The Attention Economy, Part I: Commodity, or Human Right?

Earlier this month, a New York Times opinion piece caught my eye with what I found to be a useful, different take on the conflict and upheaval we’ve all recently experienced. The underlying idea of “the attention economy,” as technology writer Charlie Warzel explains it, wasn’t unfamiliar to me, but to see it articulated so simply and clearly gave me pause: “Every single action we take… is a transaction. When you pay attention to one thing, you ignore something else.”

The point of his commentary was to highlight how the current age of disinformation was sagely predicted more than 20 years ago in an essay by Michael Goldhaber, a now-retired theoretical physicist. In describing “the relentless pressure to get some fraction of this limited resource,” Goldhaber in 1997 presciently laid out the zero-sum demands that people today experience in a culture subsumed by social media echo chambers, where “alternative facts” are propagated largely on their presumed popularity with a particular audience, and where grievance and resentment can be easily stirred into emotionally-charged responses that feel truthful, regardless of the underlying evidence.

As communication technologies have gotten more precise at delivering content that matches our predisposed opinions and tastes, the information we receive has gotten more siloed; this isn’t a new idea, I know. But within these preferential siloes, the bombardment of content across media platforms leaves us with a diminished capacity to even process new and unfamiliar information. It’s like being wired into a feeding system that perpetually supplies your favorite food, leaving you less capable of considering (or trusting) other possibilities, even if they’re potentially healthier and more appealing to the palate.

Attention Economy = Attention Capitalism

Goldhaber goes on to note how with today’s consolidated communication platforms, existing social inequalities are perpetuated by those who hold a position of influence over people’s attentions. People who already have that privileged position will work relentlessly to protect their gains, leaving those with fewer resources to compete with each other for crumbs. “When you have attention, you have power,” he observes, “and some people will try and succeed in getting huge amounts of attention, and they would not use it in equal or positive ways.”

While Goldhaber and Warzel question whether this system can agreeably coexist with a functional democracy, I think it’s fair to point out that the attention economy fits modern capitalism about as well as Cinderella fits a glass slipper. In the context of a social safety net that’s been steadily eroded over the past half-century, people seem more than ever to need the attention afforded by “going viral” to make the leap from obscurity and financial hardship to what can seem like some measure of fame, no matter how fleeting it ends up being. On the one hand, the plethora of social media channels available seems democratizing: anyone with a good idea can make it! But that’s  the same rhetoric Americans have been fed for generations, despite ample evidence of how those who are already materially privileged continue to reap exponentially more benefits than those who start life at a socioeconomic disadvantage.

Even in my own social work profession, our lofty rhetoric around equality and social justice is undercut by the reality of limited funding – and where being the cause du jour certainly helps to elevate one’s grant proposal or sponsorship request above a crowded field of worthy causes. In other words, the more that our attentions get monetized, to more likely they are to be monopolized and doled out to the masses like crumbs – just like every other natural resource that, despite belonging inherently to each of us, gets commodified as an end unto itself, rather than a means to broadly benefit everyone. Goldhaber and Warzel agree that the attention economy appears to be inescapable, but to me that raises a very “social work” kind of question: is basic human attention – i.e., the act of reciprocal acknowledgment and engagement with fellow members of our species – as inherent a human right as (some of us would argue) food, shelter, healthcare, safety, and education?

A Basic Human Need

Moving from macro to micro (i.e., interpersonal) levels, I’m going to bring in a fairly simple, widely-known psychological model: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. As far as motivational theory goes, this is an “oldy but goody,” which still gets taught to students, especially in the helping professions, at a foundational level. Maslow observed that before “higher order” needs could be met, lower levels must first be fulfilled. From lowest to highest, the five levels are: physiological needs, safety, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization.

