From Bar Outreach to Aspiring Biographer: A Reintroduction
Posted on November 1, 2020 2 Comments
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.
The Summer I Bought New Pencils
Posted on January 11, 2018 1 Comment
The experience of putting hand to paper stimulates an entirely different writing experience for me. Back in 2016, I found this to be true as I started writing long hand at times to break through the long, dreadful periods of staring at the glow of my expectant laptop. I’m not sure why, but it took me until mid-2017 to go out and buy a pack of brand new pencils for the first time in… more years than I care to admit.
Suffice it to say, the selection these days is pretty limited. But the pack of black, No. 2 Triconderogas has served me well. I should’ve done this years ago: as a lefty, I’ve spent almost my entire life accumulating enough ink blots on my writing hand to make an entire book of Rorschach tests. But, in the maelstrom of our WiFi-enabled way of life, I still forget to just sit, think, and write what comes to mind. Going right to the keyboard just makes more sense, in terms of efficiency, but it never feels as second nature as pencil to paper.
My handwritten notes indicate that I bought the pencils right before Memorial Day, at the beginning of a summer that I’ll remember for two unforgettable events. For different reasons, I’m still trying to comprehend them both.
Posted on June 7, 2017 Leave a Comment
By way of explanation: I’ve more or less ignored this blog for nearly two years. That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it, beaten myself up for not writing something, or come close to posting something. I do have a good reason though. Since mid-2015 I have traveled across the country, interviewed more than 30 people, spent hours searching hundreds of papers in library archives, and written the beginning of a book that will tell the intimate life story of the late journalist Randy Shilts. So yes, I’ve been busy. But I’m also irritated that I haven’t written more of these posts along the way. So, I’m keeping a notebook now, and I even bought pencils and a sharpener. Old school! It feels genuinely good to write long-hand again. I recommend it for anyone who gets bogged down in word processing and the unending stream of social media ejaculations. (I’m using that word correctly. Look it up.) Below is the first of my scribbles.
I’ve thought a lot in the past day about 1984. The 1984 that I knew – through the eyes of a seven-year-old – involved dirt roads, dirt bikes, sheep pastures, teenage sisters, Reagan-Mondale, the Detroit Tigers in the World Series, and (unbeknownst to my parents) an underlying sexual confusion that would take another decade to reconcile. I can’t say for sure that these were happy times. The fights between my parents and oldest sister would certainly hint at a more complicated, stress-inducing dynamic. But that’s nothing compared to what came into focus today about Randy’s 1984: the headlines from the frontline of a battle, fraught with disease, deaths, false or misleading hopes, cynical political calculations, and misplaced self-interests.
Working for the Work Ahead
Posted on November 8, 2015 Leave a Comment
It’s a simple set of tasks, an annual ritual that signifies the changing of seasons, a reconfiguration of habits, and the compression of our living space back into the modest square footage of our 1880s farmhouse. Still, every fall when we pack away our porch furniture and winterize the wraparound porch, it’s a reluctant exercise that we avoid for as long as possible. Some of the work, like picking up leaves in the front yard, is pleasantly autumnal. I’m alone with my thoughts while raking and vacuuming up the browns, yellows, oranges, and reds that have made our lawn an earthy carpet for the past few weeks.
Together, Jaxon and I hang sheets of plastic over the porch screens and tack in glass window panels (actually a massive supply of cabinet doors he found in Ikea’s as-is section several years ago), a move that closes in our cabin-like summer retreat but drastically reduces the edge from icy northern winds. Our summer porch bed- a cozy full-sized box spring and mattress that somehow holds two adult men, two grown dogs, and an occasional visit by the cat – will be leaned against the shingled inside wall until we bring it inside for use by holiday guests. The cabin, as we call it, will go dormant until springtime.
In eight years of homeownership, we’ve made these rituals into central markers of the passage of time. It’s not as as nostalgic as Thanksgiving (my Super Bowl for cooking the big feast) or Christmas (our lowkey day of dog park visiting, leftovers for lunch, napping, and homemade soup). But, wrapping the porch and putting away the yard furniture represents a ritual of work, anticipating the dark and frozen winter to come while looking forward to the days when we can walk outside in shirtsleeves and drop the top on Jaxon’s convertible. We do our work so that we can repeat the cycle, fulfilling the patterns we’ve established that keep us connected to our home. Read More
From the Wayback Machine, Part I
Posted on July 20, 2015 Leave a Comment
To get myself back in the habit of posting regular content, I’m adding some occasional work that comes from the past. The first of these is a spoken word piece from 2006.
Performed in August, 2006, as a guest artist for “Two Queers and a Chubby,” a spoken word entry in the Minnesota Fringe Festival.
This sounds funny to say out loud, and forgive me if I seem a bit embarrassed to admit it… but I think my “best friend” when I was a child was actually Doctor Who. Do you remember him? The British guy with the curly hair and the scarf! I am starting to think I wasn’t alone in this fascination, that for other young males who were lonely, awkward, and outcast, he was someone we could relate to and embrace. He was enigmatic, clever, outspoken, intelligent, and abhorred violence if he could avoid it. He traveled on his own, outside of society’s structures, a loner even to his own people. The companions who traveled with him were fond of him, but still even to them he was a bit of a mystery.
