This third and final excerpt brings the narrative back to San Francisco, where in late 1981 only a few gay journalists were trying to keep “gay cancer” in the headlines. Despite Randy Shilts’ later efforts, he had not yet made the disease part of his beat, although the San Francisco Chronicle’s science writerswere providing regular medical updates. His friend and rival Randy Alfred, however, had gotten ahead of most other local gay journalists by showcasing the disease both on his weekly radio show and in the San Francisco Sentinel, where he’d recently become editor.
Excerpt #3: A Determination to Live
Meanwhile in San Francisco, dermatologist Marcus Conant and oncologist Paul Volberding, both with UCSF Medical Center, had become two of the leading members of a new city task force devoted to combating gay cancer. In future years, to even get 30 minutes of their time would be something of a coup; but when the two physicians approached journalist Randy Alfred with a request to appear in-studio on his KSAN radio program, The Gay Life, listeners had an early opportunity to hear a measured, point-by-point examination of everything known so far – including a response to the rampant speculation buzzing around what gay cancer may or may not actually be.
To start, Alfred pressed, was it accurate to even call this outbreak a disease, let alone a gay disease? Volberding acknowledged that Kaposi’s sarcoma had only recently become prominent in gay men, while Conant pointed out that because there are no known physiological differences between gays and heterosexuals, any new disease would be just that: a human ailment, rather than a peculiarity of homosexuality. They were aware, he added, of cases recently identified by CDC among heterosexual men and women. “So I would believe that probably we’re seeing this outbreak in a very sexually active group in the population, namely the gay community, and that we will see this disease in the heterosexual community as well in the next few months in greater numbers.”
Among those heterosexual cases, Conant noted, heavy drug use seemed to be common, especially of the intravenous nature. For those who were insisting that cancer in and of itself was not contagious, Volberding stressed, an “underlying defect” was probably responsible for both illnesses, “that something is causing the immune system to be compromised in that the deficiency in the immune system allows these persons to be infected by organisms that otherwise are only seen in people who are debilitated, and also to develop a malignancy that otherwise is very rare.”
To offer a modicum of hope for persons developing symptoms, Alfred brought up the issue of treatment; the best his guests could offer, however, was guarded speculation. “Obviously, the ideal treatment would be to correct the defect that is causing the problem. Unhappily, at the present time, we are unaware of what that defect is,” Conant told him.
A number of alternate hypotheses were already swirling around the community, which Alfred found ways to raise throughout the conversation. What about heavy drug use, or immune systems burned out by repeated VD treatments? It was true that many of the patients so far had lengthy histories of smoking pot and using poppers, they acknowledged, and medical researchers had taken notice of treatment resistance in cases where patients had repeated bouts of common sexual ailments like gonorrhea. But, Volberding countered, some of the persons with KS or PCP were relatively young, with far less experience compared to men who’d enjoyed an active gay lifestyle for some years now. In fact, a few of the patients had little to no prior history of sexually-transmitted infections, and their popper use was variable as well.
Perhaps it’s a silver lining, Alfred mused, that this entire experience would eventually produce a great deal more knowledge about cancers and the human immune system. But, he admitted, “The question is that a lot of us don’t like being in an experimental group by virtue of our lifestyle.” With so little data, Conant advised, any answers to these questions would have to be “broad and speculative.” Already, however, the evidence was pointing to a viral agent spread through sexual activity. “If the suggestion that it may have come from a point source and be something that is transmissible is correct, then individuals should reduce the number of sexual contacts they have.”
By the end of 1981, both Time and Newsweek had joined the mainstream papers in publishing cursory stories on the epidemic, but much of the credit for keeping gay cancer in the headlines lay with a small handful in the gay media who, often against the wishes of their publishers and advertisers, insisted on keeping it there. In his dual roles as radio host and editor of the Sentinel, Alfred was generating more than his fair share of that coverage, which in the year ahead would continue to swell in both frequency and volume. “So I was following the procedure of, anybody that I ever talked to on any of the stories, I added to my beat checklist,” he recalled. “And [the Sentinel] came out every two weeks, and I phoned them every two weeks to find out what was new. That is, I didn’t wait for them to tell me. I called all my sources every two weeks.”
In contrast to the Bay Area Reporter, where updates at the time remained sparse and far removed from the front pages, he invited registered nurse Bobbi Campbell, whose KS diagnosis came soon after the first news stories had appeared, to begin writing about his experiences in a regular column. The soft-spoken 29-year-old would emerge as a self-appointed “poster boy” for gay cancer victims, a role his stories would amplify. Winsome, earnest, and congenitally optimistic, Campbell gamely stepped into the spotlight, albeit one within the narrow confines of gay media, offering a much-needed human element to a story that remained clouded by scientific uncertainty, clashing opinions on what (if anything) to do, and – for some gays – wholesale avoidance of the subject matter. If writing about his experiences could shine a light for someone – an anonymous gay “brother” on Castro or Christopher Street, who either was afraid or unaware of what those strange purple lesions signified – then Campbell hoped his efforts could prevent at least one more death. “I’ve taken to wearing a button with the title of Gloria Gaynor’s 1979 hit song, ‘I Will Survive,’” Bobbi Campbell declared. “It seemed an appropriate title for this column. I’m writing because I have a determination to live. You do, too– don’t you?”
By the end of 1981, more than 230 known patients were reported to have died from the still-unnamed medical condition, and for physicians on the frontline, nothing would be quite as frightening as the onslaught on patients’ bodies they were already witnessing. “It’s like it did things that a virus, a smart virus, shouldn’t do,” Paul Volberding later remembered. “Because viruses aren’t supposed to kill 100% of people – you know?”
Information and direct quotes from the January 10, 1982 episode of The Gay Life were transcribed from The GLBT Historical Society’s Online Audio Holdings.
Information and direct quotes from the December 10, 1981, San Francisco Sentinel were retrieved through Inter-Library Loan from the University of Michigan Library’s Microfilm Services.
Reflections by Dr. Paul Volberding come directly from our in-person interview at the University of California-San Franciscoon March 21, 2016.
This is the second part in a series of excerpts that I wrote, but subsequently cut, from my biography-in-progress of Randy Shilts. This particular sequence recounts some of the initial conflict in New York between activist Larry Kramer and members of the local gay establishment over whether or not this new “gay cancer” rose to the level of a full-fledged community health crisis.
Excerpt #2: The Noise in the Band
“Goodbye, Germs; Hello, Happiness.”
The New York Native headline made it all sound so simple. For the cost of $20 annually, Meridien, a new private sex club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, would “alleviate the problem of VD infection[s] through a consensual gentleman’s agreement and open and honest communication.” As its founder “Mr. Rick” explained, Meridien’s seventeen-point honor code would require members to complete a telephone interview, provide written confirmation of their most recent medical exam, and make a solemn promise that in the interim, they hadn’t had sex with any non-member. Once accepted, men were then encouraged to self-classify their “status” based on the kinds of sexual activity they’d last had, ranging from non-anal contact, “very careful” anal contact , or “heavy” anal contact, which included intercourse, fisting, and rimming.
Undoubtedly born of good intentions, the attempt at a homegrown solution to the venereal disease problem came not from public health, but rather a gay everyman hoping to strike a balance between good-natured, fraternal fun and personal responsibility. “Mr. Rick is not a hairdresser,” Native readers were assured. “This young man with the ruddy complexion, brown eyes, and decent sideburns chose his nom de plume because ‘it adds drama, which is appealing to gays.’” In a follow-up letter to the Native, Mr. Rick explained, “[Due] to the extreme frustration of the current VD situation, coupled with the mind-set of feeling non-related, some people in the baths are knowingly spreading disease with the attitude of let the other guy take care of himself.”
