Randy Shilts 1951–1994
American nonfiction writer, biographer, and journalist.
The following entry provides an overview of Shilts's career.
Shilts is credited with focusing national attention on Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and various gay-related issues through his writing in The San Francisco Chronicle and his book-length study, And the Band Played On (1987), a history of America's response to the AIDS epidemic. Both this study and Shilts's Conduct Unbecoming (1993) are considered highly influential documents in the movement to promote equal rights for gays and lesbians. Cleve Jones, founder of the Names Project that produced the AIDS quilt, asserted that Shilts's writings are "without question the most important works of literature affecting gay people."
Shilts was born in Davenport, Iowa, but spent most of his childhood and adolescence in Aurora, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. While attending the University of Oregon, where he was active in student politics and managing editor of the student newspaper, Shilts publicly acknowledged his homosexuality. He earned his B.S. at the University of Oregon in 1975, and although he graduated with high honors, he struggled to find employment in Oregon because of what he perceived as homophobia. Shilts became a Northwest correspondent for the Advocate, a national gay and lesbian magazine, and after working for several years as a television and freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay area was hired by The San Francisco Chronicle in 1981, thereby becoming the first openly-gay American journalist at a major metropolitan newspaper. Shilts began reporting on the AIDS epidemic for the Chronicle in 1982, and his coverage of the topic culminated in the publication of And the Band Played On. In March 1987, on the day he completed the manuscript for And the Band Played On, Shilts discovered that he had tested positive for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS. Shilts stated: "Every gay writer who tests positive ends up being an AIDS activist. I wanted to keep on being a reporter." Subsequently, Shilts did not disclose that he was HIV-positive until 1992, when he nearly died after suffering from pneumonia and a collapsed lung. During his illness, Shilts continued to conduct research and write Conduct Unbecoming, his acclaimed study of the history of the treatment of gays and lesbians in the United States military, the last pages of which he dictated from his hospital bed. Shilts died in 1994 at his home in Guerneville, California. He has been hailed as a hero by many gay activists, including National Gay and Lesbian Task Force leader David M. Smith, who stated: "Each and every person claimed by AIDS is a loss to the movement, but Randy's contribution was so crucial. He broke through society's denial and was absolutely critical to communicating the reality of AIDS."
Shilts's first book, The Mayor of Castro Street (1982), is a biography of gay leader and San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, who was killed along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by Dan White, a fellow city supervisor who had quit his job in protest of a gay rights bill that Milk had been promoting. Shilts's narrative recalls Milk's life and career, and chronicles the growth of the Castro Street gay community in San Francisco. In And the Band Played On Shilts presents evidence to support his claim that the American government, media, scientific establishment, and even some groups within the gay community ignored or denied the existence of AIDS in the early 1980s, which ultimately led to the epidemic occurrence of AIDS in the American population. Shilts delineates the response of the public and of individuals to the disease in narrative segments which illustrate how early signs of AIDS were ignored by medical practitioners, scientists, journalists, and politicians who foresaw little benefit in studying a disease that was largely affecting gay men. In this work Shilts also portrays the lives of people infected with HIV, chronicling their struggle with and eventual surrender to AIDS. In an interview conducted shortly after the publication of And the Band Played On, Shilts stated: "Any good reporter could have done this story, but I think the reason I did it, and no one else did, is because I am gay. It was happening to people I cared about and loved." Conduct Unbecoming, which Shilts dubbed "my definitive book on homophobia," contains numerous personal accounts from former and active gay U.S. service-people, as well as government reports and statistics illustrating the U.S. military's long history of discrimination and mistreatment of homosexuals. By making numerous requests under the Freedom of Information Act, Shilts was able to obtain long-buried government documents, such as "The Crittenden Report," which concluded in 1957 that there was "no correlation between homosexuality and either ability or attainments."
Because of the political and social stigma frequently associated with AIDS and homosexuality, Shilts's writings have generated a wide array of critical opinion. Commentators applauded The Mayor of Castro Street for its readable, novelistic style, its skillful blending of biographical detail with an historical overview of the development of the Castro Street gay community, and its objective, penetrating investigation of big-city politics. Most critics similarly offered high praise for And the Band Played On, citing Shilts's ability to produce a work that is simultaneously affective and informative. However, some critics, particularly those within the scientific community, attacked Shilts's portrayal of the scientific establishment as inaccurate, echoing the sentiments of William A. Blattner, who asserted that "in addressing the scientific response to AIDS, [Shilts's] discussion is simplistic and his antiestablishment biases lead to a distorted perception of reality." Also faulted for his support of the closing of gay bath-houses in San Francisco, Shilts was further condemned by radical gay rights groups for refusing to support the practice of "outing" gay public figures and concealing the identity of a gay Pentagon official quoted in Conduct Unbecoming. Although Shilts was censured by some critics for what they perceived as the deliberate distortion and misrepresentation of facts, as well as for a repetitious narrative in Conduct Unbecoming, many commended his extensive research and candor. Robert Dawldoff commented: "Conduct Unbecoming lays it all out for us, leaving little to the imagination except how this country will manage to salvage its honor from the betrayal of all of the thousands of lesbian and gay soldiers." In the author's note to The Mayor of Castro Street, which some critics cite as a response to Shilts's detractors, Shilts maintained; "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."
