established by law in San Francisco (San Francisco History Index, n.d.), while this did not commence in Melbourne until the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1980. In the 1960s, Scott McKenzie was encouraging people to join the hippie counter-culture by travelling to San Francisco – and ‘be sure to wear a flower in your hair’ (Phillips & McKenzie, 1967). In the 1970s, the Village People encouraged young gay men to ‘Go West‘ and to join the gay community of San Francisco because ‘life is peaceful there’.
Both cities became a destination for an influx of young gay men who were seeking escape from oppressive country towns, as fictionalised in San Francisco’s Tales of the City books by Armistead Maupin. San Franscisco’s gay culture was epitomised by Harvey Milk and civil rights activism. Historian Alan Petersen gave an example of the dichotomy between Melbourne’s private/public spaces and the restrictions that were traditionally placed upon Melbourne’s gay community, with a cluster of gay venues as the central, covert focus of its social existence and the majority of gay people being more hidden in suburbia (Petersen, 2012, 4). In my own studies, I have been told by gay men that they socialised in Melbourne’s gay venues on weekends and then went and lived more closeted lives at home and work.
In November 1980, a gay man named Ken visited his doctor’s office in San Francisco and was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a type of cancer connected with AIDS, and he would later become the first officially registered Person With AIDS (Stryker and Van Buskirk, 1996, 85 & 86). His life and death are documented, along with those of other early protagonists in the fight against AIDS from San Francisco and New York City, in Randy Shilt’s study And the Band Played On. It is reported that by 1989, almost half of the gay men over age 26 in San Francisco were infected with HIV (Rodgers et al, 1995, 669) and that by 1995, the city had the highest per capita infection rate of any city in the USA as well as the highest percentage of AIDS-related deaths (1.7%)” (ibid, 666).
In December 1981, young Bobbi Campbell from San Francisco publicly disclosed his status as a person living with Kaposi’s Sarcoma. He created a poster about “Gay Cancer” which he placed in a pharmacy window (Stryker and Van Buskirk, 1996, 86 & 87.) Campbell was one of the first gay men to attempt to seize control of his situation and agitate for public education and action. We can see the start of local activism that would affect not only San Franciscans but also have an international impact. San Francisco not only served as a place where local conditions – in this case, a large collectivised gay community – would provide one locus for an infective agent; the city also demonstrated that epidemics – and human responses to such epidemics – could ebb and flow into and out of localised geographical centres and travel the world.
San Francisco received no prior warning of AIDS, and by the time they rallied, many people had already been lost. By contrast, Melbourne’s gay community received warnings in advance, and they had time to develop community support networks and distribute information. There are no statistics available on the estimated number of gay men living in Melbourne in the 1980s or 1990s due to the covert nature of homosexuality at the time and due to the absence of a strongly united gay community as there had been in San Francisco. Statistics do show that in the early 1980s, hundreds of gay men were diagnosed annually with HIV/AIDS (Author unknown, 1999).
At the 25th anniversary of the Victorian AIDS Council, founding President Phil Carswell recalled the dread and apprehension which they all felt back in those early days and their inability to fully grasp the gravity of the coming problem:
“Looking ahead, we thought we could see a tsunami was coming. What we failed to understand was that it wasn’t a tsunami; it was a whole climate change” (Carswell, 2009).
In 1983, when Australia’s first AIDS fatality occurred in Melbourne, the story appeared on page 3 of The San Francisco Chronicle (United Press, 1983). Its prominence in this newspaper might suggest that the patient – known to have lived in the USA for some years – may have had friends in San Francisco.
A number of comparisons could be made between community responses in San Francisco and Melbourne, and this is the first and most obvious. In San Francisco, the Kaposi’s Sarcoma Foundation was started in April 1982 and was later to be renamed the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF, 2012). In Melbourne, the Victorian AIDS Action Committee was founded in July 1983, later renamed the Victorian AIDS Council. Both organisations were started by coalitions of gay activists and doctors, and both were born out of a groundswell of community concern. There was open liaison between both cities, as is demonstrated in this 1984 Melbourne document, which talks of the San Francisco response (Carr, 1986 (1990) 196 – 203; Author unknown, n.d. (Ian Goller Collection); Goller & Carswell, 1985; Scroope & Carswell, 1987.
The San Francisco model of health care became somewhat of a template for the Melbourne response. This ‘model’ encompassed medical staff, carers and volunteers working collaboratively in every aspect of patient care and treatment, including collaborating closely with local community organisations. This included the emergent, grass-roots volunteer care teams and other support structures; thousands of hours of volunteer work from both homosexual and heterosexual people, possibly the first time that so many volunteers had rallied to confront an epidemic.
Randy Shilts wrote of this model in 1992:
“The importance of San Francisco General Hospital in the history of the AIDS epidemic cannot be overstated. The model of care now used the world over was pioneered in those buildings.” (Shilts, 1992, ix and x.)
My own study in 2011 suggests that Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne was also a centre of medical excellence and innovation, one of synergy between doctors and activists; a place where patients became self-empowered to define and determine their own treatment options (Allshorn, 2011). Although it was closed in 1996, the hospital’s legacy is a paradigm of collaborative discourse between patients and doctors, a redefinition of the medical discourse away from the traditional western model proposed by Foucault, in which medicine has been constructed and regimented as a form of social control (Gordon, 1980, 175).
When we look at both cities, we can see differences emerge even when close correlation is apparent: the SFAF expanded its services to assist affected cohorts, including gay men, injecting drug users, women, and CALD communities (SFAF, 2021). By contrast, the VAC focussed its work predominantly on gay men. This may reflect differing social hierarchies in these cities: San Francisco’s gay community had enjoyed greater civil rights, whereas Melbourne’s gay community was more covert and emergent, and evidently saw a need to establish their own exclusive support structures.
Strangely, the activism in both cities may have been energised by converse governmental responses to HIV/AIDS. In the USA, Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, just as AIDS was being discovered. Many commentators criticise his failure to significantly address AIDS as a public health issue for the first seven years of his eight year administration. Suggested one critic: ‘Ronald Reagan cared more about UFOs than AIDS’ (Pareene, 2011). The San Francisco Mayor stated in 1988 that: ”What threatens to overwhelm San Francisco is not the increased caseload of AIDS, but the continued lack of leadership from the federal government’ (Krohn, 1988).
In Australia, our federal government took steps to work cooperatively with affected communities in order to develop effective responses to the epidemic (Carswell, 1986). This meant that unlike San Francisco, where the activist community was forced into activism due to the inaction of their national government, Melbourne’s activists were being empowered by governmental recognition. Despite somewhat tangential political actuation, both cities achieved a similar result and created a powerful local activist movement.
Community activism in both cities did include forms of protest. The group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was a radical protest group founded in New York City to fight for those with AIDS, particularly to demand their access to potentially life-saving drugs. Chapters of ACT UP formed around the world. ACT UP Melbourne was enthusiastic but short-lived, perhaps lacking the rage of their US counterparts because of our more collaborative government.
AIDS memorial rituals were also developed in San Francisco and exported to the world. These include Candlelight Vigils, starting in San Francisco in 1983 and continuing to this day (SFAF, 2012). Melbourne’s Candlelight Vigil has almost disappeared in recent years. Similarly, San Francisco boasts a National AIDS Memorial Grove, while Melbourne’s AIDS Gardens remain largely forgotten.
The AIDS Quilt, created by San Francisco gay activist Cleve Jones in 1987, remains available for display across the USA, while most of Australia’s AIDS Quilt is now stored in a Sydney museum and Melbourne – perhaps surprisingly – boasted its longest surviving chapter. These varied outcomes demonstrate that even when community activism is directly transmitted by human and cultural interaction, the resulting outcomes are reliant upon local conditions and personalities.
Rodgers et al assert that “When a major event threatens the stability of a system, it forces the members of the system to construct new and changing meanings of their community.” They also suggest that HIV/AIDS reconstructed the social fabric of San Francisco (Rodgers et al, 1995, 676). Dennis Altman has recently called for greater acknowledgement that HIV/AIDS has contributed to the development of Australia’s modern gay community. My study demonstrates the complexities faced by trans-national communities even when they are facing a similar problem or share some cultural antecedents and aspirations. This comparison also shows the ability of local communities to develop their own systems of self-empowerment and to adapt templates to suit local needs when facing challenging times. Such a template might be adapted to suit local conditions in other places.
The world needs to learn lessons from this history because there will be another time, another place and another epidemic. Cleve Jones recalls that the SFAF’s phone started to ring before they had even advertised its existence. He evokes a universal symbolism for local activist communities everywhere: ‘The phone never stopped ringing. Thirty years later, it’s still ringing’ (SFAF, 2012).
Original paper entitled, ‘AIDS Response in San Francisco and Melbourne’ was presented at the ‘Putting History In Its Place’ Conference, La Trobe University, 28 September 2012, and can be found here as part of the conference program that was available on iTunes. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
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“ ‘Cause love don’t need a reason
Love don’t always rhyme
And love is all we have for now
What we don’t have is time.” – Love Don’t Need A Reason
In memory of Michael Callen
(11 April 1955 – 27 December 1993)
They Are Falling All Around Me
Michael Callen was a US singer and gay man who became an important AIDS activist during the terrible pandemic that swept the world in the 1980s and 1990s – and which continues to this day in many parts of the world. One of his legacy songs, Love Don’t Need A Reason, was co-written by Australian-born singer Peter Allen (who also died of AIDS) and singer Marsha Malamet.
My personal introduction to Michael Callen took place at the US National March on Washington on 25 April 1993, not because I attended the event, but because I watched film clips from the March on the ABC News in Australia. I was visiting a lesbian friend who has since passed away, and we were captivated by Michael’s song – a moment of beauty and peace during a stormy era when our civil rights were under attack and many of our friends were suffering and dying from a dreadful epidemic.
Although he came from a background where he had enjoyed a lifestyle of sexual freedom and ‘promiscuity’ within gay male communities, he later spoke against this behaviour in the era of AIDS, and expanded his activist work to support all who were affected by HIV/AIDS – women, children, minorities, haemophiliacs, and others.
He ‘coined the term “people with AIDS” (PWAs) to replace the early characterizations of PWAs as AIDS victims’ and spoke of empowering them:
“Michael Callen used to say there was ‘a special magic in the room’ whenever a group of people with AIDS got together. Because our lives were at stake, we generally did our best to share what we were learning without judgment, without personalizing our arguments, without any agenda except to learn.”(Strub, 2014, 296)
I do not know if he considered himself a Humanist, but he was an atheist and he certainly undertook activist work that upheld Humanist principles, by working for the dignity of others and empowering the dispossessed. Although he testified to members of New York Congress in 1983 that, ‘At age 28, I wake up every morning to face the very real possibility of my own death’, the most recent book on his life and works notes that his atheism contained elements of ‘hope and optimism’ (Jones, 2020, 349), which I see as another Humanist trait.
