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Finding Randy, Part 1

“Introducing Randy Shilts.” There he was, younger than I’d ever seen him, staring up at me from the weathered pages of a long-ago publication. The seed of an idea dropped into my mind two years ago, when I was poring through old copies of The Advocate for a historical research project in my Doctoral program. As I perused back issues from the mid-1970s, his name started to appear more and more frequently. I knew who Randy Shilts was—I’d read The Mayor of Castro Street and of course And the Band Played On. I knew about Conduct Unbecoming, but I’d never had the energy to tackle its enormous length. I knew that Randy Shilts was a journalistic force in his time, capable of melding enormous amounts of detail to deep-seated emotions and wielding his story in a way that would move readers to reflection, appreciation, and even outrage.

In a comparatively short span of time, Randy would chronicle an unprecedented period of growth, advocacy, and achievement for what we view today as the modern LGBT movement. Throughout these years, he wrote countless news articles, first for The Advocate and later the San Francisco Chronicle. He had a point of view, and he wasn’t afraid to express it in the superlative. And the Band Played On told the story of failure—system-wide, abject failure on the part of government, politicians, healthcare systems, social services, political movements, news media, and countless industries supposedly devoted to the wellbeing of humankind. It also told the inspirational story of how people at the epicenter of this tragedy took on the heavy work of caring for those who found themselves abandoned by mainstream society. And, perhaps most significantly, it chronicled the birth of a movement itself, as HIV-positive people worked to organize and self-advocate in a way that would eventually produce some of the most effective direct action of the 20th century.

Randy died twenty years ago today– February 17, 1994– when the AIDS epidemic, which he witnessed and recorded in detail after painful detail, finally overtook him. The pharmaceutical breakthroughs that would eventually turn HIV into a chronic, manageable (but still difficult) illness came too late for the person who had brought the disease to light for millions of people around the world. In my research of the 1970s, Randy’s name came up over and over again as the person who witnessed the multifaceted story of AIDS even before society knew it existed. Before I had even been born, he was detailing the alarming epidemics of alcohol and drug abuse and sexually transmitted infections in the gay community of the 1970s. He deftly argued, in story after story, for understanding how society’s systematic rejection of gay people contributed to the comparatively worse experiences so many individuals had with loneliness and social isolation, family rejection, professional marginalization, mental illness, addiction, sexual health, and numerous other facets of modern-day life. Two years ago, as a side note to another project, I told myself to circle back to Randy and find out what was known about his story.  When I did, surprisingly little published information came up. The seed that had dropped into my mind at that point thus began to grow.

At the current moment, my life is centered around my dissertation, working as a research assistant, teaching as an adjunct college instructor, and occasionally writing grant proposals to keep the bills paid. Logistically, it makes little sense to take on another project, and certainly not one with the magnitude I am undertaking. But, at every turning point where I expect to find a roadblock, another green light appears instead. I’m going to San Francisco this spring to look at Randy’s papers. I’ve approached at least one gatekeeper, someone who knew Randy and has contact with others who did, and the response– when I feared dismissive rejection or even worse, to be ignored– was gracious encouragement.

About two weeks ago, I returned to the archived copies of The Advocate and began cataloguing Randy’s work during those early years. I thought it might be hard to pinpoint the exact moment when a young freelance journalist started writing for a national publication, but no. There he was: “Introducing Randy Shilts” was the caption accompanying his photo, right under the headline of his first published article. He arrived on the scene with the energy and intensity of a 23 year old college graduate who was hailed as “an up and coming member of a new breed of gay people in America – the open young gay person trying to break into a profession” (The Advocate, No. 166, June 18, 1975).

Finding that article—trumpeted by that glowing caption– marked the beginning of what I expect to be a long fact finding mission which, at least for now, will need to be woven in and around my other obligations. I’m not yet sure what my angle will be, but I’m counting on Randy to tell me as I go. I’m nervous about that discovery process—the unseen roadblocks, the competing pressures of my daily life and the degree I have almost finished, and ultimately the reception of whatever I end up writing. I keep asking myself, am I the one to do this? I’m a good writer, to be sure, but not a journalist or published author in the same way he was (aside from a couple academic articles). But, I do have a solid background in assembling and sharing stories—a grassroots, queer college magazine that earned positive attention, followed by a similar publication for the nonprofit AIDS organization where I used to work. At the academic level, faculty and colleagues have praised my writing for its accessibility and succinctness. But, is that enough? Am I capable of researching and assembling the story of someone who shocked and changed the world, but didn’t live long enough to see the lasting impact of his work?

That’s partly why I am starting to write entries like this, as a way to chronicle my discovery process and air my own ponderings along the way. At times it might take the form of a video diary or podcast, but probably I’ll stick to writing for the most part. I’m still not sure how widely I’ll even share these entries, at least to start. What if someone with greater resources and more time on their hands will steal the idea? What if the definitive account of Randy’s life is already out there, and it’s just waiting to be dusted off and published before I can make this happen? For me, this is without a doubt a pregnant moment, with just enough uncertainty to temper the excitement I feel about getting to know this incredibly interesting person. I want to do right by his story. I want the world to know how it took the combination of his personality, skill, and position within a nascent gay community to fully capture one of the defining stories of the 1980s. And, I don’t want him to be forgotten. I think that’s why the project feels so urgent. Time is moving on, and so many of his peers died well before their time. If Randy’s story isn’t assembled now, who knows what knowledge will be lost for future generations?

So, this is the starting point. I’ll try to mix the occasional update in with other blog content, but starting now, this is where I plan to post updates to my discovery process. I’m also, to be blunt, angling to make this the center of my life post-dissertation, so that by early next year I can focus on my writing above all other work. That means I’ll need resources, and any ideas for fellowships, crowdfunding, kickstarting, or anything else that helps me see this project through will be appreciated. So, too, will any encouragement or suggestions.

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About Michael Lee

South Minneapolis queer writer, researcher, educator, and social change enthusiast. Currently researching and writing a biography of the late journalist Randy Shilts.

3 responses to “Finding Randy, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Reflective Thinking | Days of Wine and Proses

  2. Pingback: Disappointment and Rededication | Days of Wine and Proses

  3. Pingback: Just the Beginning | Days of Wine and Proses

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