Taking into consideration not only the social habits of our species, but also our inherent fragilities and limitations, it’s difficult to imagine an individual being able to fulfill of any of these needs without some nominal amount of attention provided by others. Even with varying degrees of extroversion and introversion, we are simply too socially and materially interdependent to ever fully embody that pernicious idea of “rugged individualism,” which still permeates so much of the American narrative around success versus failure.

I’d even argue that the examination of attention as a standalone concept is a bit reductive, considering that it’s pretty much an essential building block for that larger, more complicated construct we call “relationships.” It perhaps goes without saying that in order to establish and maintain healthy, productive social relationships, we need to start by paying attention to each other. Simplistic as it may sound, this is a crucial step toward establishing more substantial bonds like empathy, attachment, mutual concern, and reciprocity. “Attention is a bit like the air we breathe,” Warzel comments. “It’s vital but largely invisible, and thus we don’t think about it very much unless, of course, it becomes scarce.”

Equally concerning, he raises the question of what can be done to reckon with an attention supply that, like the air we breathe, has become polluted. Now to be fair, we can find examples of toxic attentional transactions pretty much anywhere, not just on social media. Ask anyone who’s endured unwanted attention from a bully, or who’s been forced to compete for attention in their home, neighborhood, school, or workplace. Because our innate need for attention can render us vulnerable to abuse and exploitation in person just as it can online, I think it’s pretty safe to say that modern social media isn’t the root cause of the societal distress that Warzel and Goldhaber are discussing. But, social media can sure do a great job of amplifying and intensifying it.

If That’s All There Is, My Friends…

Now, it’s important to note how, even in this age of relentlessly monetized social media content, there are still valuable online spaces that help people form community and reduce isolation and stigma across significant geographic and social  distances. But, in my opinion, if we accept that the prevailing focus on attention as a form of quasi-raw capital is “just how it is,” we’re losing sight of any number of potential alternatives (like one of my favorites, The Capabilities Approach).

For now, I have neither the time nor the technical expertise to explore how this would look in practical terms, but imagine a society which supports those who want to cultivate their creativity and insight without needing to “make it or break it” in order to survive. Taken together with robust safety net policies such as universal basic income, publicly-funded healthcare, high-quality education for all, and guaranteed housing, our society could begin to re-imagine the ways we engage with each other that reduce our dependence on attention as, to build on Warzel’s metaphor, a scarce and highly-speculative natural resource.

Of course, like any large-scale systemic change effort, this would take careful research and planning, education, stakeholder buy-in, and probably some commitment of resources to carry out the resulting plan. As we see today with discussions around establishing a wealth tax and building a social safety net comparable to those of our Western industrial peers, such efforts would likely be met with stiff resistance by those with the most to give up. But, in the words of one of my political heroes, it would definitely be a “righteous fight.”

I know this can seem like lofty rhetoric and wishful thinking, but considering how inequality in the U.S. has continued to metastasize, and that the demographics of inequality always seem to favor the same “haves” over the “have nots,” I have a hard time accepting that the course we are currently on will somehow, magically, correct itself. I do, however, believe that by articulating a desirable end goal, we can start to have conversations that begin to realistically map out a course for moving away from a less than ideal present day toward a future where the work we do, and the relationships we form, can be less strained by what feels like an endless stream of conflicting, cacophonous information.

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

Stiff Necks, Sore Eyes, and Hidden Treasures

New York Public Library

There are worse places to be on a hot summer day than the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. The space itself is nothing short of breathtaking, its interior a throwback to classic Beaux-Arts design with plenty of oak and marble flourishes to humble a first-time patron. Searching the assortment of boxes I’d requested from Special Collections, I was grateful for the climate-controlled environment, knowing that outside, the temperature and humidity were starting to rise. Still, as I was approaching the end of my scheduled time in the reading room, the usual distractions were beginning to set in: sore back, stiff neck, and tired eyes, the result of rapidly scanning each container for information that might add insight or color to my book.

