Far From Home, Facing the Unthinkable: My 2016 Election Story

In the early stages of research, one of the greatest feelings I get is the rush when all of a sudden, I see nothing but green lights ahead of me – a straight-ahead path for getting exactly what I need, with seemingly few obstacles or complications in between. That’s exactly how I felt on a balmy August afternoon, when an obscure name in a decades-old news story suddenly triggered a flurry of emails and phone calls. From this one archival finding, I’d managed to make contact with one of Randy Shilts’s former journalism professors at the University of Oregon. That conversation led to more introductions, so that in a matter of hours I’d made the acquaintance of even more members of the faculty who’d been around during that era. 

The details all fell quickly into place: I would fly to Portland, rent a car, and stay overnight at the home of Linda Alband, Randy Shilts’s oldest friend and former business manager, who I’d met on my first visit the previous year. The next day, I’d make the not-quite-two-hour drive south to Eugene, the slightly sleepy, somewhat quirky home of the University of Oregon, where Randy had first risen to prominence in the 1970s as an outspoken gay activist and award-winning journalism student. If I planned my trip smartly, I figured there was a good chance I’d be able to interview enough people to add some real color to the book, not to mention spend some time searching for documents in the university’s library. As a bonus, it would give me the chance to soak up the campus atmosphere, all the better for imagining how Randy had once roamed these spaces as a fully liberated, free-range hippie homosexual. 

Without much hesitation, I blocked out just over a week’s time to chase down stories in the Pacific Northwest. In my excitement, the significance of the dates never even occurred to me until after I booked the flight: I was going to be traveling halfway across the country on Election Day, 2016. Remember that sudden rush I mentioned above? It’s great at the time, but sometimes the excitement crowds out all other forms of rational thinking. 

Nice People, Safe Surroundings… Nothing Familiar

Of course, at the time I didn’t imagine there would be any real problem. When the day came, I voted in the morning with my partner Jaxon before we loaded my bags into his car, made a leisurely stop at one of our favorite brunch spots, and headed to the airport. All around the concourse, televisions were buzzing with the usual Election Day speculation, but it was still too early for any news to report. Sitting alone at the gate with no particular interest in all the background chatter, I inserted my earbuds and played a little music until it was time to be herded on board.

I have to admit, I enjoy being unplugged when I fly across the country. It’s relaxing for me to just sit there passively for a while, do a little reading, listen to music, or just close my eyes and lose myself in the hum of the airplane. In the back of my mind, I still felt a tiny bit anxious about what might happen, but mostly I told myself not to think about it. The sun was rapidly sinking as our plane landed on time, and I felt like I’d have plenty of energy for watching the election returns once I got to Linda’s house. If Trump won, I jokingly told friends, at least I could drive west until I hit the ocean. Then, just start swimming. 

Once I’d arrived and dropped my bags, I helped myself to some pizza and a glass of wine, settling down in front of the television with Linda and a couple of her friends. Here’s where the rest of it becomes a bit blurry. It’s not so much that I remember the play by play as I do the creeping, all-consuming horror that began to overtake me. I know now that millions of others were sharing my feelings. But everywhere I looked, even though I was with friendly people in safe surroundings, I had nothing familiar to reassure me: not my partner, not my pets, not our home, not my friends or chosen family. 

That gulf of 1,500 miles could very well have been an entire planet away, as my senses, overwhelmed by that improbable moment, went numb. I excused myself several times, escaping to my room where all I could do was lay on the bed, engulfed by a deep, guttural throbbing as the raw instinct for survival began to kick in. My text messages with Jaxon grew more frantic. We tried to reassure each other, but nothing that night could make the terror go away. After one last attempt to socialize, I gave up and hid myself away. I didn’t want to see the moment when Trump was declared the winner.

The next morning greeted me the way all my stays in Portland do: with rain, fog, and a deep, dense chill – the exact opposite of what I needed to shake off the restless sleep I’d barely gotten. As they had the night before, my thoughts immediately erupted into panic. You see, one of the reasons I’ve been able to devote myself to Randy’s story is the Affordable Care Act. Being able to buy health insurance without having to keep a full-time job has allowed me to pay the bills without being tied down to a full-time job, which is why I have put in more than 100 travel days for book research since 2014. Before leaving Linda’s house, I made a phone call to a very patient insurance navigator back in Minnesota, who helped me renew my plan for the following year. From the way she answered my questions, it was pretty clear I wasn’t the first nervous person to call that morning.

As I headed south through the Oregon countryside, the sunnier and calmer the weather seemed to get, but in my head I was frantically thinking to myself, what the hell am I going to do? Shockwaves from the previous night were emanating from every corner of the news and social media, and I had another full week ahead of me. The only way I could keep calm was by focusing as narrowly as possible on why I’d even come to Oregon: the story of Randy Shilts.