A more chilling prospect was scarcely worth considering: if a previously unknown infectious agent – a slow progressor, with initial symptoms resembling other common ailments – had already found its way into the human body, where it could pass from host to host without yet being detected, a standard VD check wouldn’t even come close to screening out potential carriers, no matter how devoted they were to keeping Meridien’s “gentlemen’s agreement.”
One gay New Yorker was already imagining such a nightmare scenario… but he wasn’t a very popular one. In early August 1981, author Larry Kramer had convened a group of men concerned about the escalating number of persons afflicted with gay cancer. In a subsequent letter to the Native, he wrote, “The men who have been stricken don’t appear to have done anything that many New York gay men haven’t done at one time or another.”
Prior to the MMWR’s announcement, Kramer had already witnessed an alarmingly rapid decline among some of his friends. “We’re appalled that this is happening to them and terrified that it could happen to us,” he wrote. “It’s easy to become frightened that one of the many things we’ve done or taken over the past years may be all that it takes for a cancer to grow from a tiny something-or-other that got in there who knows when from doing who knows what. . . .”
“This is our disease and we must take care of each other and ourselves.”
However urgent the message, some gays still found it impossible to look past the messenger. Just a few years earlier, Kramer’s novel Faggots, a modest commercial success, had offered a searing, no-holds-barred condemnation of what he viewed as the pleasure-obsessed, live-for-yourself trajectory of gay culture in the ‘70s. As Kramer’s small group struggled to raise awareness and funds for gay cancer research, some took issue less with his actual concerns and more with the his alarmism of his tone.
“Basically, Kramer is telling us that something we gay men are doing (drugs? kinky sex?) is causing Kaposi’s sarcoma,” playwright Robert Chesley complained in a letter to the Native. “I think the concealed meaning in Kramer’s emotionalism is the triumph of guilt, that gay men deserve to die for their promiscuity.” While insisting that he was not downplaying the seriousness of KS – in fact, he was sending Kramer a check that very same day – Chesley warned Native readers to be vigilant against the twin perils of “gay homophobia” and “anti-eroticism.”
“In his novel Faggots, Kramer told us that sex is dirty and that we ought not to be doing what we’re doing,” he continued. “Now, with Kaposi’s sarcoma attacking gay men, Kramer assumes he knows the cause… and well, let’s say that it’s easy to become frightened that Kramer’s real emotion is a sense of having been vindicated, though tragically he told us so, but we didn’t listen to him; nooo – we had to learn the hard way, and now we’re dying.”
“Read anything from Kramer closely,” Chesley advised. “I think you’ll find that the subtext is always the wages of gay sin are death. I ask you to look closely at Kramer’s writing because I think it’s important for gay people to know whether or not they agree with him.”
And with that, the battle lines were drawn. For some who viewed their sexual expression as a hard-fought human right, the suggestion that certain behaviors constituted a public health threat amounted to treason – a declaration of war against gay liberation’s very cause, led by those self-hating gays who still felt guilty for being faggots. And of course Kramer, a devoted dramatist and practiced screamer, was known to never back down from an argument. In the months ahead, he and Chesley (himself one of Larry’s former lovers) would continue trading barbs on the Native’s Letters page, psyching out each other’s motives with an unsubtle whiff of queenly disdain, with each in turn declaring, “Gays are dying and we damn well better figure out why.”
In early 1982, Kramer, along with Lawrence Mass, Paul Popham, and others, would oversee the tumultuous founding of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which aimed to help the afflicted find medical care, social services, and emotional support. Despite having no funding, no offices, and no formal structure, the fledgling organization offered a touchstone for the city’s frightened gay population. In just a few short months, however, Kramer and his co-founders would part ways over a flurry of bitter disagreements.
Information and direct quotes from the October 5-18, 1981, New York Native were retrieved from Lawrence Mass’s papers at the New York Public Library.
Information and direct quotes from Larry Kramer and Robert Chesley in the New York Native between August 1981 and February 1982 were retrieved from the University of Minnesota Jean-Nikolaus Tretter Collection.
For a small but significant period of time, Randy Shilts’ name and the HIV/AIDS pandemic were inextricably linked, which makes it difficult to write his biography without re-telling at least some of the disease’s history. In early drafts of my book, I included a great deal more information about June 1981 and the months that followed, when the response to what was then called “gay cancer” was still in its infancy, even though Randy was not yet covering it. In order to keep the book focused on Randy’s lived experiences, I decided to cut these sections from the manuscript, but saved them in case they would be useful for other purposes. In the coming week, to recognize 40 years’ passing since the first reported cases of HIV/AIDS, I’ve decided to re-purpose these excerpts, which focus on the halting, uncertain period before the full scope and severity of the pandemic was apparent.
Some of the people mentioned in these passages would feature prominently in And the Band Played On, while others received comparatively less recognition for their efforts. In adjusting to post-vaccination life in the age of COVID-19, re-reading this history has helped me to reflect on just how difficult, yet innately human it is, to struggle with a “new normal” when forces beyond our control make life as we’ve known it impossible (or impractical) to continue living as we had before. The excerpt that follows is the first in a three-part series, which examines the early understanding and reporting on AIDS, as well as how people reacted to it as events were unfolding.
Excerpt #1: A Pneumonia That Strikes Gay Males
Pneumocystis Pneumonia — Los Angeles
In the period October 1980-May 1981, 5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsy- confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles, California. Two of the patients died. All 5 patients had laboratory-confirmed previous or current cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection and candidal mucosal infection.
The diagnosis of Pneumocystis pneumonia was confirmed for all 5 patients antemortem by closed or open lung biopsy. The patients did not know each other and had no known common contacts or knowledge of sexual partners who had had similar illnesses. Two of the 5 reported having frequent homosexual contacts with various partners. All 5 reported using inhalant drugs, and 1 reported parenteral drug abuse. Three patients had profoundly depressed in vitro proliferative responses to mitogens and antigens. Lymphocyte studies were not performed on the other 2 patients.– Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, June 5, 1981:
“That’s kind of peculiar.” The subject of the report immediately caught the eye of David Perlman, who’d recently returned to his science and medicine beat at the San Francisco Chronicle after temporarily serving as City Editor. “I’ve never heard of that.” David made a phone call to his go-to source on communicable diseases, the venerable Dr. Selma Dritz at the city health department, and paid her a visit that same afternoon. “And she said yes, she’s had five similar cases show up in San Francisco,” he recalled, “and she was [also] puzzled by them.”
Perlman’s brief report appeared the next day, tucked in alongside a Page 4 profile of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’s first nationwide tour. “I didn’t even think it was all that important,” he reflected, “because I didn’t even put my byline on the story.” The report took note of the CDC’s suggestion that sexual contact may have played a role in transmission, given that all of the cases involved homosexual men. Still, all anyone knew for sure at this stage was this: pneumocystis carinii was a common bacteria, which didn’t make healthy people sick. An illness like this was more likely to be found in patients with severely depleted immune systems, like cancer victims.
