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Back to San Francisco (Revisiting Shilts)

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City brought my first real attraction to San Francisco. Although still a couple years away from coming out, as a rural Midwestern teen in the early 1990s I sensed something about that miniseries—aside from curiosity about gay culture of the 70s— which drew me to a city that I had never visited. Its vibrancy, its colors, its characters, brought to life so vividly by Maupin, told me that there was a place for people who were different, who were not satisfied with settling into comfortable patterns and routines, who asked questions to which mainstream America offered few easy answers, and who found friendship and kinship with fellow travelers that wondered and wandered in their own spirited ways. When I finally came out, my 17 year-old mind devoured those six novels. I shared them with my new gay friends, and we chattered like only gay teens can about which character we each were—Mary Ann? Michael Tolliver? Mona? As fans of the Tales series know well, Armistead’s stories (always complicated, filled with compelling characters and delicious plot twists) grew more world-weary as the 1980s dragged on, as needless death and grief filled the Castro and a movement began to act up, screaming in outrage at a country (and its government) that didn’t seem to notice or care. In my half-dozen visits to San Francisco since 1996, I’d say I’ve become less fascinated and more familiar, but nothing has diminished my affection for the city. Touching ground in San Francisco means touching history for me, and again I am struck by how much of that story (which emanates out to touch so many people in the world) remains to be considered and shared.

Tonight, I will take a redeye flight back to Minneapolis after nearly two productive weeks. In the year since I last came and studied Randy Shilts’ papers, I wasn’t able to do much on the project except briefly meet his brothers and correspond with his closest associates. But, it’s an understatement to say that I’ve gone cold on the research. I allowed myself this extended time around Spring Break with the promise that I would make sufficient progress on the dissertation over the winter. When I get back, the dissertation goes on the front burner. In the meantime, I spent several productive days in two wonderful archives, the James C. Hormel Collection at the San Francisco Public Library, and the GLBT Historical Society. At one point during my stay at SFPL, I looked behind me to see the busts of Harvey Milk and George Moscone smiling across the room (which I will take as tacit approval for my ambitions). Right now, it’s safe to estimate that I’ve examined several hundred, if not thousands of pages of Randy’s papers, from diaries to personal correspondences, college papers, poetry, clippings, drafts, reviews, criticisms, and even his last will and testament. 

Thanks to the GLBT Historical Society, on this trip I was even able to see Randy with his friends and hear him in his own voice. I watched home videos from his vacation house in Guerneville, CA, where he hosted a birthday party for Dash, his beloved Golden Retriever and later married his partner, Barry. I viewed the tape of his memorial service, where I could hear from outside the noise of nearly 2,000 celebrants counter-protesting a certain church that decided to make an uninvited appearance that day. At a summer picnic commemorating Randy’s birthday 6 months later, one of his closest friends commented on a project that never fully developed—a collection of essays on Randy’s life and his impact on the world. More than just honoring his memory, she hoped that people would come to know the private side of a man famous for his seriousness, his combativeness, and his willingness to criticize all sides of a debate. How else would people know that Randy was darkly funny, loyal to his friends, and a little conflict-averse in his personal life? I’m not sure why yet, but the book of essays never came to light.

I was surprised to finish early in both collections, allowing me a weekend’s rest before tonight’s flight home. My friend Jason, who has graciously hosted me, suggested a day trip up to Guerneville, the small gay-friendly resort town where Randy had a vacation home and is buried in the local cemetery. I couldn’t resist a visit, and I felt that if I truly am to continue on with this work, I needed to find him.

The Redwood Memorial Gardens in Guerneville rest on a sloping, wooded hill, a gentle space found where a couple of winding narrow roads converge amid a forest of towering, seemingly ageless trees. It’s the kind of quiet you experience when you get outside of any city and away from the highway bustle, only with the sweet, piney aroma of the redwood trees hanging delicately in the air. We trudged from plot to plot, not exactly sure where Randy was buried, only to find him several feet from where we parked the car—hiding in plain sight, which is how I’ve often characterized this project since I started my research. Buried next to him is his close friend Daniel Yoder, with Randy’s tribute of “No one could have a better friend” inscribed on his gravestone. It was a peaceful moment. I knelt, gently brushed away some flakes of mud from Randy’s stone, and took a couple pictures. We said little as we got in the car, but I thanked my friend for letting me have this moment.

I feel like I have done a lot of work already, and yet there is so much left to do. It’s easy to be intimidated, to again wonder, who the hell am I to think I can put together a book on this man, who accomplished so much before he even turned 40? I also think of the men of Randy’s generation who were lost, so many talented and vibrant, witty, sometimes bitchy and catty souls who, at shockingly young ages, contributed enormous visionary work to a community that would benefit the younger generations of queer people to follow. I think of the men I know who survived, their attempts to move on from that siege, and their efforts to preserve its history in recent film and other works.

By 1994, when Randy’s health finally failed him, his death seemed in some ways to be another indignity to the movement he had covered- another needless tragedy at a point when no end seemed to be in sight. The seeming miracle of antiretroviral therapies came quickly thereafter, but not quickly enough for Randy and many others. If he had survived- if Randy was with us today- I wonder how he’d view this world in 2015. I’d like to think that more people would know his humor. I suspect he’d be amused by the omnipresence of today’s social media, encouraged by the rapid progress of marriage equality, but also skeptical about its seemingly central focus in a community still beset with disturbing health and social disparities. I think he’d be disgusted with our state and national politics and the absence of substantive policy coverage in today’s media, and given his strong antiwar feelings, I can only imagine what he would have said about the post-9/11 militarization of U.S. society. Most poignantly, I also think he’d be doing something about that problem, which makes his absence from our intellectual lives so much more pronounced.


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.

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