That was how childhood felt to me—the boy who was singled out for “using big words,” the smart fat kid whose most athletic extra-curricular activity was marching band. I was a child with many, many emotions, and few role models for how to really—authentically—express them. Did you see BrokeBack Mountain? Those men were about the age of my father, and they exemplified his generation of men—especially rural white men—to near perfection. So how, when you’re an imaginative, over-sensitive kid with a big vocabulary and few friends, do you learn to be who you really are, when all the men and boys around look at you like you’re speaking a different language completely from the English you think is pouring out of your throat? Read More
Just the Beginning
Posted on July 16, 2015 Leave a Comment
When I started running last spring, I could manage about 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile nonstop before I would pause to walk for a stretch. By late summer and early fall, I had pushed that distance up to a mile, maybe slightly more. In the spring, I steadily extended that distance to 1 and 1/2, then 1 and 3/4. It sort of hovered there for a while. My overall distance on runs is about 5 miles. I think I probably could have pushed myself further, faster. At each stage, though, I let myself hold steady for a while. I think it was psychologically comforting; at some level, I knew I could take a break at that benchmark and finish the full run in reasonably good time and condition. Two weeks ago, I ran around Lake Nokomis in South Minneapolis. Two laps equal just around five miles, maybe a pinch more. From my car on the nearby parkway, I jogged to the lake and circled once around. Lately, my usually stopping spot to walk has been about 1.7 miles, as I reach the Cedar Avenue Bridge. I kept going. I made it a full lap around the lake, and I kept going. I made it three miles when, just as I was contemplating a breather to walk, my phone rang. Good excuse. I stopped, walked, and talked for about four minutes, and then continued to run the rest of the way. It was my best time ever, best speed per mile, and by far the longest I had run uninterrupted.
That breakthrough came exactly two days after my dissertation defense. As any good researcher will tell you, correlation does not equal causation, but I like thinking that my newfound endurance was symbolic of a burden lifted, setting my legs free to stumble further than they’d taken me before. As a closing image on these last five years of my life, it offers a certain optimism, albeit drenched in sweat and punctuated by my gasps for air. Read More
Back to San Francisco (Revisiting Shilts)
Posted on March 23, 2015 Leave a Comment
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City brought my first real attraction to San Francisco. Although still a couple years away from coming out, as a rural Midwestern teen in the early 1990s I sensed something about that miniseries—aside from curiosity about gay culture of the 70s— which drew me to a city that I had never visited. Its vibrancy, its colors, its characters, brought to life so vividly by Maupin, told me that there was a place for people who were different, who were not satisfied with settling into comfortable patterns and routines, who asked questions to which mainstream America offered few easy answers, and who found friendship and kinship with fellow travelers that wondered and wandered in their own spirited ways. When I finally came out, my 17 year-old mind devoured those six novels. I shared them with my new gay friends, and we chattered like only gay teens can about which character we each were—Mary Ann? Michael Tolliver? Mona? As fans of the Tales series know well, Armistead’s stories (always complicated, filled with compelling characters and delicious plot twists) grew more world-weary as the 1980s dragged on, as needless death and grief filled the Castro and a movement began to act up, screaming in outrage at a country (and its government) that didn’t seem to notice or care. In my half-dozen visits to San Francisco since 1996, I’d say I’ve become less fascinated and more familiar, but nothing has diminished my affection for the city. Touching ground in San Francisco means touching history for me, and again I am struck by how much of that story (which emanates out to touch so many people in the world) remains to be considered and shared.
Tonight, I will take a redeye flight back to Minneapolis after nearly two productive weeks. In the year since I last came and studied Randy Shilts’ papers, I wasn’t able to do much on the project except briefly meet his brothers and correspond with his closest associates. But, it’s an understatement to say that I’ve gone cold on the research. I allowed myself this extended time around Spring Break with the promise that I would make sufficient progress on the dissertation over the winter. When I get back, the dissertation goes on the front burner. In the meantime, I spent several productive days in two wonderful archives, the James C. Hormel Collection at the San Francisco Public Library, and the GLBT Historical Society. At one point during my stay at SFPL, I looked behind me to see the busts of Harvey Milk and George Moscone smiling across the room (which I will take as tacit approval for my ambitions). Right now, it’s safe to estimate that I’ve examined several hundred, if not thousands of pages of Randy’s papers, from diaries to personal correspondences, college papers, poetry, clippings, drafts, reviews, criticisms, and even his last will and testament. Read More
Classic Holiday Movie Post #2
Posted on December 1, 2014 Leave a Comment
Jaxon and I seem to have a pattern to our holiday watching, as movie #2 was exactly the same this year as two years ago. This week it was another beauty from the World War II era, starring Barbara Stanwyck on a farm that looks eerily similar to Bing Crosby’s digs in “Holiday Inn.” A redress of the set? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me!
Classic Holiday Movie #2: Christmas in Connecticut
Does anyone know why they used to release Christmas movies in August…? Anyway, it’s a cute romp and stomp around the grand old American notion that deception and fake matrimony (not to mention childrearing and cooking) make the holidays much more interesting. Although Barbara projects cool confidence and quick thinking even in the most uncomfortable moments, ultimately I have a soft spot for Uncle Felix.