GOH Speech

By: Don Sakers

copyright © 2001, Don Sakers

In the words of my friend Marty Gear: Good Eve-ening. Is everybody having fun? If not, it's your own fault.

I'm Don Sakers, and I'm your writer Guest of Honour for the weekend. And let me say before I go any further, it certainly is an honor -- no matter which way you spell it.

Gay fandom has certainly come a long way. When I first started going to cons -- which was barely (mumble) years ago -- the entire acknowledged gay population of a Worldcon could fit into a single broom closet -- and often did. Gay programming was relegated to the "special interest groups" room off the corridor leading to the boiler room, and the idea of an actual gay-themed con was an impossible dream.

Now just about every convention has gay-themed programming, from Worldcon on down to the local third-Thursday-night meeting of the Earth-Two-Viewers-Nothing Fan Club in the library conference room. Far from being an unattainable dream, Gaylaxicon is so well-established that if cons were Christmas carols, we would be a gaggle of geese a'laying.

Hmmm. Maybe things haven't changed all that much....

You know, if things had gone a little differently, I might have become the Patron Saint of Gay Fandom, and today we'd all be wearing Banana Republic Photojournalist Vests. Remember that, the next time you are inclined to doubt the existence of Providence.

I want you to cast your minds back, back, to the dim distant days of Gerald Ford and Anita Bryant, when there was only one Space Shuttle, Star Trek was a fond memory, and we didn't even know that Luke was Darth Vader's son.

(Those of you who are younger than MTV, please do me the kindness of pretending to remember. I don't care if you were absent the day your history teacher covered the 1970s -- you're science fiction readers, you're good at pretending.)

When the 1977 Worldcon descended on Miami Beach, a woman named Anita Bryant was at the height of her notoriety. Anita, a former Miss America and spokesbimbo for the Florida Orange Juice lobby, was the Jerry Falwell and Rush Limbaugh of her time...except that she wore dresses and had a somewhat decent singing voice. Like Falwell and Rush, Anita outraged all the right-thinking people of Middle America, setting the climate for greater tolerance toward gays in polite society.

The Worldcon committee, finding themselves on Anita's home turf and feeling more than the usual amount of liberal guilt (I'm making this up as I go along), allowed a group called The Lavender Mafia to hold a "Happy Gays Are Here Again" party under the auspices of the con.

Incidentally, just as a piece of antediluvian trivia, does anyone know why the color lavender is identified with gays and the gay community? I just ran across this the other day. It's because lavender, as a combination of blue and pink, is the symbolic color of gender-bending. There, now we've justified tonight's educational requirement.

The Lavender Mafia party, as I recall, was an afternoon event attended two or maybe three dozen people -- and this in the time when people actually went to programming during the day. While that party would be dwarfed by any given Gaylaxians function today, at the time it was a tremendous attendance.

There was even a sort of proto-meeting, sort of the glint in the milkman's eye that preceeded embryonic gay fandom. The party was such a success that some of the Lavender Mafia even announced that they would try to hold a similar event at the next Worldcon.

Well, Worldcon 1978 was in Phoenix, and as far as I know there was no gay function of any sort -- probably because everyone was too busy playing Lawrence of Arabia on the concrete plaza between the hotel and the convention area known affectionately to locals as "The Anvil of God."

The next Worldcon was in Brighton, England, and there the next gay fandom function took place.

I can see you all wondering, why all this concentration on Worldcons? Why not do something at a regional or local convention? You see, prior to the arrival of the Gaylaxians, there were at very most three dozen gays in fandom. Except for New York and San Francisco, the chances of more than one gay fan existing in the same State were nil. Only at a Worldcon could you draw together the critical mass needed to ignite a successful party.

Back to Brighton. I saw notice of a gay fandom meeting at a local pub (I assume, Anita Bryant's fifteen minutes of fame long forgotten, that the Worldcon considered the "homosexual question" to be solved...or, more likely, that the sponsoring group got in their application for a room three months after the con's deadline). When I arrived at the pub, I found a gathering slightly less representative than today's Gaylaxians chapters. In fact, there was a grand total of exactly six people present: four British men, an Australian chap, and me. (You have to remember, this was in the days before gender parity.)

