The Early Writings of Rachel Crandall-Crocker, Founder of #TransDayofVisibility

For all the attention that March 31: International Transgender Day of Visibility now receives, I’m willing to bet that far fewer people know about Rachel Crandall-Crocker, the social worker, therapist, and advocate who created it. While Trans Day of Visibility has existed since 2009, I got to know Rachel over a decade earlier at Michigan State University and in the Greater Lansing community. It’s difficult to describe how it feels knowing that one of my oldest friends has been responsible for starting a worldwide phenomenon. Pride, of course, is a given. But I can’t say I was surprised to learn that an event now covered by major news networks and marked by the Biden White House originated with a person I knew incredibly well during my formative years. For anyone wanting to understand Rachel’s work and legacy as a Trans advocate, I hope this story will enlighten, inform, and inspire.

Love, Positivity, and Bold Authenticity

I can’t recall all the details of my first encounter with Rachel, but here’s what stands out. It was the spring of 1997 at the MSU Union, probably during Pride Week, which was held every April before students left for the summer. I don’t remember who was standing with me, but suddenly this person with astonishingly positive energy rushed over and threw her arms around us in a big, spontaneous group hug. I sensed an immediate rush of warmth and welcoming, a feeling of acceptance from someone I’d only just met. But as I would soon learn, this was Rachel, above all else: someone who would throw herself into every new encounter with love and positivity, putting people at ease with her unconditional acceptance.

Many years later, I learned that 1997 was, in fact, the year of her coming out “full time” as Rachel. In community spaces where many lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals still looked over their shoulders in trepidation, I saw her throw herself into conversations with an infectious enthusiasm. On later reflection, I realized that as a self-described “Jewish transgender lesbian with Tourette’s Syndrome,” this bold authenticity was probably Rachel’s only real option.

For me, that particular time was packed with intensely joyful and sometimes humbling experiences. I’d arrived at Michigan State having come out only somewhat earlier, and midway through my freshman year, I had the inspiration to create a publication that would serve as a central source of news, events, and perspectives for MSU’s LGBTQ+ community. That project would only have been in its early planning stages when I first met Rachel, but by the fall, I’d assembled a small team of fellow creative queers to found the Q-News, a magazine by and for Michigan State’s LGBTQ+ students and allies. With funding from a variety of student services and academic units, and with mentorship from the university’s lone staff person devoted to LGBTQ+ concerns, we’d taken an approach that, in hindsight, appears even more revolutionary now than it did at the time.

To the fullest extent possible, Q-News tried to capture the diversity of queer identities and experiences on our campus of 50,000 students, with an emphasis on featuring voices beyond a narrow segment of white, cisgender gayness. Moreover, we declared early on that people’s lived experiences were newsworthy, highlighting first-person essays, poetry, and artwork around a theme selected for each issue, which came out about six times per year. Transgender contributors were there from the very beginning, and about halfway through our first year, Rachel approached me. As a Michigan State alumna, clinical social worker, and psychotherapist who practiced in the area, she wondered if she could submit content for the magazine. The answer was an enthusiastic “Yes.”

Looking back on Rachel’s writing from that time, I can see some of the seeds from which her later activism would emerge. Appearing as it did in the early years of the Internet, the ­Q-News never had much of an online presence. Today, its back issues can only be found in a few places, such as the MSU Library Special Collections and the private collections of its creators. So, to provide some context for these pieces, I scanned them from my personal collection and showed them to Rachel over a recent video call, getting her present-day reaction to materials that she hadn’t seen since they were first published.

February 1998: “I Wonder About Fish Sometimes”

From February 1998: An image of the poem, "I Wonder About Fish Sometimes" By Rachel Crandall

Can fish be gay?
DO they buy little fish magazines
To help them to decide?
Do they go to fish festivals to be
Together and to listen to music?
Do they always have alternative
Fish new years and Valentine’s Day Celebrations?
Do they have special radar to
Detect each other down the block?
Do they have trouble telling their parents
Of their orientation?
Do they go to fishy drag shows and stick soggy money into
Sparkley fish costumes?
Do they write poems about being gay?
Rachel Crandall is a psychotherapist specializing in sexual orientation and gender identity issues. She also is a well-known local poet.

Of all the ways we formed a bond during those years, Rachel and I shared a love of writing poetry, especially stream-of-consciousness pieces that made space for exploring different facets of queer identity. It’s no surprise to me, then, that her first submission to the ­Q-News was a brief poem asking the question, “Can fish be gay?” When I showed her this piece during our call, she exclaimed, “Oh wow! I don’t remember what I was thinking. However, it’s really cute!”

“I was trying to say that maybe everyone and everything is actually gay,” she added, saying that at the time she viewed “Gay” as an umbrella term for LGBTQ+. “I might use Trans today. I don’t even remember identifying with the word ‘Gay’ back then. However, there it is, right in front of me! I love it!”  With its mention of fish magazines, festivals, and alternative holidays, of special fish radar and fishy drag shows, and asking whether fish had trouble telling their parents about their orientation, she seemed to be exploring just how pervasive the coming out experience might be. Where some may regard the poem as childishly simple, I see an exploration of the phenomenon of “otherness,” a meditation on how widely the experience of being an outsider might actually be felt, and the extent to which many of us go to conceal that otherness for fear of isolation, ostracism, and persecution.

August 1998: Transgender Michigan and Mashed Potato Breasts

Rachel’s next appearance in the Q-News came six months later in a brief piece announcing the creation of Transgender Michigan, a pioneering organization that is still alive and thriving today. The organization itself was something of a marvel for its time, for even though Transgender groups existed in the area, the focus was largely on support and confidentiality, rather than public advocacy. Today, Transgender Michigan has support groups and speakers across the state, it actively sponsors community events, and it’s an active member of Centerlink, an organization of all LGBTQ+ community centers in the U.S.

