Exploration Log 2: Al Thomas’ “Sex in Space: A Brief Survey of Gay Themes in Science Fiction” (1976)

Today I have the second post in my new Exploration Log series. Some posts will be a brief survey of the various SF-related non-fiction I’ve read. Other posts, I hope, will be a jumping off point for my own research. In this instance, I’ll share the elements of an article that resonated with me.

Check out my previous post on publishing Ursula K. Le Guin behind the Iron Curtain here.

Al Thomas’ “Sex In Space: a Brief Survey: A Brief Survey of Gay Themes in Science Fiction” first appeared in Gay Peoples Union News, Vol. 5, N. 12 (September 1976). You can read it online here.

In 1971, inspired in part by the Stonewall Riots of 1969 that brought national attention to the gay liberation movement and Wisconsin’s earlier and lesser known LGBTQ riots, the Gay Peoples Union (GPU) was founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin as “a social service agency dedicated to the needs of the gay community” and “concurrently dedicated to educating the community at large about gays and lesbians” (source). An offshoot of the Gay Liberation Organization at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, the GPU was the “‘first’ at many things” including community center, gay health clinic, and published a monthly periodical called GPU News (source). The publication soon gained national recognition for its broad coverage of topics to the gay and lesbian community. GPU News produced the “first regularly scheduled, scripted gay and lesbian [radio] program in the nation” between 1971-1972 and collaborated on multiple programs with the mainstream Milwaukee news sources. For recordings and other pieces of ephemera check out the University of Wisconsin-Madison digital collection. For a brief oral history of attending a GPU meeting, check out this fascinating interview with Don Schwamb and other early members.

The article I’ll cover today–Al Thomas’ “Sex In Space: A Brief Survey of Gay Themes in Science Fiction” (September 1976)–appeared in the publication’s heyday in the 70s before it folded due in the early 80s due to lack of volunteers (source).

Al Thomas, about whom I’ve been able to find nothing about, surveys the state of science fiction on gay (and occasionally lesbian) themes up to 1975. While the article itself is riddled with errors that impact the conclusions he reaches, “Sex In Space” is a fascinating look at how science fiction was viewed by the gay liberation movement of the day. I’ve provided each work with gay and lesbian themes covered in the article below.

Thomas operates under the view that the 1940s and 1950s contained few works with gay and lesbian themes–unfortunately he believes Theodore Sturgeon’s radical “The World Well Lost” (1953) appeared in 1966 rather than 1953. He argues that only in 60s and 70s “gay themes emerged publicly in science fiction” in part due to the influence of “serious” science fiction works by William S. Burroughs. Thomas argues that the contemporary scene demonstrates that gay is “now in vogue” but not necessarily accepted (11). Barry N. Malzberg fits into this classification. Thomas acknowledges how Malzberg’s common integration of gay sex (“even unliberated”) is “something of a breakthrough in science fiction by itself” despite his “often sexist and puritanical and even anti-liberationist” stance on homosexuality (13). Other authors that fall into this more critical camp include Joe Haldeman–whose “The Moon and Marcek” (1974) is described as “one of the grossest homophobic stereotypes of gays written in the last several decades” (11)–Charles Beaumont and M. J. Engh. Thomas holds the most sustained praise for Joanna Russ, David Gerrold, Samuel R. Delany, and Thomas N. Scortia. Scortia’s focus on same-sex love vs. sex in Earthwreck! (1974) receives praise as “integral to the book” and “consequently more real” (11).

Al Thomas refutes what must have been contemporary views that Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) reads as a “closeted” gay novel (13). Rather, he argues that the novel focuses instead on the “camaraderie of military buddies” and completely absent of sex or affection. Even more problematic, the novel demonstrates “Heinlein’s militaristic and anti-democratic views of society–overall, not worth even the price of a cheap paperback” (13).

“Sex In Space” concludes with a hopefully word about the presence of a few “works which point to a better future” free from homophobia and celebrates liberated sexuality (13). I highly recommend this article as a window into gay and lesbian SF fandom and how these readers viewed the often controversial works published at the time.