As you might expect from such a composition, our little group didn't exactly set the world on fire. One fact alone should clue you in that we were doomed to failure: there were no women present to co-ordinate things. (That fact should also clue you in that there was no pot-luck supper that evening, either.)

We six spent the better part of an hour compaining about the dearth of gay presence at Worldcons, and we decided firmly that Something Should Be Done About This. By a resounding vote of five to one, those members of the group who were attending next year's Worldcon were charged with writing the committee and demanding that there be a programming slot, announced well in advance, for a gay fandom meeting.

As the only American and the only person who planned to be in Boston in 1980, I accepted my charge with all of the good-natured grace that any of my friends will tell you is the hallmark of my character. In other words, I kicked and screamed all the way back across the Atlantic.

As it so happened, Noreascon Three had already rented the entire Hynes Auditorium, which meant they had to fill roughly as many small meeting rooms as there were members of the Kennedy clan. Every special-interest group in fandom was represented, from the Star Trek Welcommittee down to the lone member of the Harlan Ellison Appreciation Society.

You would think that in Boston, hotbed of liberalism and birthplace of the Gaylaxian Society, there would be a good turnout at a gay fandom meeting -- and indeed, there was. Probably fifty to a hundred people turned out, including Chip Delany and Marion Zimmer Bradley. And then I had to step out in front of all those people and try to sound intelligent.

We decided that we needed to organize (as you can see, this time we had women present.) A newsletter would be the thing. We passed around a sheet for names and addresses, took up a collection to pay for postage, and then dropped all of the work onto the shoulders of a young lesbian couple named Lisa and Melissa.

Gee, I wonder whatever happened to them?

Soon after Worldcon, we all got a mailing from Lisa and Melissa, asking for news. What was going on across the country, gay-fandom-wise? What gay-related books had people read lately? Were any meetings being held at regional cons, and if so, what was the outcome?

The silence that returned was deafening. We begged people to send us news. We threatened. We tried holding our breath, we tried sacrificing virgins, we even considered sending out a newsletter of blank pages. Nothing helped. Gay fandom, it seemed, was an idea whose time had just not yet arrived.

(I'm happy to say that something much more lasting came of that meeting, because I became good friends with Lisa Barnett and Melissa Scott, forming professional and personal ties that have endured and grown throughout the years.)

Also, emboldened by my success in Boston, I hosted a gay fandom room party at a subsequent Balticon. Something like five people showed up -- if you don't count the mundane couple who were having dinner at the hotel restaurant and decided to wander the halls in search of a good view. While nothing official came of that party either, it was my first meeting with Thomas Atkinson, the man who would become my long-suffering Companion of Many Years. (Balticon is held each year over Easter weekend, which is how Thomas and I wound up with an anniversary that's a moveable feast.)

At the next Worldcon, in Denver, there was a gay fandom meeting. The turnout was slightly smaller, but in every other way it was a duplicate of the Boston meeting...including some of the same faces. Again there was a sign-up sheet, a collection for postage, and a promised newsletter. And again, silence was the result.

In fact, as late as L.A.Con in 1984, similar organizational meetings were still taking place at Worldcons. By that time, I and my companion dinosaurs were too deeply into the Filthy Pro scene to have much energy left for fannish activities.

And that's how I almost started gay fandom. But it's not the end of the story, because not too long after that, a group of Boston-area gay fans sidestepped the newsletter-and-organizational-meeting concept entirely, and opted for having fun instead. That was the birth of the Gaylaxians, and the beginning of the real story of gay fandom. Without them, there wouldn't be a Gaylaxicon; you'd all just be sitting at home, watching the mailbox for a newsletter that never showed up.

I'd like to give a special welcome to the newcomers here today. No, I don't mean Tenctonese, I'm talking about folks who are at their first Gaylaxicon. For some of you, this is your first con of any type; in that case, I welcome you to Fandom. For others, this is your first specifically gay con; let me extend a welcome on behalf of gay fandom and the gay community in general.

Walking into your first Gaylaxicon is an experience that none of us is old enough to have forgotten. It's like entering your first con, or your first exposure to the gay community: Oh, wow, all these people, and they're just like me!