At this point, members of the gay press had about as much knowledge of the medical mystery as their contemporaries in the mainstream news media. As recently as mid-May, New York’s Dr. Lawrence Mass – no stranger to gay men’s health concerns – had penned a brief article in the New York Native downplaying rumors of an exotic new gay disease, a claim that the MMWR report now seemed to contradict. At the end of June in its special Gay Freedom Day edition, the San Francisco Sentinel made note of the strange cases of pneumonia with a five-paragraph summation that added comparatively little new information to David Perlman’s earlier article.
One week later, the MMWR issued another startling release: the skin cancer Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a condition usually seen in older men of Eastern Europe or younger men of equatorial Africa, had now been diagnosed in 26 gay men in New York and California. On that very same day, the New York Times went to press with its first story on the issue: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” The strongest commonalities, journalist Lawrence Altman noted, were patients’ high and frequent numbers of sex partners – upwards of ten different men per night, around four nights per week – and the use of amyl nitrates (“poppers”) during sex. Most of the patients, he noted, were men still in their twenties, thirties, and forties. The strange outbreak of bruise-like lesions on their bodies, along with a growing number of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia cases, pointed toward a medical mystery that experts were just beginning to notice: what was causing these otherwise healthy men to become so sick?
At the end of July, the first news article of significant length or depth appeared in the New York Native. Over several dense pages, Larry Mass laid out a methodical examination of possible explanations for so-called “gay cancer,” the causes for which, he reasoned, could be narrowed down to either hereditary or environmental factors. Noting that the current wave of cases differed from “typical” Kaposi’s Sarcoma victims found in Eastern Europe and Africa, he ventured one possible explanation: a common link to Cytomegalovirus, which was common in the histories of all the patient subgroups so far. From the very beginning, the issue of immunosuppression seemed unavoidable, but again, Mass cautioned, any number of genetic or environmental factors can cause the body’s defenses to weaken. There wasn’t nearly enough evidence yet to determine what was the cause, or how widespread the problem might be.
“In addition to diagnostic and treatment considerations,” Mass wrote, “preventive implications are unavoidable. At this time, many feel that sexual frequency with a multiplicity of partners – what some would call promiscuity – is the single overriding risk factor for developing infectious diseases and KS.” Yet, because it wasn’t clear whether certain persons were inherently more susceptible to these diseases than others, recommendations on exactly what precautions to take around hygiene, limiting partners, or using barriers like condoms remained difficult to make with complete confidence.
“Obviously, the ‘somethings enjoyable’ are all coming under scrutiny as possible factors, since it is largely, but not exclusively our sexual activities that set us apart from heterosexual people,” Dr. Robert Bolan, a co-founder of Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights, noted in the Bay Area Reporter’s first gay cancer story. “No clear associations have emerged as yet between specific sexual activities or number of partners and any of these conditions.” For the time being, he continued, there was no evidence of an epidemic, although in the coming weeks, the number of reported cases would likely go up. For now, the work was only beginning. Doctors and researchers needed more time to study the evidence, meaning this was a moment not for panic or presumption, but measured caution and concern.
Reflections by David Perlman come from our in-person interview at the San Francisco Chronicle on March 17, 2016.
Information and direct quotes from the June 6, 1981, San Francisco Chronicle were retrieved from the University of Minnesota Microfilm Collection.
Information from the July 3, 1981, New York Times was retrieved from the Times’ online archive.
Information and direct quotes from the June 26, 1981, San Francisco Sentinel were retrieved from the San Francisco Public Library Microfilm Collection.
Information and direct quotes from the July 27 – August 9, 1981, New York Native were retrieved from the University of Minnesota Jean-Nikolaus Tretter Collection.
Information and direct quotes from the August 13, 1981, Bay Area Reporter were retrieved from the BAR’s online archive.
One of the joys of writing Randy Shilts’ biography has been the experience of interviewing so many people who knew and loved him. Whenever possible, I’ve tried to travel and meet each person in their own setting, so that from mid-2015 until the COVID-19 shutdown, most of my encounters have been in person. While some of these meeting places have included offices, coffee shops, restaurants, and bars, I’ve been personally touched by those individuals who’ve welcomed me into their homes.
For a book that’s packed with intimate stories, the experience of talking to someone in their own environment adds to the kind of depth and connection I want Randy’s biography to convey. Over the years, a number of these people have become friends. But meeting their four-legged family members has brought me another sort of joy and friendship. Because Jaxon and I have two dogs and a cat of our own, getting to know these fabulous furballs has added to the bond I’ve formed with their humans. It’s also given us another touchstone for talking about Randy, whose inner circle included one very special canine companion. But first, let me introduce you to a few of the lovable lil’ buddies who’ve helped grace this journey of mine.
Miguel: The Bunny-Hopping Hunter of Northeast Portland
My first visit to Portland came in November 2015, when I was in the early phases of my research. Randy had lived in Oregon from early 1970 until the end of 1975, first in Portland and later Eugene, making a small number of lifelong friends along the way. One of those friends was Linda Alband, who later became his business manager. The first time I met Linda was also my first encounter with Miguel, her black and white kitty with a bright pink nose and quizzical green eyes. Miguel wasn’t especially affectionate, nor was he indifferent or hostile. He would sort of give me a thoughtful once-over, as if still trying to figure me out, and then he’d hop away. And when I say hop, that’s exactly what I mean: he walked like an old rabbit, carrying his back legs in a measured, but not especially hurried, gait.
“Miguel was a Manx kitty,” Linda explained. “Because he had that little flap of skin/tail, he was classified as a ‘stumpie.’ There are different classifications of Manx kitties based on the length of their tail or the absence of a tail altogether (a ‘rumpie’).” According to Linda, Manx cats originated in Asia and were prominent on sailing ships to control vermin. The name “Manx” is particular to the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, where the breed was said to have swum ashore following a ship wreck.
Given the island’s isolation, the Manx cat’s trait of a compressed spine, especially around the tailbone, was not bred out of the population. “Because of the tailbone compression,” she told me, “rumpies and stumpies don’t walk like normal kitties because their back end is less stable.” It also makes tree climbing more difficult, and when they run, they tend to hop, like a rabbit, with their back feet. But, Linda tells me, they can still run really fast and are capable of substantial jumps.
Linda found Miguel at the county animal shelter when he was already a mature adult. He was found traumatized at a very busy intersection, and she later concluded that he’d probably been raised as an indoor cat by an elderly person, and then thrown out when that person either died or went into a nursing home. “He turned his head and looked at me, and I fell in love with him at first gaze,” she remembered. However, Linda told me, “He wasn’t so immediately smitten.”
To say that Linda and I spent a lot of time together on that visit is an understatement. Over several days she showed me around the city, pointing out the various haunts where she first knew Randy as a mouthy, still-trying-to-be-straight hippie who worked as a parking lot attendant at Portland Community College. Through that extensive time together,I was able to really get to know her and the depth of her friendship with Randy, resulting in an interview that lasted nearly six hours over her kitchen table. Over the course of that day, as Linda recounted to me the full extent of their 24-year friendship, our conversation was only interrupted a few times by bathroom breaks, trips to the fridge, or Miguel signaling that he wanted to go outside or come back in.
Linda’s devotion to Miguel was unquestionable, and we quickly bonded over our affection for our pets. “He loved to be held like a baby and have his tummy rubbed,” she recalled. “In this position, he’d sometimes grab my face between his two front paws and lick my chin.” Despite his less-than-stealthy hop, Miguel could move with surprising quickness; on at least one occasion during my visit, I remember him coming inside with a hunting trophy. “One time he came in and had something in his mouth, and it turned out to be three dragon flies,” Linda told me. “From that, I surmised that they mated in the air and he caught a three-way.”