From August 1998: An image of the article Transgender Michigan, By Rachel Crandall

TransGender Michigan is the coming together of transgender people, and supporters of transgender people, all across Michigan. There will be meetings and special events in the Lansing Area and other parts of Michigan. Speakers dealing with transgender issues can be provided to interested groups, agencies, organizations, and businesses. TransGender Michigan believes that many members of the les-bi-gay community are also transgendered. Everybody is invited to be a part of this groundbreaking organization. Anybody interested in finding out more about TransGender Michigan is invited to contact Rachel Crandall, Founder of TransGender Michigan, [redacted contact information].

Rachel’s brief submission, however, is memorable to me because it provoked the only complaint that I ever received as editor of the Q-News. When Rachel gave me the story, she included a photo from a recent party, showing her playfully holding a pan of baked mashed potatoes, shaped like breasts with melted cheese for nipples. Not long after its publication, I received an email from a cisgender gay student, complaining that the photo was offensive in how it depicted Rachel. “Straight people judge us by our media, too,” the student wrote.

August 1998: A photo of Rachel Crandall holding a pan of mashed potatoes shaped like breasts.
Rachel holding a pan of breasts shaped like mashed potatoes:
the only content we published to ever receive a complaint.

When this individual cornered me after a campus event, he started telling me that he was only concerned for Rachel’s well-being. She was the one who supplied us with the photo, I countered, to which he replied, “Yes, but she doesn’t understand what people might think.” I told him, “Sometimes other people need to just fuck off.” My unspoken message was, he could feel free to do the same. We never spoke again, and to this day, it remains one of my favorite photos of Rachel. For her part, she seemed to take the story in stride while I still find it irritating and offensive today.

December 1998: “But Jews Don’t Do Those Kinds of Things”

Rachel’s next piece came in an issue that, to my recollection, had been really difficult for our staff to assemble. The campus LGBTQ+ community had been shocked that fall by the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who could’ve passed for any typical member of the MSU campus. His death had come just days after The Rock, a landmark painted by student groups for generations, had been defaced with anti-gay slurs in the leadup to National Coming Out Day. In the aftermath, I recall multiple vigils being held, holding friends’ hands as they wept in both grief and fear, and witnessing a vicious round of arguments on the university’s LGBTQ+ listserv, an email-based predecessor to the social media platforms we use today. Out of what I can only speculate to be a surge in internalized homophobia, some community members seemed to be lashing out and blaming queer activists for provoking these acts of anti-LGBTQ+ violence.

In response, the Q-News published an issue devoted to coping with hard times. Interestingly, Rachel gave us a piece reflecting on the intersection of her Transgender identity with her Jewish heritage.

“There I was. I was a nice Jewish boy, but I was really a nice Jewish girl. And I wasn’t even a nice Jewish girl who liked boys; I liked girls. I was constantly so confused, I needed a scorecard to keep track of me. Sometimes I felt that maybe I wasn’t really Jewish. Maybe I was stolen from my real family by a band of roving Jews. I was always taught that Jewish kids studied, and there I was spending all my time in my mother’s closet, fantasizing about being a woman who was in love with another woman!!”

From December, 1998: The article "Religion and Identity," By Rachel Crandall
I often said to myself, “But Jews don’t do those kinds of things.” There I was. I was a nice Jewish boy, but I really was a nice Jewish girl. And I wasn’t even a nice Jewish girl who liked boys; I liked girls. I was constantly so confused, I needed a scorecard to keep track of me I sometimes felt tht maybe I wasn’t really Jewish. Maybe I was stolen from my real family by a band of roving Jews. I was always taught that Jewish kids studied, and there I was spending all my time in my mother’s closet, fantasizing about being a woman who was in love with another woman!!
As there are many Jewish holidays this time of year, I reflect back on this period in my life. Even now I try to understand how I reached a resolution about all of that. And I somewhat painfully realize that I never really did. However, I see this as a good thing. Rather than trying to fit me into my religion, I began to experiment with fitting my religion into me. I was not so concerned about being a good Jew. I was more concerned about being a transexual gay woman who was also a Jewish. I began to pick and choose which parts of Judaism fit in with who I was. I became the main part of the equation. My religion was important to me but no longer the only important part of me.
Well, I am now a woman who loves other women. I am Jewish and I also go to a Unitarian Universalist Church. I sell celebrate Chanukkah, along with Christmas, Easter and Kwanzaa…Some people may say that I am a mishmash of many different things. But I believe that I am one of the happiest mishmashes I know.

Reflecting on this piece in the present day, Rachel told me, “I’m really proud of writing it. It was hard. However, there are now congregations that would accept me! There wasn’t back then.” Over time, her Jewish identity has sort of faded into the background, and she now considers herself part-Christian, in part because of the congregation to which her wife, Susan, belongs. “I kind of have the philosophy, ‘I believe because I want to believe,’” she added.

Thinking back on it, I remain struck by the timing of this piece, knowing that during a moment of real pain and uncertainty for the local LGBTQ+ community, her impulse was to go deeper into herself and share an exploration of her identity’s intersection with faith and the meaning of existence. I suspect that these kinds of honest self-appraisals are still vital for many of us today, especially in response to the current onslaught of anti-trans violence and political repression occurring in certain corners of American politics.

April & October 1999: “It actually happened!”

Given that Rachel’s next two contributions covered the same topic, I somewhat naively assumed we would cover them quickly during our video call. However, I wasn’t expecting her response to these old submissions: “I remember that Visibility Day sprung out of that.”

On reflection, I shouldn’t have been surprised. As she related it both in print and in our call, Rachel’s motivation to advocate for Transgender visibility had taken a dramatic leap forward following an especially harrowing event. “I received a phone call one recent morning. It was a paramedic who had just admitted to a local hospital a [Transgender] woman who had tried to kill herself. The paramedic believed that this woman needed an advocate with her in the hospital, and nobody there knew of anyone but me. This person had no support and desperately needed someone right then, right there.”

