Randy Shilts Essay - Critical Essays

Shilts, Randy


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."

Biographical Information

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."

Major Works

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."

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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


Patricia Holt (essay date 19 March 1982)

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 entire section is 1189 words.)

Richard Goldstein (review date 23 March 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 1550 words.)

Daniel S. Greenberg (review date 7 November 1987)

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,...

(The entire section is 1651 words.)

H. Jack Geiger (review date 8 November 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 1337 words.)

William A. Blattner (review date October 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 3207 words.)

A. S. Cohan (review date August 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 311 words.)

Herbert Mitgang (review date 21 April 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 1030 words.)

Robert Dawldoff (review date 2 May 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 1597 words.)

John Lehman (review date 18 May 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

Sam Todes (review date 30 May 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 1915 words.)

John D'Emilio (review date 7 June 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 1958 words.)

Robert Stone (essay date 23 September 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 2326 words.)

Randy Shilts with Garry Wills (interview date 30 September 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 5476 words.)

Fredric Paul Smoler (review date 7 November 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 849 words.)

Paul Berman (essay date 20 December 1993)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 100 words.)