The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (biography) 1982
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (nonfiction) 1987
Conduct Unbecoming: Lesbians and Gays in the U.S. Military, Vietnam to the Persian Gulf (nonfiction) 1993
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SOURCE: "Randy Shilts," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 221, No. 12, March 19, 1982, pp. 6-7.
[In the following excerpt, Holt provides Shilts's comments on The Mayor of Castro Street and on events that preceded the book's publication.]
The day after San Francisco mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered in their offices at City Hall, reporter Randy Shilts received a long-distance telephone call from Michael Denneny, editor at St. Martin's Press and an editor of the gay magazine, Christopher Street.
Still in his 20s, Shilts had already contributed articles to Christopher Street, the Washington Post, New West, the Village Voice, the Advocate, Columbia Journalism Review, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle. He was known to Northern California residents for his television coverage of the gay migration into the Bay Area during the late 1970s; the Anita Bryant controversy; and Proposition Six, an initiative on the state ballot calling for the firing of homosexual teachers in public schools. And Shilts's rise as the first openly gay establishment journalist in California was widely observed to have coincided with the rise of Harvey Milk as the first openly gay establishment politician.
Thus when Denneny asked Shilts to write a cover story for...
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SOURCE: "What He Did for Love," in The Village Voice, Vol. 27, March 23, 1982, p. 40.
[Goldstein is an American editor and critic. In the following review of The Mayor of Castro Street, he commends Shilts's objectivity and directness in presenting the events of Harvey Milk's life and career.]
In one of those amply underwritten discussions public television is famous for, Earnest Van den Haag and William F. Buckley held forth recently on the subject of gay rights. Secure in his conviction that homosexuality is "a defect," Van den Haag extended an olive branch by referring to "the gay leadership"—and that caused Buckley's brows to rise so high you'd have thought he was engorged with butyl nitrite. "There is no gay leadership," Buckley snorted, and the point was moot.
In a sense, Old Sawtooth is right. Though there have always been homosexuals in politics—in numbers roughly commensurate with their presence in the population at large—those who are willing and able to conceal their sexuality rise the highest; so it seems that gay people don't exist in electoral politics on any significant level. Indeed, the idea that homosexuals should represent each other rather than relying on the good offices of sympathetic straights is as novel now as when Harvey Milk first broached it in the mid-'70s.
Milk won a seat on San Francisco's board of supervisors—and thereby...
(The entire section is 1550 words.)
SOURCE: "Unhealthy Resistance," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 245, No. 15, November 7, 1987, pp. 526-28.
[Greenberg is an American journalist, critic, and editor and publisher of Science and Government Report, a newsletter that analyzes American politics, particularly as related to science and health issues. In the following review, he offers praise for And the Band Played On.]
When the files and memoirs become available, all long wars are revealed to have been badly fought. It could not be otherwise with the AIDS epidemic, given the disease's stealthy spread, the outcast populations it initially struck and its scientific intractability. Most important, however, was a horrific coincidence: the simultaneous arrival in the United States in 1981 of an uncompassionate, overtly homophobic presidency and a mysterious, fatal affliction transmitted mainly through the sex practices of male homosexuals. The ingredients for calamity were abundant, and the forces opposing them turned out to be feeble.
The begrudging response to AIDS by the world's greatest scientific and medical power is copiously reported and analyzed in And the Band Played On, a remarkable narrative by Randy Shilts, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who's been on the AIDS beat from the beginning. Organized in chronological, datelined sections starting with the belatedly recognized hints of AIDS in medical...
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SOURCE: A review of And the Band Played On, in The New York Times Book Review, November 8, 1987, p. 9.
[In the following mixed review, Geiger lauds Shilts's reportage of various elements of the AIDS epidemic in And The Band Played On, but notes that the study contains an excessive amount of detail, focuses almost entirely on the homosexual population, and lacks information on such individuals as intravenous drug users, who have also been widely infected with HIV and AIDS.]