That's what a community is all about -- any community. As Human beings, we've always been on the lookout for people who are just like us...whatever basis we chose for comparison. At first, I'm sure the qualities we looked for were simple and even superficial. As austrolopithecines in the grasslands, it was important for us to find creatures who looked like us and were of a compatible genetic structure. And we were successful...else Humanity wouldn't be here.

Later, when there were many more of us and we had increased our range tremendously, we started to look for similarities that were a little more refined. We banded together with people who spoke the same language we did, people who ate the same kind of food, people who shared our behaviors and beliefs. And so our species invented a plurality of cultures, a slew of different languages, a smorgasbord of tribes. With the development of agriculture and the invention of the city, we began to define our communities in geographical terms.

Today, world population zooms past six billion with barely time to wave, and even a small metropolitan area holds more people than most nations of earlier times. We Humans sort ourselves into communities in a staggering variety of ways. Familial, tribal, and cultural divisions co-exist with geographical, political, and chronological distinctions. Communities are based on occupations, hobbies, interests, and even brand of car or personal computer.

The feelings of loyalty that hold some of these communities together are both inspiring and a little scary. I've considered buying a Saturn, but I'm not sure I want to go to work for the company and spend my summer vacation at the plant.

In talking about community and communities, it's almost inevitable to apply a biological metaphor. The community as cell, the community as organism...these are helpful models that can tell us a lot.

Communities, like organisms, differ greatly in their internal structure. Some have a rigid hierarchy and highly specialized members -- the vertebrates of the community kingdom. Examples include the Catholic Church, IBM, and NESFA.

Other communities, like one-celled amoebas and paramecium, are small, mindless, and self-contained, with all the constituent parts working together toward the same clearly-defined goal. Most football and soccer teams fit in this category, as does the House Ways and Means Committee. The ultimate expression of the one-celled organism model is a community of one: a religious hermit alone in a cell, some psycho survivalist in the Montana mountains, or your typical Ayn Rand protagonist.

Still another biological model for community is the sponge or algae colony: a great big bunch of more-or-less independent cells that band together for mutual convenience, defense, and to get a better shot at all the good things in life. Most Human communities fall into this vast middle ground.

Single-celled, conglomorate, or multicelluar, there are certain things that all organisms have in common. First, there must be some sort of individual consciousness, if only on a genetic or chemical level. Similarly, any community must first of all be conscious of itself as a community. It's precisely that community consciousness, I believe, that was missing in early attempts to get gay fandom together. It wasn't until the Gaylaxians came along that we began to think of ourselves as a community.

Second, organisms have to have some line of division between themselves and the outside world. It might be a cell wall or membrane, or it might be something as complex as the Human skin...but one way or another, no organism can continue to exist without some way to differentiate between "inside" and "outside."

So, too, communities must have their membranes, their skins. These take the form of special behaviors, costumes, or speech patterns. Professional jargon, Black English, even fan-speak...these are all membranes that define a group's inside and outside. (I am reminded at this juncture of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. Calvin, having just found the secret decoder ring in his cereal box, says "This is great! Now we'll be able to use secret codes when we talk to one another, and Mom & Dad won't understand a thing we say." He pauses, then adds, "Not that they do now, anyway.")

Gay fandom is a subset of two very distinct communities -- fandom and the gay community -- which both have their own unique languages. Consequently, I think we've been a little slow in developing our own distinct terminologies...but it's coming, believe me. One of my favorite is the special way in which we use the word "content" as shorthand for "gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender content" -- as in the question, "Does this book have any...Content?"

On the way here, we had to change planes in Newark. Thomas and I were sitting there at the gate, waiting for the flight to Buffalo, when we saw a woman wearing a clever tee-shirt, and a hand-painted jacket; on the jacket were a couple of buttons and a red ribbon. Thomas leaned over and said, "Are you going to Gaylaxicon?" She was, and we instantly formed our own little nucleus there in the airport.

The jacket, the buttons, the tee shirt, the ribbon -- and finally the code word, Gaylaxicon -- these are elements in the cell membrane of our particular community. They separate us from the world, they help to keep our community intact by allowing us to recognize each other and band together. These are good things, needful things; without them, our community would disintegrate by centrifugal force.