I met Miguel again the following year, during a visit which coincided with the 2016 election’s traumatizing aftermath. As I’ve written before, I spent a good portion of that trip walling myself off from the outside world, avoiding the news and focusing as narrowly as possible on Randy and the research. Miguel offered a merciful respite from all that, providing a few moments of escape whenever I’d see him placidly hop through Linda’s living room on his way to the back door.
At the time of Miguel’s passing in 2018, his compressed spine area had become so arthritic that he could no longer walk, but scooted around on his butt. At the end of his life, Miguel went peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones, including Linda and her housemate Richard. Not long after, she made another visit to the animal shelter and fell in love all over again with Selena, a 3-year-old American Bobtail who, despite having a stumpy tail of her own, has no direct relationship to the Manx breed. From what Linda tells me, Selena has made for good companionship during COVID-19, and I’m excited to meet her whenever I get back to Portland.
Building Trust With Jasper
The last time I traveled for research was in early 2020, a couple months before the COVID-19 pandemic grounded most non-essential travel. While most of my journeys had been to bigger cities like San Francisco, this one took me well off the grid to rural North Carolina, where Randy’s former research assistant, Jennifer Finlay, now lives and works as a small-town librarian. It’s fair to say that I went into this visit with a lot of uncertainty, as it took a little more than four years to build a relationship with Jennifer. Later, she said that she agreed to meet me because, with my background in social work and HIV, she felt I’d know how to help if the interview started to go badly for her.
Knowing that Jennifer still carried a lot of trauma from the end of Randy’s life, I took my visit very seriously and built in a lot of time for us to get to know each other. As it turned out, I discovered a very similar dynamic when she introduced me to Jasper, her grey and black tabby, who darted in and out of the room when I first arrived. It was very likely, she told me, that Jasper would keep his distance, as he had more than a few trust issues of his own.
“Jasper came into my life because of the ex,” Jennifer explained. He’d been a rescue from another county’s “we kill ‘em all” shelter, which was stressful enough, but soon after his arrival, her ex-partner found another kitten on the side of the road, which relegated poor lil’ Jasper to “third wheel” status in that human-feline lovefest. When Jennifer’s relationship ended in 2013, her ex left and Jasper stayed. Over the years the pair gradually became friends, but as I noted, he didn’t quite know what to think when a burly, middle-aged male Northerner showed up. If I was going to make friends with Jasper, I’d need to use the same approach I was taking with Jennifer: patience, openness, respect for boundaries, and compassion.
In the days leading up to our interview, Jennifer and I did a lot of the typical “getting to know you” activities: a little sightseeing, sampling the local cuisine (North Carolina barbecue!!), talking about our lives in general, and sharing plenty of Randy-related anecdotes. The true bonding between all three of us, however, would happen after hours, when we’d sit around in the evening, dorm-room style, and decompress on her tiny loveseat with YouTube videos. Jennifer introduced me to her favorite kitten live streams, while I taught her the ways of Robot Chicken Star Wars. Jasper, meanwhile, was showing signs that, maybe, he was beginning to accept this strange newcomer. From darting past us to the kitchen, and then back again to hide upstairs, he would venture over to curl up on Jennifer’s lap for a while before finally, tentatively, spreading himself across my knees.
When the interview happened, it was, as expected, a gut wrencher. Our recording time spanned several hours, with plenty of breaks for self-care, followed by dining out on big, indulgent burgers as a way of eating our feelings. Occasionally I still get Jasper pics texted to “Uncle Michael,” to which Captain, our ginger tabby, responds with photos of his own. While winning Jasper’s trust was maybe not the top achievement of my visit, it helped validate the relationship-oriented approach I’ve taken from the beginning of this project. By seeing and responding to the ways people form meaningful attachments, and by affirming the ways they express love and care, I feel like I’m inviting them to bring those more complicated feelings into their conversations with me about Randy. And speaking of Randy…
Let’s Hear It For The Dogs
If it’s not clear by now, let me state, for the record, that I’m equally fond of both cats and dogs.
If it seems like I am favoring kitties with this story, it’s because the time I spent with Miguel and Jasper was a little more extensive. However, in 2016, I also had the pleasure of meeting Roper, a docile little chihuahua who lived with Randy’s ex-lover, Steve Newman, and Steve’s husband at the time, Dale. Steve was another gracious host who had a lot of deep feelings to unpack, and we spent the better part of two days forming a personal bond as he showed me around his hometown of Sarasota, Florida.
When And the Band Played On made Randy famous, Steve was, somewhat painfully, watching from the margins. After their relationship ended, Randy had kept him at a distance, even though Steve – a well-known Bay Area meteorologist – would join the San Francisco Chronicle’s newsroom as the founder of EarthWeek, a syndicated column detailing climate-related news from around the world. But Steve took notice when Randy adopted an energetic young Golden Retriever named Dash. Shortly thereafter, Steve took in a puppy of his own from the same litter, a brother named Skye, and pretty soon the two men were arranging play dates. It wasn’t that Steve was trying to rekindle their old relationship, but that he wanted some sense of connection to Randy that was positive and respectful, without being tied to any conflicts of the past.
Pets are undeniably part of our families, and Dash was especially so for Randy. Before I met either Linda or Jennifer, I’d seen both of them in a home movie that’s included with Randy’s papers at the GLBT Historical Society. The video was a camcorder recording of Dash’s fourth birthday party in 1992: a warm, sunny day at Randy’s home in Guerneville, far enough from the Bay Area to actually feel like summer. Dash and his doggy friend, a border collie named Wendells, got plenty of treats that afternoon, including an entire pizza, and Jennifer got into a water fight with some of the other guests.
As the sky darkened toward the onset of evening, the humans retreated to the kitchen to make a birthday cake with fresh strawberries and whipped cream while the dogs barked and rolled around in the yard. It was a moment of repose that, in hindsight, seemed both joyful and melancholy to me. Soon after, when Randy’s health took a series of turns for the worse, his friends were rendered powerless to offer much assistance or care. While Dash remained ever-present until the end of Randy’s life, neither Linda nor Jennifer ever saw their favorite Golden again after Randy’s passing. But, I also learned that before Randy had Dash neutered (for which he made Linda call and schedule the appointment), he arranged to let him sire another batch of puppies with a friend’s Golden Retriever, Lady Maxine. So, I can’t help but occasionally wonder if any of Dash’s descendants are still romping around the Northern California countryside.
Where Someone’s Always Glad You Came
Bonding with my sources over their pets has been more than just a way to make quick friends. It opens up an entire vocabulary for relating to each other around relationships, feelings, and values. By sharing stories about the animals we’ve known and loved, we come to know something more of each other through the experience, and it offers a very visceral connection between the past and present. To this day, both Linda and Jennifer remain fiercely loyal not just to Randy, but to Dash as well. Steve even showed me a home video from one of Dash’s play dates with his brother Skye.
For me, coming home from a research trip means settling back into my surroundings, recuperating from the long travel, and unpacking not just my belongings, but also the multitude of thoughts and feelings I’ve brought back from that particular journey. There are always deep stories to process and discoveries to recount, but first comes the moment that I think most pet people live for: the elation of my own four-legged family when they realize I’ve come home.
Obviously, this particular experience is more common with dogs, and our two pit mixes, Bella and Zuzu, never fail to disappoint. But I’ve even noticed Captain coming around to check on me after an extended absence, in his own self-important way. After spending every single day of the COVID-19 pandemic with our animals, I can’t imagine what they’ll think the first time Jaxon and I go on vacation. I do, however, have a pretty good idea of what I’ll be feeling when we come home.
