Randy Shilts was a journalist and author who covered issues important to the LGBT community, including the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the United States.
Who Was Randy Shilts?
Randy Shilts was one of the first openly gay journalists to write for a major newspaper. His writing focused on LGBT issues, including the struggle for gay rights. He was the author of And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic (1987), a bestseller about the start of America’s AIDS epidemic. The book made Shilts a trusted commentator on AIDS, to the point that he was the closing speaker at 1989’s Fifth International AIDS Conference in Montreal. Shilts also wrote The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (1982) and the bestselling Conduct Unbecoming: Lesbians and Gays in the U.S. Military, Vietnam to the Persian Gulf (1993).
Early Life and Education
Randy Martin Shilts was born in Davenport, Iowa, on August 8, 1951. Shilts was the third of six sons born to Bud and Norma Shilts. He was raised in a politically conservative and religious environment in Aurora, Illinois. Shilts’ mother was an alcoholic who could be physically and emotionally abusive.
When it came time for college, Shilts moved to Oregon, where he attended Portland Community College and the University of Oregon. While in school he came out of the closet. He edited the student paper at the University of Oregon and graduated with a journalism degree in 1975.
Shilts continued to be open about his sexuality while pursuing a reporting career, which made it difficult for him to find work. Eventually, he landed a job at The Advocate, a gay and lesbian publication. He first worked in Oregon, then in San Francisco, remaining at The Advocate until 1978. In San Francisco, he also served as a contributor at a public television and an independent TV station until 1980.
When Shilts joined the San Francisco Chronicle in 1981 he was the publication’s first openly gay journalist. He had been hired to cover issues in the gay community, though he also reported other stories. As part of his beat, he wrote about the growing number of immune system-related diseases occurring in gay men in San Francisco. Shilts grasped the significance of the developing story and convinced the paper to let him report on it full-time.
In his writing, Shilts eventually pushed for bathhouse closures to stem the spread of AIDS. This stance alienated him from those in the gay community who resisted limits on sexual freedoms. Some dubbed Shilts a “Gay Uncle Tom.” In 1984, Shilts explained, “Gay activists may be able to bullshit some reporter from the Los Angeles Times by telling him that the baths don’t play any role in the AIDS epidemic, but they can’t bullshit me, because I know what goes on in the bathhouses. I used to go there myself.”
Following the 1978 assassination of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay politicians to win public office, Shilts wrote The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (1982). The book was a biography of Milk, with whom Shilts had been friendly, that also covered the growing political power of the LGBT community in San Francisco.
Shilts’ next book was And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic (1987). In it he addressed the beginning of America’s AIDS epidemic, the impact on the gay community and the indifferent government response. And the Band Played On became a bestseller and was adapted into a TV movie that aired in 1993. The book has been criticized for its depiction of Gaetan Dugas, a Canadian flight attendant, as “Patient Zero.” Dugas was associated with a cluster of AIDS cases in Los Angeles but did not introduce HIV to North America or cause its spread in the United States.
In his final book, Conduct Unbecoming: Lesbians and Gays in the U.S. Military, Vietnam to the Persian Gulf (1993), Shilts delved into the discrimination and persecution faced by lesbians and gays trying to serve in the U.S. military. He was inspired to tackle the topic because he felt, “The military issue is a way of showing the extent to which prejudice shapes the lives of gay people.” While writing the book, he developed AIDS. Shilts finished Conduct Unbecoming while in the hospital with a collapsed lung.
Conduct Unbecoming contained anonymous depictions of closeted four-star generals, resulting in criticism of Shilts for not outing them. He believed that identifying public figures as gay without their consent was wrong.
Shilts intended for his next book’s topic to be homosexuality in the Catholic Church.
A biography of Shilts titled The Journalist of Castro Street: The Life of Randy Shilts was published in 2019.
HIV and AIDS
Shilts received an HIV-positive diagnosis in March 1987. He’d asked his doctor to wait until And the Band Played On was finished to give him the news, as he did not want his own health status to affect his writing. Though initially daunted by the diagnosis, Shilts soon started his next book, Conduct Unbecoming.
In 1992, Shilts’ illness turned into AIDS. He developed pneumonia and Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer that occurred due to his weakened immune system. However, Shilts did not publicly share his diagnosis until 1993. He explained, “Every gay writer who tests positive ends up being an AIDS activist, and I don’t want to end up being an activist. I wanted to keep on being a reporter.”
In his adult life Shilts battled alcohol and drug addiction. On Memorial Day 1993, Shilts held a civil commitment ceremony with partner Barry Barbieri.
Shilts died at the age of 42 in Guerneville, California, on February 17, 1994. The cause of death was AIDS. The Westboro Baptist Church picketed his funeral.