Randy Shilts Introduction

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,105 words.)