List of Science Fiction Covered with Explicit Gay and Lesbian Themes in the Order of Appearance

Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1935): “Considering the date of its publication, it is not surprising that the gay theme is not prevalent in it; what is surprising is that this theme is as explicit as it is (11).”

William S. Burroughs’ Nova Express (1964), The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962) , and Naked Lunch (1959) (11).”

Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange (1962) (11)

Charles Beaumont’s “The Crooked Man” (1955): “Unfortunately this selection (like so many others in the volume is not well written; it is an anti-straight parody of standard homophobic plot, set in a future time wehn [sic] homosexuality is the normal and heterosexual relations are banned” (11).

Joe Haldeman’s “The Moon and Marcek” (1974): “Similar in theme [to Beaumont’s “The Crooked Man”], with an even sleazier approach […].” “The play is probably one of the grossest homophobic stereotypes of gays written in the last several decades” (11).

Brian W. Aldiss’ non-genre The Hand Reared Boy (1971) (11).

Brian W. Aldiss’ The Dark Light Years (1964): “A well-written and creative work involving human’s encounter with exceptionally unusual extraterrestrial creatures of bizarre form and habits, is one of the earliest science fiction novels with an explicitly gay theme. The episode involves a city (on earth) commonly known as the Gay Ghetto, the inhabitants of which are those individuals who refuse to conform to the straightlaced conventions of society; needless to say, not all of the inhabitants of the Gay Ghetto are in fact gay–but certainly two of the minor characters who choose to settle there are male lovers” (11).

Thomas N. Scortia’s Earthwreck! (1974) is a “happy ending” story of the human race striking out for survival on other worlds after the nuclear destruction of the earth. Scortia, in contrast to Malzberg, who will be discussed later, is concerned with love, not sex–and some of the most important relationships in the book involve love between men. Though integral to the book, the homosexual aspect of the relationships is played down–and is consequently more real” (11).

Thomas N. Scortia’s anthology Strange Bedfellows (1972) includes “three based on gay theme” (12).

Theodore Sturgeon’s “The World Well Lost” (1953): the author of the article is under the misconception that the story appeared in 1966 vs. 1953 which impacts his views of the 50s as a wasteland (12).

Walt Leibscher’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Love?” (1972) (12).

William K. Carlson’s “Dinner at Helen’s” (1972) (12).

David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself (1973): “Here, the full implications of time traveled are explored,” Gerrold’s answer to the standard time-travel questions is “yes,” and his “protagonist eventually engages in gay sex with later (and earlier) versions of himself” (12).

David Gerrold’s When Harlie Was One (1972): “in which a computer points out to a human being that gay relationships can quality as true love as validly as straight ones” (12).

Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975): “is set in a strange, ruined world of the future from which sex is not absent. Gay sex is present, as well as heterosexual activity, but it seems a little dirty, somewhat unwholesome, even in the midst of a generally unwholesome atmosphere” (12).

Samuel R. Delany’s Triton (1976): “involves people about 150 years in the future at a time when earth people have expanded to populate a number of bodies in the solar system. Although neither war not personal problems have been overcome, people are allowed to choose freely (and to change freely) their sexual preferences and their gender–although personal preferences and biases are still existent. Sexuality plays a large part of the plot, although the main character is a heterosexual man who, after years of generally unsuccessful sexual pursuit of a liberated woman, eventually changes sex–and is equally unsatisfied as a woman” (12).

Joanna Russ’ The Female Man (1975): “Love and sex are both present, with or without men–and, even with men, women are the initiators, the movers, the active element” (12).

M. J. Engh’s Arslan (1976): “opens with a scene in which the 25-year old Turkistani conqueror of the United States, Arslan, asserts his power by raping both a young girl and a young boy. The boy, however, eventually becomes Arslan’s lover and this relationship […] becomes one of the major elements of the remainder of the book. Unfortunately, the book as a whole fails as a work of literature since it is neither believable nor convincing” (13).

