Randy Shilts Critical Essays

Introduction

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."