From April, 1999: The article "Transgender Advocates Worldwide," By Rachel Crandall

Imagine a world where transgendered people can find advocates whenever we go, where training is available for hospital emergency rooms, police officers, lawyers, judges, and many others. Now imagine that each one of us can make this happen. And what about having a world where people can become trained as advocates just in case they ever encounter a TG issue?
If we can all imagine it, we can make it happen. Transgender Advocates Worldwide is a new organization committed to this view for the future. The first training at Michigan State has already been arranged, and I challenge everybody to organize training for at least one group, agency, club or office, whether it be in the workplace, your University, or even the Board of Education.
Another workshop has been developed for people interested in an introduction to basic gender exploration. This was first presented on March 6, 1999 at East Lansing’s Unitarian Universalist Church, where it received rave reviews. Many participants agreed that everyone would greatly benefit from this. So, do you know anyone who’s interested in gender exploration? Read on and then let me know.
Transgender Advocates, as was already stated, is an international organization. Advocate training material will be made available on a Web site, which will announce when it’s up and running.
My decision to start this group came after I received a phone call one recent morning. It was a paramedic who had just admitted to a local hospital a transgendered woman who had tried to kill herself. The paramedic believed that this woman needed an advocate with her at the hospital, and nobody there knew of anyone but me. This person had no support and desperately needed someone right then, right there. After spending hours with her, I imagined being in her situation and just really needing someone. It was then that Transgender Advocates Worldwide was born.
If you’ve ever been in a situation where all you needed was someone by your side, you know what this woman’s experience was like. Whatever your interest in this issue may be, just imagine yourself as the advocate who makes this kind of difference to another human being.
People contact me, Rachel Crandall, [redacted contact information].

“I remember the paramedic really well,” Rachel added when we recently spoke. “I rushed to the hospital, and I actually talked to the person and afterwards they told me that if it wasn’t for me, they probably would’ve killed themselves right in the hospital.” The woman survived, and they stayed in touch for years afterward. From that experience, Rachel came away with the impetus to start another organization, which she wanted to call “Transgender Advocates Worldwide.”

From December, 1999: The article "The Organization of Transgender Advocates Worldwide,"  By Rachel Crandall

The Organization of Transgender Advocates World wide (O.T.A.W.W.) is a new organization being founded out of the Lansing Area. I decided to start this in 1998 when I was called to a hospital after a transgendered women tried to kill herself by slitting her wrists. This young woman was totally isolated and had no support. After I talked with her for many hours in the hospital, she stated that she did not know what she would have done if nobody had been there for her. She was planning to kill herself right there in the hospital, and she had what she needed to do it. I became friends with this young woman, and she provided me with support, too.
Right then I decided to make my focus to ensure that there are advocates for transgender people all over the world. I decided to focus on non-transgender people to be these advocates. I believe that many, many people of all kinds of support transgender people, and just don’t know what to do to show it. Well, here’s a way to do it. Everybody who goes through this two-hour training will know how to support transgender people when they meet them. And those who go through training will be invited to help train others. Everybody is needed to contact hospitals, doctors, businesses, government offices, and many others.
O.T.A.W.W. will start off very small, but it can be as big as we all make it. The first step is to go through a training. These trainings will be offered during MSU’s 1999-2000 academic year, and will be widely advertised. One will be offered on Transgender Awareness Day, October Thirteenth.
I want everyone to understand that this organization is one of Transgender advocates, not activists. We believe in change through education and getting to know each other. We do not believe in or condone any other type of demonstration. By being an advocate, you will be able to help transgender people wherever and whenever you may meet them. You also may be able to help others who may not understand as well as you do. Providing understanding and support can be so powerful.
I have very painful memories of being a young teenager. I looked for support and understanding everywhere; I needed it desperately. I was in the wrong body; I was all wrong and I wanted to die. I almost made this happen many, many times. I wanted my pain to end…I wanted myself to end. I tried to reach out as much as I could, but I was taunted for this. I was even more alone.
This organization is dedicated to all people who have ever had gender roles and behaviors that were considered common of another gender. We all know what this is like. O.T.A.W.W. will advocate not only for those who identify as being transgender, but also for all those who have gender roles and behaviors considered uncommon for their gender.
We will be brought together through both the trainings and the Internet, which offers ways of gathering which have not been possible in the past. This will give us a way to create something that has never been seen before: an organization to advocate for all transgendered people, made up of all types of people, everywhere.

Although it never got off the ground as Transgender Michigan did, Rachel shared with me that the idea for worldwide advocacy never went away. The opportunities for reaching a wider audience, however, would expand substantially with the development of social media, leading her a decade later to begin promoting Transgender Day of Visibility as an annual event, held on March 31.  

“It was founded soon after a friend showed me how to use Facebook,” Rachel told me. “I posted it everywhere! The first year was small. However, then it really began to snowball. I think a lot of people were actually wanting it.” The present moment, with unprecedented numbers of people openly identifying as LGBTQIA+, seems to be catching a lot of people by surprise. For people who have been paying attention over the years, it’s not so surprising at all. Trans activists have worked as allies to LGB movements and organizations since Stonewall itself. Tragically, many of these efforts have been papered over in the interests of respectability politics, all while Trans persons have endured substantial hardships from violent abuse and murder to chronic unemployment or under-employment, disproportionate levels of HIV and addiction, homelessness, and suicide.

As Rachel wrote years ago in the ­Q-News, she knew as far back as early childhood that she was different in ways that couldn’t be openly shared. Much of the advocacy and policymaking done today in support of Trans persons, and especially Trans youth, is to give them a fighting chance to survive and thrive in a society where, despite the best efforts of Rachel and many others, openly identifying as Transgender or Nonbinary can still mean risking one’s life.

“Right Here, Right Now”

There were two more Q-News pieces I shared with Rachel during our call. The first came from my final issue as the editor, which we devoted to anger and outrage. The idea had been to give community members a space to vent about whatever was pissing them off, and Rachel at the time had plenty to say. Her first piece was a “Top Ten” list, sarcastically answering the question she most frequently got from strangers in public: “What do you have between your legs?”