Organisms need a way to take or create nourishment from their surroundings. Likewise, communities need intellectual, spiritual, and emotional sustenance. Sometimes this nourishment comes from outside the community: football fans need the Superbowl, although it isn't something that they produce themselves. The gay sf community needs...well, gay sf. Although we have developed the ability to sustain ourselves on nothing more than indignation at the lack of gay sf.

Sometimes a community's nourishment comes from within, assembled out of basic building blocks combined with the energy of the sun. To fulfill a need for self-satisfaction, members of a given community often expend great amounts of energy manufacturing ways for them to prove to themselves how fortunate they are to be part of such a wonderful community. Like fructose, a little bit of this goes a long way. To some extent, we need to tell each other how smart we are, how good-looking, how strong, how brilliantly clever we are to belong to this community. But it goes too far when I start congratulating myself for belonging to gay fandom. That's the emotional equivalent of empty calories.

But it tastes so good.

Unfortunately, one of the easiest ways to make yourself feel good about your community, is to denigrate other communities. This happens all the time in sports, in high school, and in the arena of international politics. We're better than them because they are so pathetically awful that we've got to be better. The temptation to do this is even greater when the community in question is already low on the social totem pole, especially if members don't really feel all that proud to belong. To feel better, just find someone else to pick on. Sure, I may be a mugger, but at least I'm not a terrorist. Sure, I may be European, but at least I'm not French.

The worse you can make the other group sound, the better this tactic works. So it helps to say nasty things about other groups, in case you need to play one-up on them. Gypsies are shiftless and lazy. Democrats are vacuum-headed bleeding hearts. Republicans are greedy facist war-mongers.

Our own community sometimes falls into this trap. I may read science fiction, but at least I don't read Harlequin Romances. I may be a gay sf fan, but at least I'm not a Christian fundamentalist.

What else do organisms need? The biological world being the Darwinian struggle for survival that it is, organisms need a way to defend themselves. Communities, too, need methods of defense.

The fact is, both the sf community and the gay community are under attack from various directions, often from other groups who are playing the one-up power-and-prestige game I was just talking about. And as gay fans and pros, we get a double dose of attack.

There's the fundamentalist Christian right. They're against science fiction and fantasy because they think it's witchcraft. They're against homosexuality because god told them it's an abomination -- and even if they can't accurately define or spell "abomination," they know it's something really bad. They're against a woman's right to control her own body because they're afraid they will run out of little children to indoctrinate. They're against any sort of diversity and liberation of the Human spirit, because they're afraid it will make them question their own religious and philosophical convictions, and they think those convictions might come up wanting.

In many cases, the fundamentalist Christian right isn't simply a danger to our is a danger to our individual lives.

But they aren't our only enemies. We -- along with a lot of other communities and individuals, as well as whole nations and continents -- are under attack by the oldest of biological opponents, a virus that is robbing us of our best and brightest. We are under attack by a conspiracy of silence that equals death, by indifference, by short-sightedness, by ignorance. This, too, is an opponent who threatens our lives as well as our community.

The gay sf community is under attack by the mainstream gay literary community -- who consider us uncultured adolescents and refuse to entertain the notion that some of what we read and write is actual honest-to-ghod literature. We are under attack by the general fannish community, who are perfectly willing to let us be gay, as long as we do it in private and don't talk or write about it where they can hear or see. We are under attack by radical feminists, who consider science fiction and fantasy both to be oppressive tools of the patriarchy. We are under attack by straight writers, editors, and publishers who see us as a market to be exploited, a quick buck to be made.

What are our defenses? Well, we can call upon the legal system -- either by using laws already in place, or by campaigning for the passage of new laws to protect us. We can take the course of political activism, working within the social system to change it -- or we can crusade for a completely new system. All of these courses are right and proper, and we should avail ourselves of each and every one.

Our first line of defense, and perhaps our strongest, is our solidarity. Faced with these attacks from outside, we can band together, close ranks, and strengthen the barriers between us an the outside world. We can move to Greenwich Village or San Francisco, where we find strength in numbers. We can establish fannish enclaves. We can build economic walls, channeling our dollars to stay within the community. Buy only from gay or gay-friendly businesses; when you can, buy from fellow fans. Or sidestep money altogther and barter within the community. If your day job is with a hostile company, resign. If you're in the American military, quit.