In 1988, he noted the insidious nature of living with AIDS:
“Two weeks ago… I looked down and noticed my first KS lesion on my leg. A biopsy has confirmed my suspicion. I thought I’d made a separate peace with AIDS, but it’s continually negotiating in bad faith. AIDS is a wily adversary. One cannot turn one’s back for an instant.” (Callen, 1988, xix)
Two years later, he displays a more positive attitude during the era when HIV remained a virtual death sentence:
“While I would never have wished for AIDS, the plain truth is that I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. Having AIDS has been like going through ten years of therapy – every week.
“AIDS has taught me the preciousness of life and the healing power of love. I’ve been more productive than at any time prior. I’ve travelled the world and met hundreds of wonderful people that I’m sure I would not have met any other way. I’ve tried to see AIDS as a challenge to begin living, instead of a sign to begin dying.
“AIDS forced me to take responsibility for my own life – for the choices I had made and the choices I could still make. For better or worse, AIDS has made me the man I am today.” (Callen, 1990, 10)
We could surely all learn from his uplifting attitude.
The Healing Power of Love
Perhaps one of Michael’s greatest gifts to the world was his strong hope. Author Sean Strub reports of Michael’s 1990 book, Surviving AIDS, written at a time when HIV was largely seen as a death sentence:
“In Surviving AIDS, Callen interviewed people with AIDS about why they thought they were alive. He found that those who had survived the longest shared three important traits: They believed survival was possible; they could identify a reason to get up in the morning; and when asked how they treated their illness, they could rattle off a list of different strategies. What was on the list wasn’t important. Survivors sought survival; seeking and experimenting with various treatments and strategies was the key.
“Callen told me he was accused of offering people with AIDS ‘cruel hope’ by suggesting that survival was possible. “I tell them there’s no such thing as cruel hope,” he said, “Hope is hope – either you have it or you don’t.” ” (Strub, 2014, 236).
Such a concept as ‘hope’ might be open to accusations of demonstrating a religious mindset. Lawrence Rifkin suggests an alternative view of hope, divorced from the populist vision of a utopian, dreamy-eyed fantasy that denies the ugly face of reality:
So let’s admit straight out: humanism is not about hope. It’s about facing the world as it actually exists and making the best of it. It’s about looking this real world in the eye and, using imagination and initiative, building castles in the sand, not castles in the sky. It’s about finding goodness within the spectrum of what’s real and what’s possible. And in facing such truths, humanists don’t look outside nature for salvation; they don’t seek change through wish fulfillment. This perspective is not a limitation. It’s a motivator. It’s the ground for positive action and results.
It seems to me that this is actually the form of hope that Michael Callen grasped and shared widely. A gay cliché of dark humour during that same era was that if life offers you lemons, make lemonaids. This is what Callen did, not denying the world’s problems but defying them; offering enlightenment to those facing darkness; offering a tomorrow for those whose today offers little. We can learn a lesson from him a generation later, whether facing cancer or COVID, poverty or prosperity, pride or prejudice.
On The Other Side
Australian AIDS historian Nick Cook recalls Michael Callen’s ‘show-stopping speech’ at Australia’s Third National Conference on AIDS in Hobart in August 1988, where he ‘gave a rousing address about refusing to be ashamed of his infection’ (Cook, 2020, 143). This encouraged, ‘the first major coming out of people with HIV’ in Australia, led by activists Chris Carter and Terry Giblett (Menadue, 2014, 20) – a virtual takeover of the conference by HIV-positive Australian activists gatecrashing the stage, coming out to the world – and to each other – for the first time; amidst applause, cheers, tears, hugs and a standing ovation from the audience – in defiance of widespread stigma and discrimination across the nation (Cook, 2020, 144 – 150). In that event, Michael Callen changed Australia.
I am fortunate to own a copy of Michael’s books, in one of which he has inscribed to its previous owner: “Celebrate diversity and heal AIDS with love!” Such words are surely worth remembering during this current pandemic and beyond.
“Together we have come this far
Don’t wonder where the heroes are
You are one!” – The Healing Power of Love,
(c) 1986 by Michael Callen & Marsha Malamet
(Callen, 1987, 94)
Michael Callen died of AIDS at age 38 on 27 December 1993. Had he been spared that fate, he would have celebrated his 66th birthday just this month. We can only wonder what music, what activism, and what hope he might have offered the world during those fruitful years of life that he was denied. Maybe that is his last lesson to us: to grasp every day and every opportunity while we can. Because love is all we have for now, what we don’t have is time.
Thank you, Michael.
This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
Berkowitz, Richard & Callen, Michael, with editorial assistance by Dworkin, Richard (1983). How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, New York: News From the Front Publications, May.
Callen, Michael, ed. (1987). Surviving and Thriving with AIDS, New York: People With AIDS Coalition Inc.
Callen, Michael, ed. (1988). Surviving and Thriving with AIDS Volume Two: Collected Wisdom, New York: People With AIDS Coalition Inc., August.
Callen, Michael (1990). Surviving AIDS, New York: HarperCollins.
Cook, Nick (2020). Fighting For Our Lives: The history of a community response to AIDS, Sydney: NewSouth Publishing/University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
Jones, Matthew T (2020). Love Don’t Need a Reason: The Life & Music of Michael Callen, punctum books, 11 May.
Menadue, David (2014). ‘Stigmatised but largely invisible’, in John Rule, ed., Through our eyes: Thirty Years of people living with HIV responding to the HIV and AIDS epidemics in Australia, Newtown: NAPWHA, July, 18 – 21.
Strub, Sean (2014). Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival, New York: Scribner.
In 1993, Minerva Books published a memoir written by Melbourne academic, John Foster, which immortalised the life and death of his partner. A generation later, we are experiencing another pandemic, and this book – subsequently reissued by Black Inc. in 2003 and most recently in 2016 by the Text Publishing Company – is something of an overlooked classic. Given its literary merit – Peter Craven (1994) praises this writing as “unparalleled in Australian letters” – it is surprising that John Foster’s book has not received wider acclamation.
The answer, it seems, might be found in the historical context of the times. A generation has now passed since the arrival of AIDS, and much of our societal ignorance, fear and hysteria have dissolved into the calm of complacency. AIDS, which was once loudly denounced everywhere from pulpit to Parliament, has instead succumbed to the ultimate stigma: that of being generally forgotten and invisible. Foster’s novel is both a victim of, and a challenge against, such invisibility. It reminds us that HIV/AIDS is still here – and that we are greatly diminished when we overlook the courage of its heroes.
Take Me To Paris, Johnny is the real-life story of Juan Céspedes, the Cuban refugee and US emigre who arrives in Melbourne in 1986 to begin a new life filled with love, cautious hope and limited possibilities – only to be struck down with AIDS. Foster’s affectionate testimony to Juan’s resilience transforms the young man into the human personification of John Donne’s call for compassion: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind…” Juan’s Cuban mother and grandmother – whose distant lives interweave a mixture of both compassion and heartbreaking tragedy – are also transformed by Foster into figures who, through their suffering and loss, are evocative of the mother of Jesus. Such religious allusion subtly enriches Foster’s writing at different times throughout the novel.
Foster’s devout religious convictions might puzzle anyone who believes the term “gay Christian” to be potentially oxymoronic – even more so in the 1980s, when religious-based vilification was aimed at many people with AIDS. Such contradictions, however, are apparently not unusual for John Foster: an administrator who hates bureaucracy (Robertson, 1994) and an academic who falls in love with a self-educated dancer. Most paradoxically, Foster is an historian who teaches his students about the horrors of the Holocaust whilst conceding in his book that history holds a callous disregard for mere mortals: “Mostly it neither absolves nor condemns; it simply forgets”. Like his teaching, Foster’s personal memoir is a protest against such oblivion – this latter being a tribute to his partner, Juan, whose deathbed exclamation of heartbreaking despair, “I have accomplished nothing”, sparks Foster’s determination to document his life and death (Rickard, 2003).
The story is large and literate in scope, evocative even of a Shakespearean epic. Foster’s star-crossed lovers battle both society’s disapproval of their relationship and a deadlier ‘plague on both their houses’. Whereas Shakespeare’s fictional characters die in suicidal despair, Foster’s real-life lovers find consolation within their relationship: “We made it, Johnny. Didn’t we?”
John and Juan’s relationship can also be seen as an Australian story because it is the embodiment of multiculturalism and diversity. Their potentially intergenerational partnership – common enough in the gay community (Wilde, 2008) – is complicated by differences of race, education, class, culture and language. Foster nevertheless demonstrates unconditional love and acceptance, for example by accepting Juan’s infidelities either by choosing wilful ignorance or through a dismissive attitude akin to “boys will be boys”. Such is the nature of their unconventional partnership; one which some religions might propound as being symptomatic of the ‘sinful’ nature of homosexuality, but which Foster, as a Christian, presents without apology or reservation – his is neither a tale of political activism nor moral turpitude (Dessaix 1994), but simply a narration exposing a facet of what he considers to be real life.
Despite this implicit documentation of ‘ordinariness’, Foster’s writing also resonates with his personal sense of ‘otherness’ as revealed in his earlier book about WW2 German Jewish refugees when he summarises the effects of war, flight as refugees and subsequent cultural assimilation: “In Melbourne, German Jews have ceased to be a community…It is the memory of a past which is proud, terrible and still problematic” (Foster, 1986). Such mixed feelings and fears are reflected in Take Me To Paris, Johnny when Juan’s difficulties as a refugee and a gay man with AIDS allude to the plight of “pariahs” within Australian society (Baker 1994); they imply a concern by Foster that AIDS might decimate his own gay family just as life’s harsh realities ravaged members of the German Jewish community. There may even be a further parallel concerning the struggle within Foster’s own faith as a gay Christian, a minority within a minority which was under attack from both disease and discrimination. It may indeed be John Foster’s very underlying assumption – that gay men can find acceptance and love within the religious community – which has contributed to the avoidance of this text by some Australian readers.