From December, 1999: The article "Answers to Some Genitalien Questions," By Rachel Crandall
Sometimes people ask me and other Transgender people what we have between our legs now. Well, as a result of this question’s making me really really mad, here are my list of answers. Take your choice:
1.       A Mister Juicer Juice-O-Matic.
2.       A Laser pointer.
3.       A bionic vagina, fully equipped. (Pamela Lee’s other unwanted implant!)
4.       A cellular phone with fax machine and personal computer (full internet access).
5.       Call waiting.
6.       An autographed picture of George W. Bush.
7.       Jimmy Hoffa.
8.       The Bermuda Triangle.
9.       The Watergate Tapes.
10.   A Furby.
Eco: Love Your World and Each Other
By Adrian Doerr
Hi, my name’s Adrian and I’m from a new environmental group on campus, Eco. You might be wondering, “Why the hell is this person writing in Q-News?” Well, I write these lines, not so much as a plug for my group (Tuesdays, 7:30P 2nd Floor Union!!), but as a call to action. Any action, as long as its something you care about, and can’t stand to see suffer anymore.
I think all too often we see the world as static, as this unalterable mass and systems that are beyond our reach. The only part that we can play is the mortified and pissed off observer, coughing out diatribes against what we see as unjust, but ultimately unable to do anything against it. But this passive anger is a weapon waiting to be used. This initial outrage is our starting point for action, for showing the world that we won’t stand for ill-treatment anymore.
Whether it’s by yourself, with a group of friends, or an organization, we all have the heart, the poise, and the intellect to make change. With Eco, I didn’t really mean to start it. I accidentally stumbled upon my outage while picking up some trash by the river. And now, I’m possessed by some undying spirit to see all of us working on the world, making it a place of equality-between people, and between people and their environment. It’s time to make the world a place where we are honored to call it “Ours.”
To get involved with Eco, or to just ‘get involved’, e-mail Adrian at
Right Here and Now
By Rachel Crandall
I was speaking at the recent Hate Crimes Vigil during Coming Out Week, and I found myself feeling even angrier than expected. Suddenly it wasn’t just for all of my friends and other LBGT people who have been injured or killed. I was feeling angry for myself. I was angry that I might be an easy target walking back to my car after the vigil. Angry that I if I were to be harassed, what I was wearing would probably be put into question. (And I don’t even remember what I was wearing.) I also felt angry because if I were to be raped, I could be killed by the rapist who maybe wasn’t expecting to be a transexual.
I was angry that I could been the next “Movie of the Week.” (Are there still movies of the week??) Or that the crime against me would have been quickly forgotten, like most crimes against trans-identified people. I was especially angry that if something did happen, I would from then on always think twice or three times before ever speaking at a hate crimes vigil again. That would have been the real casualty for me.
I probably would try real hard to think of excuses not to attend. It would either be too rainy, or I’d be sure there were more than enough trans people speaking anyway. All of that makes me mad right here, and right now. I am proud to feel this way, and I hope I always will.

Her second piece was inspired by a recent hate crimes vigil, after which it struck her for the first time that she could be an easy target for assault or even murder while walking back to her car. “I remember how vulnerable I felt, and I still feel that way a little,” she told me during our recent call. “Trans people are often a lot more accepted. However, I think even more of us are being killed these days. I was confused about if I wanted to speak out loud. I just felt so vulnerable.”

From December, 1999: The article, "Right Here and Now," By Rachel Crandall

I was speaking at the recent Hate Crimes Vigil during Coming Out Week, and I found myself feeling even angrier than expected. Suddenly it wasn’t just for all of my friends and other LBGT people who have been injured or killed. I was feeling angry for myself. I was angry that I might be an easy target walking back to my car after the vigil. Angry that I if I were to be harassed, what I was wearing would probably be put into question. (And I don’t even remember what I was wearing.) I also felt angry because if I were to be raped, I could be killed by the rapist who maybe wasn’t expecting to be a transexual.
I was angry that I could been the next “Movie of the Week.” (Are there still movies of the week??) Or that the crime against me would have been quickly forgotten, like most crimes against trans-identified people. I was especially angry that if something did happen, I would from then on always think twice or three times before ever speaking at a hate crimes vigil again. That would have been the real casualty for me.
I probably would try real hard to think of excuses not to attend. It would either be too rainy, or I’d be sure there were more than enough trans people speaking anyway. All of that makes me mad right here, and right now. I am proud to feel this way, and I hope I always will.

A few years after that piece, when a new generation of student activists resurrected the ­Q-News and lovingly made it their own, Rachel contributed a story describing her own coming out experience. “My coming out was very difficult for me,” she wrote in 2003. “I lost my job, my house, my marriage, family, friends, all my income, and my career for a long time. I will remember forever just rocking back and forth curled up in a fetal position for hours.” Reflecting on that piece in the present day, she told me, “I remember feeling proud, that I was actually doing something about it, and that I wasn’t hiding. I also felt like I came a long way, and I was a little more forceful. I had gotten over my fear and I kind of felt like I was fighting a battle. However, I was a proud soldier.”

From October, 2003: The article "Coming Out Me; Coming Out an Activist," by Rachel Crandall
My coming out was very difficult for me. I lost my job, my house, my marriage, family, friends, all my income, and my career for a long time. I will remember forever just rocking back and forth curled up in a fetal position for hours. It was during that time that I began to make decisions in my life to do something to try to help others. It is said that during the darkest times is when the most important decisions are made and the fate of all is determined. Well that is exactly the way it was for me. I decided I was going actually do something so others would not have to go through what I was going through. It was during that darkest time in my life that Transgender Michigan was born. That decision to create TG Michigan then began to define me as an activist and as a leader in human rights. TG Michigan is now being used as a prototype around the country and even in other countries. I now realize that my coming out and my darkest hours were a doorway I needed to go through, and led me to win the human rights awards and also getting a tribute from the State of Michigan legislature. Most recently I was named a finalist to be inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. I would never thought. While I was rocking back and forth, that all of this was in my future. But I realize now it was all because I decided to try to help others. It was all because I said no; because I said no, it does not happen to everyone the way it happened to me.