The “Silent Scream”

Compared to the West Coast collections I’d previously scoured, the NYPL had relatively little archival information pertaining to Randy Shilts. Still, so far I’d come across some important finds – an exchange of letters, for example, between Randy and Dr. Lawrence Mass, who played a crucial role in sounding the alarm about AIDS among New York City’s gay men, beginning in mid-1981. The back-and-forth between the two, though cordial, revealed some hurt feelings over how Dr. Mass’s efforts were given lesser attention in And the Band Played On, a fact that Randy acknowledged while explaining that he’d never meant for Band to be an “honor roll” of all the early AIDS heroes, but to call attention to the ways that prejudice, political gamesmanship, and self-interest had allowed the disease to reach disaster levels.

Aside from that discovery, most of the papers I viewed that day were copies of what I’d already found in San Francisco, so I wasn’t feeling much urgency to stick around. Turning through page after page, the voice in my head that hates being uncomfortable was telling me, “Close it up. I have to use the bathroom. I’m hungry and thirsty. There’s nothing new here, so let’s go.” Soon, I was down to one last piece of paper to examine, which I was sorely tempted to skip. After all – what could I possibly find, that I hadn’t already seen?

Thankfully, the disciplined inner researcher in me overruled the whinier parts of my brain: I would be finishing up in a minute anyway, so just suck it up and take a look, I told myself. Quite literally, the very last item in the final folder of the final box I’d requested stared up at me with this mocking, oversized headline: “The Human Side of Hitler.” 


It didn’t take long for me to figure out what I was reading: a manually-typed leaflet excoriating Randy for a freelance story he’d written in the late 1970s. Later, I learned it was the handiwork of an author an activist named Arthur Evans, who was known for papering San Francisco’s gay neighborhoods with these screeds under the pseudonym, “The Red Queen.” At the moment, it was all new to me – a juicy, gossipy morsel that would add phenomenal color to the facts I’d already gathered from that era. Fighting to control my natural impulses, I allowed myself a “silent scream,” scrunching my face and pumping my fists in a gleeful little moment of triumph. Then, I quickly gathered the information I needed and quietly finished my work. This was, after all, a library. 

Finding the Narrative, One Artifact at a Time

Compared to my other research trips, that morning in New York was fairly typical: bouncing around the city conducting interviews while spending blocks of time in library reading rooms, the pleasant hum of classical or indie music streaming through my earbuds as I carefully thumbed through box after box, folder after folder, document after document. Combing through collections like Randy’s is seldom a speedy process. To gather what I need, I’ve had to spend hours at a time, hunched over tables with my laptop and iPad beside me, making brief notes about any relevant materials I found and taking digital photos to help me later with the writing. In my experience, people who conduct archival research either love it or hate it. And for all the back pain, stiff necks, sore eyes, and angry bladders I’ve endured, I have to confess – I actually kind of love it.

Not surprisingly, the earliest visits left me feeling pretty overwhelmed. We’re not talking about a handful of boxes here: in the San Francisco Public Library’s James Hormel LGBTQIA Center, the Randy Shilts Papers are fairly comprehensive, beginning with his early life, poetry and diaries from college and young adulthood, correspondences, clippings from his early journalism, notepads, press coverage of his work, audio and video recordings, and research files from each of his three books. The total collection takes up 120 cubic feet and includes more containers than I can be bothered to count. And this isn’t the only collection, as more of his papers can be found a few blocks away at the GLBT Historical Society

With so much raw material to examine, I worried at first that I’d never find my narrative. Over time and across numerous trips, however, I’ve gotten pretty savvy at knowing which containers to request before making my visits. This is because on my earliest trips, I took as many pictures and wrote as many notes to myself as I could, seeding my later writing with reminders of where to look for certain reference items in the future. The note-taking has gotten more precise with time – “add this to Chapter 10,” or “consider mentioning this in the sections about the bathhouses” – because I’ve come to recognize where certain artifacts (i.e., letters, news articles, or handwritten notes) correspond with specific periods in Randy’s life. 

