Attention Economy, Part II: The Curious Case of Randy Shilts

Randy Shilts on the Rainbow Honor Walk

In Part I of this essay, I offered a quick reflection on a piece by New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel, whose interview with scholar Michael Goldhaber raised concerns about the role of our modern “attention economy” in stirring the political discord of recent years. While any profession which uses media is participating at least nominally in the attention economy, Warzel singles out those which primarily rely on information sharing to survive, including, unsurprisingly, journalism. From what I’ve learned in my research on Randy Shilts, even though he passed away just as the Internet was beginning to proliferate, he was most assuredly, for better and for worse, a skillful player in the attention economy of his time.

Randy Shilts photo courtesy of George Greenfield, CreativeWell, Inc.

As a social work researcher and aspiring biographer, I’ve tried to consider a variety of factors when examining Randy’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, including his developmental experiences and the context in which he lived and worked. So, let me circle back to Maslow’s Hierarchy for a moment. To repeat: Maslow posited lower-level needs must first be fulfilled before our “higher order” needs can be met. From lowest to highest, the five levels are: physiological needs, safety, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization. From what I know of Randy’s working-class upbringing, his lowest-order needs were pretty consistently met. His father Bud worked in lumber for many years, and although money was never abundant, the Shilts family always had a roof over its head and food on the table. However, things get a little more complicated for Randy as we move up the Hierarchy.

To be frank, there were plenty of times when his home life wasn’t great. While Randy’s father traveled frequently for work, his mother Norma struggled with the burden of raising 6 boys over 40 years, resulting in long bouts of depression and chronic alcoholism. Her temper often got the best of her, so that the gifted and sensitive Randy came to look for attention and approval from his teachers as a refuge from the home environment. School was a double-edged sword, however, as even at a young age, he had bullies waiting to jump him on his way home.


Ambition, Addiction, and Legacy

Throughout his life, Randy struggled to feel a sense of belonging and love, although college and coming out significantly helped to boost his self-esteem. During these years, he developed a small number of core friendships that lasted until the end of his life, but he also wrestled with intimacy and body image insecurities, especially as the sexual revolution of the ‘70s intensified the emphasis on perfectionism in gay social and sexual settings. Like his mother, Randy also battled alcoholism. Unlike Norma, he did eventually quit drinking and embraced 12-step recovery, right around the time one of his close friends died during the worst period of the early AIDS crisis. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that his personal writing around this time started to include more terms like “self-actualization,” which Maslow used to describe the highest-order growth needs in the Hierarchy.

To be clear, Randy was most certainly ambitious. As a young English major, he dreamed of becoming a famous novelist before going into journalism, where his aspirations steadily climbed. This was especially true when he began appearing on Bay Area television, which gave him clout for picking up men in the local bars and bathhouses. But he was far from the only member of his generation to seek that kind of attention. To be the “first openly gay fill-in-the-blank” was a mark of status, which distinguished a person as a courageous trailblazer within their field. Even before And the Band Played On, Randy had acquired a somewhat dubious reputation among some of his peers due to his ambitions, but to be frank, a fair number of them were trying to build their own following in the tiny world of gay news and entertainment. These tensions seemed to increase after Randy made the leap into mainstream journalism; some of his rivals’ attacks could come across as hair-splitting or sour grapes from those who resented seeing his byline in a major daily newspaper, rather than their own.

Quitting alcohol didn’t eliminate Randy’s ambitions, but it did give him pause to consider how his childhood experiences with parental abuse, bullying, and loneliness had shaped them. Written in the years following his embrace of sobriety, And the Band Played On is sprinkled with veiled allusions to addiction, above and beyond its characterization of gay men’s sexual habits and rampant drug use. The concept of addiction, as Randy implicitly used it, can extend to any number of areas where the need for fulfillment and/or conquest becomes a single-minded obsession. By delving into the all-too-human preoccupations with politics, power, profit, and fame, he was forcefully denouncing the veritable clusterfuck of systems which had converged to prevent an effective response to HIV/AIDS at a point when it could have prevented hundreds of thousands of deaths, including his own.


A Zero-Sum Game

This, of course, brings me to Gaetan Dugas, the “Patient Zero” albatross who weighs conspicuously on Randy’s legacy. In elevating the story of how this French-Canadian air steward became a prominent case in early research studies, Randy was quite intentionally making an example of someone who, even after learning his diagnosis, had frustrated public health officials and some gay activists by continuing to put others at risk. And while Randy was not the first person to call attention to Gaetan Dugas (who had been chased out of several establishments by other gay men), his characterization of this man cemented his own complicated legacy when it came to trafficking in the attention economy.