In the years that followed, our paths diverged as I ended up moving to Minnesota while she relocated to Detroit. Going back to the first day I met Rachel, however, I have always gravitated toward her kindness and abundant generosity, not to mention her willingness to talk to anyone and show them unconditional positive regard. I remember when she took a standup class at a local comedy club and brought the videotape of her final exam, a five-minute routine performed in front of a live audience, to one of my parties. She absolutely killed it, earning loud, sustained applause both during the show and in the living room of my parents’ split-level home. I don’t know if I could muster such abiding courage in the face of the very real and dire threats that Rachel and other Transfolk continue to face, to approach the world with so much positivity when a segment remains so doggedly devoted to rendering invisible, if not outright eliminating, Trans people from our world. I do believe that in her own unique way, through her small private therapy practice, the continued efforts of Transgender Michigan, and the now-global reach of Trans Day of Visibility, Rachel Crandall-Crocker has likely saved more lives than we will ever know. For these reasons and many more, I hope that this story will pay tribute to the “proud soldier” I am honored to call my friend, and to all advocates who continue to do the difficult work toward achieving LGBTQ+ acceptance and empowerment around the world.

Acknowledgment: Thank you to Holly Cullerton for providing the ALT text for this article!

Martin Duberman’s Stonewall: A Present-Day Reflection

It took me almost a year to finish the 1993 book Stonewall, by Martin Duberman, but this had more to do with my own busy life than the quality of his work. Now in his nineties, Duberman is known as one of the pioneering chroniclers of LGBTQ+ history, who hasn’t shied from documenting various conflicts and controversies within the community. In that vein, his treatment of the Stonewall rebellion takes an interesting, I would even say unconventional, approach. Recognizing the limited and subjective nature of human memory, Duberman opts to tell the story by tracing the lives of six individuals, representing different backgrounds and identities, who played a role in events surrounding the riots that became a galvanizing moment for LGBTQ+ activism.

Fascinatingly, only three of Duberman’s six central characters – Sylvia Rivera, Craig Rodwell, and Jim Fouratt – had any direct involvement with Stonewall itself. His notes mention the diaries of Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans activist who has subsequently been associated with the uprising’s origins. Consistent with other accounts, Duberman notes that she did play an influential role during the three nights of fighting with the NYPD, but Johnson herself acknowledged that she arrived late to the scene on that first night, after hostilities had already begun. Still, Johnson was undeniably a force during the skirmish, and her subsequent years of activism rightfully deserve the re-consideration and celebration they’ve recently received, especially given how she, along with Sylvia Rivera and others, faced persistent racism, transphobia, and exclusion from a number of gay and lesbian activists in subsequent years.

Characters Driving Context

At first, I questioned how Duberman could reconstruct those three nights from only a few eyewitnesses. The book in its entirety, however, makes an important contribution for understanding Stonewall’s antecedents and enduring legacy. To be clear, it was not the first altercation between an establishment’s LGBTQ+ clientele and police raiders (see the history of Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco as one example). However, the uprising occurred at a key moment, when nascent, self-styled “homophile” organizations across North America were laying the groundwork for a larger movement to change the dominant view – as well as laws and policies – toward sexual minorities.

Unlike previous incidents, Stonewall benefitted from the networking and sharing of information that was already underway, including national and regional conferences, pamphlets, and newsletters. It is because of that fledgling infrastructure, and the role it played in propelling the movement post-Stonewall, that Duberman’s inclusion of three others – Foster Gunnison, Jr., Karla Jay, and Yvonne Flowers – becomes so important. While the idea of holding a commemorative march the next year was popular in some circles, certain activists – especially older, more establishment-leaning figures – were less enthusiastic. However, even a conservative like Foster Gunnison seemed to take interest in the ideas of Jim Fouratt, Craig Rodwell, and other young radicals, as incongruous as Foster must have seemed with his cigars, crewcut, and Brooks Brothers suits.

The philosophies and ideologies which spurred the transformation of “homophile” into “gay,” and the gradual expansion to explicitly recognize lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other identities, are evident when reading Duberman’s account with the benefit of hindsight, as many of the old tensions and arguments between grassroots activists and establishment leaders have never gone away completely. From Duberman’s sources, we get a sense of how young gays and lesbians were inspired by the anti-Vietnam and civil rights movements, yet they bristled at the chauvinism of many White, straight male leftist leaders. Meanwhile, within feminist organizations, anti-lesbian attitudes led to a number of disputes, yet Black and Latina lesbians often experienced their own marginalization and erasure in groups dominated by their White lesbian sisters.

Trans women, especially Black and Latina, similarly experienced hostility from cisgender gays and lesbians, even as they worked to take care of their own, as evidenced by the short-lived organization STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). As early as 1970, some activists were even advocating for the kind of separatism seen later in the decade, due to the ways that cisgender White gay men often dominated meetings, dances, and demonstrations. However, many of these identity-based splinter groups never survived on their own.

Friends of Stonewall Uprising Veterans in New York City's Pride Parade, June 2000.
Friends of Stonewall Veterans at New York Pride, June 2000

Melees, Myths, and Marketing Campaigns

For me, Duberman’s book succeeds because he so clearly sets, and works within, a set of limitations that help him to effectively tell a well-researched story. He never claims to depict the “definitive” history of Stonewall, if such a feat is even possible, but leaves ample space for others to subsequently add their own discoveries to the conversation. In the nearly thirty years since his book was published, Stonewall has taken on a cultural significance far beyond what he, or his sources, could have imagined. Other accounts have since appeared in the form of nonfiction books, children’s books, a fictionalized movie drama, and a documentary film. Out of these works, a general acceptance of the uprising’s significance now exists, while certain fuzzier elements – the exact role of Sylvia Rivera that night, the “first brick” that Marsha P. Johnson is said to have thrown, and the disputed reports of a butch lesbian allegedly putting up a fight against several male cops – have indelibly captured the imaginations of younger queer generations.