Juan’s more obvious ‘otherness’ exposes different possible interpretations of his life and motivations. Readers might criticise Juan for relying on the financial support of older men in order to compensate for his own lifelong failure to forge a successful career for himself (Dessaix, 1994). A more benign interpretation might see Juan as someone who strives to improve his lot (Hanrahan, 2003) but upon whom fate inflicts many cruelties – until he is blessed through the friendship of John Foster. Williams (1994) evokes this latter alternative in his character description of Juan: “attractively elegant, talented, flawed, and unlucky in just about everything, except his choice of lovers.” As an example of the fickle finger of fate, Juan lies dying just as the “Grim Reaper” campaign is terrorising Australian television in 1987, and this fills Foster with impotent rage. After all, the faceless ‘other’ who is being publicly vilified as someone to fear is none other than gentle Juan. In the end, it matters not whatever might form the course or cause of Juan’s life journey; readers are uplifted by the end of his vigil when he discovers the redemptive power of love.
“Who, in their right mind, would actually want to read a book … about AIDS?” – apparently wrote one reviewer of an early New Zealand AIDS anthology, and was soundly criticised for this comment by Tom McLean, a Scottish journalist who was living and dying in New Zealand at around the same time as the characters in Foster’s book. McLean wrote his own AIDS autobiography, If I Should Die: Living With AIDS, dying three days after its publication (Young, 2002?a) – departing this mortal coil, like Juan Céspedes, on a Good Friday (Young, 2002?b).
The vexed question remains: “Who would want to read a book about AIDS?” – particularly in this decade when AIDS is seen as being barely newsworthy. Perhaps the answer is obvious: Everyone, because in learning about John and Juan, we are learning about ourselves. Why?
Indeed, why did the world find Anne Frank’s diary about the Holocaust to be so compelling and personal? It is an endearing coincidence that Anne Frank and Juan Céspedes share a childlike optimism despite imminent disaster; moreover, both their testimonies resonate with a mix of inner personal voices and external human truths which echo poet Walt Whitman’s decree: “I am large, I contain multitudes”.
Robin Grove (1994/1995) summarises another parallel in Foster’s book: “JUAN is JOHN, John Juan, each in the language of the other…” and this is the first of many parallels which are replete within and without the memoir. Juan receives almost identical care at the start and end of his life; his compassion for the friend who probably gave him HIV is shown through his caring support as the other man lies dying of AIDS – and mirrors the care he receives in due course from Foster, to whom he probably transmitted the same virus; the lovers both have funerals at Easter (Brady, 2004) and are buried together in Kew Cemetery. Such is the level of connection which unites John and Juan in both life and death; such is Foster’s skill that he can weave together such disparate threads of memory into a colourful tapestry of love and loss.
The book’s original subtitle, A Life Accomplished in the Era of AIDS, was a refutation of Juan’s deathbed exclamation of despair and defeat. This subtitle was deleted for the subsequent reissues, and may reflect the changing face of AIDS in Australia since Foster’s book was first published. The genre of Australian novel-length AIDS life narrative was a transitory and largely overlooked phenomenon; commencing with an autobiography by Eric Michaels (Unbecoming: An AIDS Diary, 1990) and ending with another by Robert Newey (Lessons Learnt, 2005); the arrival of new drug regimes then ended the conspicuity of suffering and death. AIDS now inspires little interest for most Australians; they see it as affecting marginalised peoples who are geographically or emotionally distant from their own lives. This is another tragedy of the pandemic: we fail to recognise noble heroes and role models. As one character comments in Foster’s book: “I sense from your account… that many people are increased in their humanity because of Juan’s presence among them.” A common truism is equally fitting: those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.
Most significantly, John Foster’s text is a story of humans and families: individuals, lovers, friends, biological versus adoptive families, religious and gay communities – and indeed the whole human family. In this mix, Juan is presented as both child and adult seeking his way in the world, while John Foster becomes both lover and mentor. The heartbreak of Juan’s biological family as they lose him to refugee flight is counterbalanced with the pain faced by Juan’s adopted Melbourne family as he is fades away with AIDS.
Take Me To Paris, Johnny has acquired extra layers of meaning since its initial publication. Juan originally escaped from Guantánamo in Cuba – a place which has taken on a new resonance around the world in more recent times as the location for other forms of cruelty – and his identity as a refugee also places his story within a more contemporary Australian context of discrimination and alienation. Most pointedly in recent times, the whole world has learn what it means to endure under the spectre of pandemic. Foster could not have envisaged that his book would remain as relevant as tomorrow’s headlines in the decades following his death.
John Foster shows his consummate skill as an author through his realism and compassion: love may not conquer all, but it makes everything bearable. His legacy is a work which echoes with the voice and essence of his departed friend, Juan Céspedes. In turn, readers can only wonder how many other Juans have been forgotten, with their stories left untold. Perhaps Juan’s greatest accomplishment is that, in the pages of this memoir, he speaks on behalf of them all.
This is based upon an unpublished book review written in 2010, related to my PhD Studies on, “A Social History of HIV/AIDS in Melbourne during the ‘Crisis Years’ 1981 to 1997”. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
Mark Baker, 1994. ‘Gentle Critic of the Hills Hoist Culture’, in Michael Visontay (editor), ‘Time and Tide’ (obituaries), The Australian, 18 May 1994, p. 16.
Jim Brady, 1994. ‘Eulogy’, in Baker, Mark, editor (1997), History on the Edge: Essays in Memory of John Foster 1944-1994, University of Melbourne History Department.
Peter Craven, 1994. ‘A Rare Thing’, in Voices, Vol. IV Number 2, Winter, pp. 118 – 122; an excerpted version of this essay was reprinted as the Foreword to the 2003 reissue of John Foster’s book.
Robert Dessaix, 1994. ‘The Dark Rose’, in Meanjin #1.
Stephen Dow, 2003. ‘AIDS, Fragile Love and Dying’, in The Age, 28 September, Agenda section, p. 10.
John Foster (editor), 1986.Community of Fate: Memoirs of German Jews in Melbourne, Allen & Unwin.
John Foster, 1993. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Minerva.
John Foster (reissue), 2003. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Black Inc. (includes Foreword by Peter Craven and Afterword by John Rickard).
John Foster (reissue), 2016. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Text Publishing Company. (includes Foreword by Peter Craven and Afterword by John Rickard).
Robin Grove, 1994/1995. ‘A Memory’s Shape’, in Island No 60/61, Spring/Summer, pp. 68-71. (Note: this article contains a beautiful photograph of Juan which is not available in any of the other literature).
John Hanrahan, 2003. ‘Loving and Dying’, in Australian Book Review, November.
Tom Mclean, 1989. If I Should Die: Living With AIDS, Benton Ross Publishers, p. 56.
John Rickard, 2003. ‘Afterword’, in John Foster, 2003, as above.
Ian Robertson, 1994. ‘Obituary: John Foster’, in The Age, 14 May, ‘Extra’ p. 8.
Winston Wilde, 2008. Legacies of Love: A Heritage of Queer Bonding, Haworth Press.
Stephen J Williams, 1994. ‘The Personal Will Be History, One Day’, in Overland No. 136, Spring, pp. 84 & 85.
Hugh Young, 2002?a. ‘HIV/AIDS in New Zealand‘, in Queer History New Zealand: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender New Zealand History, Queer History New Zealand.
– – – – – – – 2002?b. ‘A Chronology of Homosexuality in New Zealand: Part 5 – From Law Reform to the Present’, in Queer History New Zealand: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender New Zealand History: Part 5, Queer History New Zealand.
In 2019, I attended a public event where speakers criticised the Australian government’s proposed ‘Religious Freedoms’ Bills as a license to permit homophobic and transphobic discrimination. There, one prominent LGBTQIA+ community leader thanked ‘queers of faith’ for their ongoing work to defend LGBT rights—as well she should. And yet she failed to also thank queer non-believers, many of whom have also worked for queer rights. Perhaps she should have contemplated the words of heterosexual atheist Phillip Adams:
There are some parallels here between atheism and homosexuality, ‘the Love that dared not speak its name’ as Oscar Wilde pronounced it, leading to millions living their life in the closet. Atheism was, and to a large extent still remains, the philosophy that dared not speak its name. And it’s only recently that I’ve observed atheists coming out, finally confident enough—to borrow a gay slogan—to be loud and proud. Incidentally, spare a thought for gay atheists. (Adams, 2010, 2:37)
The concept of gay atheism is hardly a new idea: I have been living this reality for decades. Queer communities comprise individuals who have undertaken their own personal journey to arrive at a place of autonomy and empowerment, difference and diversity. Atheist communities are the same.
Losing my religion
I recall the exact moment when I realised that I had finally lost the last shreds of my religious world-view in the early 1990s. I was surrounded by my new, queer friends, at workshops for the AIDS Memorial Quilt, where people came in to make panels for those who had been lost to the epidemic. Together, we all shared cups of tea, shoulders to cry on, and lots of hugs. As a former Christian, I was momentarily dumbstruck to realise that there was more genuinely unconditional love in that room than in any church I had ever attended. This shell-shocked group of social outcasts, volunteer activists, and carers, taught me that treating others with basic love and respect was not the self-proclaimed monopoly of any one religion or philosophy, but was actually a pragmatic expression of our shared, common humanity.
And yet history tells a different story. It speaks of marginalisation and exclusion. Particularly under the historic influences of the Abrahamic religions, queers and atheists have been largely proscribed and persecuted: from the burning of witches, faggots and heretics, to family disinheritance and conversion therapy; from the execution of sodomites and apostates, to the ongoing cultural genocide of queer youth, and more.
I have previously noted Camille Beredjick’s observation that religious homophobia can cause a queer person to become atheist (Allshorn, 2018, 116), and this is no more apparent than in the case of gay activist Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, a decorated Vietnam War veteran in the US Air Force. Coming out on the front cover of Time magazine in 1975, he was subsequently court-martialled and discharged by a panel of military personnel who were all religious (Duberman, 1991, 315). His Mormon church then excommunicated him, effectively not once but twice. Ultimately, ‘his faith and spirituality were crushed and he considered himself somewhere ‘between an agnostic and an atheist’.’ (O’Donovan, 2004) His personal resilience and courage enabled his survival until his 1988 death from AIDS, but his loss of faith is rarely mentioned by biographers.
A similar case involves Henry Gerber, who founded the Society for Human Rights, which historian Jonathan Katz records as being the earliest documented gay rights organisation in the USA. Established in 1924, the Society was quickly targeted by police, who arrested its members and confiscated its documentation. This meant that both Henry Gerber and his Society—along with their altruistic ambitions—were largely erased from queer civil rights history. Gerber later attributed this fate, at least in part, to a mixture of ‘religion and politics’, self-identifying as ‘now an avowed atheist’ and openly espousing atheist views, such as: ‘In America, where the Christian religion is losing ground, the horizon is growing brighter for homosexuals’ (Katz, 1994, 419 & 554-557).
Such stories reflect an ongoing experience within our communities. When Israel Folau recently declared that gays and atheists (and other ‘sinners’) are going to hell, his was a familiar historical and cultural narrative regarding a purported hellish afterlife for people who are different—and a hell which many theists throughout history have seemed willing to create for us in this life as well.