I. Quarantine Reading
It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I wonder sometimes if my post-college life has just been one long struggle to re-learn how to read. When I say this, I’m not talking about the mechanics of reading or basic comprehension. I mean that it’s been hard to find ways to integrate reading just for the sake of reading into my daily life. Over the past 20 years, I know my eyes have done plenty of work: emails, work documents, news sites, social media, and so on. But for long periods of time, I would feel so mentally and emotionally drained at the end of the day that the last thing my brain wanted was to focus on any reading, even if it was for light entertainment.
Oh, I would try! If the topic held my interest, sometimes I would make headway. Weekends were easier, but then the work week would interrupt, and I would lose my focus. Or I’d press so hard to stay engaged that I wouldn’t retain much of what I took in. It was like my brain was just overstimulated with all the other necessities of life. Case in point: last summer I decided to re-read Michael Pollan’s bestseller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I’d started many years ago but never finished. The bookmark I found on the page where I left off? A receipt dated May of 2008. Ouch.
Fresh Eyes in the Morning, Pages Keep Turning
Starting a Doctoral degree actually provided some relief, believe it or not, because I could make it my main job to do heavier academic reading and writing. Early on, I learned that if I wanted to successfully read a 500-page book every week (no exaggeration), I needed to hit it while my mind was fresh. So, I flipped my schedule and blocked mornings for the more intensive work. This proved to be pretty helpful, but as time moved on and I got past the written exams, that habit drifted away.
Since graduating in mid-2015, I’ve done a lot of reading related to my work: textbooks, journal articles, archival documents, and enough student papers to haunt my dreams from now to eternity. It’s been hard to keep a partition, however, between reading for work and reading for pleasure. If it’s something that might have bearing on the content of my book, I want to take notes, which means I have to follow the narrative line by line, check its sources, corroborate accounts, and so on. Reading for pleasure should be, well, more pleasurable, but the eyes and brain weren’t having it when I’d try to pick up a book in the evening for the fun of it.
In that sense, the COVID-19 pandemic, despite its dispiriting and disruptive duration, has provided a small silver lining for me. Early on, I made a decision to devote 30 minutes every morning to reading that’s not specific to any other work. That doesn’t mean the material doesn’t bear some relevance to those interests, since I tend to enjoy creative nonfiction and well-written history, especially involving LGBTQ communities. Half an hour isn’t a great deal of time, but it’s enough, especially when setting aside the glowing computer, phone, or tablet screen, to knock out a few pages. Moreover, it means that I get to sit with the same book for weeks at a time, rather than speeding through it to get to the next title. Somehow, I feel like that’s helped me find a longer-lasting familiarity with the subject matter.
II. Quarantine Writing
For an author, the two most immobilizing words in the English language must be these: “Write something.”
In the years I’ve spent developing this book, I’ve mostly stuck to the same formula. First, I would try to get all of my other work done for the week. Then, I’d block off the rest of my days for writing (or research, depending on what was in front of me). This preference was a major reason why I didn’t pursue a full-time position after finishing my Ph.D. I wanted more freedom and flexibility to set my own schedule, with fewer obligations like advising students or attending committee meetings. Until last year, this was mostly working pretty well, except for a few prolonged battles with writer’s block.
Now, you’d think a global pandemic that forces people to shelter at home would be a boon for someone like me to hunker down and churn out page after page, chapter after chapter. For a myriad of reasons, the reality has been a bit more complicated. From about mid-2020 onward, I was noticing that my cherished blocks of writing time were being nibbled away, slowly but steadily, by a variety of demands on my attention. So, I made a pact with myself this past New Year’s (I hate calling them resolutions), to make a small but necessary change to my routine. While I would still try to dedicate as many full days to working on the book as I could, I promised myself that, at a minimum, I’d spend at least 30 minutes a day on it, no matter what.
The idea was based partly on the success I had with adding the half hour of reading to my mornings, which I described above. Usually I do this right after lunch, so that Randy gets my energy and attention before I hit any afternoon slump. It also gives me a chance to capture any fresh ideas that may have popped into my head while sleeping (which has happened), showering (which has definitely happened), or working out (less likely, but yes, this has happened, too).
Believe it or not, this has been a pretty decent habit! The downside happens on days when I get on a roll, but absolutely have to set it aside and get back to grading, meetings, or working on grant proposals. On those days, the 30-minute window feels like I’m scrambling to finish a timed exam, with stacks of books on either side of me, laptop or notebook balanced on my knees, jotting down every remaining note so I know where to pick up my thoughts at the next opportunity.
To be blunt, having to quickly change gears and redirect my attentions makes me pissy. Since I love making a deep dive into my thoughts without interruption, I’m beginning to better understand why certain creative types of people get a reputation for fussiness. The challenge is in keeping myself from getting too frustrated, and remembering that even one little thing – say, jotting down a couple pages of ideas in a notebook – moves me further ahead.
Great (But Realistic) Expectations
For me, the key has been to focus on what, specifically, I want to accomplish, and making it realistic for the time I’ve given myself. If I’m stuck in the narrative, I like to write out my thoughts by hand with a notebook and pencil, which is perfect for a 30-minute time limit. I’ll also use that time to review interview transcripts and pull quotes that will add exposition or color to the narrative, or to edit passages that I’ve recently written. While it’s still easy to get frustrated and wish I were further ahead, I keep reminding myself that every little bit helps, that it all contributes to my overall productivity, and that these blocks of time will make the days when I can devote hours to writing much more fruitful.
Has it worked? Yes, but with somewhat different results than I was used to with my old writing patterns. I’ve learned to be okay with this, however, because I’m also at a point in the story – Randy’s research and writing of And the Band Played On – where I feel like there’s a lot of complexity to sort through. The risk, especially with diving deep into the material for long blocks of time, is getting so lost in the weeds that I lose sight of the central, underlying narrative, which for my purpose is his intimate life story.
These daily, time-limited sessions have been great for forcing me to pause, look back on what I’ve just worked on, and think through any contradictions or counter-narratives I need to address. They’ve also pulled me back from those riskier “deep dives,” where Randy disappears entirely in the swirling environment of political gamesmanship and scientific rivalry he was trying to portray. Plenty of other writers have covered those fights; my job isn’t to re-tell those stories, but use them as the context for the tale I’m trying to tell.
Self-Study, Lessons Learned
As a general rule, making changes in our lives begins with identifying what we want to change, figuring out our plan for doing it, and deciding what we’ll accept as satisfactory results. Ultimately, the audience for our efforts is exactly one person, which is why I tend to be hesitant at offering one-size-fits-all suggestions. I also have some built-in advantages in my life, in that I more or less control my own schedule, and I have a home work space where I can sequester myself from other distractions. But for anyone trying to change their reading and writing habits, my advice would be to:
1. Make it a realistic amount of time.
2. Don’t create extra expectations, like number of pages per day or per week.
3. Give yourself leeway in what you choose to do, and give yourself permission to adapt to what you’re experiencing on any given day. For me, the more “oughts” and “shoulds” I try to create, the more futility and frustration I feel.
4. Honor your accomplishments, and use them to develop realistic next steps.
For me, this has made the extended period of time, in which our social patterns have been so disrupted, a bit more productive. I can’t say that these habits won’t change as communities re-open, but I’ve learned a lot about what I’m capable of doing with the time and resources available to me.