For anyone who wants to understand how we went from Stonewall to Pride, Duberman helps fill in a number of crucial details. Countless LGBTQ+ organizing efforts have occurred over the years, but most have not endured. Yet, the festivities first held in late June 1970 – now encompassing an entire month in cities big and small – have become a global tradition. Given how organizers of the first march feared that no one would show up, it’s staggering to imagine that Pride today might not even exist, if their efforts had collapsed like so many others.

One also has to pause and wonder how Duberman’s primary sources – only two of whom are still alive – would view today’s widespread commercialism of Stonewall and Pride, as global corporations and the media have come around to embrace the profitability of rainbow-adorned marketing, merchandise, and entertainment. To see the art of drag ascend to peak pop culture stardom would certainly elicit a comment from Sylvia Rivera, given the abuse and exclusion she endured from straights, gay men and women, and the police.

Veterans of the Stonewall Uprising marching in New York City's Pride Parade, June 2000.
Stonewall Veterans at New York Pride, June 2000

Revolution and Renewal

In the summer of 2000, I attended my first New York City Pride march. Recalling that day still makes me emotional, because at the front of the parade was a delegation of Stonewall veterans, defiant and proud as they accepted long, loud ovations from an enormous crowd of bystanders. Seventeen years later, a return visit to New York Pride brought me another major epiphany, which I wrote about in a subsequent blog post.

In the present day, having just witnessed a Pride month marked by political opportunists spouting anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, as well as explicit acts of terror and intimidation against certain communities, I take a measure of comfort in Duberman’s historical account. No one who celebrates Pride should enjoy the thought of returning to pre-Stonewall norms, let alone the potential for a violent, regressive erasure of queer culture akin to what happened in 1930s Germany. But should our worst nightmares come true, then the efforts of past generations will need to be revisited, revived, and re-deployed.  

The work of LGBTQ+ historians, of which Duberman has been a pioneer, provides a vital blueprint for the kinds of organizing and community care needed to preserve and sustain our visibility and political power, which these courageous forebears risked their lives to obtain. Given the astonishing gains we’ve made in just a few short generations, no wonder the most virulent opponents of queer identity and culture seem hellbent on criminalizing supporters, banning books, and silencing public discourse.

Has Anyone Seen My Dildo? A Workplace Tale

I’ll never know for sure, but I’m probably one of the only people to ever send an email to their entire office with the subject line, “Has Anyone Seen My Dildo?”  And instead of being fired or reprimanded, I received an outpouring of sympathy from the entire organization. “Dude, that sucks,” one manager told me. “I hope you get it back.”

Obviously, context matters, so I’ll try to fill you in on the essential details. When I got my start in HIV/AIDS services in the early 2000s, there was still a great deal of urgency to the outreach that needed to be done. Even though there were finally medications to prevent people from dying, the drug regimens could be quite harsh and complicated, not to mention expensive. For those of us who were providing prevention education, testing, and social support out in the community, there were no pharmaceutical options to offer that would stop new infections, like the current pre-exposure prophylaxis, or “PrEP.” The name of the game was (and continues to be) harm reduction, meaning that any step a person could take to reduce the odds of being infected, including abstinence and correct condom use, was considered a positive step.

Whatever we did, it had to reach people with information that could potentially save their lives, which added plenty of pressure to the job. However, because we worked in community-based settings instead of public health clinics, there was a bit more latitude, up to a point, in crafting our messaging. So yes, I was working in an AIDS organization where I kept a dildo on top of my cubicle. And that dildo went missing over Pride weekend 2004, but this wasn’t just any dildo. Here’s the story.

Tricks of the Trade

When I began working in HIV/AIDS in Lansing, Michigan, I was lucky to have colleagues and mentors who were not just clever and open-minded, but also willing to let us push the edge. Everyone who did outreach at local LGBTQ clubs, Pride festivals, and other community events was given their own demonstration dildo, so that we could engage people in ways that would make safer sex more provocative and fun. Armed with a variety of condoms – ribbed, extra-large, petite, flavored, and more – as well as dental damns, lube packets, candy, and plastic Mardi Gras beads, we would set up an outreach table and discreet testing area. If we could get people to practice their harm reduction skills using the condoms and dildos, there was a good chance we could convince them to get tested.

To add to the spectacle, I talked my boss into letting me buy an anatomically correct blowup doll named Big John. Anything a person could do with their date, they could practice on Big John, right there in the bar, including frontal options (with flavored condoms) or the backdoor (by removing the plastic ring of a female condom for anal use). And, well, Big John was not only obliging, but a big hit wherever we took him!

Imagine, if you will, a downtown gay club with a popular College Night, where patrons in their early twenties would pass our inflatable boyfriend around their group of friends, testing different safer sex supplies on him. Our outreach and testing numbers skyrocketed, we were invited to share our methods at a state outreach workers’ conference, and soon after I was offered a job in Minneapolis, doing similar work for a gay and bi men’s outreach and education program. Before I left, however, my wonderful colleagues presented me with a gift, “retiring” my outreach dildo like a sports jersey, and giving it to me at a going-away party, right in front my parents.

“Don’t bother me, I’m working!” – Big John, October 2003

Missing in Action

When I arrived in Minnesota, the dildo came with me to the office, sitting atop my cubicle with a purple Tinky Winky doll straddling the balls, surrounded by various beads and other rainbow-colored Pride trinkets. Never again would it be used for work, as this was my personal property, but it just sort of blended into the surroundings. In an office space that was explicitly queer and unapologetically sex-positive, people barely batted an eye. In addition to safer sex posters and all manner of gay-themed publications, we also had a giant, inflatable penis sitting in the corner of the drop-in space we used for social events. In this small corner of the world, where “queer” was the dominant culture, my dildo simply became another piece of scenery; at least, until it went missing.

Twin Cities Pride always brought with it a flurry of activity, as it seemed like we took half of the office with us to the park and parade. It wasn’t until after the weekend that I looked around my cubicle and noticed the missing dildo. What seemed like a simple misplacement soon turned to confusion, as none of my immediate co-workers knew where it had gone. After making a few discreet inquiries, I explained the situation to my supervisor, and with her permission, I went ahead and crafted an all-staff email. The subject line, you guessed it, was “Has Anyone Seen My Dildo?”