‘Smash the Church!’
The Stonewall riots and gay liberation are often proclaimed as being definitive moments in our fight for collective civil rights. But these were not explicitly the start of our collective queer journey out of oppression and towards liberation. Ultimately, this journey began whenever the first individual human being began to think independently and fight against his/her/their oppression. Thus we see the most basic parallel between queers and atheists.
Nor was this journey an easy one. Gay liberation was a war, a declaration of independence, and a call for social revolution. In the UK, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) disrupted the 1971 launch of the Festival of Light (mudlark121, 2019). In the USA, one early GLF street slogan was: ‘2, 4, 6, 8, Smash the Church, Smash the State!’ (Avicolli Mecca, 2009, back cover). Daughters of Bilitis co-founders Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin noted: ‘Everything that’s happened to oppress homosexuals today stems from organised religion. If it hadn’t been for all that shit, we wouldn’t have our problems today.’ (Tobin & Wicker, 1972, 53-4) The 1971 Manifesto of the ‘Third World Gay Revolution’ stated: ‘We want an end to all institutional religions because they aid in genocide by teaching superstition and hatred of Third World people, homosexuals and women…’ (Jay and Young, 1992). One meme expressing such sentiment can be found on a Melbourne badge from that same era: SODOM TODAY, GOMORRAH THE WORLD.
In seeking to be all-encompassing, gay liberation created its own downfall. One GLF activist recalls: ‘GLF didn’t last. We got involved in these endless theoretical debates about what we should do and what our relationship was to other organisations… GLF disintegrated into so many splinter groups that it just disappeared’ (Marcus, 1992, 185-6). In its wake, gay liberation seeded many other activist groups that shared its socially revolutionary aims, including some that subverted religious traditions. These included the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and the Radical Faeries.
This culture war continues today in other forms. Since losing the Marriage Equality postal survey, Australian religious right-wing conservatives have extended their attacks on the Safe Schools program and trans rights. They continue to advocate gay conversion therapy. They demand new ‘religious rights’ to discriminate against queer people. In our increasingly secular twenty-first century world, such religious bigotry provides a strong argument for atheism. It also demonstrates how inadequate are outdated dogmas to provide guidance in a future that may contain new understandings of life, habitat, self-identity, human rights, gender and sexuality. Humanity will surely find fresh perspective in the quote from JBS Haldane that the Universe is queerer than we can suppose.
The history of queer atheism is the story of striving to build such a future.
The rise and fall of militant gay atheism
A formal LGBT atheist movement was born during the ascendancy of gay liberation idealism in the 1970s. This was an era when ‘Kill A Queer For Christ’ bumper stickers adorned some US motor vehicles (Perry & Swicegood, 1991, 13) while anti-gay campaigns were led by US conservatives such as Anita Bryant and John Briggs. The anti-gay Briggs Initiative of 1978 was soundly defeated after US President Jimmy Carter publicly spoke against it, following a rally by gay atheist protesters at a public meeting (Rolfson, 1978a, 7). In his last column in the Bay Area Reporter before his assassination, gay atheist Harvey Milk credited gay atheist Tom Rolfsen with being instrumental in ensuring President Carter’s public support: ‘And Tom Rolfsen pulled it all together in Sacramento last week. Tom’s idea, Tom’s work, Tom’s money, and a group went up there to confront the President of the United States. The rest is history. Congratulations Tom …’ (cited in Rolfsen, 1978b, 5).
Rolfsen and his lifelong partner, Chal Cochran, became founding members of GALA (the Gay Atheist League of America, later renamed Gay And Lesbian Atheists), in 1976. Their San Francisco chapter ran social events and meetings, and published a monthly newsletter and various magazines. The GALA Review began publication in 1978 and continued until 1989, at which point it boasted over a thousand readers; however, the workload upon then-76 year-old Rolfsen forced a scaling-back of their activities (GALA Board, 1989, 1).
It is Texas where perhaps the most controversial gay atheist activities were led by gay couple Don Sanders and Mark Franceschini. The ‘Houston LGBT History’ web page is a good source of material regarding the social, activist, and outreach activities of this Houston group, and of the openly hostile reception it frequently received from religious members of their local community. Operating since 1981, the group began its decline in September 1992 following the death of 38 year-old Franceschini, whose obituary testified: ‘From gay pride parades to ACT UP demonstrations, Mark Franceschini could be counted on to yell the loudest and walk the proudest’ (Sanders, 1993, 4). His partner, Don Sanders, died three years later (Texas Obituary Project, 1995).
These atheist groups—once fueled by gay liberation anger and outrage—are now largely forgotten by queer historians and social commentators. A new generation appears to prefer a less confrontational form of atheist activism.
Humanism and human rights
Australian-born UK activist Peter Tatchell is one example of a gay atheist for modern times. He has been a prominent humanist and human rights activist for many years, and is director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation. He observes, ‘A decent, better world is possible—and we don’t need religion to make it happen. All we need is love and people willing to turn that love into political action for human freedom’ (Tatchell, 2009, 309).
Another prominent example is someone who dates from the earliest days of queer rights. Gay activist pioneer, Magnus Hirschfeld, was a secular Jew, a humanist, and a socialist (Tielman, 1997). He co-founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, which advocated for homosexual rights. He even joined the feminist movement because, as a gay man, he saw a link between the need for queer rights and women’s rights (Finamore 2018).
Other overseas queer humanists have also been prominent activists. Antony Grey has been called ‘Britain’s first gay rights activist’ after helping to secure law reform via the passage of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act (Geen 2010). Rob Tielman is credited with having played a ‘prominent, pioneer role in the Dutch gay movement’ (Gasenbeek and Gogineni 2002, 64), a movement which he documents as having existed continuously since 1911 (Tielman 1997, 21). Dan Savage is known for his writings and podcasts, and perhaps mostly for his 2010 founding of It Gets Better, an Internet website offering bullied GLBTIQ teenagers hope and positivity. Groups like the LGBT Humanists UK, the Pink Triangle Trust (UK), and the LGBTQ Humanist Alliance (USA), also enjoy a long history of activism.
Australia has its own proud history of humanist LGBT activism. In December 1966, the first issue of the Australian Humanist (AH) featured an article in which heterosexual women’s rights activist Beatrice Faust supported gay rights (Faust, 1966, 2). Public meetings, networking, and other activism ensued. Subsequent discourse included gay activist Lex Watson writing subversively in the December 1971isue of AH that: ‘Homosexuality is an alternative sex role, an alternative life style, as inconsequential in one sense as a preference for red hair to black.’ (Watson, 1971, 38).
In 1970, the Humanist Society of Victoria produced a pamphlet entitled, The Homosexual and the Law — A Humanist View, and sent a copy to every member of State Parliament. Further copies sold out in bookshops, necessitating at least one reprint run (Reinganum, 1971, 6). The 5-page booklet criticised the law for its foundation in Biblical scripture, reinforced by its prohibition of what was legally termed ‘the abominable crime of buggery’—an emotive word that prevented Australian society from adopting a more ‘reasoned approach’ to the issue (HSV, 1970, 1 & 2). The booklet was later reprinted by Society Five, an early Melbourne gay rights group (Society Five, 1974).
Humanism offers more than simply an atheist version of liberation theology. It provides ethical cogency for atheists, agnostics, secularists and the non-religious. Humanism proposes more than a negative attitude (‘atheist’ = ‘non-theist’) and provides opportunities to contribute positively to society.
Love thy neighbour
Lesbian atheist comedian Sue-Ann Post quips: ‘I once auditioned for the part of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar. I gave what I thought was a very realistic rendition of, I Don’t Know How To Love Him.’ (Post, 2010, 6:02) Levity aside, the problem of ‘feeling the love’ is very real in Australia, where I see religious privilege in our queer communities. I observe queer theists dominating public discourse and setting queer agendas, while openly atheist speakers are largely excluded from queer conferences, rallies, newspapers, publications, coalitions and networks. Only in independent social media discussions (and in Bent Street!) am I most likely to see any public acknowledgment that queer non-believers even exist.
Queer atheist blogger and author Greta Christina writes of similar experiences within US queer communities: ‘I’ve heard LGBT leaders talk about how important it is to reach out to people of different religious faiths… with no mention whatsoever made of reaching out to people with no religious faith. Not even in lip service’ (Christina, 2008). It must be questioned why queers cling so strongly to dying religious philosophies that have traditionally oppressed them.
While many religions claim a monopoly upon good works or virtue, the reality is that good people proliferate across space and time because of common humanity. Atheists are a part of this ubiquity. We can revisit the old GLF ideal of social transformation instead of assimilation, and use our difference to make a difference. This would surely marry the human existential desire for significance with a pragmatic, humanist response to the world’s injustices.
In seeking to change the world, we should start with ourselves. Transphobic ideologies appear to have been adopted in some atheist circles (Sorrell, 2018; EssenceOfThought, 2019), demonstrating a need for queer atheists to participate in greater community discourse and thereby contribute to what gay atheist and HIV/AIDS activist Michael Callen advocated: ‘The Healing Power of Love’.
Gay liberation may yet make way for atheist liberation—as exemplified in the life of US magician and atheist James Randi, who came out as gay in 2010 at the age of 81, stating on his website: ‘Here is where I have chosen to stand and fight. And I think that I have already won this battle by simply publishing this statement’ (Randi, 2010).
Humanist Society of Victoria, 1970. The Homosexual and the Law — A Humanist View.
Karla Jay and Allen Young (Eds.), 1992. Reprint of ‘What We Want, What We Believe’ from Gay Flames No.11, in Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, twentieth anniversary edition, London: GMP Publishers, 363-367.
Jonathan Ned Katz, 1994. Gay/Lesbian Almanac, New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers.
Eric Marcus, 1992. ‘The Radical Activist—Martha Shelley’, in Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Rights, New York: HarperCollins, 175-186.
mudlark121, 2019. ‘Today in London religious history, 1971: the Gay Liberation Front mash up reactionary Christian Festival of Light’, Past Tense, 9 September; at
Connell O’Donovan, 2004. ‘Leonard Matlovich Makes Time’, on Affirmation: Gay & Lesbian Mormons website, September. Retrieved from Wayback Machine Internet Archive.
Troy D Perry & Thomas LP Swicegood, 1991. Profiles in Gay & Lesbian Courage, New York: St Martin’s Press.
Peter Tatchell, 2009. ‘My Nonreligious Life: A Journey from Superstition to Rationalism’, in Russell Blackford & Udo Schüklenk (eds.), 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, 300-309.
