Randy Shilts born 8 August 1951 (d. 1994)
Randy Shilts was a highly acclaimed, pioneering gay American journalist and author. He worked as a reporter for both The Advocate and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as for San Francisco Bay Area television stations.
Born in Davenport, Iowa, he was educated at the University of Oregon, where he received a B.S. in 1975. After a stint with the gay news magazine The Advocate, he worked as a correspondent for several San Francisco television stations and newspapers.
By the time of his death from AIDS on February 17, 1994, he had become by far the most successful openly gay journalist in the country, an astute interpreter of the various issues affecting American gay men and lesbians, especially gay and lesbian politics, the AIDS epidemic, and discrimination in the military, the subjects of his three highly acclaimed books.
Shilts's first book, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (1982), is a biography of the first openly gay elected official in the country, the charismatic San Francisco Supervisor, who was assassinated in 1978 and became a martyr for the burgeoning gay rights movement.
As the title indicates, the book is a history of a turbulent era as well as a chronicle of a particular life. Shilts tells the story of how San Francisco became the vortex of the national gay rights movement and how Milk came to personify the aspirations of a diverse constituency.
The book analyses San Francisco city politics in detail; provides fascinating accounts of the various political campaigns waged by Milk, including the successful struggle to defeat a statewide initiative that would have banned gay men and lesbians from teaching school in California; and recounts the aftermath of Milk's murder, including the trial of his assassin, Dan White, and the riots that flared after White's so-called Twinkie defence allowed him to escape conviction for first-degree murder.
In And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987), Shilts tells the fascinating, depressing, and terrifying story of the emergence of the disease that decimated gay communities throughout the country as it spread almost unchecked for the first five years after its appearance. Gripping and richly detailed, the book is an extraordinary work of investigative journalism.
Seeking to explain why American medical and political institutions did so little for so long, Shilts documents the petty bickerings, territorialism, scientific rivalries, and failures of political vision that exacerbated the crisis, even as he also chronicles the heroism of individuals who struggled mightily to contain it.
Shilts's final book is another massive work that combines history and investigative journalism, Conduct Unbecoming: Gay and Lesbians in the U.S. Military: Vietnam to the Persian Gulf (1993). Influenced by Allan Bérubé's account of gays in World War II, Coming Out Under Fire (1990), Conduct Unbecoming brilliantly uncovers the scandalous mistreatment suffered by gay men and lesbians in the military.
While documenting the fact that many of the most celebrated American soldiers have been gay, the book also traces the development of a gay subculture within the ranks. Like Shilts's other two books, Conduct Unbecoming focuses on the stories of a host of individuals.
These stories, many of which are as compelling as suspense fiction, function to humanise and render personal what remains an important public issue.
Perhaps Shilts's greatest achievement as a writer was that he brought novelistic skills to the practice of journalism. All three of his books are distinguished by compelling narratives and vividly detailed character portrayals.
Shilts refused to be tested for HIV until he had completed the writing of And the Band Played On, concerned that the test result, whatever it might be, would interfere with his objectivity as a writer. He was finally found to be HIV positive in March 1987. Although he took AZT for several years, he did not publicly disclose his AIDS diagnosis until shortly before he died.
After suffering a bout of PCP pneumonia in 1992 and Kaposi's Sarcoma the following year despite being effectively homebound and on oxygen, he was able to attend the Los Angeles screening of the HBO film version of And the Band Played On in August 1993.
Shilts died, aged 42, at his ten-acre ranch in Guerneville, Sonoma County, California, being survived by his partner, Barry Barbieri. His brother Gary had conducted a commitment service for the couple the previous year. After a funeral service at Glide Memorial Church, Shilts was buried at Redwood Memorial Gardens in Guerneville.
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