* originally posted October 20, 2009
Randy Shilts spent his life writing about us and for us, and to us. He chronicled who we were and how we came to be, where we come from and where we headed. He lived as openly as nearly anyone on the planet, creating a model many might follow.
It seemed as though he always wanted to write, that he always had something to say. He was the managing editor of the Oregon Daily Emerald, the student newspaper, at the University of Oregon. It was there, at the age of twenty, that Randy Shilts came out as a gay man, even running for student office under the slogan Come Out For Shilts.
And though he graduated near the top of his class, finding work as an openly gay man in 1975 was near impossible, especially in what he soon learned was the homophobic environment of newspapers and television stations. He began to work as a freelance journalist, and because of his talent, he was offered the position of national correspondent by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1981. This made Randy Shilts the "first openly gay reporter with a gay 'beat' in the American mainstream press." Ironically enough, just as he was getting started in his new post, came news of the Gay Plague; AIDS, which would later take his life, was becoming a national news story.
But it wasn't the only story. Living and working in San Francisco he was fascinated by the life of openly gay politician Harvey Milk, and wrote his first best seller, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. This was yet another first for Randy Shilts; his book became one of the first gay political biographies, an entirely new genre.
His writing style was admired for its powerful narrative drive, interweaving personal stories with political and social reporting, and Shilts described himself best by saying he was a literary journalist in the style of Capote and Mailer.
His second book, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, was published in 1985, and also won the Stonewall Book Award, while also bringing him national literary exposure. Randy's sense of storytelling, along with his journalistic need for extensive research, made everything he wrote both enjoyable and valuable as a teaching lesson. And the Band Played On was translated into seven languages, and in 1993 was made into an HBO film.
Randy Shilts final book, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the US Military: Vietnam to the Persian Gulf, shined a light on the discrimination faced on a daily basis by LGBT members of the American military. He and his assistants interviewed over a thousand people for the book, and Randy Shilts dictated the last chapter from a hospital bed.
Still, it wasn't all glory for Randy Shilts. While many, gay and straight, praised his work, he was also criticized--to the point of being spat on on Castro Street--for calling for the closure of gay bathhouses in San Francisco to slow the spread of AIDS. And the gay community also berated Shilts for his opposition to the controversial practice of outing prominent but closeted lesbians and gay men. still, he maintained his integrity in spite of being called "a traitor to his own kind" by another Bay Area journalist. In a note included in The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, he told of what he saw as his duty to rise above the criticism:
I can only answer that I tried to tell the truth and, if not be objective, at least be fair; history is not served when reporters prize trepidation and propriety over the robust journalistic duty to tell the whole story.
Randy Shilts had been tested for HIV, but declined to hear the results until he finished writing And the Band Played On. He felt that the knowledge of his condition, be it positive or negative, might have an effect on the book, and for Randy Shilts, the book, the characters, their stories, and the cause, came first. It was in March of 1987 that Shilts learned he was HIV+, and though he began taking AZT, and continued on that regimen for many years, he did not disclose his status until shortly before he died.
In 1992, Shilts came down with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and suffered a collapsed lung; the following year, it was Kaposi's sarcoma. In a New York Times interview in 1993, Randy Shilts said:
HIV is certainly character-building. It's made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity. Of course, I'd rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character.
Despite his condition--he was essentially homebound and on oxygen--Randy Shilts went to Los Angeles in the late summer of 1993 for the premier of HBO's And The Band Played On.
Randy Shilts died in February of 1994, at his ranch in Guerneville, California. He was survived by his partner, Barry Barbieri, his mother, and his brothers, one of whom had conducted a commitment ceremony for Randy and Barry the year prior.
He bequeathed 170 cartons of papers, notes, and research files to the local history section of the San Francisco Public Library, including research for what would have been his fourth book, an examination of homosexuality in the Roman Catholic Church.
A longtime friend said of Randy Shilts:
He chose to write about gay issues for the mainstream precisely because he wanted other people to know what it was like to be gay. If they didn't know, how were things going to change?
For Randy Shilts, the band plays on.
On This Day In LGBT History
October 20, 1969 – The National Institutes of Mental Health released a report based on a study led by psychologist Dr. Evelyn Hooker. The report urged states to repeal sodomy laws.
October 20, 1987 – Over fifty ACT-UP members were arrested during an act of civil disobedience protesting President Reagan’s lack of action in the AIDS epidemic. Another demonstration of about 150 people was held across the street from the United Nations building during the UN General Assembly’s first debate on AIDS.
October 20, 1987 – The US House of Representatives voted 368-47 to approve an amendment to withhold federal funding from any AIDS education organization which encourages homosexual activity. The senate approved a similar amendment the previous week by a vote of 94-2. It was introduced by Sen. Jesse Helms.
October 20, 1987 – The US House Judiciary Committee voted 21-13 to approve a bill requiring the justice department to collect statistics on hate crimes, including anti-gay violence.
October 20, 1992 – The San Diego Police Department announced that it was severing its ties with the Boy Scouts of America due to a local chapter’s dismissal of a gay police officer who was involved with the Explorer program.
October 20, 1993 – Roman Catholic priest Rev Andre Guindon died of a heart attack at age 60. In his book “The Sexual Creators” he wrote that heterosexuals should look to same-sex couples to learn about tenderness and sharing.
October 20, 1997 – Portugal’s first Gay and Lesbian Community Centre opened in Lisbon.