As Warzel points out, “Any discussion of power is… ultimately, a conversation about attention and how we extract it, wield it, waste it, abuse it, sell it, lose it, and profit from it.” And in the context of the 1970s sexual revolution, Dugas was evidently a powerful player. These aren’t details Randy invented, but which came directly from his sources who knew Gaetan, including a few of his personal friends. While And the Band Played On contains numerous examples of people making questionable use of their powerful positions, Dugas stands out, not simply because of the lurid sexual details of his story, but also because he was beautiful, charming, and funny, a man who commanded instant attention in the bars, bathhouses, and parties where he turned up. In the circles where Dugas ran, the man was popular, and therefore powerful. Not that Randy couldn’t hold his own when he went out cruising, but in the attention economy of sexual liberation, Dugas had the currency to easily get whatever he wanted.

So, one may wonder, was Randy jealous of Gaetan Dugas’ good looks and easy popularity? I doubt it, given the point at which he learned of the case-control study which designated Dugas as “Patient O” (or “Patient Zero”, depending on how you read it). By this time, Randy had become well-versed in 12-step recovery, when self-actualization seemed to matter more to him than wealth or fame. He did, however, believe the role of a good journalist was to always scrutinize the powerful. In his career, he’d already taken on a variety of powerful figures including city leaders, gay political elites, bathhouse owners, and gay newspaper publishers. In Gaetan Dugas, he recognized a person who’d grown very comfortable in his power to command attention, and who seemed to value that privileged position above changing his behaviors to match the urgency of the times. In that sense, Gaetan offered a near-perfect embodiment of the “no retreat” stance adopted by the staunchest sexual revolutionaries of the time, even as the worsening pandemic radically shifted the context of their revolution.


Sharing the Wealth

Randy never fully escaped the Patient Zero controversy, nor did he shy away from it. And the Band Played On very deliberately leaves certain depictions open to interpretation, allowing for arguments to be made on all sides. Without a doubt, however, it contributed to Randy’s most prominent moment in the national spotlight. The question for me, then, is what did Randy do with the attention he received and the power it afforded him? In both the documents I’ve reviewed and the interviews people have given me, a couple of interesting answers stand out.

First, he continued to offer help to younger up-and-coming gay journalists who were arriving in San Francisco. In the San Francisco Chronicle’s newsroom, he treated his newer gay and lesbian colleagues almost like siblings, who became A-list guests at the annual “Shiltsmas” parties at his Guerneville home. One broadcast journalist shared with me how Randy encouraged him to be open about his sexuality because it would provide him with an abundance of stories, even though technically they were competitors at the time. Notably, during a time when the Bay Area Reporter was attacking him regularly on its editorial page, Randy was privately offering encouraging notes to one of its reporters on how to improve his writing. And after Band’s release when Randy became a popular figure on the lecture circuit, he would give his own time to meet with local gay and HIV/AIDS groups, especially on college campuses, in order to help them raise their profile and attract new members.

The most compelling stories of Randy’s generosity, however, come in his follow-up to Band, when his fame was at its peak. The decision to move from covering AIDS to military issues caught some of his fellow journalists by surprise, as the topic of gay and lesbian service members’ persecution lacked currency in the attention economy of the time, both within mainstream media and major gay rights organizations. But it resulted in what is arguably his greatest (and most overlooked) achievements as a journalist. For example, Randy helped launch the story of Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer into the national spotlight by inviting her to speak for several minutes during his keynote address at the inaugural convention of NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, resulting in the eventual publication of her own memoir and a television biopic starring Glenn Close.

While Conduct Unbecoming did attain bestselling status, Randy’s failing health and inability to go on a book tour kept it from achieving the popularity of Band. It did, however, play an influential role in changing popular sentiment toward military policy, the effects of which can still be seen in today’s efforts to end the ban on transgender service members. Among the veterans who have spoken with me, including Col. Cammermeyer, the prevailing sentiment remains one of gratitude for Randy’s efforts on their behalf, even as he battled and ultimately lost his life to HIV/AIDS.

With respect to the attention economy, Goldhaber notes, “We struggle to attune ourselves to groups of people who feel they’re not getting the attention they deserve, and we ought to get better at sensing that feeling earlier.” While he’s making this observation about those who recently tried to overthrow the 2020 election, the comment gives me pause because I think it applies quite aptly to the stories of ordinary people that Randy often featured in his work. To the extent that attention functions as currency in our society, what can we make of someone who was undeniably ambitious, yet tried to use his journalism to help lesser-known and less powerful individuals?

To answer this, I keep coming back to Maslow’s Hierarchy and the idea of self-actualization. In realizing our own potential, there exists the possibility of identifying with the capabilities and struggles we see in others, making the exchange of attention less of a momentary transaction and more of a sustained, mutually-beneficial relationship. When I think about Randy in the later years of his life, I see a person who was beginning to reflect more critically on the choices he made and the relationships he formed. I don’t know how he’d feel about the attention economy as it exists today, or how, as an old-school journalist, he would try to use it to his advantage. I do, however, think that he would continue to search for ways to help people by drawing attention to the stories of those who are easily overlooked in a society that’s grown even more favorable to the haves over the have-nots in the years since he passed away.

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