Moreover, the experience of interviewing almost 70 people so far has helped me place certain life events in the context of his writing. When one of my sources told me about an off-color joke Randy told while addressing the International Conference on HIV/AIDS, I knew exactly where to look – both for a paper copy of his prepared remarks, and a video tape of the occasion. It turned out that my source’s recollection was pretty spot on: I found the exact joke, almost word for word as he described it to me, plus a lot more in terms of off-the-cuff comments and audience reactions (plenty of cheers, along with some boos and heckling).

Celebrate in Silence. Then Thank a Librarian

I never forget a “silent scream” moment, because it signifies the uncovering of something buried away and seemingly forgotten, which I know will be significant to the story I’m trying to tell. I even remember my first silent scream! It was a couple years before I started this project, when I came across the first ad for STD testing in gay bars and bathhouses that was ever printed in The Advocate, circa 1976. For the research I was doing at the time, this was a big deal. Here was proof that even before AIDS was discovered, gay and lesbian public health workers and activists had been mobilizing to deal other health issues that were plaguing the community, which Randy had accurately characterized as “pandemic-level” during those times. And personally, having spent much of my first five years in social work doing outreach and HIV testing in bars, I felt a connection with those earlier workers, who’d set the precedent for how my colleagues and I would continue these important efforts nearly three decades later.

I’ve heard it said that librarians are the unsung saviors of civilization, and I can’t find a good argument to counter this. At every turn, archivist librarians have helped me with professionalism, courtesy, and near-encyclopedic knowledge of their materials. Given how easily I start to grumble and whine whenever I’m hunched over a table, thumbing through page after page, I can only imagine the dedication and patience it takes to convert these stockpiles of raw information into the carefully catalogued, painstakingly preserved collections that researchers like me depend on. Thinking back on the history of atrocity and repression that so many cultures have endured (including but by no means limited to LGBTQ), I shudder to think how much more would have been lost, if not for the efforts of so many to protect the documents which verified the depth, complexity, and meaning of their lived experiences.

The Pilgrimage

Normally, the drive from San Francisco to Guerneville would’ve been easy enough: cross the Golden Gate Bridge and head north on Highway 101 for about 50 miles, and then go west on River Road past a number of vineyards, which ease into the towering redwood forests sheltering the many single-stoplight towns dotting California’s Russian River. The previous spring, during what many were calling the state’s worst drought in years, I’d made the same day trip to Guerneville with my friend Jason – who has generously hosted every one of my Bay Area research trips – so we could visit Randy in the town cemetery. This time, as Jason navigated us through the worst rainfall in recent memory, we saw ditches filled to the point where the roadway looked like it would be flooded at any moment. Thanks to his GPS, we managed to navigate a safe detour around the washed out sections, arriving just a few minutes later than we’d originally planned. 

Origins of “Chez Rondey”

I should take a moment to explain why we were making this return trip, and what we were hoping to see. With the success of And the Band Played On, Randy, had significant money of his own for the first time, and while Band didn’t make him a millionaire, it did allow him to make a few big purchases. The most significant of these was his first home, a rather plain and rustic looking suburban-style ranch house, tucked just off Guerneville’s main roadway, which he had renovated and expanded into a chic-yet-relaxed ranch-style cabin. With the help of a few of Randy’s friends, I’d made contact with the current owners – a gay couple close to his age who were well-aware of the property’s significance, and who readily agreed to letting me visit the property. From 1988 until the end of his life, this was Randy’s retreat from the fractious worlds of journalism, media tours, and politics. It’s also where he passed away in the early hours of February 17, 1994. 