While the world largely regards COVID-19 as an unusual and singular event in living memory, the reality is that many epidemics and pandemics have swept the world. We can learn from another pandemic in our recent past that has killed millions and changed our cultural and human landscape – or have we already forgotten its many, many lessons?
While flags, uniforms and banners might arguably be seen as aligning with nationalism, elitism, or other forms of division, fabrics can also be used to bring people together in widespread community bonding – none more self evident than with the AIDS Quilt, which formed a strong public testimonial between the late 1980s and the early years of the 21st century. Fighting stigma and prejudice, the Quilt served a public function during a public health emergency.
Today, a COVID-impacted world could learn from the achievements of the activists, mothers, families and volunteers who formed a virtual underground army. Their activism during the catastrophe of AIDS led to reforms in social attitudes, religious homophobia, decriminalisation, anti-discrimination protections, sex education and sexual autonomy, family and inheritance rights, health care, and marriage equality. Will long-term positive benefits somehow also arise from the modern-day catastrophe of COVID-19? Such social and societal reforms could help to improve lives across the developing world in particular, especially in places such as Africa, where LGBTQIA+ people today suffer from the same abominable treatment that they endured in western society during the era of AIDS some two or three decades ago.
As a committee member/supporter of the AIDS Memorial Quilt Project Melbourne for over twenty years, I recall its many educational and support roles for those who were grieving, memorialising, or trying to overcome ignorance, prejudice and stigma. This essay comprises a talk I gave to an LGBT History Conference in Sydney on 24 September 2010.
The Australian AIDS Quilt is our nation’s most evocative public response to AIDS and it remains our largest ever example of activist and community art. Following the 1987 founding of the American AIDS Quilt, called the NAMES Project, the Australian AIDS Quilt was launched on the first annual World AIDS Day, 1 December 1988. Panels were made by families, partners, friends, colleagues, workmates, nurses, carers or others in memory of people who had been lost to AIDS. Panels were sewn into blocks of eight, and these quilt blocks were then displayed individually or collectively. Each quilt panel was a unique testimony to an individual, a group or to a slogan such as “See It and Understand”. Names, dates, photos, personal messages, badges, clothing, teddy bears or more exotic personal items were often included on a panel. It is estimated that approximately 900 panels were eventually produced across Australia.*
Although the AIDS Quilt might be seen as an example of gay activism and a radical appropriation of a traditionally conservative crafting form, it is simply one manifestation of quilts being used for activist purposes. Despite its being an offshoot of the NAMES Project, the Australian AIDS Quilt also has historical and cultural precedents from elsewhere and elsewhen.
Quilts enjoy a long tradition around the world. It has been suggested that quilting may have travelled from Asia, where early surviving examples include grave goods; to Europe, where it became popular as clothing for knights during the Crusades (von Gwinner, 1988, 12 & 13). These early symbolic links between quilting and death or warfare would prove to be a recurring motif.
The 11th century Bayeux Tapestry is a famous example of medieval embroidery. Its pictorial form resembles surviving medieval quilts which suggest that such textiles were commonly used during those times to present information to largely illiterate populations – and once again, we see themes relating to warfare and death.
US medieval historian Norman Cantor reports that tapestries were hung across doorways and windows of medieval churches to alleviate common fears of airborne plague contagion (Cantor, 2002, 22) and German art historian Schnuppe von Gwinner reports that African burial cloths, resembling AIDS Quilt panels, were used in colonial Dahomey and Nigeria (op cit, 29 – 32). Thus we can see that such crafting has been a popular tool in response to plague and in memorialising past lives.
In 17th century France, bed quilts were hung from windows to commemorate religious processions (ibid, 16). This connection between quilts and street marches resembles the AIDS Quilt being displayed in conjunction with AIDS Candlelight Vigils during the 1980s and 1990s.
Socially isolated groups in the USA, such as pioneer and Amish women, included this quilting within their traditions. During the US Civil War, women sewed quilts in order to raise money and awareness for the abolitionist cause (Brackman, 1997, 12). It is also claimed – probably incorrectly – that quilts may have been used as markers for the “underground railway” to guide escaping slaves to freedom (Dobard & Tobin, 1999; Brackman, 1997, 14 & 15; Wikipedia, 2020). Clearly, there is a long association – both real and reputed – between quilting and providing a voice for disempowered peoples.
Australian quilting historians Annette Gero and Margaret Rolfe report that quilting has enjoyed a long history in Australia, where quilts have been used not simply for comfort but also to convey messages. Some quilting traditions have also provided clear parallels between war, mortality, crisis and AIDS, and have supported disempowered peoples.
Aboriginal women made decorative patchwork cloaks and sleeping covers from possum skins (Gero, 2008, 9; Rolfe, 1987, 14). One surviving cloak includes what may be representations of clan patterns (Beasley & Conte, 1995, 33).
Quilting also offered some degree of self-sufficiency for female convicts and an opportunity for colonial women to provide both bedding and social narrative within their families. Subsequent immigrant women have also made quilts to acknowledge significant life transitions. One recent group of Australian Iraqi women has used quilts to promote compassion for asylum seekers – a marginalised group in our modern society (Gero, 2008, 13 & 14; Marshall, 2004, ii).
The National Quilt Register lists over 1000 quilts from Australia’s history, many of which represent life transitions such as birth, war, marriage, illness, hard times and death (National Quilt Register, 2020) and some include recycled materials due to a scarcity of cloth among pioneer women. Such recycling was revisited and reinterpreted on the AIDS Quilt, through the occasional inclusion of a deceased person’s clothing on their panel.
In the Australian AIDS Quilt, a sampling of 190 panels (an estimated 20% of the entire Quilt) reveals that men comprised approximately 40% of identifiable quilt makers in the sample. Their contribution within a traditional “female” activity gives us another reason why the AIDS Quilt was a significant community project. But it must be stressed that, within this sample, women comprised approximately 60% of identifiable Quilt makers and they extended the traditional “female” roles of nurturing and quilting into activism on behalf of their gay sons, brothers, friends and patients – yet their contribution is largely overlooked by the gay male community’s social appropriation of the AIDS Quilt.
Australian quilts made during times of war provide the greatest parallel to the AIDS Quilt. Both forms of quilting were created at times when many young men were dying, and were a personal response to battles that involved love, loss, community, death and grief. In a break from the traditional female stereotype, war quilts were made by men (Gero, op cit, 129) as were many AIDS Quilt panels. Australia’s first war quilt was made in 1806 by a Prussian soldier who had been imprisoned during the Napoleonic wars (ibid). Later war quilts encompass a range of conflicts including the Boer War, both World Wars and Korea.
During the World Wars, women reclaimed their role in quilting by creating “Red Cross Quilts”, which were fundraisers for the Red Cross (ibid, 161). One example is a World War One “signature quilt” created by women in Williamstown, Victoria, who were inspired by one of their sons who sent home patches of cloth containing signatures from the battlefield. Some of those who were featured, including the young man at the centre of the quilt, did not survive the war (Author unknown, 2010). Further “Red Cross” quilts continue to be made. Although they are intended primarily as fundraisers, they enable local communities to publicly show their support for a humanitarian cause and have parallels with signature panels connected to the AIDS Quilt, which also enabled visitors to leave messages of support.
The Australian War Memorial reports that women imprisoned in Changi Prison during World War Two also compiled signature quilts which included personal messages, the meaning of which has now been lost (Australian War Memorial, 2017). Some AIDS Quilt panels also contain cryptic personal messages.
Australian scholars such as Robert Ariss and Jennifer Power have written of the role of the AIDS Quilt in providing both ritual and structure for shared grieving among the gay community during the 1990s. Ariss drew upon a parallel from the 1980s, when an AIDS diagnosis was often seen as a public and unintended double “coming out”. He suggested that “The Quilt is death coming out” (Ariss, 2004, 282), thereby breaking another social taboo. Perhaps this explains why the Quilt has almost disappeared from public view now that AIDS has largely faded from our collective awareness.
The AIDS Quilt began its decline during the mid to late 1990s. Death rates, activist burnout and the arrival of new medical treatments for AIDS may all have contributed to this decline. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some Australian gay men grew tired of visiting what had been nicknamed, “the doonah of death”. As the era of AIDS gave way to the era of living with HIV, the AIDS Quilt quietly disappeared from public view. It might therefore be seen as a product of its historical context rather than as a major contributor to ongoing discourse. The other Australian quilts discussed in this study also appear to follow this pattern of transitory fame.
Even though much of the AIDS Quilt has disappeared, some of it is still available for public viewing via live displays or on the Internet. Meanwhile, quilting has become a popular method for presenting memorial tributes. Recent examples include memorial quilts for those lost to other diseases, violence or armed conflict. The Australian Salvation Army has launched a “Life Keeper Memory Quilt”, a memorial to people lost to suicide (Benson, 2009). Thus quilting continues its perennial connections with conflict and death.
The Australian gay community founded and operated the AIDS Quilt as an assertive activist entity for over a decade, and the high participation rate of other groups of people provides a testimony to the creation of a memorial which promoted respect and diversity. A study of its place in both history and society enables us to fully appreciate how gay people operated in neither a cultural vacuum nor social isolation, and it also enriches our appreciation of the AIDS Quilt within a wider historical and cultural context. With its disappearance from public prominence, we are challenged to consider how best to ensure that its people do not fade from the rich tapestry of our lives, cultural memory or folklore.
*Estimate provided during conversation by the Secretary, Quilt Project Melbourne on 6 September 2010.
The above talk was preparation for my PhD Studies on, “A Social History of HIV/AIDS in Melbourne During the ‘Crisis Years’ 1981 to 1997”. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
Robert Ariss, 2004. ‘Re-Inventing Death: Gay Community Memorial Rites in Sydney, Australia’, in Robert Aldrich (editor), Gay Perspectives II: More Essays in Australian Gay Culture, University of Sydney.
“Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.” – Douglas Adams.
What does it mean to be human?
My background in science fiction demonstrates my own intersections of the personal with the political. In 1999, as the founder of a Melbourne-based LGBTI science fiction club called Spaced Out, I authored the club’s draft charter. Its goals included a recognition of diversity and a challenge to our science fictional friends and peers:
“We recognise that science fiction is a fun and popular medium and we no longer wish to be excluded from its fiction, art, cyberworlds or other creative forms…” Spaced Out, 1999.
I recall the energy and enthusiasm of the club’s early days: we published a number of newsletters and two fanzines, and our website won an Australian science fiction ‘Ditmar’ award. A professional author and other local luminaries became guests at our meetings while we, in turn, hosted panels at a Worldcon (Aussiecon 3). Our very existence, as both geeks and queers, identified us as a minority grouping within both communities; it was fun to confront double prejudice and it was interesting to see who supported us in either context.
