Finding Randy, Part 3

There is so much to say about my time in California last month, and I’ve had so little time and energy to say it. I meant to get to this post sooner, perhaps even while I was out in San Francisco, getting intimately familiar with boxes and boxes of Randy Shilts’ personal papers. Sometimes life doesn’t work that way though, and a return to Minnesota has meant for me a return to dissertation, research, and teaching (not to mention cold weather and snow, up until the end of last week).

I thought about writing about some of the juicy tidbits I found, and there were a number of them. But, right now the more meaningful experience comes from trying to understand how it feels to get to know a person I will never meet. Reading a person’s diaries and correspondences in his own handwriting is an incredibly intimate experience. The moments of loneliness, self-doubt, and frustration from his college years and early adulthood are plentiful. While it’s perhaps easy to write it off as the anxieties so many of us feel in our youth, here too I found moments of insight and poignancy that resonated across the years of his too-brief life.

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Diminished But Not Lost

A consistent theme in my adult life has been my fascination with the history of 20th century queer movements. In case you haven’t noticed, in just more than half a century we’ve gone from completely hidden and isolated (visible only in police raids, pantomimes, paddy wagons, and lurid news briefs) to developing politically powerful urban strongholds as well as greater visibility in rural and suburban communities. People have made homes for themselves, both in places where support previously hadn’t existed and in neighborhoods where visibility brought strength in numbers, long-term stability, and eventually generational dispersion as well. My generation (proud Gen Xers) have been inheritors of a rich past and legacy—one that we are just seeing younger queer kids embrace as they blow past college activism and gay-straight alliances to make themselves heard in social media and beyond. That’s a lot of change – dramatic change– in a comparatively short span of our history.

For me, coming out as a teen in the early to mid-90s brought this fascinating mixture of exhilaration and fear, not only because of the homophobia still running through society (DOMA, Matthew Shepard, Jessie Helms ring any bells?) but because I consistently remember feeling like my friends and I—these noisy youth at the gay coffee shop and men’s groups and anywhere else that let us in—were just a nuisance to the older men we encountered. Sometimes a sexual interest, but mainly a nuisance. Gay men over 30 looked tired, worn down, world-weary, and not all that patient with our flighty drama. In those years I came to understand why as I learned about how so many had lost their friends and lovers, and few in the larger world seemed to care. For the most part, our generational social spheres diverged even though I was fascinated by what they must have experienced—not just the horrors of the early AIDS epidemic, but what many of that cohort had tried to build prior to those years in big cities, namely a community with spaces where the dimensions of human sexuality could be more fully explored with other curious, consenting men. My first “coming out” novels were the Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin, still a favorite and still just as alluring to re-read or re-watch as mini-series. The images of San Francisco in the mid-1970s that period captivated me, both for the major historical events that occurred and also the depictions of how gay people were living their everyday lives, exploring their queerness out in the open and laying claim to neighborhoods that are still recognized as “home” today. I know I romanticize it a bit. But, at the same time I’ve felt over the years that only select parts of that history have been written, much of which pertains to epic circumstances rather than asking simpler questions such as, “Who lived here?” “What kind of neighbors were they to each other?” “How did they take care of new guys who showed up from other parts of the country?”

When I started this blog, I gave it the subtitle, “Where the conversation continues.” A big reason I went with that theme was, in many cases I feel like when friends and I reconnect, we seem to be continuing the same dialogues, building on the same themes we started talking about many years ago. This was true yesterday when I had lunch with an old friend/colleague I had met when I first moved here nine years ago to work in HIV/AIDS services. My friend is someone who looks like a high school biology teacher, yet can talk about queer radicalism like a seasoned pro, which ranks high on my list of people to get to know. Across years of lost contact it felt like we picked up the same chats we had when I was still a new kid on the block in the local service provider circles. When I mentioned some of my writing interests, particularly exploring the history of these earlier times and circumstances, he cut through some of my romanticism in a blunt but helpful way: “Next time you’re in San Francisco, go to this bar and ask if anyone knew Randy.” “Get in touch with this author—I hear he’s actually accessible and probably knew everyone you’re interested in.” It may be a slight conceit for me to think that so much of queer men’s history is lost, when in fact it’s sitting right there, still alive and kicking. It’s maybe slightly more humbling, but also inspiring to realize that what I view as “history” (because I was born while it was taking place) is actually still the collective life story of a living generation, diminished but not wiped out, doing one of the most radical things that LGBT people can do in the face of a history that has mainly recorded our isolation and insignificance: survive.