Shilts, Randy Martin

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Shilts, Randy Martin

(b. 8 August 1951 in Davenport, Iowa; d. 17 February 1994 in Guerneville, California), journalist, author, and prominent spokesperson on gay issues best known for his chronicle of the AIDS crisis And the Band Played On (1987).

Shilts, the third of six sons born to Bud Shuts, a salesman of prefabricated housing, and Norma Shilts, spent most of his youth in the Chicago suburb of Aurora. Raised in the Methodist church, he was a conservative youth who founded a Young Americans for Freedom chapter in his high school. He left home at the age of eighteen and enrolled at Portland (Oregon) Community College. In 1972 Shilts publicly “came out” as gay and became interested in journalism. He then transferred to the University of Oregon, where he served as managing editor of the campus newspaper and as head of the Eugene Gay People’s Alliance. He received his B.S. degree with a major in journalism in 1975. Failing to find employment, because of homophobia he believed, following graduation he served briefly as the Northwest correspondent for the Advocate, a national gay magazine. Shilts then moved to San Francisco, where he continued as a staff writer for the magazine and helped enhance its reporting on national issues. From 1977 to 1980 he was a reporter for the San Francisco public television station KQED and simultaneously contributed to Oakland’s independent television station KTVU.

In 1981 Shilts was hired as a staff reporter by the SanFrancisco Chronicle, thereby becoming the first openly gay reporter assigned to gay issues on a major metropolitan newspaper. Covering the AIDS crisis virtually from its beginning in mid-1981, when the epidemic was known as a mysterious “gay-related immune deficiency” (GRID), Shuts was instrumental in leading the Chronicle, alone among major dailies, to cite the disease in its obituaries. He also became active in San Francisco gay political circles and in 1982 published his first book, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, a biography of the gay San Francisco city supervisor who was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone in November 1978. This book drew national attention to Shilts and was made into a documentary video in 1993.

As the AIDS crisis worsened in the 1980s, decimating San Francisco’s large gay community, Shuts turned his attention almost exclusively to the disease, producing well-documented articles and stirring human interest stories on its victims. His perspective made him controversial among gay activists, as he criticized gay leaders for treating the disease as a public relations problem. Shuts campaigned against homosexual promiscuity, taking a prominent part in the fight to close San Francisco’s gay bathhouses as a health hazard. The bathhouses were closed in October 1984. In 1987 Shilts’s research and observations were published in his second book, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, which was an immediate success. A finalist for the National Book Award, it won for Shuts the American Society of Journalists and Authors Outstanding Author Award of 1988 as well as several other prizes. Although the book’s major message was that the U.S. government had neglected the epidemic because of homophobic attitudes in high places, readers paid at least as much attention to the sub theme that gays themselves had failed to deal responsibly with the spread of the disease.

The book generated further controversy due to Shilts’s claim to have tracked down “Patient Zero,” a French airline attendant who had supposedly contracted the disease in Africa. This claim was never verified and in fact was later discredited by public health experts. Nonetheless, both political conservatives and the media seized on Shilts’s message that the gay community had somehow failed in its responsibility to combat the health crisis, and he became a favored “gay spokesperson” for the media.

The mid-1980s were difficult for Shuts. His mother, with whom he had been close, died in 1983. He was also under increasing criticism from his peers, and AIDS continued to ravage gay communities in major American cities. In 1986 he submitted to medical tests to see if he had contracted the AIDS virus but deliberately waited to hear the results until after he had finished And the Band Played On. On the day he finished the manuscript he checked. The medical results were positive. He was now a “victim” of the crisis about which he wrote. Shilts’s health remained good for the next several years, as he took AZT and other drugs commonly prescribed for AIDS.

Shuts remained controversial among gay activists in the late 1980s and early 1990s for taking positions against the radical AIDS activist group ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and against “outing,” the practice of exposing prominent public figures who were secretly homosexual. Shilts’s last journalistic crusade was in favor of permitting gay men and women to serve in the U.S. armed forces. Continuing his writing through the difficult last months of his illness, he finished Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military (1993). Although the book was on best-seller lists for several weeks, Shuts was again criticized, this time for refusing to “out” his sources who were military officers.

Shuts developed full-blown AIDS before finishing his last book. On Memorial Day 1993 he engaged in a commitment ceremony with his lover Barry Barbieri, a film student. That year Shuts was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a disease common in AIDS patients, and he was mostly homebound thereafter. He died at home in February 1994, just days after a published report indicated that the number of AIDS cases in San Francisco had peaked in 1992 and was declining.

During his lifetime, Shuts was frequently criticized by other gay activists for his insistence on emphasizing his responsibilities as a professional journalist over his genuine political commitment to advancing gay and lesbian rights. In his refusal to conceal the hesitancy of gay leaders to acknowledge AIDS in its early manifestations and his opposition to the practice of “outing” of living persons, he remained faithful to journalistic ethics as he understood them. At the time of his death, however—even though his politics remained controversial (perhaps even suspect) in the opinion of many gay activists—Randy Shuts was recognized as the writer who had set the standards by which gay journalism would thenceforth be judged.

Shilts’s personal papers, including drafts of books, copies of his journalistic articles, research subject files, and some correspondence, are in the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library. A good overview of much of his work and influence is in James Kinsella, Covering the Plague: AIDS and the American Media (1989). The most useful brief biographical essay is by Joseph M. Eagan, “Randy Shuts,” in Outstanding Lives: Profiles of Lesbians and Gay Men, edited by Michael Bronski (1997). Informative obituaries are in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times (all 18 Feb. 1994).

Gary W. Reichard