Within a few short years, however, our creative impetus dwindled and our club focus narrowed, until the group became little more than a social locus for queer consumers of media science fiction – removing us from the stereotype of affective fans who appropriate culture and relocating us within the more commonly-held stereotype of passive consumers (Grossberg, 1992, 51 & 52). Thus we redefined our aspirations from Worldcon to Comicon. In hindsight, it can be asked whether our original club aims may have been, in some perverse way, too self-defensive: to reinterpret the ‘other’ in both real life and speculative fiction as being merely a figure worthy of acknowledgement and tolerance.
This was not my first adventure into such territory: the figure of the ‘other’ was more than an academic concept to me. I recall, as a child, watching a TV series from the late 1960s, The Invaders, which combined the ‘flying saucer’ craze with anti-communist fears from the McCarthy era. Even at my young age, I somehow knew that its conspiratorial warning – that ‘they’ were among us – held a more ubiquitous meaning.
Within a few years, as a teenager coming to terms with my awakening homosexuality, I would come to understand the larger metaphor of the ‘other’ in the midst of our heteronormative culture, wherein queer identities were (at the time) subject to both moral and legal sanction – an isolation that was most empathically evoked in such tales of alienation as Ted Sturgeon’s short story, A Saucer of Loneliness. In 1975, I instinctively recognised kinship with the young man who silently and momentarily cruised Logan within the cyberspace ‘Circuit’ from the film Logan’s Run. Later in my teens, my enthusiasm for Star Trek reinforced the concept of the alien being both within and without. By then, however, I had also started to question why science fiction explored the diversity of alien life forms but somehow managed to often overlook genuinely bohemian human characters and cultures.
The irony of how life can come full-circle was emphasised to me in 2012, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation commissioned a six-part series entitled, Outland, telling the story of an imaginary ‘gay science fiction fan club’ that was curiously located within the Australian city which really did have such a club. The series was advertised as being an exploration of inclusion but it excluded its real-life counterparts: its generic disclaimer dissociated its fictional characters from any real-life role models, and its fictional ‘otherness’ was further emphasised by its predominantly white male characters displaying very little real diversity. To me, its stories lacked the excitement of our real-life exploits in Spaced Out, where we had taken ‘one small step’ into groundbreaking territory and attempted to ‘boldly go where no fan had gone before’. Ultimately, Outland inverted media science fiction subtext: whereas LGBTQIA+ SF fans had traditionally sought to interpret ‘otherness’ as metaphoric queerness; we could now interpret our queerness as comprising metaphoric ‘otherness’.
This challenges us to ponder the nature of ‘queer science fictions’ and our place as creators, audiences, and participants. More than that, it reveals science fiction at its most humanistic: encouraging us to shape a better future – from the pages of his most famous story, we can find inspiration in the words of humanist and SF author Arthur C Clarke, himself purportedly gay: “For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something.”
Literary Science Fiction: A History of the Future
“Science fiction encourages us to explore… all the futures, good and bad, that the human mind can envision” – Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Science fiction is an intellectual exploration of one of Arthur C Clarke’s famous Three Laws which states that, “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible” – by extension, SF seeks to explore this idea in secular humanist terms: “The only way of discovering the limits of the human is to venture a little way past them into the transhuman, posthuman or sentient“.
Any consequent definition of science fiction is bound to be incomplete. Broadly, the genre might be defined – according to its very title – as comprising fiction about science, or how the human condition may be redefined by such technology. Traditionally, this has included stories about possible technological developments (spaceships, robots, time travel etc), or possible futures derived from real or potential science (climate change, nuclear apocalypse, alien life, virtual realities etc). In essence, this speculative fiction examines the human condition and how it may change in the future. Such exploration is potentially ripe for queer issues which examine emerging concepts of what it means to be fully human, and – beyond that – to extend this recognition to incorporate what biologist Bruce Baghemi refers to as the ‘polysexual, polygendered’ biosphere which is found across planet Earth (Baghemi, 1999, 7). By extension, our galactic dreams and visions could all be equally strange, inclusive and diverse.
The literary genre has arguably addressed this potential. As far back as True Story – the satirically-named spoof written by Lucian in the second century AD, complete with queer genders and sexualities (Richardson, 2001) – science fiction has been a genre replete with alien characters and situations of chaos that echo with queer sensitivities and themes. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a story detailing prejudice and alienation. We can all grok the alien within Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Isaac Asimov’s robotic character, Daneel Olivaw, and his ground-breaking female roboticist, Susan Calvin, are people reflecting the humanity of loneliness borne from difference.
In their definitive 1990 reference guide, Uranian Worlds, Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo have listed 935 stories featuring ‘alternative sexuality’ within science fiction, horror and fantasy genres. Stories include Ted Sturgeon’s The World Well Lost, which Garber and Paleo state is ‘often credited with having introduced the subject of homosexuality into the genre’, (Garber & Paleo, 1990, 203 & 204) through to ‘Joanna Russ’s introduction of lesbian feminism into science fiction’ via stories such as The Female Man. There is even a range of dystopian futures wherein gay men with AIDS are incarcerated in concentration camps (Garber & Paleo, p. xiii). Many of these stories explore ideas or identities outside of traditional cis heteronormative formulae. It seems a shame that many queer science fiction readers appear to be unaware that such a rich smorgasbord of literary science fiction is available for their consumption.
Within this twilight area of alternate realities, we find our first example of queer agency. Joseph Hawkins identifies a link between early literary science fictional utopias and the emergent gay rights movement as can be seen in the fanzines produced by Lisa Ben and Jim Kepner during science fiction’s early era; the skills they honed and the pre-Internet social networks which they nurtured may have laid the groundwork for their later publication and dissemination of seminal gay literature. Hawkins posits: ‘I think a really great case can be made for the fact that they learned how to do their gay publishing from their involvement in science fiction’. This suggests that futuristic fantasies of strange new worlds are sympathetic to the adoption and incorporation of queerdom and other non-traditional ideas.
The Other Science Fiction
“Sometimes it takes a human life to balance a cold equation
in the black geometry of the Twilight Zone.”
– Narration from “The Twilight Zone” episode “Cold Equations.”
Today’s more populist forms of science fiction are found within media-based material, which tends to focus less on storyline and more on what science fiction author Isaac Asimov refers to as mere spectacle (cited in Hipple, 2008). Media science fiction attracts greater numbers of followers, in part, by diluting challenging ideas into relatively inoffensive material, including allegorical stories regarding the ‘other’.
Ideally, science fiction should be a fertile ground for introducing people to diversity and difference. After all, if we spend time absorbing material that features interaction between humans and aliens, it will hopefully encourage people to have open minds when approaching any cultures or communities that differ from their own. Science fiction should – theoretically at least – encourage a bigot-free zone. (If only!)
Hart suggests that virtually all Hollywood movies narrate a narrow binary of ‘otherness’, as demonstrated in westerns: ‘hero versus villain, civilisation versus savagery, individualism versus democracy, strength versus weakness, garden versus desert.’ (Hart, 2000, 15). By extension, media science fiction often explores this same duality through polarised perspectives: humans versus aliens, survival versus destruction, colonists versus frontiers, scientists versus luddites, and ‘man’ versus machine. The linkages between westerns and media science fiction are more blatant than simple acquisition of forms and templates: Star Trek was originally conceived as comprising a ‘Wagon Train to the stars’ and more recent science fiction TV programs, including Space Rangers and Firefly, have incorporated western tropes – although the latter did so in order to invert the craft.
Possibly the strongest parallel between westerns and media science fiction can be seen in ‘male same-sex friendships… and rivalries, both of which constitute complex love-hate relationships’ (Allmendinger, 1999, 224) which are traditional in westerns, and almost ubiquitous in media science fiction. However, an implicit homophobic culture within SF films ensures that no homosocial astronaut or alien can be acceptably queer. A gay but coyly chaste Sulu in the 2016 Star Trek movie serves as both a token Asian and a token gay male, and his anaemic characterisation can be interpreted as a queer-baiting exercise which reflects the uninformed perspective of white heteronormative creators.
Ultimately, the ‘other’ in media science fiction has its limitations due to its association with victimisation (Shawl & Ward, 2005, 58.) The fleeting ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ reference found within the 2008 mini-series, Andromeda Strain, might be seen as a welcome progression from earlier treatments such as that found in the 1990 movie, Moon 44, which features a homosexual rape. However, the reality is that neither portrayal is acceptable for modern audiences.
Representations and Permutations
“If we can’t write diversity into sci-fi, then what’s the point? You don’t create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones.” ― Jane Espenson.
In 2016, I attended a convention in Melbourne which boasted a number of panels that examined issues relating to queer science fictions. One panel consisted almost entirely of panelists and audience swapping suggestions for the whole hour, in order to compile a necessarily incomplete list of queer SF novels. Within my experience, such a search for queerdom within SF usually tends to be a passive one – seeking out what already exists, and assigning it significance as part of our quest for validation. This may be a necessary starting point, but I see it as being insufficient for those seeking to express perspectives and voices outside of the heterosexist structure of traditional SF.
In past times, subtext or heterosexually-sanitised representations have dominated our search for significance. Subtext in Blake’s Seven nominally satiated one desire for queer visibility (Lilley, 2000, 5). The TV series, Alien Nation, tackled gender roles and same sex marriage, which may explain why the series was quickly cancelled. Quantum Leap explored heterosexual AIDS, gender issues, and one 1992 episode confronted the reality of gays in the military:
“This is the most controversial episode Quantum Leap has yet aired. When it was in production, threatened advertiser defections caused a storm of charges and countercharges in Hollywood. Amidst threats of boycott and charges of censorship, the episode aired, essentially as written, to high ratings” (Chunovic, 1993, 83).
Even so, Quantum Leap remained a flawed product. Using the plot device of time travel to have its main character ‘leap’ into the body of a stranger each week and thereby explore issues of racial and gender equality, the series nevertheless chose to play it safe:
“…The series missed many opportunities. Sam never leaped into an openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person. He never contracted AIDS, fell into same-sex love or got queer bashed. On a more subtle level, Sam’s romances were always heterosexual and featured him, within a male body, kissing a woman. Why didn’t he ever have a romance within a woman’s body, kissing a man?” (KR, 2000, 7),
Other media science fiction has queer-baited its audiences, with teasing references to homosexuality that go nowhere: Babylon 5 featured a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bisexual/lesbian relationship between two main characters, and it parodied same-sex relationships between two pairs of male characters. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine featured a symbiont character who occasionally changed gender but remained firmly, comfortably heterosexual. Modern incarnations of Doctor Who and its spin-off series, Torchwood, have dabbled in queer characters, themes and relationships. Writers of The Big Bang Theory have included frequent queer subtext for comic effect, but ultimately chose to redefine Sheldon’s asexuality and the ‘ersatz homosexual’ relationships shared by other bohemian characters in the series. It took the Star Trek franchise over fifty years to acknowledge the existence of positive LGBTQIA+ characters, and Star Wars still has to get there after forty years – both of them long after SF like Sense8 had already led the way.
