Back to San Francisco (Revisiting Shilts)

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.  Continue reading

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Disappointment and Rededication

Fifteen years ago, I was a senior English major, on the verge of graduating with honors from Michigan State University. I had co-founded Q-News, MSU’s first literary magazine for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and allied students, led its staff to a well-received presentation at the national “Creating Change” Conference, and was close to finishing a novel that would serve as my creative senior honor’s thesis. What was my topic? It’s hard to narrow it down to a brief, polite blurb, but in a nutshell, here it is:

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From Anger to Inspiration?

I spent last weekend at the National Conference on Social Work & HIV/AIDS, a nicely organized event that seems to attract the kind of people around whom I want to be—smart, dedicated, compassionate, enthusiastic about their work, and self-reflective. The audience is part academic, part professional; in other words, a good place to test out the concepts behind my dissertation research. It was gratifying to see echoes of my topic—organizational change in community-based AIDS organizations—throughout the presentations. I was also pleased to find others who share my own interest in history, both in the development of these services and in their origins within the gay and lesbian community of the 1980s and earlier. (I say “gay and lesbian” here knowing that our current nomenclature—GLBTQIA—recognizes a much broader spectrum of identities.)

The conference also afforded me the chance to see How to Survive a Plague, a documentary using original film footage of ACT-UP, the grassroots movement led by HIV-positive activists, which radically altered the trajectory of America’s response to the AIDS epidemic. I have to confess, I’d avoided seeing the movie before this, even though plenty of friends had recommended it to me. My response to it was as emotional as I’d expected. It was probably a mistake to watch it right before my own presentation, but on the other hand, it grounded me back in the reality of my research question: How do services founded by and for the grassroots HIV movement experience change in the age of ACA?

Anyway, I digress. The film mostly focused on the years 1989 to 1995, from the first Bush presidency up to the introduction of combination anti-retroviral therapies, which seemed almost immediately to bring patients back from near death. Much of the film depicts the push and pull of grassroots politics at the time—people screaming to be heard, to have their fears and outrage acknowledged not just in the hearts and minds of bystanders, but in the policies and practices of government, medical research, and the pharmaceutical industry of the time. As Randy Shilts noted in And the Band Played On, the usually deliberate pace of clinical trials, testing, and approval for market use were not going to cut it when the world faced a pandemic of this scale. It took bold confrontation, impassioned actions, and dedication from those facing almost certain death to move the status quo to change. The fact that some of the original ACT-UP activists—including the legendary Larry Kramer, among others—today have survived speaks loudly to their accomplishment. Medical science today is winning the battle against HIV in controlled lab settings, but a social movement that connected these institutions to this deeply affecting human narrative was absolutely necessary to prod our civic leaders to move faster, with any urgency that no one would have believed necessary in previous decades.

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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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Finding Randy, Part 2

I’m not intending this discovery process to become the sole focus of the blog, but when I’m writing about things that interest me (and are interesting in my life), well, right now this is at the top of my list (dissertation notwithstanding).  San Francisco and Randy’s papers are less than a week away, but in the meantime, I’ve been continuing to catalog his early work in The Advocate. There are so many details to pore over that I’m just skimming the surface as I take pictures and make notes for later study. But, here are a few interesting things I have found so far:

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Finding Randy, Part 1

“Introducing Randy Shilts.” There he was, younger than I’d ever seen him, staring up at me from the weathered pages of a long-ago publication. The seed of an idea dropped into my mind two years ago, when I was poring through old copies of The Advocate for a historical research project in my Doctoral program. As I perused back issues from the mid-1970s, his name started to appear more and more frequently. I knew who Randy Shilts was—I’d read The Mayor of Castro Street and of course And the Band Played On. I knew about Conduct Unbecoming, but I’d never had the energy to tackle its enormous length. I knew that Randy Shilts was a journalistic force in his time, capable of melding enormous amounts of detail to deep-seated emotions and wielding his story in a way that would move readers to reflection, appreciation, and even outrage.

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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.