In Part I of this essay, I offered a quick reflection on a piece by New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel, whose interview with scholar Michael Goldhaber raised concerns about the role of our modern “attention economy” in stirring the political discord of recent years. While any profession which uses media is participating at least nominally in the attention economy, Warzel singles out those which primarily rely on information sharing to survive, including, unsurprisingly, journalism. From what I’ve learned in my research on Randy Shilts, even though he passed away just as the Internet was beginning to proliferate, he was most assuredly, for better and for worse, a skillful player in the attention economy of his time.
As a social work researcher and aspiring biographer, I’ve tried to consider a variety of factors when examining Randy’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, including his developmental experiences and the context in which he lived and worked. So, let me circle back to Maslow’s Hierarchy for a moment. To repeat: Maslow posited lower-level needs must first be fulfilled before our “higher order” needs can be met. From lowest to highest, the five levels are: physiological needs, safety, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization. From what I know of Randy’s working-class upbringing, his lowest-order needs were pretty consistently met. His father Bud worked in lumber for many years, and although money was never abundant, the Shilts family always had a roof over its head and food on the table. However, things get a little more complicated for Randy as we move up the Hierarchy.
To be frank, there were plenty of times when his home life wasn’t great. While Randy’s father traveled frequently for work, his mother Norma struggled with the burden of raising 6 boys over 40 years, resulting in long bouts of depression and chronic alcoholism. Her temper often got the best of her, so that the gifted and sensitive Randy came to look for attention and approval from his teachers as a refuge from the home environment. School was a double-edged sword, however, as even at a young age, he had bullies waiting to jump him on his way home.
Ambition, Addiction, and Legacy
Throughout his life, Randy struggled to feel a sense of belonging and love, although college and coming out significantly helped to boost his self-esteem. During these years, he developed a small number of core friendships that lasted until the end of his life, but he also wrestled with intimacy and body image insecurities, especially as the sexual revolution of the ‘70s intensified the emphasis on perfectionism in gay social and sexual settings. Like his mother, Randy also battled alcoholism. Unlike Norma, he did eventually quit drinking and embraced 12-step recovery, right around the time one of his close friends died during the worst period of the early AIDS crisis. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that his personal writing around this time started to include more terms like “self-actualization,” which Maslow used to describe the highest-order growth needs in the Hierarchy.
To be clear, Randy was most certainly ambitious. As a young English major, he dreamed of becoming a famous novelist before going into journalism, where his aspirations steadily climbed. This was especially true when he began appearing on Bay Area television, which gave him clout for picking up men in the local bars and bathhouses. But he was far from the only member of his generation to seek that kind of attention. To be the “first openly gay fill-in-the-blank” was a mark of status, which distinguished a person as a courageous trailblazer within their field. Even before And the Band Played On, Randy had acquired a somewhat dubious reputation among some of his peers due to his ambitions, but to be frank, a fair number of them were trying to build their own following in the tiny world of gay news and entertainment. These tensions seemed to increase after Randy made the leap into mainstream journalism; some of his rivals’ attacks could come across as hair-splitting or sour grapes from those who resented seeing his byline in a major daily newspaper, rather than their own.
Quitting alcohol didn’t eliminate Randy’s ambitions, but it did give him pause to consider how his childhood experiences with parental abuse, bullying, and loneliness had shaped them. Written in the years following his embrace of sobriety, And the Band Played On is sprinkled with veiled allusions to addiction, above and beyond its characterization of gay men’s sexual habits and rampant drug use. The concept of addiction, as Randy implicitly used it, can extend to any number of areas where the need for fulfillment and/or conquest becomes a single-minded obsession. By delving into the all-too-human preoccupations with politics, power, profit, and fame, he was forcefully denouncing the veritable clusterfuck of systems which had converged to prevent an effective response to HIV/AIDS at a point when it could have prevented hundreds of thousands of deaths, including his own.
A Zero-Sum Game
This, of course, brings me to Gaetan Dugas, the “Patient Zero” albatross who weighs conspicuously on Randy’s legacy. In elevating the story of how this French-Canadian air steward became a prominent case in early research studies, Randy was quite intentionally making an example of someone who, even after learning his diagnosis, had frustrated public health officials and some gay activists by continuing to put others at risk. And while Randy was not the first person to call attention to Gaetan Dugas (who had been chased out of several establishments by other gay men), his characterization of this man cemented his own complicated legacy when it came to trafficking in the attention economy.
As Warzel points out, “Any discussion of power is… ultimately, a conversation about attention and how we extract it, wield it, waste it, abuse it, sell it, lose it, and profit from it.” And in the context of the 1970s sexual revolution, Dugas was evidently a powerful player. These aren’t details Randy invented, but which came directly from his sources who knew Gaetan, including a few of his personal friends. While And the Band Played On contains numerous examples of people making questionable use of their powerful positions, Dugas stands out, not simply because of the lurid sexual details of his story, but also because he was beautiful, charming, and funny, a man who commanded instant attention in the bars, bathhouses, and parties where he turned up. In the circles where Dugas ran, the man was popular, and therefore powerful. Not that Randy couldn’t hold his own when he went out cruising, but in the attention economy of sexual liberation, Dugas had the currency to easily get whatever he wanted.
So, one may wonder, was Randy jealous of Gaetan Dugas’ good looks and easy popularity? I doubt it, given the point at which he learned of the case-control study which designated Dugas as “Patient O” (or “Patient Zero”, depending on how you read it). By this time, Randy had become well-versed in 12-step recovery, when self-actualization seemed to matter more to him than wealth or fame. He did, however, believe the role of a good journalist was to always scrutinize the powerful. In his career, he’d already taken on a variety of powerful figures including city leaders, gay political elites, bathhouse owners, and gay newspaper publishers. In Gaetan Dugas, he recognized a person who’d grown very comfortable in his power to command attention, and who seemed to value that privileged position above changing his behaviors to match the urgency of the times. In that sense, Gaetan offered a near-perfect embodiment of the “no retreat” stance adopted by the staunchest sexual revolutionaries of the time, even as the worsening pandemic radically shifted the context of their revolution.
Sharing the Wealth
Randy never fully escaped the Patient Zero controversy, nor did he shy away from it. And the Band Played On very deliberately leaves certain depictions open to interpretation, allowing for arguments to be made on all sides. Without a doubt, however, it contributed to Randy’s most prominent moment in the national spotlight. The question for me, then, is what did Randy do with the attention he received and the power it afforded him? In both the documents I’ve reviewed and the interviews people have given me, a couple of interesting answers stand out.
First, he continued to offer help to younger up-and-coming gay journalists who were arriving in San Francisco. In the San Francisco Chronicle’s newsroom, he treated his newer gay and lesbian colleagues almost like siblings, who became A-list guests at the annual “Shiltsmas” parties at his Guerneville home. One broadcast journalist shared with me how Randy encouraged him to be open about his sexuality because it would provide him with an abundance of stories, even though technically they were competitors at the time. Notably, during a time when the Bay Area Reporter was attacking him regularly on its editorial page, Randy was privately offering encouraging notes to one of its reporters on how to improve his writing. And after Band’s release when Randy became a popular figure on the lecture circuit, he would give his own time to meet with local gay and HIV/AIDS groups, especially on college campuses, in order to help them raise their profile and attract new members.