Solidarity also helps shield us from physical attacks. Red-neck fundamentalists prey on individuals and couples; but when they're outnumbered, they turn and run. If you're the only gay family on the street, you're in danger from your neighbors and those who make their decisions for them...but if your whole street is gay, then you have much less to fear.

There are also defenses that we can use on an individual basis. If you don't have self-defense training, go out and get that when those rednecks come at you, you'll have a fighting chance of surviving. Be secure and confident enough to challenge people when you hear them make anti-gay comments, when you see a harmful gay stereotype, when someone makes fun of the science fiction you read.

Anger is a defense, as long as you harness its energy and apply it in the directions necessary. If you're a gay sf/fantasy reader in today's world and you're not angry, then you need to open your eyes and take a good look around you.

There is a tradition of American civil liberties that isn't stressed nearly enough in our schools and public discourse, and that's the source of individual rights. Throughout Human history, individual rights were always something that came from outside. Individual rights were like manufactured goods, handed out to consumers from some centeral factory where they had been created. Your rights were granted by the gods, or by the King, or by the government. Our tradition breaks with that concept, turns it completely upside-down. Individual rights come from within; they're something you're born with, by virtue of being Human...and anyone who infringes on your individual rights without your permission, is morally and legally wrong. It doesn't matter whether that someone is your neighbor, a corporation, or your government.

There's an unpleasant flip side to this tradition, which relates directly to defending our community. In the final analysis, your rights are your responsibility, and it's ultimately up to you alone to defend them. If our community is to survive, in this Darwinian world where victory goes to the organism most able to defend itself, then each of us must be ready to protect our rights and liberties.

It's a jungle out there, and you're either strong, or you're extinct.

This biological metaphor paints rather a sad and violent picture of our community -- of all communities -- doesn't it? But, hey, that's the way the world is, and wishing it were different isn't going to make it so....

Except that metaphor is not reality, communities are not organisms, and it turns out that perhaps nature is not so very red in tooth and claw, after all.

There are two important ways that the biological metaphor for community breaks down. The first is that in the classical biological world, organisms are mutually exclusive. A particular cell is either part of an oak tree, or a rhinoceros, or a slime mold, or it is an independent one-celled being -- but it is not and cannot be both an amoeba and a penguin. It's so very Aristotlean: A or not-A.

The taxonomy of community has no logical exclusivity. I am a member of the sf community...and the gay community...and the Baby Boom community...and the library community...and the Sakers family...and the community of Linthicum, Maryland...and the Legion of Super-Heroes fan community...and the Thespian Society...and the Amiga users community...and the white male community...and the Andover High School Class of 1976 community...hell, I'm even a card-carrying Honorary Lesbian!

A single cell can count the number of organisms of which it is part on one pseudopod. If any one of us tried to count all of the communities of which we are part...well, I don't think we'd be done by the time we have to leave the hotel.

All of these communities that I am part of are threatened in one way or another -- usually by another community that I'm part of. If I try to defend each of my communities against all attackers -- I'll end up defending myself against myself a dozen times over.

Sure, each of us identifies more strongly with some communities than with others. And I'm not trying to claim that we don't have to defend particular communities against particular threats. All I'm saying is that we have to be aware that the situation is not simple, not cut-and-dried, not something that we can answer with quick slogans and knee-jerk loyalties.

I said there were two ways in which the biological metaphor breaks down. The second has to do with what is being called The New Biology, and it denies the commonly-held belief that Darwinian competition is the single engine that drives the evolution of life. The New Biology denies that genes are inherently selfish and that the race always goes to the fastest. It even denies that fundamental assumption that organisms are mutually exclusive.

A long time ago -- before Worldcons, before First Fandom, even before Jules Verne and H.G. Wells -- a single-celled bacteria floating in the primordial soup learned how to synthesize a powerful molecular fuel called adenosine triphosphate (having successfully said that once, I will henceforth do what the biologists do and call it ATP.) ATP was the early equivalent of McDonald's food...every other one-celled creature loved it, couldn't get enough of the stuff. After a while, some larger cells made a bargain with these return for a guaranteed supply of ATP, the larger cells made tax concessions, floated some construction bonds, and granted the bacteria some choice parcels of real estate within the town borders. The bacteria happily moved in, and they've been there ever since. They're in every cell on the planet, including yours: we call them mitochondria. They have their own DNA, and they reproduce independently of the cell.