The house, which he’d lovingly given the playful quasi-French name “Chez Rondey,” was built in a hollow surrounded by a steeply sloped forest of ancient redwoods, exuding an energy of respite and healing which was palpable as soon as we turned onto the long gravel driveway connecting the house and road. From the photos and home movies I’d previously seen, it was obvious that Randy’s home had been lovingly maintained, with much of it still bearing the characteristics of his time as owner. Stepping from the car, we could see the doghouse that had been built for Dash, his golden retriever (although it’s doubtful that Dash ever spent any time in it). To enter the house, we climbed a wide set of wooden front steps framed by columns made of thick river rock, from which the front landing connected to a wide, flat hardwood deck wrapping and stretching all the way to the back of the house. That deck had been a prime gathering spot when Randy would host his annual “Shiltsmas” birthday parties every August. 

The quiet comfort of Chez Rondey

Once inside, the living room evoked a sense of intimacy, even with the hardness of its wooden floors and paneled walls, and the airiness of its vaulted ceiling and central skylight. Facing away from the towering front windows, I recognized a sofa with southwestern-style upholstery, which had been a very contemporary piece in the late 80s: it was where Randy and Dash had sat for the back cover photo of Conduct Unbecoming. The room’s focal point, a massive stone fireplace, seemed like it was inviting us to curl up with a blanket to escape the chill. Anyone who’s ever spent time in a proverbial “cabin up north” would recognize the musty scent of old pine, as well as the mounted deer head on the wall. For Randy’s friends and family, however, I was sorry to report that his stuffed Kodiak bear, a towering behemoth which stood on hind legs and wore a fetching set of pearls, was nowhere to be found. Behind the house, the view extended into what felt like the deepest recesses of nirvana itself – a surrounding hillside so peaceful and sheltered that I now understood why he’d kept a small meditation altar back there.

Dash’s (probably unused) doghouse

The Time Traveler

It was a lot to take in over the two hours Jason and I spent visiting the property. Just as I’d considered it important to visit Randy in the cemetery, the pilgrimage to Chez Rondey provided a foundational experience during the early stages of my research. If I was going to convey the tactile experience of this space as Randy had known it, I needed to relate to it with all of my senses. On one hand, I felt like I should have been approaching it like a classic field researcher, cataloguing my observations in a dry, neutral manner and preserving the details as accurately as possible. But we were also there as guests of two very kind and welcoming people, who invited us in from the rain with fresh coffee and chocolate chip cookies, and who’d already extended the courtesy of letting me take pictures.

A place of peace and meditation

It gave me a lot to think about as Jason and I said goodbye to our hosts. We went from there to the closest watering hole, the Rainbow Cattle Company, where a friendly off-duty bartender bought us drinks and asked if we were spending the night (we weren’t). Back in San Francisco, ten more days of research were waiting for me. As a writer, I considered the trip to be a good and useful exercise. I’ve always had a stronger vocabulary for systems, feelings, and behaviors compared to places and things, and I knew that having to describe a space with such deep personal meaning would stretch my skills. By stepping into the role of biographer, I realized that I’d taken on the part of quasi-time traveler, putting myself in the same place at different moments and connecting what I’d witnessed in archival footage with the evidence provided by my own senses. 

Moreover, I found that sharing the details of that visit brought Randy’s closest friends some peace of mind by bridging the years since they’d last seen the property with the present day. Chez Rondey had been a hub for Randy’s work on his final bestseller, but it was also home to dog birthday parties, summer water fights, and group cake making projects with Beatles music wafting through the kitchen. There were Shiltsmas parties with exquisite catering, massive sheet cakes, and piles of gifts from many well-wishers (Randy’s inner child always loved opening presents). One year during Thanksgiving, Linda Alband idly flipped the oven’s cleaning switch and found it couldn’t be reversed – only to produce the most perfectly roasted prime rib that any of the guests had ever eaten. And less than a year before Randy’s passing, there had been a hastily organized commitment ceremony in the backyard, officiated by Randy’s oldest brother Gary. 

