Shiltsmas at 70: First Impressions, Lasting Influence

Among Randy Shilts’ friends, colleagues, and loved ones, August 8 will be forever remembered as “Shiltsmas.” For many, the word evokes strong memories of his birthday parties, held at Randy’s home in Guerneville each year; but those parties came later in Randy’s life, after the success of And the Band Played On afforded him the means to purchase “Chez Rondey” and treat his guests more lavishly. Early in my research, I learned that the term goes back much further, to a time when a scruffy 18-year-old would leave notes on his housemates’ doors, reminding them of how many shopping days remained until the next Shiltsmas.

To recognize what would have been Randy’s 70th birthday, today I am sharing some quotes from the oral history interviews I conducted for my book. Specifically, I asked each person to remember the first time they met Randy and the impression he made, and I concluded by asking them to describe what they see as Randy’s last influence in society. This is just a small sample of the many memories people shared with me, but if Randy were alive today, I think he’d be quite moved, amused, and grateful for how they still remember him.

Randy Shilts:
August 8, 1951 – February 17, 1994 (Photo courtesy of George Greenfield, CreativeWell, Inc.)

First Impressions: Wild Hair, Unbridled Energy, Wit, Smarts, and Ambition

“He had holes in his pants and his shirts, and he was scruffy, and he was highly energized, and he couldn’t go up the stairs without tripping because he always had to go up the stairs at full bore, and he was a character. He had this curly, curly hair that kind of stuck out all over, and… And he was extremely brilliant and really, really funny.“ – Ann Neuenschwander, close friend

“What I remember about Randy was this big Afro hair (laughs) and this swish and a swagger, a sashay ability that – You could watch Randy go down a street and you could see him sashay, not that it was any necessarily intent. There was a swing to it. I couldn’t mimic it if my life depended on it. It was kind of like a… swagger and confidence and plenty of just so gay. (Long laughter) And being with Randy at any point in time on any conversation was like trying to stay up with a tornado. (Laughs) He was just (exhales) energy, a ball of energy.” – Harriet Merrick, University of Oregon friend and fellow activist

“You met him and you knew he was incredibly ambitious.  To have the goals he had at that young age, and I go back to myself, graduate college, didn’t know what I wanted to do.  It was different for me to meet someone with such a drive and focus.  I won’t say I was envious because that’s not what I wanted to do, but there was something about it that I looked up to that he could know so clearly what his goals were.” – Anne Kronenberg, San Francisco activist and Harvey Milk campaign manager

First impressions

“I just remember probably looking at him across the room and thinking, ‘Oh boy.’ Here comes the flowered tie and the big curly Afro, I thought, ‘Ooh, I don’t know if the Chronicle is ready for this!’ But anyway. I immediately was attracted to him for all my social values reasons. And then – because what I loved about him was, for all the fighting about the causes, he could get in a silly mood and I loved that.” – Susan Sward, San Francisco Chronicle colleague

“Oh, brash, of course. He goddamn well knew the answer to whatever question you gave him. And funny. And… had a great deal of stick-to-it-iveness. My mother’s old term for that. And he could be bossy… likeable. He was always an extremely likeable guy. And we had a good relationship in the sense that we worried about, this is your story, this is my story.” – David Perlman, San Francisco Chronicle colleague

“From the beginning, Randy was calling me as a reporter. And he was always very good. I would always straightaway return his call. And so I knew him for… gosh, I don’t know. Two, three years before he decided to write the book? And so when he called and wanted to talk, it was instant. He was so good, and not politically screaming. Randy was a reporter. He was a professional. He could’ve been black, white, green, gay, straight, whatever. He was very serious, in a pleasant way but you know, he was a reporter with a long professional career, and would come into your office and talk like a reporter.” – Dr. Don Francis, former CDC epidemiologist

Lasting Influence: Changing the Narrative, Blazing a Trail

“I think he helped to create a more open society in the gay community. Because you know the old thing was, you kept everything in the community, in the community. And I think he proved that he could go outside the community, you could still have an impact. You didn’t have to relegate yourself to a second-class response. You’re a first-class person and you’re gay. You could go stand before the Board of Supervisors, you could do any of the things these people did and the closet was a swinging door. [Laughs] So I really think he did usher in that period. Because after all, he was the most prominent gay voice we had.” – Belva Davis, former KQED news colleague