The most compelling stories of Randy’s generosity, however, come in his follow-up to Band, when his fame was at its peak. The decision to move from covering AIDS to military issues caught some of his fellow journalists by surprise, as the topic of gay and lesbian service members’ persecution lacked currency in the attention economy of the time, both within mainstream media and major gay rights organizations. But it resulted in what is arguably his greatest (and most overlooked) achievements as a journalist. For example, Randy helped launch the story of Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer into the national spotlight by inviting her to speak for several minutes during his keynote address at the inaugural convention of NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, resulting in the eventual publication of her own memoir and a television biopic starring Glenn Close.
While Conduct Unbecoming did attain bestselling status, Randy’s failing health and inability to go on a book tour kept it from achieving the popularity of Band. It did, however, play an influential role in changing popular sentiment toward military policy, the effects of which can still be seen in today’s efforts to end the ban on transgender service members. Among the veterans who have spoken with me, including Col. Cammermeyer, the prevailing sentiment remains one of gratitude for Randy’s efforts on their behalf, even as he battled and ultimately lost his life to HIV/AIDS.
With respect to the attention economy, Goldhaber notes, “We struggle to attune ourselves to groups of people who feel they’re not getting the attention they deserve, and we ought to get better at sensing that feeling earlier.” While he’s making this observation about those who recently tried to overthrow the 2020 election, the comment gives me pause because I think it applies quite aptly to the stories of ordinary people that Randy often featured in his work. To the extent that attention functions as currency in our society, what can we make of someone who was undeniably ambitious, yet tried to use his journalism to help lesser-known and less powerful individuals?
To answer this, I keep coming back to Maslow’s Hierarchy and the idea of self-actualization. In realizing our own potential, there exists the possibility of identifying with the capabilities and struggles we see in others, making the exchange of attention less of a momentary transaction and more of a sustained, mutually-beneficial relationship. When I think about Randy in the later years of his life, I see a person who was beginning to reflect more critically on the choices he made and the relationships he formed. I don’t know how he’d feel about the attention economy as it exists today, or how, as an old-school journalist, he would try to use it to his advantage. I do, however, think that he would continue to search for ways to help people by drawing attention to the stories of those who are easily overlooked in a society that’s grown even more favorable to the haves over the have-nots in the years since he passed away.
There are worse places to be on a hot summer day than the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. The space itself is nothing short of breathtaking, its interior a throwback to classic Beaux-Arts design with plenty of oak and marble flourishes to humble a first-time patron. Searching the assortment of boxes I’d requested from Special Collections, I was grateful for the climate-controlled environment, knowing that outside, the temperature and humidity were starting to rise. Still, as I was approaching the end of my scheduled time in the reading room, the usual distractions were beginning to set in: sore back, stiff neck, and tired eyes, the result of rapidly scanning each container for information that might add insight or color to my book.
The “Silent Scream”
Compared to the West Coast collections I’d previously scoured, the NYPL had relatively little archival information pertaining to Randy Shilts. Still, so far I’d come across some important finds – an exchange of letters, for example, between Randy and Dr. Lawrence Mass, who played a crucial role in sounding the alarm about AIDS among New York City’s gay men, beginning in mid-1981. The back-and-forth between the two, though cordial, revealed some hurt feelings over how Dr. Mass’s efforts were given lesser attention in And the Band Played On, a fact that Randy acknowledged while explaining that he’d never meant for Band to be an “honor roll” of all the early AIDS heroes, but to call attention to the ways that prejudice, political gamesmanship, and self-interest had allowed the disease to reach disaster levels.
Aside from that discovery, most of the papers I viewed that day were copies of what I’d already found in San Francisco, so I wasn’t feeling much urgency to stick around. Turning through page after page, the voice in my head that hates being uncomfortable was telling me, “Close it up. I have to use the bathroom. I’m hungry and thirsty. There’s nothing new here, so let’s go.” Soon, I was down to one last piece of paper to examine, which I was sorely tempted to skip. After all – what could I possibly find, that I hadn’t already seen?
Thankfully, the disciplined inner researcher in me overruled the whinier parts of my brain: I would be finishing up in a minute anyway, so just suck it up and take a look, I told myself. Quite literally, the very last item in the final folder of the final box I’d requested stared up at me with this mocking, oversized headline: “The Human Side of Hitler.”
It didn’t take long for me to figure out what I was reading: a manually-typed leaflet excoriating Randy for a freelance story he’d written in the late 1970s. Later, I learned it was the handiwork of an author an activist named Arthur Evans, who was known for papering San Francisco’s gay neighborhoods with these screeds under the pseudonym, “The Red Queen.” At the moment, it was all new to me – a juicy, gossipy morsel that would add phenomenal color to the facts I’d already gathered from that era. Fighting to control my natural impulses, I allowed myself a “silent scream,” scrunching my face and pumping my fists in a gleeful little moment of triumph. Then, I quickly gathered the information I needed and quietly finished my work. This was, after all, a library.
Finding the Narrative, One Artifact at a Time
Compared to my other research trips, that morning in New York was fairly typical: bouncing around the city conducting interviews while spending blocks of time in library reading rooms, the pleasant hum of classical or indie music streaming through my earbuds as I carefully thumbed through box after box, folder after folder, document after document. Combing through collections like Randy’s is seldom a speedy process. To gather what I need, I’ve had to spend hours at a time, hunched over tables with my laptop and iPad beside me, making brief notes about any relevant materials I found and taking digital photos to help me later with the writing. In my experience, people who conduct archival research either love it or hate it. And for all the back pain, stiff necks, sore eyes, and angry bladders I’ve endured, I have to confess – I actually kind of love it.
Not surprisingly, the earliest visits left me feeling pretty overwhelmed. We’re not talking about a handful of boxes here: in the San Francisco Public Library’s James Hormel LGBTQIA Center, the Randy Shilts Papers are fairly comprehensive, beginning with his early life, poetry and diaries from college and young adulthood, correspondences, clippings from his early journalism, notepads, press coverage of his work, audio and video recordings, and research files from each of his three books. The total collection takes up 120 cubic feet and includes more containers than I can be bothered to count. And this isn’t the only collection, as more of his papers can be found a few blocks away at the GLBT Historical Society.
With so much raw material to examine, I worried at first that I’d never find my narrative. Over time and across numerous trips, however, I’ve gotten pretty savvy at knowing which containers to request before making my visits. This is because on my earliest trips, I took as many pictures and wrote as many notes to myself as I could, seeding my later writing with reminders of where to look for certain reference items in the future. The note-taking has gotten more precise with time – “add this to Chapter 10,” or “consider mentioning this in the sections about the bathhouses” – because I’ve come to recognize where certain artifacts (i.e., letters, news articles, or handwritten notes) correspond with specific periods in Randy’s life.
Moreover, the experience of interviewing almost 70 people so far has helped me place certain life events in the context of his writing. When one of my sources told me about an off-color joke Randy told while addressing the International Conference on HIV/AIDS, I knew exactly where to look – both for a paper copy of his prepared remarks, and a video tape of the occasion. It turned out that my source’s recollection was pretty spot on: I found the exact joke, almost word for word as he described it to me, plus a lot more in terms of off-the-cuff comments and audience reactions (plenty of cheers, along with some boos and heckling).