We are now in the seventh year of the AIDS pandemic, the worldwide epidemic nightmarishly linking sex and death and drugs and blood. There is, I believe, much more and much worse to come. But great and lethal epidemics are never merely biological events, and never elicit merely biological or scientific responses. They become social forces in their own right, carving deep new fissures in the political and cultural landscape, thrusting up buried fears and hatreds. "Objective" medicine and science may be as vulnerable to these pressures as, say, Congressmen, evangelists or budget directors.
And so acquired immune deficiency syndrome is not only an epidemic; it is a mirror, revealing us to ourselves. How did we respond? What does that say about us, and about the future? In And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts, a reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle who has covered AIDS full time since 1983,...
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SOURCE: "A Novelistic History of the AIDS Epidemic Demeans Both Investigators and Patients," in Scientific American, Vol. 259, No. 4, October, 1988, pp. 148-51.
[In the following review of And the Band Played On, Blattner contends that Shilts's presentation of facts surrounding the scientific response to AIDS in the United States is unsound, asserting: "In addressing the scientific response to AIDS, [Shilts's] discussion is simplistic and his antiestablishment biases lead to a distorted perception of reality."]
Major events in human history tend to spawn their chroniclers: the Trojan War inspired Homer, the decadence of the Roman Empire was chronicled in the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter and its decline was analyzed by Gibbon. The AIDS pandemic also promises to take a major place in the history of our species, but it has not yet attracted a recorder of classic stature. This circumstance has left the field to Randy Shilts, a determined reporter who covers the gay community for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Since its publication in October, 1987, And the Band Played On has sold 215,000 copies in hardcover and has gone through seven printings. A paperback edition from Viking-Penguin is scheduled for publication this fall. The book has been serialized in magazines and at least one translation (into German) is planned. Clearly, this is the AIDS book and has...
(The entire section is 3207 words.)
SOURCE: A review of And the Band Played On, in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2, August, 1989, p. 339.
[In the following review, Cohan offers a positive assessment of And the Band Played On.]
Although a number of books and articles have appeared dealing with all aspects of the AIDS epidemic, Mr. Shilts has produced the most comprehensive and moving account of the spread of the condition and its implications thus far written. His work as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle placed him in one of the two American cities hardest hit by AIDS and allowed him to follow the story from the beginning. Also he has accumulated a human interest content which social scientists would probably have avoided but which ultimately makes [And the Band Played On] such compelling reading. Public officials in the United States congratulate themselves for the speed with which they confronted the problem; Shilts condemns them for the slowness with which they responded in spite of multiple warnings, and attacks the system which has given rise to empire-building and exclusivity rather than cooperation to confront a common foe. He attacks also those within the gay communities in the United States who confused questions of public health and common sense with those of civil rights in the Bath House controversies. His praise is reserved for assorted politicians, straight [and] gay, some of whom are...
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SOURCE: "Gay Life in the Military: A Record of Success," in The New York Times, Section C, April 21, 1993, p. 20.
[Mitgang is a noted American novelist, playwright, biographer, historian, and critic. In the following review, he asserts that Conduct Unbecoming "makes a strong contribution to our knowledge" of the facts and circumstances surrounding the issue of homosexuals serving in the United States military.]
Nearly everybody who has ever served in uniform knows the facts. But secrecy and hypocrisy are often in command and sometimes even wear stars. The official position is that homosexuals and lesbians are barred from the United States armed forces. No problem avoiding service; just check the box on the application form asking whether you have "homosexual tendencies" and the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines won't allow you to join the ranks of the red, white and blue heterosexual service-men and -women. That permits the services to praise the Lord, pass the ammunition and tolerate only the official military way.
Randy Shilts, the author of Conduct Unbecoming, knows otherwise. He has written a convincing and readable narrative on gay life in uniform, from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. Mr. Shilts, a national correspondent for The San Francisco Chronicle and the author of And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, supports his new book...
(The entire section is 1030 words.)
SOURCE: "An American Inquisition," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 2, 1993, pp. 4, 11.
[In the following review, Dawldoff lauds Shilts's blending of fact and human interest in Conduct Unbecoming, noting that "Shilts's gay-soldier's-eye-view of the Vietnam War is one of the book's most moving and revisionist sections."]
