“Would You Have Liked Him When He Was Alive?”
The first time I sat down with one of Randy Shilts’ critics, I didn’t even realize I was meeting a critic. It was early 2016, during one of my first big hauls of interviews, and this person, who was one of the original “players” in San Francisco’s early AIDS efforts, was just a name suggested to me by another source. As we sat down in his living room with a fresh pot of coffee, I quickly recognized what I would call the affability of a classically-trained scientist: well-mannered, hospitable, frank, and supremely confident in his own opinions.
The sentiments he shared weren’t all that surprising, but still a bit jarring after I’d spent the morning with one of Randy’s colleagues, who clearly still adored him and felt the pain of his long absence from her life. At times during this interview, I found myself feeling a bit defensive, hearing the dismissive way this man regarded Randy’s accomplishments. At times, I pointed out that he and Randy had actually agreed on certain positions, but clearly the relationship had soured too long ago to matter.
Still, I kept reminding myself, he’s commenting on Randy, not me. He was providing a valuable perspective, which was grounded in his own experiences. As I always do, I listened, asked follow-ups as he shared his recollections, and occasionally offered bits of information that he might not have known. In other words, I kept the same “friendly visitor” stance that would be familiar to anyone with a social work background: empathetic, open to other perspectives, and happy to hear new information that would provide me with a better-informed perspective.
We were close to wrapping up when I mentioned how I considered Randy, like every person, to be a “mixed bag,” meaning we have to understand both the good and the not-so-good when formulating our opinions. “Well, the trouble for you is going to be doing that, I would think,” he replied, “because you’re clearly a devotee.”
Coming at the end of a 90-minute conversation, the comment caught me off-guard. It seemed that he was skeptical that I would write anything other than a glowing fan tribute, and he challenged me to tell him what, exactly, I had found to dislike about Randy. “Will you end up liking him?” he pressed, as if I would’ve known at such an early stage of the research. “Would you have liked him when he was alive?”
We finished the interview cordially and he wished me the best with the project, but in the moment it was still uncomfortable. In hindsight, however, I’m glad it happened early in the research because it gave me a chance to ask some hard questions of myself. If nearly 20 years in social work have taught me anything, it’s the value of self-interrogation.
The Bias Conundrum
I suspect that this man may have considered me biased because from the outset, I spoke of wanting to frame Randy’s accomplishments around the deeper, more intimate story of his life. And make no mistake, his accomplishments were significant to LGBTQ politics and culture, to say nothing of how he broke down barriers in mainstream newsrooms for other LGBTQ journalists.
But as any social worker can tell you, humans are complicated creatures, and Randy was no exception. The assumptions on which he acted clearly got him into trouble at times – some of which is still publicly debated, and some of which occurred behind closed doors and out of the public eye. Acknowledging those shortcomings is essential to any biography, but of course, it should also be ingrained in the perspective of every social worker, whether they’re working in direct practice, administering human service systems, advocating for policy change, teaching new members of the profession – and yes, when doing research and writing a biography.
Asking a person if they are biased is like asking if they’re breathing. Of course we have biases. We are biased toward any number of assumptions and beliefs based on how we are raised, educated, and socialized as members of (or outcasts from) our families, communities, and cultures. We are inclined to select our friends, our careers, the jobs for which we apply, and the subjects of our studies based on our predisposed attitudes toward a particular subject or phenomenon.
I was biased toward even writing about Randy because 1) I already knew and liked his writing; 2) I had witnessed his influence firsthand in the AIDS organizations where I’d worked; and 3) I thought he deserved a more intimate treatment than he’d received as a prominent historical figure. The challenge in writing his story hasn’t come from “avoiding” my biases, if that’s even possible, but interrogating them – asking myself how I came to feel a certain way about a particular moment in his life.
That process often leads me to lean into the source material, so I can explore an issue or experience from Randy’s point of view. At the same time, it’s also led me to seek out additional evidence, which can help to either corroborate or counter that point of view. Taking this approach has also helped by reminding me that the job I originally set out to do wasn’t to defend Randy, per se, but to understand him as well as anyone could.