Reverence and Reflection

Setting aside the many feelings I have about Randy, the only word that comes close to describing that visit is “reverence.” As I’ve noted previously, my aim in writing this biography has been to explore the intimacy of Randy’s lived experiences, the better for understanding what made him not just a prolific journalist and lightning rod for controversy, but also a gifted and flawed human being with his own vulnerabilities and blind spots. It would be tempting to slip from reverence into sentimentality, overshadowing the “warts and all” depiction I’m working to produce. At the same time, standing inside the home that he so deeply cherished left me with a powerful awareness of the lasting imprint that people and spaces can make on each other. 

Reflecting on that visit, I can’t help but think about my own home, an 1880s farmhouse in the heart of Minneapolis, where Jaxon and I have hosted holidays and dinners and backyard hangouts with our friends and family for the past 13+ years. More than a few of our loved ones have told us, “I just feel so at home in your house.” And for at least a couple hours on that rain-soaked afternoon, I felt like I could relate to Randy’s experience of truly being at home.  

Video Blog, Pt. 4: The Exciting Conclusion!

In the final portion of this video Q & A, students ask about the target audience for When the Band Played On, potential future book topics, and how I’d like my writing to affect people. Thank you again to Dr. Shawyn Domyancich-Lee, Shawyn’s social work students at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and Holly Maher for assisting with this mini-series!

Video Blog Pt. 3: Answering Student Questions

In this segment, Holly asks me how a social work perspective has informed my research and writing, and to describe the experience of becoming intimately familiar with someone I’ll never be able to personally meet.

Video Blog, Pt. 2: Answering Student Questions

Clear sky on a cold, sunny day

Happy Holidays! Here’s Part 2 of my video blog, answering students’ questions about researching and writing a biography from a social work perspective.

My First Video Blog! Answering Student Questions (Pt. 1)

Earlier this fall, my friend Dr. Shawyn Domyancich-Lee invited me to record a guest lecture for their class at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, History of Social Work and Social Movements. The students were doing biographical research on a historic change agent, and I was thrilled to receive a long list of great questions after they’d seen the lecture. I thought it would be fun to share my responses with you, so here is Part 1 of my first-ever video blog. I hope you enjoy, and stay tuned for more!

“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. 

Politics, People, and COVID-19: The Band Plays On – Again

As COVID-19 has continued its unchecked spread across the United States, journalists and scholars have drawn many apt comparisons with pandemics of the past century. The 1918 influenza outbreak has certainly made for a useful example, but it comes from a period when the United States’ public health infrastructure was only in its infancy. Conversely, the more recent H1N1 and Ebola scares illustrate how a science-driven, collaborative approach can effectively contain a deadly contagion while reducing its threat to the general population. In a number of ways, the technologies available to public health today far outpace what was possible in the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS was discovered. But to understand how COVID-19 has managed to penetrate the general population with such ruthless efficiency and thoroughness, I believe the political handling of the early HIV pandemic merits strong reconsideration. 

In 1987, Randy Shilts, a trailblazing gay journalist who covered AIDS extensively for the San Francisco Chronicle, exposed the weaknesses of that political system in his bestseller, And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic. While researching Shilts’s life, I’ve mostly regarded Band as cautionary, but reflective of when he wrote it, with a legacy that’s complicated and admittedly less than perfect. However, I’m eerily reminded today of how some of its broader themes have managed to endure. 

First, scientific evidence shows us what to do, but personal stories show us why we should care. While the mainstream press covered AIDS mainly as a medical issue, Band made the pandemic intimate and relatable by depicting how political gamesmanship could impact the lives of ordinary Americans. Shilts documented how AIDS was initially treated as a political inconvenience by the Reagan Administration’s budget officials, who stymied efforts within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to mount a full-fledged effort even as doctors, epidemiologists, members of Congress, and activists were clamoring for resources to battle this deadly new disease. Within his narrative, Shilts helped familiarize the general public with figures like Larry Kramer, the tenacious and sometimes inflammatory author and activist, whose fury targeted not only gay men who still downplayed the existential threat they were facing, but also leading officials like Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo, and Ronald Reagan, who initially failed to reckon with the disease as a serious public concern. 