“Anderson Cooper. That’s an un-prethought response to your question. Rachel Maddow.  There are others that if I thought about it more, I could say. Don Lemon. I would say that. In terms of Randy’s world, in terms of journalism and acceptance, you know there is a great Quentin Kopp quote… “Tolerance maybe, acceptance never,” and so I think the tolerance has passed but the acceptance has come.” – Ken Maley, long-time friend

“I absolutely still see his influence in journalism, in the role journalism can play, shining a light in humanizing issues. Long-form researched, finding the story. It’s not like there wasn’t anything like that in the ’70s, but I think he’s part of that generation that gave us long-form journalism and the way that we think about it now. I think the role that he played of finding out what his fascination was, and understanding what was important about linking it up with his activist soul, his identity, is still a … That’s still where we get our highest level activists and people who make a difference in the various places that we wind up.” – Carol Queen, University of Oregon classmate and fellow activist

Lasting Influence

“I think the amount of editorializing on LBGT history and the LBGT civil rights movement is extraordinary right now. He was, like many of us were, we were born into it at a time when you just did not see the word gay in the newspaper. I can remember specifically Harvey and Scott checking the papers they were reading, the Chronicle and the Times, to see if there was a mention of gay. Randy was a pioneer. I don’t know if any of us really understood the zoom effect, what was going to happen, and how widespread the social growth would be to the degree that is now. Good on all of us for just having the wisdom to just do the early work because now it’s just so much part of the fabric. We have lots to be proud of on that front.” – Dan Nicoletta, long-time friend

“The movie is, I can tell you, compelling for generations of public health students and other people. And the gist of the story, independent of what individuals did or how it was portrayed, is basically true. In other words, it’s hard for those of us who are named in the movie who don’t recognize their selves, or we think that other people are being treated poorly or too well or whatever. But the main thing is that the gist of the movie is true. It’s compelling to generations now of people. And so it really has that … more than most books, a combination of a health history and how a system to a disadvantaged and discriminated part of society for people to read it during these times when they’re seeing discrimination of different sorts, ongoing racism, ongoing homophobia.” – Dr. James Curran, former head of CDC HIV/AIDS Division

“Well, for one thing, I guess I could answer it like this. Randy’s never going to be gone. As long as there are gays, as long as there is homophobia, as long as there is a military, as long as there are diseases, Randy is never going to be gone. He may be a footnote in certain things, but he’s not ever going to be gone. He will always be here.” – Wes Haley, friend and former newsroom assistant

What He Left Behind

The last Shiltsmas attended by Randy occurred in 1992, not long before his health took a serious turn for the worse. The following year, no such party would be held, as Randy was too weak for such festivities. After he passed away in 1994, his friend and former business manager Linda Alband held a Shiltsmas picnic for friends and family at Golden Gate Park. With the advent of new medications, HIV/AIDS became a treatable illness, and the world seemed to move on from the prolonged and agonizing crisis of those first several years. Time, however, doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds. For many of those who knew and loved Randy, there has remained a nagging ache, a reminder of the person they still sorely miss, who’d teasingly  remind them of the next Shiltsmas so they’d have plenty of time to get him a present. Randy loved his birthday, and he loved presents. Friends described to me how his face would light up like a delighted child whenever he unwrapped a gift.

In the years since Randy’s passing, heated critiques have sprung up concerning his professional work and his journalistic legacy. After all these years of research and writing, I remain convinced that until we fully understand how people experienced Randy not only as a public figure, but also as their son, their brother, their friend, their confidant, their lover, their student, their classmate, their colleague, or their compatriot – in other words, all the ways that people knew him – then we will fall short in understanding just how rich, varied, and vibrant his legacy really is. For me, the wish I hold for Randy on his 70th birthday is that he were still here to write his own life story, instead of needing someone else to do it for him.

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