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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I set out to write the biography of Randy Shilts, I knew it would be a journey. Somewhere along the way, it became the most important work I think I’ve ever done. In the five-plus years since I started this research, I’ve managed to log over a hundred days of book-related travel, which included visits to several archives and such landmarks as the San Francisco Chronicle, where he became a famous journalist, and “Chez Rondey,” the house he bought and lovingly renovated in Guerneville, CA. Along the way, I’ve also recorded oral history interviews with more than sixty people who knew Randy, some for better and some for worse. In chronicling Randy’s story, I’m hoping to do justice to how, despite his very human insecurities and frailties, he tried to seek justice for those who needlessly died in that pandemic. In a news environment that hardly seemed to give a damn, he amplified these stories by making hospitals and clinics part of his regular beat, bringing the plight of frontline healthcare workers and grieving families to the front page at a time when most AIDS stories were focused narrowly on the science of the disease, and not its politics.
At this point, a full draft of the manuscript is about 75% complete, and my literary agent, George Greenfield of CreativeWell, Inc., has been working diligently to find it a home. But sadly, over that time I have neglected this blog, which I created as a space for my reflective writing when I was still in grad school. So, today marks a sort of reintroduction to me and to this blog: the rebirth of Wine and Proses, my home for sharing stories. I hope you’ll find it interesting and join the conversation with a comment below.
Two Paths Converging
As much as I hate talking myself up, I’ll start by telling you a little bit about who I am, and why I thought I could write a great book about Randy Shilts. In a few key areas, I felt like we had some experiences in common, which made it easier to see the world from his point of view. Although he and I were born a generation apart, I, like Randy, was also a gay kid with a Midwestern upbringing. In the early 1970s, Randy left Aurora, Illinois, for Portland, where he soon came out both to himself and to all of his friends before enrolling at the University of Oregon. I came out in the mid-1990s and went to Michigan State University where, like Randy, I started out as an English major who had some early success as a student activist. Under the slogan “Come Out for Shilts,” Randy got himself elected to student government and helped to establish the first LGBTQ organization on the U of O campus. At Michigan State, I co-founded and led its first LGBTQ student literary magazine, which we called Q-News.
Another similarity is that in our early days, Randy and I both aspired to become novelists, but ended up taking different career paths. He became a pioneering journalist, who brought coverage of gay politics and culture into the mainstream at the San Francisco Chronicle and wrote three successful books: The Mayor of Castro Street, And the Band Played On, and Conduct Unbecoming. I decided to take my interest in the complexities of human relationships, along with a desire to help build healthier queer communities, into the social work profession. It might seem like this was the point where our stories diverged, except for one important element: the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
I got involved in HIV nearly 20 years ago because of a social work internship, which in turn led to my first paid gig doing outreach, education, and testing at gay bars and Pride festivals. (We’ll save the story about dildos, blow-up dolls, and Blowpops for another time.) It was these experiences that made the pandemic more personal for me, and as a result, I began to understand how Randy had played a role in its earliest years. When I was first starting out, it wasn’t unusual for older colleagues to say, “If you want to know why things are the way they are around here, you need to read And the Band Played On.” By this, they meant that our jobs carried a political meaning, and it was imperative that we center the experiences of people directly affected by the pandemic in our work, especially when it involved dealing with policymakers and the media. I ended up spending almost 10 years working in HIV/AIDS service organizations, but unfortunately, even as I was experiencing some big professional achievements, my personal writing had begun to wither.
This made the decision to go back to school for my Doctorate sort of liberating, because I went from doing a lot of managing and coordinating to taking a deep dive into research and writing. By 2012, I had started exploring the history of gay and lesbian community services between Stonewall and AIDS, a topic I thought was interesting because so much of what’s written about LGBTQ history has focused on political activism or popular culture. But early lesbian and gay liberationists were also trying to start their own clinics and social service organizations, where gay people could find support from providers who understood and wouldn’t condemn them.
Interestingly, some of the most in-depth stories I found on these topics were written by Randy. Looking closer, I could see how he’d begun to unearth the “social” disease of HIV/AIDS, half a decade before its full impact would be realized. “I wonder what Randy’s biography says about this,” I said to myself, but at the time I couldn’t find one. Even after learning of an academic biography that was in the works, I realized that I had different interests from other researchers. I wanted to explore how the developmental milestones, intimate relationships, and professional influences that shaped Randy Shilts’ growth and maturation intersected with the history-making rise of gay liberation to make him one of his generation’s most successful and controversial authors.
From the outset, I knew that I would need to take a more intimate approach to my research. In reaching out to Randy’s loved ones, I started with the assumption that they might still harbor some complicated feelings, given that he was famous for chronicling and eventually dying from HIV/AIDS. Drawing on my experiences in social work, I began by offering compassion and respect for each individual, taking a sincere interest in them and their own lives as a way of making a safe space for them to share their stories. In many instances, this has given people permission to share their deeper feelings and more conflicted memories. By taking this approach, I’m hoping that these oral histories will bring Randy’s story to life, adding context and color to the materials I found in my archival searches.
When the Band Hit the Road
The working title for my book is When the Band Played On: The Life and Times of Randy Shilts. I’m sure there will be some editorial changes once a publisher picks it up, but for now this is my story, and I’m sticking to it. Here’s why.
When people ask about my project and I say the name “Randy Shilts,” they almost never know who I’m talking about. When I say “And the Band Played On,” if they are of a certain age, there’s often an emotional reaction. Then, they tell me about someone significant in their lives: the uncle who’d moved out west, but then came home to die with lesions on his face; the roommate in New York, who they took care of in his final months; or the older cousin from Milwaukee, whose funeral they weren’t allowed to attend.
People sometimes credit Randy’s enduring influence to his portrayal of Gaetan Dugas, the misattributed “Patient Zero,” whose sexual behaviors had been documented in CDC contact tracing years before Randy wrote his book. I’ve come to realize, however, that for many, the words And the Band Played On don’t immediately conjure memories of Gaetan. Instead, they often think of a loved one they lost. At a time when the words “AIDS” and “gay” were practically synonymous, Randy’s work helped them to see these deaths not as an immoral plague, but as a failure of political leaders to care for those who were on the margins of society. Fast forward to 2020, and here I am now, working on the story of a journalist who covered (1) a movement that rose up to fight back against unchecked police violence; (2) a pandemic was spreading unchecked while the government played politics; and (3) the persecution and exclusion of a population from civic participation via military service.
The vignettes I’ll be sharing in this blog aren’t excerpts from the book, but they’ll provide some “behind the scenes” glimpses of my work over the past five-plus years. If you find them interesting, please comment below or reach out to me directly. And if you like what you see, I hope you’ll take a moment to share it.