Of course, the story that still haunts Shilts’s career is that of Gaetan Dugas, a French-Canadian flight attendant who turned up in numerous early contact traces and reportedly refused to change behaviors that put his sexual partners at risk. While Shilts stopped short of calling Dugas “the man who brought AIDS to North America,” a headline in the New York Post did just that, catapulting the book to bestselling status. Among Shilts’s backers, Dugas (who died in 1984) remains an example of how one person’s disregard for preventive measures can expose a wider population to heightened risk for infection. To critics, the story reeked of tabloid journalism, which stigmatized people with HIV and legitimized efforts to isolate and blame a solitary source for every new disease outbreak.

Despite its limitations, the case of Gaetan Dugas illustrates how difficult it can be to change our behaviors, especially those we associate with longstanding patterns and customs. The alternative, however, is still deadly. Faced with evidence that our everyday habits may endanger ourselves and others, many people respond by taking the necessary precautions. Others will try to mitigate, but not completely eliminate their risk. Some, however, react by doubling down on the harmful behaviors, essentially saying, “You can’t make me.” As in the early AIDS crisis, those in this last category today are a small minority whose lived experiences defy simple explanation, who nonetheless represent a magnified potential for contamination. That risk potential is amplified by the fact that COVID-19 spreads freely and indiscriminately, while HIV is primarily spread through unprotected sex and sharing syringes.

Finally, Shilts knew that all leaders, political or otherwise, come with their flaws and limitations. Whenever possible, however, he tried to balance his criticism by examining their intentions. For example, while Dianne Feinstein, who at the time served as San Francisco’s Mayor, had generally been considered prudish and hostile to the more public aspects of a liberated gay sexuality, Randy noted how she dedicated substantial city funding to AIDS research and care efforts at a time when the Reagan Administration was failing to commit the necessary resources. 

In Band, Shilts also drew attention to how Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is rightfully lauded for his leading work on infectious diseases, once made a cringeworthy mistake by publicly speculating that AIDS might be spread through close household contact, due to the discovery of cases among patients’ children. Scientists quickly refuted this, but the misstep sparked some unfortunate overreactions toward AIDS patients by anti-gay conservatives, the mainstream news media, and members of the general public. Over time, however, Fauci, who eventually became lifelong friends with Kramer, has demonstrated his ability to receive new information, correct his mistakes, and speak truth to power when called upon.

Over fifteen long years, those who were affected by the early AIDS crisis had to adjust to the dispiriting interruption of life as they had known it. The pandemic claimed nearly half a million Americans by the year 2000 (including Shilts himself), and instead of life returning to normal, that disruption became the new normal. In the present day, And the Band Played On remains an imperfect yet compelling story that’s still in need of a definitive ending. Good science and the dogged activism of ordinary citizens have substantially improved the outlook, but HIV still affects far too many people both domestically and abroad. If scientists’ predictions hold true, it appears that in the years ahead, so will COVID-19. 

Each successive day of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to reckon with the reality of overlapping crises, each with its own far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. At the very minimum, the push to forego containment and prematurely reopen the economy has resulted in a stomach-churning rate of new infections, an overwhelmed and resource-starved healthcare system, and an ever-climbing death toll, to say nothing of the potential long-term consequences for those who survive their infection. As many of us sit waiting for life to return to normal, we’re faced with an uncomfortable reflection on how the society we’ve imagined – the return to normal for which we yearn – still exposes its most disadvantaged members to the cruelest possible outcomes. Were Randy Shilts alive today, I think he’d point out how scientific leaders seem to be using the lessons of HIV to fight COVID-19. Scientists, however, aren’t the ones responsible for setting our government’s COVID-19 policy. Americans may be alarmed by the tune that’s being played, but it will only change when the leaders of the band are held accountable for their actions.

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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