Biography With A Social Work Point of View
It brings me back, then, to what I wanted to write about in this blog post: a meditation on what a social work background can bring to the task of researching and writing a biography. First, social work tries to recognize change agents of all varieties, regardless of their backgrounds, credentials, or perceived social status. In Randy’s case, I wanted to explore how he used his position as a journalist to amplify the voices of those who are often overlooked in our larger political systems. In the case of And the Band Played On, this included healthcare workers, public health researchers, patients, and activists who were desperately trying to get the Reagan Administration, the news media, and the general public to take AIDS seriously, so that a comprehensive, coordinated response could be mounted. (Sound familiar?) With respect to Conduct Unbecoming, this included scores of lesbian and gay service members, many of whom joined the military as their only means for economic advancement, only to be hunted down and persecuted based on the presumption of their homosexuality.
Second, a social work perspective is grounded in understanding the stages of human development. I see it as important to recognize that Randy’s actions and perspectives were influenced by all the preceding stages of his life, for better and for worse, and that his recollection or re-experiencing of those struggles (or developmental “crises,” as Erik Erikson might say) can be identified in the actions and positions that he took.
This relates to my third point, which is that social work is trauma-informed. At every stage of his life, from a childhood marked by parental alcoholism and abuse to the widespread infection and death of his peers in their twenties and thirties, Randy was forced to cope with adversity that ultimately shaped the way he approached his job, how he related with his subject matter and sources, the way he wrote about them, and how the legacy of his work is viewed.
Fourth is the concept on which the social work profession hangs its metaphorical hat: person-in-environment. In biographical research as in direct practice, a person’s life cannot be scrutinized in a vacuum. The cultural and political context of Randy’s life adds just as many crucial details to the story as the context of his family, work, and community life. Combine that with a strengths-based perspective, and it helps us to gain a better sense of how Randy’s own capabilities intersected with a number of events in the historic rise of gay liberation, as it was popularly called at the time.
Fifth and finally, a social worker is supposed to act with empathy and compassion. Instead of distancing myself from the more complicated emotions of Randy’s story, I’ve tried to move closer, even when it’s challenged my comfort levels and forced me to reconsider my own assumptions and beliefs. Being able to explore those uncomfortable spaces has helped me to write about them in ways that I hope will make the narrative stronger, both for understanding the world as Randy saw it and for feeling how others must have experienced him as well.
In a practical way, my past experiences in social work and HIV have given me a useful calling card when it’s come to engaging with my sources. For example, not long after the encounter I described above, I had an interview with another prominent Bay Area ex-health official, whose work Randy had criticized quite openly. In discussing the harm reduction approach he’d been trying to take back in 1983, this person laid out pretty much exactly what my colleagues and I had been taught to emphasize in our outreach and education work some twenty years later. “I mean, you know this cold,” he told me at one point, a throwaway comment that nonetheless left me feeling quite gratified.
“Relating to the Other”
With the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think that being a “devotee” of Randy means quite what that particular person meant it to be, because in just about every setting where social workers find ourselves, we are devoted to the people we care about. This is true even – and especially – when we struggle with or are frustrated by their choices. In fact, I’d even argue that social work is one of the few professions that can actually prepare someone for finding what to connect with in a person when their behaviors make us want to climb a wall (seriously).
Almost a decade ago, one of my Doctoral mentors told me as we were leaving class, “You know, Michael, if someone asked me to explain social work to them, I’d say, ‘It’s about relating to the other.’” Her remark stays with me to this day, and I often share it with students who are struggling to reckon with all the pieces of their professional identity. Relating to the other, as my dear late professor Helen Kivnick put it, invites us to do the hard work of learning from our differences, following the intricacies of our intellectual and emotional pathways to a place where mutual understanding (if not outright agreement) can occur.
With all this being said, I find that it’s still hard to fully describe just how helpful a social work perspective has been for writing the story of Randy’s life. I will say, however, that in thinking about how it’s guided my approach to the work, I might even go so far as to call it… a devotion.