In 1978, several gay crew members of the Nathaniel Greene lived, as did their fellow sailors, in an apartment complex the Navy had rented for them. The gay roommates had fixed up their house in "high House & Garden style, and took turns preparing gourmet meals for one another." They got used to unannounced visits around mealtime from their unmarried, straight shipmates, who lived student-style and ate frozen dinners. The gay sailors got talked into hosting a Tupperware party for the whole complex. Two dozen sailors and their wives and girlfriends crowded the apartment for cocktails and Tupperware. Thanks to the wives talk ("Those guys just had to be gay, they agreed. The apartment was far too tasteful for them to be anything but …"), the news of the party and the sexual orientation of the hosts was all over the complex. One of the group, Gene Barfield, a nuclear training expert on his first assignment, was called in to see his captain.
"I heard you had a Tupperware party on Friday," the captain said.
Barfield was petrified....
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SOURCE: "Sad Story of Gays in Military," in The Wall Street Journal, May 18, 1993, p. A16.
[Lehman served as secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration. In the following review, he responds negatively to Conduct Unbecoming, maintaining that many of Shilts's facts and personal accounts are inflated, slanted, and often erroneous.]
On March 14, 1778, George Washington personally ordered Lt. G. F. Enslin drummed out of Valley Forge "with abhorrence and detestation" after he was found guilty of sodomy. From that day on such activity has never been tolerated in the military. While the severity of enforcement and punishment has varied, the emphasis was always on behavior, not preference or inclination. That policy was changed by the Carter administration.
The nature of the present tempest over gays in the military springs from two Orwellian initiatives by Democrats in the early 1980s. The first of these was Department of Defense Directive 1332.13, pushed through by military homophobes in the last days of the Carter presidency. For the first time, the mere "propensity" for homosexuality, without any activity, became grounds for mandatory expulsion from military service.
The second cause was the passage by congressional Democrats of the Independent Inspector General Act, which established a new Gestapo-style program called the Waste-Fraud-Abuse Hotline. With...
(The entire section is 871 words.)
SOURCE: "Injustice for Some: Randy Shilts Indicts the U.S. Military's Treatment of Gays and Lesbians," in Chicago Tribune—Books, May 30, 1993, pp. 5, 10.
[In the following review, Todes offers a positive assessment of Conduct Unbecoming.]
This book is water torture. Drop by drop, vignette after vignette, the reader is moved by one unconscionable story after another about the treatment of homosexuals in American military service. The narrative starts from the beginning at Valley Forge, with the debt owed to the gay general Von Steuben for training the Revolutionary Army in the modern ways originated by a gay king, Frederick the Great of Prussia. This debt is elaborated against the stark background of gay volunteers being drummed out of service before the assembled ragtag band for loving one another unnaturally. The story moves briskly to the beginnings of Vietnam, and concentrates on the period from that time to just before Operation Desert Storm. If you stay with it, Randy Shilts' book may break your heart as it leads to the overwhelming conclusion that such cruelty must stop.
The power of Conduct Unbecoming lies in the vivid force of its examples. It is virtually a series of short stories on the common theme of the betrayal and mockery of the American dream for untold thousands of gay and lesbian patriots who gave their best, and in some cases their all, for our country. And...
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SOURCE: "All That You Can Be," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 256, No. 22, June 7, 1993, pp. 806, 810, 812.
[An American educator, historian, and critic, D'Emilio is author of Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University (1992). In the following mixed review, he praises Shilts for placing his facts within an historical context, but faults the "lack of balance" in Conduct Unbecoming, which D'Emilio believes results in a limited perspective on gay life in the U.S. military.]
Social movements, in order to succeed, require hard work, perseverance, solid organization and a healthy does of mysterious good fortune. In November 1990, when some scattered local activists floated the idea of another march on Washington for lesbian and gay rights, who could have predicted that a sympathetic Democrat would be in the White House or that in his first week in office the ban on gays in the military would become front-page news? The convergence of the Clinton presidency, the debate over the military ban and the media-saturated march in the nation's capital marked a watershed. Mainstream America has discovered the gay and lesbian movement, while heterosexual liberals in the media, politics and the entertainment world have raced to adopt the cause as their own.
Still, activists face an uphill battle in their quest for civil equality and in the more daunting struggle to...
(The entire section is 1958 words.)
SOURCE: "Uncle Sam Doesn't Want You," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XL, No. 15, September 23, 1993, pp. 18-23.
[Stone is an acclaimed American novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, and critic who served in the United States Navy from 1955 to 1958. In the following excerpt, he examines the issues raised in Conduct Unbecoming.]