The sister genre of media fantasy – wherein the rules which govern our physical and metaphysical universe are bent or broken more readily – appears to lend itself to a more free expression of bohemian ideas via vampires, werewolves and other fringe characters. We have seen homosocial relationships in Xena and Smallville, and we have met our allegorical selves in X-Men and Buffy. This evolution is palpable: in the 1985 movie, the eponymous Teen Wolf reassures his buddy that he is not a ‘fag’; whereas a generation later, his titular spin-off series is replete with queer characters and fan discussion on the need for comprehensive exploration beyond tokenism. Such tokenism might also be glimpsed in Dumbledore’s ‘coming out’ only after the Harry Potter book and film series were safely concluded. But while such tokenism mitigates against queer invisibility, it is insufficient to address the full potential of what Patricia Juliana Smith posits as ‘the queer imaginary’ (Smith, 1999, xiii).
In Search of An Identity
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken” – Oscar Wilde.
Ultimately, what makes science fiction ‘queer’? Is it the inclusion, by straight authors, of effeminate homosexuals, as Joe Haldeman admitted, during a 2002 interview, when speaking of his 1975 novel, The Forever War: ‘I’m certain that if I wrote it today, I wouldn’t have this feminisation of the gay people’? (Allshorn, 2002, 10). Is it a romance between Riker and a (clearly-female) androgynous alien, in one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where the ultimate message of the episode is that sexual deviance can be cured? (Roberts, 1999, 117 – 122). Might we consider the recent Australian film Predestination, along with its source material, the classic short story, All You Zombies–, by Robert Heinlein? These attempts reflect the understandings of their heterosexual creators, however well-intentioned, and suggest that queer agency may itself be a necessary prerequisite. Lawrence Schimel points out that defining queer perspective is itself problematic (Schimel, 1998, 9) – and, I would add, probably as difficult as trying to confine science fiction within one all-encompassing definition.
Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward encourage us to be mindful of what they refer to as ‘parallax’ (borrowed from the astronomical term); that is, recognising that reality can be viewed from differing perspectives (Shawl & Ward, 2005, 21). Following their example, we should acknowledge that a science fiction story written by an affluent white gay man in Melbourne will present a different parallax from one written by an African American man in Boston – or a white lesbian in Buenos Aires, a Jewish heterosexual F2M in Beirut, a Latinx person in Orlando, an indigenous sistergirl in Alice Springs, or a gay Catholic man in Lagos. To further extend our understandings of parallax, we should also note that literary SF and media SF have their own traditions and paradigms, as do manga, graphic arts and novels, RPG and MMORP and LARP and cosplay, fanfic, and social media. Such varied formats provide opportunities for the portrayal of diverse voices and lives.
One empowered approach towards ‘queer’ agency within science fiction should be to consider its intersections with other ‘minorities’ or cohorts who have also been traditionally excluded, marginalised or stereotyped within the genre. Hawkins suggests that gay rights pioneers who were inspired by science fictional ideals also found parallels with feminism and racial equality. Conversely, Shawl suggests that a wise approach for transcultural explorers is to understand the differences between being a ‘tourist’, a ‘guest’ and an ‘invader’ of other cultures; thereby avoiding cultural appropriations (Shawl, 2005, 75 – 84). I concur that cultural appropriation of feminist, Afrofuturist or indigenous perspectives is, in itself, not appropriate within queerdom, except where these overlap within LGBTIQ identities – and they may often do so. However, we can also learn from these other examples and forge our own unique perspectives and self-empowerment.
Racism has been problematic within the science fictional tradition. Although people of varied racial and cultural groupings have contributed to science fiction for many years, their contribution has often been overlooked in favour of white authors. Only after 1993 – when the term ‘Afrofuturism’ was invented (Miller, 2014) – did serious recognition reportedly emerge that ‘the canon is not monolithically white’ (Vint, 2014). As recently as August 2015, a report commissioned by a science fiction journal indicated that ‘of the 2039 (science fiction) short stories published in 2015, only 38 were published by black authors’. Despite possible questions arising from survey methodology, it seems appalling that a reported 60% of science fiction magazines had failed to publish one story by a black author that year, and that no black authors had been published for at least most of 2016. Other recent academic study has expanded awareness of underlying race issues within and around science fiction, such as DeWitt Douglas Kilgore’s reference to issues of race and evolutionary superiority within H G Wells’ War of the Worlds, and to the politics of segregation in Asimov’s Robot stories. He adds:
“Perhaps the greatest challenge or potential of contemporary science fiction is to imagine political/social futures in which race does not simply wither away but is transformed, changing into something different and perhaps unexpected” (Kilgore, 2010, 17).
We can find parallels between race and queerdom. Jeffrey M. Elliott suggests that we shared the same traditional stigma within SF: ‘In many ways, gays/lesbians were treated much like blacks: as non-existent’ (Elliott, 1984, 9). In seeking queer visibility, it is therefore up to us to assert our autonomy and to develop cultural identities that express our own differences and present our own viewpoints. In exploring our own post-Stonewall heritage, we should be prepared to create new and unique forms of futurism.
In 1959, C.P. Snow wrote about the chasm which he saw between what he termed the ‘two cultures’: broadly speaking, the sciences versus the humanities. He bemoaned the intellectual poverty each had of the contribution to life and society being made by the other (Snow, 1959/1960, 16). Science fiction has subsequently been proposed as a literary form to bridge the gap between these two aspects of human inquiry and intellect (Westfahl & Slusser, 2009). I submit that it may also provide us with opportunities to bridge a divide between divergent forms of self-identity, including those of sexuality and gender identity. Our own ‘coming out’ stories may provide a broader context for evolution within the human condition.
From Slipstream to Queer Pride
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect)” – Mark Twain.
Grace L Dillon presents important perspectives via the parallax of indigenous science fictions. These include ‘native slipstream’, or alternative universes and timestreams ranging from multiverses and cyberpunk through to the application of ecologically sustainable sciences (Dillon, 2012, 3 – 5, 7 – 8). Significantly, she also identifies two aspects of indigenous SF which, I submit, may serve as examples to guide queer science fiction participants who seek directions for their own narratives.
Dillon examines ‘Biskaabiiyang’ (or ‘returning to ourselves’) wherein ‘the knowledge of the past histories of fighting back and resistances throughout time is a necessary component of predicting the future’ (ibid, 217). This is one area within which unique histories and traditions have been combined to create unique perspectives. In queer parlance, might similar journeys of self discovery include a celebration and cultural commemoration of Stonewall, or maybe finding ubiquitous forms of ‘coming out’ from varied ‘closets’?
In identifying and positing ‘native apocalypse’ within SF literature, Dillon posits a post-colonialist perspective within indigenous speculative fiction:
“Apocalyptic tales usually portray a future scenario related to the abuse of advanced technologies, such as the aftermath of nuclear bombs detonated with terrorist intent on US soil. Native SF often points out that historically the apocalypse has already occurred” (Dillon, ibid, 149).
In 2016, Sydney gay magazine Star Observer published a short science fiction story which thematically and allegorically addressed indigenous apocalypse through the perspective of a gay male protagonist (Sheather, 2016, 62). It demonstrated that an overlap of queer and indigenous identities can provide an evocative focus for mutually-beneficial agency, in this case affirming the power of memory and living testimony as forms of cultural witness and legacy.
Similarly, a queer perspective of our own pre- and post-Stonewall histories indicates that we may have our own specific dystopian stories to recount and interpret. One ‘cranky old queer’ Doctor Who fan explains how a fictional queer character like Jack Harkness can provide new forms of subtext in their real-life post-trauma world:
“For Jack, we know there must have been lovers lost not to aliens, but to AIDS, and scars no longer visible from a beating or a thrown bottle. If it’s true for us, it somehow must be true for him, surely” (Maltese, 2013, 121).
I await the writing of queer science fictional narratives regarding the long-term impact of our own experiences of stigma, cultural erasure and epidemic. Similarly, I look forward to queer reinterpretations of the future human condition as contextualised through the lenses of gay liberation, queer pride, marriage equality and same-sex parenting.
Praxis Is Not Just A Klingon Moon
“After all, a person is herself, and others. Relationships chisel the final shape of one’s being. I am me, and you.” – N.K. Jemisin.
Just as women’s liberation and gay liberation emerged out of the same era and civil rights impetus, we can examine an overlap of feminist and queer praxis. Science fiction has a chequered history in its treatment of women, who were portrayed (if at all) as being ‘negatively constructed… gendered passive, self-denying, obedient, and self-sacrificial’ (Liang, 2015, 2037). SF literature attempted to confront its sexism as far back as the 1940s and 1950s, a time during which Justine Larbalestier reportedly recalls a rudimentary feminist discourse (Duchamp, 2004, 31). Marion Zimmer Bradley similarly recalls the controversy which arose when the ‘almost obscenely sexless’ genre evolved beyond its pulp origins and began to consider the inclusion of women as part of a conflation with emergent sexuality: ‘Is sex valid in SF?'(Bradley, 1976, 8). Sarah Lefanu notes the later ‘incursion’ into SF during the 1970s by women who were keen to exploit the genre’s potential for expression of political ideas in line with women’s liberation (Lefanu, 1989, 179 & 180). This ‘second wave’ of feminists coincides with the arrival of Star Trek fans upon the wider SF convention scene, anecdotally recalled as providing ‘the first Australian Con with a reasonable gender ratio’ in 1969 (Johnson, 2015). This era fueled the rise of slash fiction which was largely driven by women as creators and consumers.
Some activists continue to call for queer characters to appear in populist media science fiction (Pearson, 1999, 1 – 22) – and in past times, this was also my position (Geoff and Miriam, 2001, 2 & 3). However, I have come to realise that such representation simply reinforces tokenism within uninformed heterosexist parallax. Genuine queer ownership and agency are required.
Our communal acronym of LGBTIQ is itself expanding and evolving to also recognise intersex, pansexual and polysexual, non-binary and sexually fluid and genderfluid, bigender and trigender and pangender and genderqueer, fa’afafine and Two Spirit and kathoey and tongzhi, sistergirl and brotherboy, drag king and drag queen, androphilic and gynecophilic, asexual and non-monosexual, questioning, queer, rainbow, and allied individuals – among others. Similarly, our futurisms need to acknowledge and adopt new and celebratory understandings of biological, sociopolitical and technological diversity; I submit that queer SF creators and consumers have a unique ability to contribute new perspectives. Queering humanity adds humanity to queerdom.