Celebrate in Silence. Then Thank a Librarian
I never forget a “silent scream” moment, because it signifies the uncovering of something buried away and seemingly forgotten, which I know will be significant to the story I’m trying to tell. I even remember my first silent scream! It was a couple years before I started this project, when I came across the first ad for STD testing in gay bars and bathhouses that was ever printed in The Advocate, circa 1976. For the research I was doing at the time, this was a big deal. Here was proof that even before AIDS was discovered, gay and lesbian public health workers and activists had been mobilizing to deal other health issues that were plaguing the community, which Randy had accurately characterized as “pandemic-level” during those times. And personally, having spent much of my first five years in social work doing outreach and HIV testing in bars, I felt a connection with those earlier workers, who’d set the precedent for how my colleagues and I would continue these important efforts nearly three decades later.
I’ve heard it said that librarians are the unsung saviors of civilization, and I can’t find a good argument to counter this. At every turn, archivist librarians have helped me with professionalism, courtesy, and near-encyclopedic knowledge of their materials. Given how easily I start to grumble and whine whenever I’m hunched over a table, thumbing through page after page, I can only imagine the dedication and patience it takes to convert these stockpiles of raw information into the carefully catalogued, painstakingly preserved collections that researchers like me depend on. Thinking back on the history of atrocity and repression that so many cultures have endured (including but by no means limited to LGBTQ), I shudder to think how much more would have been lost, if not for the efforts of so many to protect the documents which verified the depth, complexity, and meaning of their lived experiences.
Normally, the drive from San Francisco to Guerneville would’ve been easy enough: cross the Golden Gate Bridge and head north on Highway 101 for about 50 miles, and then go west on River Road past a number of vineyards, which ease into the towering redwood forests sheltering the many single-stoplight towns dotting California’s Russian River. The previous spring, during what many were calling the state’s worst drought in years, I’d made the same day trip to Guerneville with my friend Jason – who has generously hosted every one of my Bay Area research trips – so we could visit Randy in the town cemetery. This time, as Jason navigated us through the worst rainfall in recent memory, we saw ditches filled to the point where the roadway looked like it would be flooded at any moment. Thanks to his GPS, we managed to navigate a safe detour around the washed out sections, arriving just a few minutes later than we’d originally planned.
Origins of “Chez Rondey”
I should take a moment to explain why we were making this return trip, and what we were hoping to see. With the success of And the Band Played On, Randy, had significant money of his own for the first time, and while Band didn’t make him a millionaire, it did allow him to make a few big purchases. The most significant of these was his first home, a rather plain and rustic looking suburban-style ranch house, tucked just off Guerneville’s main roadway, which he had renovated and expanded into a chic-yet-relaxed ranch-style cabin. With the help of a few of Randy’s friends, I’d made contact with the current owners – a gay couple close to his age who were well-aware of the property’s significance, and who readily agreed to letting me visit the property. From 1988 until the end of his life, this was Randy’s retreat from the fractious worlds of journalism, media tours, and politics. It’s also where he passed away in the early hours of February 17, 1994.
The house, which he’d lovingly given the playful quasi-French name “Chez Rondey,” was built in a hollow surrounded by a steeply sloped forest of ancient redwoods, exuding an energy of respite and healing which was palpable as soon as we turned onto the long gravel driveway connecting the house and road. From the photos and home movies I’d previously seen, it was obvious that Randy’s home had been lovingly maintained, with much of it still bearing the characteristics of his time as owner. Stepping from the car, we could see the doghouse that had been built for Dash, his golden retriever (although it’s doubtful that Dash ever spent any time in it). To enter the house, we climbed a wide set of wooden front steps framed by columns made of thick river rock, from which the front landing connected to a wide, flat hardwood deck wrapping and stretching all the way to the back of the house. That deck had been a prime gathering spot when Randy would host his annual “Shiltsmas” birthday parties every August.
Once inside, the living room evoked a sense of intimacy, even with the hardness of its wooden floors and paneled walls, and the airiness of its vaulted ceiling and central skylight. Facing away from the towering front windows, I recognized a sofa with southwestern-style upholstery, which had been a very contemporary piece in the late 80s: it was where Randy and Dash had sat for the back cover photo of Conduct Unbecoming. The room’s focal point, a massive stone fireplace, seemed like it was inviting us to curl up with a blanket to escape the chill. Anyone who’s ever spent time in a proverbial “cabin up north” would recognize the musty scent of old pine, as well as the mounted deer head on the wall. For Randy’s friends and family, however, I was sorry to report that his stuffed Kodiak bear, a towering behemoth which stood on hind legs and wore a fetching set of pearls, was nowhere to be found. Behind the house, the view extended into what felt like the deepest recesses of nirvana itself – a surrounding hillside so peaceful and sheltered that I now understood why he’d kept a small meditation altar back there.
The Time Traveler
It was a lot to take in over the two hours Jason and I spent visiting the property. Just as I’d considered it important to visit Randy in the cemetery, the pilgrimage to Chez Rondey provided a foundational experience during the early stages of my research. If I was going to convey the tactile experience of this space as Randy had known it, I needed to relate to it with all of my senses. On one hand, I felt like I should have been approaching it like a classic field researcher, cataloguing my observations in a dry, neutral manner and preserving the details as accurately as possible. But we were also there as guests of two very kind and welcoming people, who invited us in from the rain with fresh coffee and chocolate chip cookies, and who’d already extended the courtesy of letting me take pictures.
It gave me a lot to think about as Jason and I said goodbye to our hosts. We went from there to the closest watering hole, the Rainbow Cattle Company, where a friendly off-duty bartender bought us drinks and asked if we were spending the night (we weren’t). Back in San Francisco, ten more days of research were waiting for me. As a writer, I considered the trip to be a good and useful exercise. I’ve always had a stronger vocabulary for systems, feelings, and behaviors compared to places and things, and I knew that having to describe a space with such deep personal meaning would stretch my skills. By stepping into the role of biographer, I realized that I’d taken on the part of quasi-time traveler, putting myself in the same place at different moments and connecting what I’d witnessed in archival footage with the evidence provided by my own senses.
Moreover, I found that sharing the details of that visit brought Randy’s closest friends some peace of mind by bridging the years since they’d last seen the property with the present day. Chez Rondey had been a hub for Randy’s work on his final bestseller, but it was also home to dog birthday parties, summer water fights, and group cake making projects with Beatles music wafting through the kitchen. There were Shiltsmas parties with exquisite catering, massive sheet cakes, and piles of gifts from many well-wishers (Randy’s inner child always loved opening presents). One year during Thanksgiving, Linda Alband idly flipped the oven’s cleaning switch and found it couldn’t be reversed – only to produce the most perfectly roasted prime rib that any of the guests had ever eaten. And less than a year before Randy’s passing, there had been a hastily organized commitment ceremony in the backyard, officiated by Randy’s oldest brother Gary.
Reverence and Reflection
Setting aside the many feelings I have about Randy, the only word that comes close to describing that visit is “reverence.” As I’ve noted previously, my aim in writing this biography has been to explore the intimacy of Randy’s lived experiences, the better for understanding what made him not just a prolific journalist and lightning rod for controversy, but also a gifted and flawed human being with his own vulnerabilities and blind spots. It would be tempting to slip from reverence into sentimentality, overshadowing the “warts and all” depiction I’m working to produce. At the same time, standing inside the home that he so deeply cherished left me with a powerful awareness of the lasting imprint that people and spaces can make on each other.
Reflecting on that visit, I can’t help but think about my own home, an 1880s farmhouse in the heart of Minneapolis, where Jaxon and I have hosted holidays and dinners and backyard hangouts with our friends and family for the past 13+ years. More than a few of our loved ones have told us, “I just feel so at home in your house.” And for at least a couple hours on that rain-soaked afternoon, I felt like I could relate to Randy’s experience of truly being at home.