[The United States armed forces' approach to homosexuality throughout history] is the subject of Randy Shilts's long book, Conduct Unbecoming: Lesbians and Gays in the Military, Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. Shilts's business here is advocacy, and he writes in favor of the right of gays and lesbians to serve in the US armed forces. His arguments seem to grow more reasoned and less strident as the book proceeds, and he has a good reporter's instinct for the core of a story. He begins, somewhat irrelevantly, by invoking the Sacred Band of Thebes and George Washington's silk tights, but the cumulative effect of Conduct Unbecoming is a clear indictment of the morally confused and weak-minded policy that has prevailed so far.
If there is a single reference point against which the whole of Conduct Unbecoming may be viewed it is the report he cites, one officially entitled the "Report of the Board Appointed to Prepare and Submit Recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy for the Revision of Policies, Procedures and Directives Dealing...
(The entire section is 2326 words.)
SOURCE: An interview in Rolling Stone, Issue 666, September 30, 1993, pp. 46-9, 122-23.
[A well-known American novelist, historian, and critic, Wills is author of Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (1970), a study of Richard Nixon's political career. In the following interview, Shilts discusses his writing, personal life, and career.]
[Shilts]: I thought, going into it, there were two problems I was going to have with [Conduct Unbecoming]—one, that nobody cared about the issue, that people would view it as a subissue of a subissue, not something important enough to read a whole book about, and my second fear was getting people to talk to me. Actually, though, both of them proved rather groundless. On the latter problem, I guess I was operating on my own stereotypes of military people, that they wouldn't want to rock the boat, that they wouldn't want to be named, they were more conservative, even people who are out. But it was actually very easy.
What I did was put little blurbs in gay papers around the country asking for military personnel, people who had served from Vietnam to the present. I got like 300 responses from the ad, and from that I just used friendship networks. Once you met one, then they would say, "Oh, I have a friend in Camp Lejeune," and then they would have a friend someplace else, so it was mainly just using friendship networks and...
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SOURCE: "Americans Fighting for the Right to Serve," in The Observer, November 7, 1993, p. 21.
[Below, Smoler offers a positive review of Conduct Unbecoming.]
Randy Shilts, the most prominent American reporter to have identified himself as a gay journalist, has written two previous books on American politics, one on HIV and the other on Harvey Milk. (And the Band Played On and The Mayor of Castro Street). Both were compounded of admirable reporting and liberal interpretation.
Conduct Unbecoming has Shilts's customary virtues and occasional limitations—the strengths and weaknesses of liberal American reportage. It is splendid on human interest achieved through interwoven individual biographies, but thoughts on the place of its subject in the larger American political culture are kept under wraps.
Shilts traces the lives of a number of gay men and women through the post-war American military, following them from enlistment—itself often an attempted flight from homosexuality—through sexual self-awareness, the experience of service and battle, political self-awareness, some very nasty persecutions and finally legal combat to retain the right to serve one's country.
The book is amazingly timely, since Clinton's first and damaging political defeat occurred over his campaign pledge to remove discrimination against gays in the...
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SOURCE: "Democracy and Homosexuality," in The New Republic, Vol. 209, No. 25, December 20, 1993, pp. 17-35.
[Berman is an American educator, historian, and critic. In the following excerpt, he praises Shilts's presentation of evidence in Conduct Unbecoming, but suggests that some of the facts and anecdotes are repetitious and perhaps exaggerated.]
Randy Shilts's study …, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military, conforms to the same inspiration for history-by-interview and collective biography that you see in Martin Duberman's book Stonewall, 1993 and in some other histories of the gay movement—though Shilts goes at these interviews in a spirit of popular journalism, without any suggestion that he has pondered his links to the school of history from below or the international '68 style. Mostly the book is a heroic feat of documentation. Shilts has conducted 1,100 interviews, and he has worked these interviews up into 700 pages of stories and anecdotes, with each anecdote going on for perhaps a page and a half, then yielding to the next. A little less heroism might have been just as well. Yet those 1,100 interviews manage to unearth a hidden life that has been lived by many thousands of people under the most pitiable conditions, and by stringing one story to another Shilts is able to show that soldier after soldier has spun a variation on a single unvarying...
(The entire section is 1744 words.)
Adler, Jerry, and Monserrate, Carey. "And the Band Stopped Playing." Newsweek CXXIII, No. 9 (28 February 1994): 36.
A tribute to Shilts, noting his career accomplishments.
Grimes, William. "Randy Shilts, Author, Dies at 42; One of First to Write About AIDS." The New York Times (18 February 1994): D17.
Obituary in which Grimes surveys Shilts's life and career.
Leishman, Katie. "The Writing Cure." The New York Times (5 March 1994): 23.
A personal reminiscence by a close friend of Shilts.
(The entire section is 100 words.)