It is time to leave behind Frankenstein’s Monster, Spock, and the aliens who are hidden in plain sight. Where once we were satisfied with the subtextual and metaphoric ‘other’, it is time for us to raise new voices and ‘come out’ with pride and celebration, helping to redefine science fiction – and humanity as a diverse collection of aliens, bohemians, and others. One such example may be David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself, a story which features homosexualities amongst its paradoxical time travel permutations:
“So this is love.
The giving. The taking.
The abandonment of rules. The opening of the self.
And the resultant sensuality of it all.” (Gerrold, 1991, 82)
Therein we might find both an invitation and a template for our human future.
Blake Allmendinger, 1999. ‘The Queer Frontier’, in Patricia Juliana Smith (ed.), The Queer Sixties, New York: Routledge.
Geoff Allshorn, 2002. ‘The Forever Awarded: An Interview with Joe Haldeman’, Diverse Universe (Newsletter for the club ‘Spaced Out’), No. 12, June.
Marion Zimmer Bradley, 1976. ‘Experiment Perilous’, in Editor Unknown, Experiment Perilous: Three Essays on Science Fiction, New York, ALGOL Press.
Louis Chunovic, 1993. ‘Running for Honor’ (episode synopsis), The Quantum Leap Book, London: Boxtree.
Grace L Dillon (ed.), 2012. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
L. Timmel Duchamp, 2004. The Grand Conversation, Seattle: Aqueduct Press.
Jeffrey M. Elliott (ed.), 1984. ‘Introduction’, Kindred Spirits: An Anthology of Gay and Lesbian Science Fiction Stories, Boston: Alyson Publications.
Eric Garber and Lyn Paleo, 1990. Uranian Worlds: A Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, (Second Edition), Boston: GK Hall.
Geoff and Miriam (eds.), 2001. ‘From the Editors: Star Trek: Give Us Some Queer Characters Now!’, Diverse Universe (Newsletter for the club ‘Spaced Out’), No. 8, June.
David Gerrold, 1991.The Man Who Folded Himself, New York: Bantam Books.
Lawrence Grossberg, 1992. ‘Is There a Fan in the House?: The Affective Sensibility of Fandom’, in Lisa A. Lewis (ed.), Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, London: Routledge.
KR, 2000. ‘Queer Time Travel: Had We But World Enough, and Time…’, Diverse Universe (Newsletter for the club ‘Spaced Out’), No. 4, July.
Kylo-Patrick R. Hart PhD, 2000. The AIDS Movie: Representing A Pandemic in Film and Television, Haworth Press Inc, New York.
David Hipple, 2008. ‘The Accidental Apotheosis of Gene Roddenberry, or. “I Had to Get Some Money from Somewhere”, p. 23, in Lincoln Geragthy (ed.), The Influence of Star Trek on Television, Film and Culture, Jefferson NC: McFarland and Compan.
Robin Johnson, 2015. ‘Merve Binns: Notes for an Appreciation’, A. Bertram Chandler Award Winner 1993, Australian Science Fiction Foundation.
DeWitt Douglas Kilgore, 2010. ‘Difference Engine: Aliens, Robots, and Other Racial Matters in the History of Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, March.
Sarah Lefanu, 1989. ‘Feminist intervention in science fiction’, in Derek Longhurst (ed.), Gender, Genre & Narrative Pleasure, London: Unwin Hyman.
Ying Liang, 2015. ‘Female Body in the Postmodern Science Fiction’, Theory and Practice in Language Studies, Vol. 5, No. 10, October.
Stephen Lilley, 2000. ‘Blake’s Seven: Gambit’, Diverse Universe (Newsletter for the club ‘Spaced Out’), No. 4, July.
Racheline Maltese, 2013. ‘Jack Harkness’s Lessons on Memory and Hope for Cranky Old Queers’, in Sigrid Ellis and Michael Damian Thomas (eds.), Queers Dig Time Lords.
Bettye Miller, 2014. Science Fiction Through Lens of Racial Inclusiveness, University of California Press Release, Washington DC: US Federal News Service.
Wendy Pearson, 1999. ‘Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer’, Science Fiction Studies: Volume 26, No. 1, March.
Matthew Richardson (ed.), 2001. ‘Lucian: True Story’ and commentary, in, The Halstead Treasury of Ancient Science Fiction, Sydney: Halstead Press, pp. 43 – 85.
Robin Roberts, 1999. Sexual Generations: Star Trek: The Next Generation and Gender, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Lawrence Schimel, 1998. ‘Introduction’ in Lawrence Schimel (ed.), Things Invisible To See: Gay and Lesbian Tales of Magic Realism, Cambridge MA: Circlet Press.
Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, 2005. Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, Seattle: Aqueduct Press.
Tyrone Sheather, 2016, ‘Cradle of the Sun’, Star Observer, August.
Patricia Juliana Smith, 1999. ‘Introduction’, in Patricia Juliana Smith (ed.), The Queer Sixties, New York: Routledge.
C.P. Snow, 1959/1960. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Commemorating World Gratitude Day (21 September):
Personal Encounters With People Who Made A Difference.
Two Australian activists – one an outspoken celebrity and the other a quiet achiever – both used their opportunities to change the world for the better. Their impact lives on.
In the twelfth century – according to tradition – King Canute unsuccessfully tried to stop the tides. In 1976, an Australian politician apparently succeeded.
The legendary story of King Canute was one of piety, asserting that worldly authorities, even kings, could not compete with the power of God. The more modern Australian version – a real life event at Glenelg beach – conveyed a converse form of piety: our ability to outgrow religious superstition by exercising secular thinking.
There are those who may recall when the destruction of Adelaide was predicted by a house-painter who, inspired by governmental reforms to decriminalise homosexuality, declared that around noon on 19 January 1976, South Australia would see divine wrath in the form of an earthquake and tsunami.
On the day, the Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan, waved theatrically at an assembled crowd and, beyond them, at the crashing waves. The deadline passed without incident, and the world continued as before. There was no tidal wave, no tsunami. News reports suggest that the house-painter moved to an undisclosed location in the Eastern states, where his house may have been later destroyed in a local flood – a nice urban myth at least, indicating the good-natured, karmic mockery with which many Australians remember his presumption.
Over forty years later, it is hard to imagine any Australian politician today who would have the courage to confront a religious decree, no matter how irrational its content. But back in the 1970s, Don Dunstan was a rebel whose sexuality and open marriages were a rejection of traditional religious sex-negative dogma.
Such was typical of the life of Donald Allan Dunstan (21 September 1926 – 6 February 1999), born into the Christian faith but later embracing secular libertarian humanism because he could ‘no longer maintain a willing suspension of disbelief in some of the stranger things in Christian theology’ (Dino Hodge, Don Dunstan: Intimacy and Liberty, Wakefield Press, 2014, p. 221). Dunstan was a ‘renaissance man’ who led the push to abolish the White Australia Policy among his impressive list of other reforms. He was married twice to women, and his last long-term partner was a man.
My own personal connection to Don Dunstan was indirect and impersonal – yet profound. In December 1986, after leaving South Australian government and while working as Director of Tourism in Victoria, he attended the Sydney launch of an Australian gay history book. Another presence at the launch was a gay rights activist dressed as a nun and known as ‘Monsignor Porca Madonna’. The ensuing public outrage led to his resignation from his Victorian job, but not before my family intersected with the great man.
At that time, Dunstan was also involved with a charity in which a relative of mine was also involved. I recall how this relative proudly boasted how he had confronted Dunstan at a meeting and angrily berated him for promoting homosexuality. In hindsight, I can only presume that homophobia had been a vestigial remnant of this relative’s traditional religious upbringing. Still, I recall feeling some consolation in knowing that someone as prominent as Don Dunstan was willing to uphold gay rights during an era when the AIDS epidemic was creating great homophobic stigma, trauma and death.
My story is one among many thousands of lives that were touched in long-term and positive ways by the reforms that Don Dunstan helped to achieve. Even that once-homophobic relative of mine, who in more recent years spoke in favour of same-sex marriage, was ultimately helped towards this personal enlightenment by the homosexual law reforms that Dunstan had initiated.
Dunstan’s King Canute beach satire of 1976, mocking religious suspension of disbelief, was only a small side note in his larger, epochal political career in which his desire to transform the ‘city of churches’ into the ‘Athens of the south’ was symbolic of his remarkable transformation of Australia. He is sometimes remembered as ‘the man who decriminalised homosexuality’ in South Australia – a claim that acknowledges his lead within his progressive government to undertake many reforms, addressing capital punishment, Aboriginal land rights, anti-discrimination, censorship, child protection, consumer protection, environment protection, heritage protection, social welfare, and urban planning.
Overseeing such a list of progressive reform was not a bad effort for one LGBT humanist.
On 7 March 1995, the Acting Prime Minister Brian Howe gave a eulogy for Senator Olive Zakharov (19 March 1929 – 6 March 1995). He expounded her favourite quote from Hamlet, but he added her amendment to Shakespeare:
“This above all: to thine own self be true.
And it must follow, as the night follows day.
Thou cannot then be false to any man…
… and to this, Olive added `woman’.”
Olive Zakharov and I shared the same northern suburban regional background, and we even worked (albeit at different times) at the same local school. We were both shared a passion for social justice. But in her case, she was able to use her political opportunities to help improve the nation and the lives of its people, as an expression of her pragmatism to work for common humanity instead of preaching a philosophical viewpoint. Australian Humanist of the Year for 1986, she is acknowledged in their tribute as having worked as an LGBT advocate – a somewhat uncommon activist role for a heterosexual woman in the 1980s. Her list of aligned organisations includes many that reflect her diverse interests in human rights, social justice, and the arts: everything from the Victorian AIDS Council to Amnesty International and the Australian Film Institute.
On 12 February 1995, I met her at the Midsumma Carnival, an LGBT festival held in the gardens opposite the Arts Centre in St Kilda Road, Melbourne. Among the many groups she visited that day, she came to the community tent for the AIDS Quilt. I recall her genuinely warm smile and her interest in discussing LGBT activism. She thanked us for our volunteer work and left the festival – to be struck down by a car in St Kilda Road, passing away in hospital on 6 March.
A memorial named Olive’s Corner has been dedicated to her memory in Port Melbourne. It acknowledges her passion to help disempowered people. I like to think that the greater memorial is the lives of the people who continue to benefit from her passionate efforts to improve the world.