Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 1999

Warren Allen Smith

Gossip from Across the Pond

by Warren Allen Smith

“It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God ... but to create him”, Sir Arthur C. Clarke mused long ago. The eminent non-believer, who loves to reminisce about his stay in Manhattan’s Hotel Chelsea, not only has agreed to being a member of the dadaistic National Church of the Exquisite Panic but also of the philosophy-pursuing FANNY (Freethinking Activist Non-believing New Yorkers). Since 1956 the inventor of the communication satellite (COMSAT) has lived in Sri Lanka and in 1975 was honored as a Resident Guest. “When anyone asks if I’m gay”, said Sir Arthur on New Year’s Eve in 1997, “I answer, ‘No, just slightly cheerful.’ ”

On February 19th, Sir Arthur was honored by a Sri Lankan stamp that commemorates his adopted island’s 50 years of communication. On the double 3.5 rupee stamps, he is pictured twice, once as he looked five decades ago and once as he looks now. He thus becomes the only living secular humanist to be pictured on a postage stamp.

“How do you tell a Maldivian from a Sri Lankan?” I innocently e-mailed a British novelist, not Sir Arthur, who is currently writing about both islands. “Maldivians are circumcised”, he responded with a sound bite. “Sri Lankans aren’t.” His first-hand observations, I am sure, were based on seeing Muslims in the Maldives and Buddhists in Sri Lanka.

“And how do you tell a Yank from a Limey?” he playfully retorted. My research revealed that in the 1960s an estimated 95% of American-born boys were circumcised before they left the hospital. Very few were in England. According to a 1997 University of Chicago study, the practice in the States was most prevalent among white men and men from educated families – 96% in Jewish families questioned, but only 54% for Hispanic men.

The March issue of Pediatrics reports that in the American West, with large populations of Hispanic and Asian immigrants, who do not usually circumcise, the rate now is just 36%. Except for Israel, the United States is the only Western country that still circumcises a majority (66% in 1995) of baby boys. But the trend is downward, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has just issued a new finding that there is no “medical indication” for circumcision. As a result, it may become increasingly more difficult, I e-mailed the novelist, to tell a Yank from a Limey.

Here in Greenwich Village, the Village Voice reports that inflation has set in, that $500 was charged in 1996 “for hacking a foreskin”. Jewish comics have long been known to say that although a mohel – the hacker – doesn’t get paid much, he does get good tips.

Critics cite Acts 15, which states that Christians need not practice circumcision. Meanwhile, some children in presumably frivolous lawsuits have demanded of parents that they replace their lost foreskins.

Humanist leaders, of course, long have said that the practice should be for medical reasons only. In 3001, according to Sir Arthur C. Clarke, much will have changed. The eminent secular humanist writes in 3001, “Circumcision made a lot of sense in primitive times but no longer. By the mid-twenty-first century so many malpractice suits had been filed that the American Medical Association had been forced to ban it. The practice, however, continued a century later, until some unknown genius coined a slogan – please excuse the vulgarity – ‘God designed us: circumcision is blasphemy.’ ”

Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978), a strongly anticlerical British novelist who wrote “potboilers” for The New Yorker from 1936 on, enjoyed four decades of devotion with Valentine Ackland, a gal who had boldly changed her name from Molly, cut her hair in an “Eton crop,” and often was mistaken for a good-looking guy. I’ll Stand By You (1999), a collection of their love letters, is up toward the top of the list of American lesbians’ reading. When Ackland converted to Roman Catholicism near the end of her life, Warner had to put up with the sight of rosaries and prayer books around the house.

Candace Gingrich, a lesbian and gay rights activist, is a non-theist. Newt, her half-brother and a Baptist who was a national Republican leader, has expressed his displeasure with the “life style” his half-sister has “chosen”. She has stated, “I would have to be considered an agnostic at best.

“In my own life, I haven’t found a need for organized religion. With all the hostile messages coming at me, including from the emissaries of various faiths, it’s more urgent to believe in myself. Ultimately, we all have a responsibility to remind ourselves of our ability to be compassionate, respectful, and generous.”

Composer and non-theist Ned Rorem has lost his companion to cancer. James Holmes, 59, a composer, choir director, organist, and Rorem’s lover since 1967, died in December.

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Created : Sunday, 1999-04-18 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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