By way of explanation: I’ve more or less ignored this blog for nearly two years. That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it, beaten myself up for not writing something, or come close to posting something. I do have a good reason though. Since mid-2015 I have traveled across the country, interviewed more than 30 people, spent hours searching hundreds of papers in library archives, and written the beginning of a book that will tell the intimate life story of the late journalist Randy Shilts. So yes, I’ve been busy. But I’m also irritated that I haven’t written more of these posts along the way. So, I’m keeping a notebook now, and I even bought pencils and a sharpener. Old school! It feels genuinely good to write long-hand again. I recommend it for anyone who gets bogged down in word processing and the unending stream of social media ejaculations. (I’m using that word correctly. Look it up.) Below is the first of my scribbles.
I’ve thought a lot in the past day about 1984. The 1984 that I knew – through the eyes of a seven-year-old – involved dirt roads, dirt bikes, sheep pastures, teenage sisters, Reagan-Mondale, the Detroit Tigers in the World Series, and (unbeknownst to my parents) an underlying sexual confusion that would take another decade to reconcile. I can’t say for sure that these were happy times. The fights between my parents and oldest sister would certainly hint at a more complicated, stress-inducing dynamic. But that’s nothing compared to what came into focus today about Randy’s 1984: the headlines from the frontline of a battle, fraught with disease, deaths, false or misleading hopes, cynical political calculations, and misplaced self-interests.
My barely-formed self, with 4-H ribbons and Doctor Who pocket novels, could scarcely imagine what Randy and his contemporaries were facing. How many of us – especially gay men ages 40 and younger – can even imagine the soul-searing experience of seeing our loved ones fall in wave after wave, to the snickers and snide remarks of the world around us?
Here’s what else I saw in Randy’s reporting from 1984: gay bashing and gay murders, often carried out by teens and young men. Random brutality and systemic injustices, job discrimination and anti-gay cultural crusades, carried out by people who at best were highly ignorant of the suffering. At worst, they cravenly saw AIDS as an opportunity to press home their own political agendas.
In the months since Trump assumed power, I’ve seen many iterations of the statement, “It’s 1984 come true.” They’re referring to Orwell, but they could just as easily be referring to Shilts. It’s not just because AIDS is still with us and gay bashing still happens. The hit list has broadened to include Muslims and Trans folk, immigrants, refugees, and those suffering from addiction and mental illness.
But, there is another revelation tucked away in Randy’s 1984. It’s the year he quit drinking and went sober. Knowing what he endured the previous year, I’ll say that that decision probably saved his life, or at least prolonged it for another decade. If he’d allowed himself to completely self-destruct, how would the story of And the Band Played On have been told? How many lives would have been affected by its absence?
In our darkest moments, sometimes we find clarity that we assumed to be lost. When the world seems to be at its most unruly, the discovery of inner peace can be a surprising revelation. If this is the 1984 that is now repeating itself, maybe the good news is that some much-needed clarity of mind and purpose could be on the world’s horizon. The bad news is, it may still take time to get here. As it was for Randy and the communities he covered in 1984, today’s question could in fact be the same: will we live long enough to pull through?