Barry N. Malzberg’s The Sodom and Gomorrah Business (1974): “which is his most forthright statement on homosexuality and, in its negative aspects, provides the best insight into the author’s views on the subject” i.e. “Although he can and does write about sex, his attitude is often sexist and puritanical and even anti-liberationist.” “Malzberg accepts homosexuality as a fact, as a true variety of human sexual experience, yet he is not really comfortable about it. Ultimately, to him, homosexuality is not as good as heterosexuality. As a corollary of this outlook, Malzberg’s women characters are somehow unreal, undeveloped” (13).

Barry N. Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo (1972): “Some of Malzberg’s other books should be mentioned, since the acknowledgement of sex (even unliberated) is something of a break-through in science fiction by itself.” “The lone survivors of the first earth expedition to Venus, among which are descriptions of various homosexual acts” (13).

Barry N. Malzberg’s Tactics of Conquest (1974): “concerns a monumental chess game, in the course of which it is revealed that (1) David, the protagonist, prefers chess to sex (at least of the heterosexual variety), and (2) he has in the past been sodomized by his opponent” (13).

Barry N. Malzberg’s On a Planet Alien (1974) “contains only a mention of homosexual characters” (13).

Michael G. Coney’s [written as “Thomas Cooney” !?] Friends Come in Boxes (1973) and Monitor Found in Orbit (1974) contain references and suggestions of “gayness” but “neither work develops” the theme (13).

Joseph Elder’s anthology Eros in Orbit (1973) is “disappointing in its complete avoidance of gay themes, except for a few anti-gay comments here and there (13).

Pamela Sargent’s “Clone Sister” (1973) “logically demands a homoerotic resolution, similar to that in Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself, but the author sacrifices the story in order to avoid this result” (13).

For book reviews consult the INDEX

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX

15 thoughts on “Exploration Log 2: Al Thomas’ “Sex in Space: A Brief Survey of Gay Themes in Science Fiction” (1976)

  1. I’ll add Robert Silverberg’s “The Masks of Time” on the theme to the list. I know you’ve read it, so I think you’ll know what happened. I don’t remember what the significance of it was, but I thought it was an excellent novel.

  2. I just received the notice while writing a seminar paper, at the exact moment I was going to talk about a Gay Community News article but still in need of material on gay topics in the SF community during the 70s, thanks for doing my research ^^

    (I can send you the GCN article if you want to review it btw, it’s quite short and about 1980 WorldCon panels and discussions with Delany & Bradley)

    • Thanks for stopping by! I would love to take a peek at the article your found. I can’t promise prompt coverage for this series as I read and write and review whenever I have a moment and a whim 🙂

      • Oups, I was talking of sending the pdf of the GCN issue.

        For my own writings, it’ll be a pleasure to send them (and also post them on my blog) but the current paper is a complete mess that I write in a hurry because the presentation is Tuesday…

  3. I’ll need to go back and reread Stapledon’s ‘Odd John’. I’m rereading ‘Star Maker’ (1937) at the moment, and despite Stapledon’s relatively enlightened views about sex I’ve been struck by how heteronormative is all is.

  4. Also, considering the work being down to disinter the counter narratives and practices prior to the liberation movements of the late 1960s and 70s, it is interesting to see how powerful a trope the whole “50s was a wasteland” was. Anecdotally, I find this again and again in the way progressives and other counter cultural types measured themselves against their immediate past, back then. Which is not to say they were wrong so much as they were lacking in nuance–which is perhaps understandable given the reality they faced.

  5. He brings up The Man Who folded Himself but curiously neglects Heinlein’s “—All You Zombies—,” which is very much a precursor to Gerrold’s novel. We get [SPOILERS] an intersex protagonist who, after gender reassignment surgery, has sex with their past self who then gives birth to… themself. But it’s from the ’50s and it’s Heinlein, which means Thomas probably ignored it.

    • From the article I could tell that he gives a hasty and incomplete picture — for example, he doesn’t realize how early the Sturgeon story was published and thus has the traditional view of the 50s as super conservative in their SF. So yeah, he doesn’t cover everything.

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