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Randy Shilts
1951-1994
by Janice Albert

Shilts Cemetery

In the year 1999, readers of the San Francisco Chronicle were asked to name the century’s 100 best books about California. Randy Shilts made that list with his groundbreaking chronicle of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic. Shilts, who died in 1994, lived to publish another benchmark report before his death at the age of 42, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U. S. Military, Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. According to Michael Denneny, his editor at St Martin’s Press and literary executor, his next project was to cover homosexuality and the Catholic Church.

Shilts combined book-writing with his job as a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. His path to this career and to the fame it brought him was one he created out of his own determination to succeed as an openly gay establishment writer.

Shilts was born August 8, 1951, in Davenport, Iowa. Neither of his parents had completed high school. In this home, he has written, he was beaten and emotionally abused. Ultimately, he was able to say that his parents were proud of his achievements, but there is no record of their encouragement and support along the way.

He became an English major at the University of Oregon, where he experienced an epiphany in his senior year: “I realized I didn’t know how to write a simple declarative sentence. Somebody said you could learn grammar by taking a journalism course, so I took one and I just happened to be good at it.” He stayed on another year, becoming the award-winning managing editor of the student paper. Yet, upon graduation, he found that he could not be hired in Oregon, and inferred this was because he had never concealed his sexual orientation.

In 1975 Shilts accepted a job with The Advocate, a gay publication based in San Mateo, a move which brought him to California in time to witness a historical moment. Harvey Milk had just been appointed to the Board of Supervisors by San Francisco’s newly-elected mayor George Mascone. The gay community finally had a political presence, one which Milk mobilized from his camera shop on Castro Street. Shilts was there to watch and record both the unification of the gay community and the trauma it experienced when Milk and Mascone were assassinated in November 1978.

When Shilts first proposed a book about Harvey Milk, he was warned there wasn’t enough material. He persisted when he saw that the killing had not destroyed the gay movement; it seemed to have given it new power. “And then,” he reports, “I read Hawaii by James Michener. That gave me the concept for the book, the idea of taking people and using them as vehicles, symbols for different ideas. I would take the life-and-times approach and tell the whole story of the gay movement in this way, using Harvey as the major vehicle.” This was the proposal that he sold to St. Martin’s for an advance of $16,000. The Mayor of Castro Street: the Life and Times of Harvey Milk sold more than 100,000 copies in hardback; 600,000 in paperback.

But it was his book about AIDS that put Shilts on the modern list of writers who have made a difference. Noticing symptoms of mysterious illness among his gay friends, Shilts began to write about GRID (gay-related immuno-deficiency diseases) as early as 1982, and campaigned at the Chronicle to get these stories moved from the back pages to the front. GRID was eventually renamed AIDS when it became clear that the problem was widespread in the human population. Shilts’s campaign to widen the public’s awareness of AIDS-related illness and the government’s slow response to it, met with resistance from an unexpected quarter—the gay community itself. Shilts has spoken of the pressure on him to write only good things about the gay community, and he was sharply criticized for pointing out that the AIDS virus didn’t spread by itself. “We had a community that was virtually engineered to ensure the rapid proliferation of a sexually transmitted disease,” says Shilts, “and people did not really do anything about it.… I took AIDS very seriously before a lot of people in the community were ready to, and it was perceived that I was doing this to curry favor with my heterosexual editors.”

And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic was published in 1987. Shilts began work on his third and final book about gays in the U. S. military, but by this time he knew that he had another fight on his hands, his own case of AIDS. His book was published in 1993, just as newly-elected President Bill Clinton began to address the issue of gays in the U. S. Military, and on February 17, 1994, he was gone.

In addition to acknowledging his debt to James Michener, Shilts considered himself a literary journalist in the tradition of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. Before getting his break with the San Francisco Chronicle, he worked for television stations KQED and KTVU. “Whenever I’m writing a story or a book, I tend to lean on very visual scenes. I think that’s directly an influence of television…. There’s an image there that creates an impact far beyond what you can normally do in writing.” He has also commented on the prestige that his reputation as a television writer gave him, a bit of glitter the ordinary writer doesn’t so easily achieve.

Randy Shilts bequeath his papers, his notes, all his research to the San Francisco Public Library. He is is buried at Redwood Memorial Gardens, Woodland Drive and Sunset Road, Guerneville, California.

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