In the message, I gently explained its origins, emphasizing that while we had plenty of other dildos in the building (we did), this one was not for staff use. If it was returned, undamaged and clean, I promised to hold no grudges and would ask no further questions. A few hours later, one of the administrative staff, about the same age as me, quietly came into our work area, pale-faced and slightly trembling. She was so sorry, she told me. On an after-hours visit to our drop-in space, her boyfriend had slipped my dildo into her purse as a practical joke. Soon it was returned, intact, to its place of origin between Tinky Winky’s plush fabric thighs. The boyfriend also emailed me a sincere apology, with the subject line, “I Am A Dil-Hole.”

The mystery was solved, and all was forgiven.

The fun part, for me at least, was that the story never really went away. For years afterward, I heard supervisors telling their new employees, “This is a different kind of workplace. You might see emails like this…” Occasionally, someone would even repeat the tale to me, not realizing that I was its originator. When I left the organization in 2011, I offered a brief dramatic reading of the email at my goodbye party, just to make sure my legacy was cemented.

Queering the Context for Public Health

The point of all this was to do more than just mimic the slang that people use to describe their body parts and what they do with them. It was essential that we convey openness, understanding, and acceptance, so that anyone we spoke with would feel comfortable sharing the intimate details of their lives, without fear of judgment, in order to get help in protecting themselves. Condoms, dildos, and blowup dolls were the eye-catching hook; beneath the surface, the work was much more serious.

In my Doctoral program, I remained fascinated with these organizations, where there seemed to be a higher acceptance for individuality and creative self-expression, as well as a willingness to put aside the dry, clinical language of sexual health, to reach people where they were. In my research, I uncovered a history of LGBTQ community services predating the AIDS epidemic, which played a key role in influencing the culture of HIV/AIDS organizations from the 1980s to the present day. And the history of HIV/AIDS is littered with examples of anti-LGBTQ politicians using their power to try and suppress these forms of self-expression, attaching “don’t say gay” provisions to funding bills as a way to punish organizations they felt were “promoting” homosexuality.

Artifacts of an earlier era

Organizational theory around health and human services has a lot to say about workplace development, structure, culture, and goals. Sadly, there’s not a whole lot in that literature addressing the role of dirty words, condoms, dildos, and blowup dolls. I suspect that there are a lot more stories like mine out there, and I’m hopeful that they won’t be overlooked or forgotten in the future. As academia and pop culture continues to look back at the impact of HIV/AIDS, these anecdotes are important for documenting not just who was doing the work, but how the work got done.

For any readers who have a sexual health workplace-related “dildo story” of their own, feel free to drop it in the comments! And don’t be surprised if I contact you for an interview in the future.  

Shiltsmas at 70: First Impressions, Lasting Influence

Among Randy Shilts’ friends, colleagues, and loved ones, August 8 will be forever remembered as “Shiltsmas.” For many, the word evokes strong memories of his birthday parties, held at Randy’s home in Guerneville each year; but those parties came later in Randy’s life, after the success of And the Band Played On afforded him the means to purchase “Chez Rondey” and treat his guests more lavishly. Early in my research, I learned that the term goes back much further, to a time when a scruffy 18-year-old would leave notes on his housemates’ doors, reminding them of how many shopping days remained until the next Shiltsmas.

To recognize what would have been Randy’s 70th birthday, today I am sharing some quotes from the oral history interviews I conducted for my book. Specifically, I asked each person to remember the first time they met Randy and the impression he made, and I concluded by asking them to describe what they see as Randy’s last influence in society. This is just a small sample of the many memories people shared with me, but if Randy were alive today, I think he’d be quite moved, amused, and grateful for how they still remember him.

Randy Shilts:
August 8, 1951 – February 17, 1994 (Photo courtesy of George Greenfield, CreativeWell, Inc.)

First Impressions: Wild Hair, Unbridled Energy, Wit, Smarts, and Ambition

“He had holes in his pants and his shirts, and he was scruffy, and he was highly energized, and he couldn’t go up the stairs without tripping because he always had to go up the stairs at full bore, and he was a character. He had this curly, curly hair that kind of stuck out all over, and… And he was extremely brilliant and really, really funny.“ – Ann Neuenschwander, close friend

“What I remember about Randy was this big Afro hair (laughs) and this swish and a swagger, a sashay ability that – You could watch Randy go down a street and you could see him sashay, not that it was any necessarily intent. There was a swing to it. I couldn’t mimic it if my life depended on it. It was kind of like a… swagger and confidence and plenty of just so gay. (Long laughter) And being with Randy at any point in time on any conversation was like trying to stay up with a tornado. (Laughs) He was just (exhales) energy, a ball of energy.” – Harriet Merrick, University of Oregon friend and fellow activist

“You met him and you knew he was incredibly ambitious.  To have the goals he had at that young age, and I go back to myself, graduate college, didn’t know what I wanted to do.  It was different for me to meet someone with such a drive and focus.  I won’t say I was envious because that’s not what I wanted to do, but there was something about it that I looked up to that he could know so clearly what his goals were.” – Anne Kronenberg, San Francisco activist and Harvey Milk campaign manager

First impressions

“I just remember probably looking at him across the room and thinking, ‘Oh boy.’ Here comes the flowered tie and the big curly Afro, I thought, ‘Ooh, I don’t know if the Chronicle is ready for this!’ But anyway. I immediately was attracted to him for all my social values reasons. And then – because what I loved about him was, for all the fighting about the causes, he could get in a silly mood and I loved that.” – Susan Sward, San Francisco Chronicle colleague

“Oh, brash, of course. He goddamn well knew the answer to whatever question you gave him. And funny. And… had a great deal of stick-to-it-iveness. My mother’s old term for that. And he could be bossy… likeable. He was always an extremely likeable guy. And we had a good relationship in the sense that we worried about, this is your story, this is my story.” – David Perlman, San Francisco Chronicle colleague

