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Finding Randy, Part 2

I’m not intending this discovery process to become the sole focus of the blog, but when I’m writing about things that interest me (and are interesting in my life), well, right now this is at the top of my list (dissertation notwithstanding).  San Francisco and Randy’s papers are less than a week away, but in the meantime, I’ve been continuing to catalog his early work in The Advocate. There are so many details to pore over that I’m just skimming the surface as I take pictures and make notes for later study. But, here are a few interesting things I have found so far:

– Without a doubt he was seeing sexual and chemical health problems of “epidemic” scale early in his work. That’s no secret—I wrote about it in an article already. But, he kept circling back to the issues at different times and in different fashion. “Still a problem” seems to be an emerging theme now, almost as if he was repeating the message to see if anyone is listening.

– He liked guys with hairy chests and mustaches, could go either way with talkers, and preferred non-smokers. This all came from a 1978 story on video dating services catering to gay men. There’s a delightful sense of his discomfort at doing this piece—in part because he admitted that his editor made him do it, but also perhaps because he revealed a little more about his personal tastes. By this stage of his published work, it seemed rare to see him writing these “lifestyle” pieces.

Incidentally, it’s especially rare to find an article where Randy wrote in the first person; one was a similarly self-deprecating commentary on witnessing the sudden popularity of permed hairstyles as a person with naturally curly hair, and the other was using his own bout with Hepatitis to explore its impact as a sexually-transmitted infection on the rise among gay men at the time. I found that last piece to be pretty gutsy, by the way. At a time when the gay community was becoming quite a bit more visible (and self-conscious about its depiction in the mainstream), here was a feature writer for the signature “gay newspaper” disclosing his own sexual health problems in full print, with his full name attached to it. That’s some nerve.

– Letters to the editor provide a fascinating snapshot into how a journalist’s work is received, and Randy’s articles certainly provoked a response at times. I would say more of that response was positive than negative, but some readers did not care for the way he probed the community’s “growing pains.” For example, in response to a feature Randy wrote on the troubles faced by gay youth, one letter writer claimed to have “no sympathy,” declaring, “Ours is a culture that worships youth and heaps rejection and abuse on those no longer young. It delights and pleases me to reflect that somewhere some arrogant, ageist young faggot is having problems because of his youth” (The Advocate, Issue 219, July 13, 1977). Believe me, I have read some vitriol in these pages, often from male readers upset that the publication was trying to expand its focus to include the women’s community. This one took the cake, though (at least so far). I’m well aware that ageism has been a problem in GLBT culture for a long, long time, but celebrating in the misfortune of fellow queer people seemed a tad… much. Yes?

– Also, it was announced in early 1977 that Randy would begin appearing once a week on Newsroom, the nightly news program produced by KQED, San Francisco’s public television station. I’m excited to see if these recordings still exist anywhere. I wouldn’t say I am holding my breath, but the age of the Internet has produced some especially startling discoveries.

So, what’s ahead? Obviously I’m excited, a bit nervous, and still cautious to see whether or not I am chasing a meaningful story. I know others have covered certain angles of Randy’s work, mainly from either a scholarly perspective or in one case a brief documentary film about his reporting on the early AIDS crisis. This early side to him fascinates me, though, in part because I see who he will eventually become and the impact his later work will have. At the point where I am meeting him in this research, he is still so young—25 years old, making a name for himself where few had ever gone.

When Randy started, there was wide open territory for an eager young reporter to move in and make a name for himself, whereas now we have queer media in so many places, it seems.  In mid-1977, right after Pride, he wrote a moving and horrifying story of a 33 year old gay man who was brutally beaten to death in San Francisco. And perhaps it seems shocking because we don’t expect these kinds of senseless, violent attacks to happen anymore—and then they do.  For a number of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transfolks, the differences in social climate between 1977 and now may just not seem that far apart.  For me, I guess that’s part of why the story continues to draw me in. Although he died twenty years ago, so much of what Randy covered is still emerging, drawing new levels of attention as well as political victories that were unimaginable 35 years ago.  Yet, people are still beaten, often in shadows where the full story will never be known.

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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.

One response to “Finding Randy, Part 2

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

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