There is so much to say about my time in California last month, and I’ve had so little time and energy to say it. I meant to get to this post sooner, perhaps even while I was out in San Francisco, getting intimately familiar with boxes and boxes of Randy Shilts’ personal papers. Sometimes life doesn’t work that way though, and a return to Minnesota has meant for me a return to dissertation, research, and teaching (not to mention cold weather and snow, up until the end of last week).
I thought about writing about some of the juicy tidbits I found, and there were a number of them. But, right now the more meaningful experience comes from trying to understand how it feels to get to know a person I will never meet. Reading a person’s diaries and correspondences in his own handwriting is an incredibly intimate experience. The moments of loneliness, self-doubt, and frustration from his college years and early adulthood are plentiful. While it’s perhaps easy to write it off as the anxieties so many of us feel in our youth, here too I found moments of insight and poignancy that resonated across the years of his too-brief life.
Before Randy Shilts became a journalist, he was a writer, a gifted student with an interest in the classics, who wrote his senior honor’s thesis on King Lear. Journalism offered him a tangible career opportunity, while also honing his talent and showing him how to focus more keenly on stories as they unfolded before him. (If anyone knows about a University of Oregon professor named Willis Winters, email me.) Moreover, in his youth and early twenties, Randy wrestled with a sense of having a greater purpose in life, a calling to tell a story greater than himself—haunting words to see in the scribbles of a young man who would later author the definitive book on the twentieth century’s definitive pandemic.
Throughout these early years, Randy tried to sell his articles wherever he could, but more tellingly he tried to use his early success as an openly gay journalist to find full-time work with a mainstream news organization. He kept many of those rejection letters, most of which complimented his work but didn’t really see a fit for him with their newspaper or television station. I doubt that any mainstream news outfits had seen a character as bold as Randy before—a young, out gay man, covering the tumultuous early years of the gay rights movement, promoting himself and his stories as having a legitimate place in mainstream news coverage of the time.
As I may have mentioned in an earlier post, what drew me to Randy as a topic was my discovery that years before anyone noticed the domestic AIDS epidemic, he was writing about health and social conditions that would later become closely associated with HIV itself—alcohol and drug abuse, sexually-transmitted infections, and social isolation, among others. I was curious how Randy had noticed and begun writing about these conditions years before people started dying in staggering numbers. Well, part of why he could write about these issues is that he intimately lived them. By the mid-1980s, he was public about being in recovery for alcoholism. In The Advocate, he related his own ordeal with Hepatitis to the alarming surge in sexual health problems among gay men. Also in The Advocate, he tackled the issue of loneliness among gays and lesbians, all while describing in his own scribbled diaries how isolated, unattractive, and misunderstood he felt among his gay male peers.
So, is it unusual to learn that a twenty-four year old gay man in the 1970s felt lonely and unattractive, struggled with alcoholism, and had trouble with STIs? Probably not; after all, it’s not even that unusual today. But, what is unique is how he developed into a writer and journalist who could tell a story that no one else was positioned to witness and write. Randy didn’t just happen to be there—he had developed a body of work that made him the most qualified to assemble the disparate pieces of the AIDS crisis into a story that seized the world’s attention. Reaching that position required a great deal more than coincidence, I think. It took an individual who could recognize, in a moment of unprecedented crisis, what he possessed that could make a credible difference at the time.
As I said above, before Randy became a journalist, he was a writer—a poet as well, even. He was a person with strong passions and curiosities who used his training as a journalist to focus his emotions and opinions in the most objective way possible. Covering the horrors of the early AIDS crisis would require all the skill of a professional journalist, but it also needed the talents of a passionate writer who could identify with the most heartbreaking aspects of the epidemic. Someone needed to capture the human story beyond the simple recitation of facts and figures. From his early writing, I believe that the human story is what Randy lived and breathed. Without knowing it, he had been working for years to develop a skill and style that would be essential for turning the world’s attention toward the horrifying complexity of HIV as a medical, social, and political disease.
Reassembling the life story of someone who’s a stranger, who has been gone twenty years, is a curious task, and with it come so many mixed feelings. At times I want to move in closer, and yet I also pull myself back, leery of becoming so entwined that I can’t tell the difference between Randy’s perspectives and my own. I know that I need to get back to San Francisco, preferably sometime later this year. I need to visit Portland and Eugene, Oregon, where Randy first came out and established himself as an outspoken gay activist and student journalist. I need to keep working through Randy’s files, but more to the point now, I need to talk to more people who knew him, especially at key points in his life. A researcher could take so many different angles on a person like Randy—his journalistic work, the “Patient Zero” controversy in And the Band Played On, the charges of bias and embellishment sometimes made against his work—but I am still drawn most closely to the moments where I find his inner thoughts and feelings. At one point in his diaries, a young Randy Shilts mused on whether he would ever be important enough for the thoughts he recorded on his cheap yellow notepads to be read. Here in 2014, I just hope I can do justice in capturing and sharing the story of this storyteller.