“From the beginning, Randy was calling me as a reporter. And he was always very good. I would always straightaway return his call. And so I knew him for… gosh, I don’t know. Two, three years before he decided to write the book? And so when he called and wanted to talk, it was instant. He was so good, and not politically screaming. Randy was a reporter. He was a professional. He could’ve been black, white, green, gay, straight, whatever. He was very serious, in a pleasant way but you know, he was a reporter with a long professional career, and would come into your office and talk like a reporter.” – Dr. Don Francis, former CDC epidemiologist

Lasting Influence: Changing the Narrative, Blazing a Trail

“I think he helped to create a more open society in the gay community. Because you know the old thing was, you kept everything in the community, in the community. And I think he proved that he could go outside the community, you could still have an impact. You didn’t have to relegate yourself to a second-class response. You’re a first-class person and you’re gay. You could go stand before the Board of Supervisors, you could do any of the things these people did and the closet was a swinging door. [Laughs] So I really think he did usher in that period. Because after all, he was the most prominent gay voice we had.” – Belva Davis, former KQED news colleague

“Anderson Cooper. That’s an un-prethought response to your question. Rachel Maddow.  There are others that if I thought about it more, I could say. Don Lemon. I would say that. In terms of Randy’s world, in terms of journalism and acceptance, you know there is a great Quentin Kopp quote… “Tolerance maybe, acceptance never,” and so I think the tolerance has passed but the acceptance has come.” – Ken Maley, long-time friend

“I absolutely still see his influence in journalism, in the role journalism can play, shining a light in humanizing issues. Long-form researched, finding the story. It’s not like there wasn’t anything like that in the ’70s, but I think he’s part of that generation that gave us long-form journalism and the way that we think about it now. I think the role that he played of finding out what his fascination was, and understanding what was important about linking it up with his activist soul, his identity, is still a … That’s still where we get our highest level activists and people who make a difference in the various places that we wind up.” – Carol Queen, University of Oregon classmate and fellow activist

Lasting Influence

“I think the amount of editorializing on LBGT history and the LBGT civil rights movement is extraordinary right now. He was, like many of us were, we were born into it at a time when you just did not see the word gay in the newspaper. I can remember specifically Harvey and Scott checking the papers they were reading, the Chronicle and the Times, to see if there was a mention of gay. Randy was a pioneer. I don’t know if any of us really understood the zoom effect, what was going to happen, and how widespread the social growth would be to the degree that is now. Good on all of us for just having the wisdom to just do the early work because now it’s just so much part of the fabric. We have lots to be proud of on that front.” – Dan Nicoletta, long-time friend

“The movie is, I can tell you, compelling for generations of public health students and other people. And the gist of the story, independent of what individuals did or how it was portrayed, is basically true. In other words, it’s hard for those of us who are named in the movie who don’t recognize their selves, or we think that other people are being treated poorly or too well or whatever. But the main thing is that the gist of the movie is true. It’s compelling to generations now of people. And so it really has that … more than most books, a combination of a health history and how a system to a disadvantaged and discriminated part of society for people to read it during these times when they’re seeing discrimination of different sorts, ongoing racism, ongoing homophobia.” – Dr. James Curran, former head of CDC HIV/AIDS Division

“Well, for one thing, I guess I could answer it like this. Randy’s never going to be gone. As long as there are gays, as long as there is homophobia, as long as there is a military, as long as there are diseases, Randy is never going to be gone. He may be a footnote in certain things, but he’s not ever going to be gone. He will always be here.” – Wes Haley, friend and former newsroom assistant

What He Left Behind

The last Shiltsmas attended by Randy occurred in 1992, not long before his health took a serious turn for the worse. The following year, no such party would be held, as Randy was too weak for such festivities. After he passed away in 1994, his friend and former business manager Linda Alband held a Shiltsmas picnic for friends and family at Golden Gate Park. With the advent of new medications, HIV/AIDS became a treatable illness, and the world seemed to move on from the prolonged and agonizing crisis of those first several years. Time, however, doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds. For many of those who knew and loved Randy, there has remained a nagging ache, a reminder of the person they still sorely miss, who’d teasingly  remind them of the next Shiltsmas so they’d have plenty of time to get him a present. Randy loved his birthday, and he loved presents. Friends described to me how his face would light up like a delighted child whenever he unwrapped a gift.

In the years since Randy’s passing, heated critiques have sprung up concerning his professional work and his journalistic legacy. After all these years of research and writing, I remain convinced that until we fully understand how people experienced Randy not only as a public figure, but also as their son, their brother, their friend, their confidant, their lover, their student, their classmate, their colleague, or their compatriot – in other words, all the ways that people knew him – then we will fall short in understanding just how rich, varied, and vibrant his legacy really is. For me, the wish I hold for Randy on his 70th birthday is that he were still here to write his own life story, instead of needing someone else to do it for him.

Reporting and Reactions From Forty Years Ago: Part III

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.”

Photo by Ian Sanderson on Unsplash

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?”

Source Notes

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.

Reporting and Reactions From Forty Years Ago: Part II

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.

Source Notes

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.

Reporting and Reactions From Forty Years Ago: Part I

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?

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

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.

Source Notes

Past issues of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report are archived online. The specific issues referenced in this piece can be found here and here.

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.

Came for the Stories, Stayed for the Pets

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, the Manx kitty.
Miguel, the Manx Kitty, tries to figure me out.

“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.

Ms. Selena now presides as the Princess of Portland. Photo courtesy of Linda Alband.

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.

Jasper decides to give knees a chance.

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.

Roper the chihuahua
Roper was wholeheartedly devoted to his morning naps.

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.

Randy Shilts with his dog Dash
Christmas with a dash of Dash. Photo courtesy of Linda Alband.

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.

Pandemic Habits: Quarantine Reading, Quarantine Writing

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.

A sampling of my quarantine reading.

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.

How my lap looks on any given afternoon…

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.

Attention Economy, Part II: The Curious Case of Randy Shilts

Randy Shilts on the Rainbow Honor Walk

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.

Randy Shilts photo courtesy of George Greenfield, CreativeWell, Inc.

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.

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