In another part of the primordial ocean, a similar story took place -- except this time, the product in question was not ATP but chlorophyll. The cell-towns that made arrangements with chlorophyll-producing bacteria (which we now call "chloroplasts") became today's plant cells.

As it turns out, this kind of thing happened all the time in the early oceans. Just about every structure within every living cell was originally a free-roaming creature...even the all-important cell nucleus. At the most fundamental level of being, we are not individuals at all -- we are ourselves communities of bacteria. And if you're looking for survival of the fittest, reflect on this for a moment: there are more mitochondria in the world than there are cells. By a factor of at least hundreds, possibly thousands.

In evolutionary terms, who's the most successful?

There is really no such thing as a single ant, or honeybee, or termite. Okay, they exist...but not for long, and not independently. Remove an ant, honeybee, or termite permanently from the colony, and what you have is a non-viable lifeform. It will walk or fly around, rather aimlessly, until the food in its system is exhausted...then it dies. This usually takes a day or so. If the isolated individual happens to be a queen, and if she's been stuffed for the occasion, she can sometimes live long enough to give birth to the members of a new colony, who can then feed her and keep her alive. But left strictly on her own, she will not survive.

Properly, the only way to refer to ants, termites, and honeybees is in the plural. The organism isn't the individual six-legged unit -- the organism is the colony.

Of course, if you take away every other living creature, even the colony-organism can't survive beyond the food reserves it has on hand. In fact, if you take away all the plants on Earth, every animal would die of starvation. Animals don't manufacture food...only plants have mastered that trick. So the ant colony or beehive isn't truly an independent organism either. Only the ecosystem as a whole is truly idendependent.

Let's look at a given mitochondria -- say, the third from the left -- in a given muscle cell on the left rear leg of a given honeybee. Call that mitochondria "Fred." Hi, Fred. To what organism does Fred belong?

Is Fred his own self-contained one-celled bacterium? Is he part of the muscle cell? Does he belong to the bee? Is he a constituent of the hive? Or is he a citizen in good standing of the ecosystem?

The answer, naturally, is "all of the above."

Just like us in our various communities.

The strangest and most wonderful thing about the New Biology, and the reason that our biological metaphor does apply after all, is that co-operation is more important than competition, and that the race ultimately goes not to the fastest, but to the most co-operative.

What does that mean for communities? What does that mean for our, specific, gay-lesbian-bisexual-of-interest-science-fiction-fantasy-horror-readers-writers-fans community?

It means that if we want to survive, if we want to outlast all the attacks and all the challenges that we face, we are going to have to learn to co-operate. There's really only one community, and that's the Human community, and in the end no group can last, if that group ultimately does damage to the Human community.

Notice, though, that co-operation is not the same as surrender. They're not even close.

Yes, be proud to belong to gay fandom. But let your pride come from within you, not from one-uppping other communities. Yes, take self-defense classes so you can protect yourself in a physical attack...but also be ready to talk your way out of trouble if you can. Yes, confront ignorance and damaging stereotypes...but when you do, make sure you listen as much as you talk. Yes, defend your own Human rights as vigorously as necessary...but not by abrogating the equally valid Human rights of your attacker.

We think that we all speak the same language, but we're terribly mistaken. Every person has his or her own private language. A person raised to think that calling someone a jerk is a compliment, is going to keep getting into social trouble...until someone else explains the nature of the mistake. Someone raised to think that homosexuals are lonely, pathetic pedophiles is not going to be very popular at the Pride Day march...until someone else takes the trouble to listen to what that person means, not what he or she is saying. That's not the end of the line...the first person still has to listen in turn, and be willing to form a new definition of the word "homosexuals" -- but the process can't even start without listening.

And why should it be us who have to start that listening process? Why should it be us who have to make the effort to understand? Why not the other person?

Because that listening, that effort to understand, that process of the responsibility of every member of the Human community.

And that's us.

Thank you.