The Shilts at the End of the Tunnel

I was scheduled to do my first interview on the way into town at the home of Mike Thoele, the man I’d learned about in a news profile of Randy from the early ‘90s, which had triggered this entire trip in the first place. Under normal circumstances, I would have been enthralled by the stunningly gorgeous log house that Mike and his family had built, set far back in a forest of towering pine trees, exuding calm and tranquility and oneness with nature. To be honest, I could have stayed there quite a bit longer, if only for the comfort of that wonderful, otherworldly space. It was a relief to spend time with other people who, like me, were trying to process what had happened, and who appreciated the distress it was clearly causing me to be traveling at a time like this. 

I experienced that same sympathy and hospitality from all of the people I met in the days that followed, as I hiked my way around the verdant U of O campus in pursuit of Randy’s story. Even the sight of student protests gave me comfort, reminding me of my own activist days back at Michigan State. However, that was about the fullest extent of my engagement with the larger world. While each day gave me the chance to immerse myself in research, at night I would hide away in the bedroom of my Airbnb, stubbornly avoiding the news by watching an endless stream of RuPaul’s Drag Race videos.

Over the course of that week, my searches brought me to places like Allen Hall, home of the School of Journalism and Communication, where Randy’s name still flashes on one of the wall-mounted video screens, part of a repeating list of student scholarship winners (he endowed a gift to the school in 1992). I sneaked a look inside the newsroom of the Daily Emerald, where he worked as Managing Editor during his award-winning senior year. And I was fortunate to pick up an unexpected interview with one of Randy’s former classmates, who happened to be teaching on campus during one of my morning visits. The greatest comfort I found, however, came in the afternoons I spent on the ground floor of Knight Library, buried in the microform collection, scrolling through page after page of the Daily Emerald’s back issues. 

Randy’s contributions continue to be remembered at the U of O School of Journalism and Communication.

For anyone who hasn’t used microfilm, imagine staring at a backlit screen for hours on end, using a mouse (if it’s a newer machine) to advance through page after page of material that’s been photographed onto reels of film. This is one of the ways archiving was done in pre-digital times, and to find what you’re looking for, you need to somehow keep your eyes focused and your back and neck from cramping. In other words, it really isn’t a lot of fun. For once, though, microfilm research was my saving grace. I could focus my attention so narrowly, and for such a long time, that I could practically forget what was happening in the outside world. I could ignore my phone and resist the temptation to open Twitter, harnessing my energies solely on finding Randy. 

And – bless his soul – I found him! I knew going into the trip that Randy had been a pioneering activist before going into journalism, but the details had been a bit vague to me. In these old pages of the Emerald, I learned more about this “other” Randy, the English major who used his brazen, unapologetic gayness to win an elected seat in student government, where he chaired a powerful committee that distributed student fees to programs. Here was the Randy who immediately understood and embraced coalition politics, forming progressive alliances with feminist and multi-cultural group leaders to slash traditional programming favorites (including subsidized athletic tickets) and propose new on-campus childcare initiatives, reintegration services for returning veterans, and first-ever funding for the Eugene Gay People’s Alliance, whose student arm Randy had helped to establish. Although Randy was only in student government for a year, he left an important legacy by becoming one of the nation’s first openly gay elected student government leaders, co-founding a campus organization that still exists today, and setting precedent by using student fees to support gay and lesbian programming, including the U of O’s first-ever Coming Out Week in October 1973. And all of this, remember, came before he decided to go into journalism.

Confronting the New Normal

After returning to Portland, I joined Linda and some friends for a Saturday night show at Darcelle XV & Co., one of the oldest drag cabarets in the country, and home to the world’s oldest performing female impersonator herself, the fabulous Darcelle. Before the show, Linda and I presented her with a laminated, framed color print of “Rhinestones and Royalty,” Randy’s first of many award-winning stories, in which he’d interviewed Darcelle and other members of the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court back in 1974. The house that night was packed, especially with bachelorette and birthday parties, and the lip syncs and racy jokes seemed to give everyone a chance to let out a long exhale so we could actually laugh and cheer again. It was a badly needed evening, one that still reminds me to seek out friendship, humor, and folly during times of darkness and hostility.

A visit to Darcelle XV with Linda Alband and friends.

The trip was well worth it for the materials I found and the acquaintances I made. I just wish I’d chosen a better time to travel. Looking back, I can see why it’s taken me four years to write about that experience. Imagining all of the possible atrocities of an unchecked Trump presidency just seemed too frightening to consider, especially while traveling alone, so instead I held onto any comfort I could find. Coming back to Minneapolis after what seemed like a lifetime away, I at least had my home, my partner, my pets, my friends, and my family to remind me that I wasn’t experiencing this nightmare alone. All throughout that trip, I’d tried to hold my anxieties in check by repeating the words, “Just get through this, just survive.” In some ways, it feels like that’s been my mantra ever since.

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