Randy Shilts was gutsy, brash & unforgettable. He was a brave & pioneering gay journalist. He was the first openly gay reporter with a “gay beat” for major USA newspaper- the San Francisco Chronicle. He was among the first to bring real attention to a new series of illnesses that were causing gay men to die in the early 1980s.
I purchased & read each of his books as they were published. They remain some of the most important books & the best chronicle of American Gay History at the end of the 20th century: The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life & Times of Harvey Milk (1982), And the Band Played On: Politics, People, & the AIDS Epidemic (1987), & Conduct Unbecoming: Gay & Lesbians In The U.S. Military: Vietnam to the Persian Gulf (1993). And The Band Played On became an award winning, powerful & critically lauded film for HBO, directed by Roger Spottiswoode & starring: Alan Alda, Matthew Modine, Lily Tomlin, Ian McKellen. Steve Martin, B.D. Wong, Richard Gere, David Marshall Grant, Anjelica Huston, Richard Jenkins, & Swoozie Kurtz, most of whom worked for scale to be part of the project.
His books read like finely crafted fiction; Shilts’ greatest achievement as a writer was that he brought novelistic skills to the practice of journalism. All 3 of his books have compelling narratives & vividly detailed characters.
Shilts received the formal diagnosis that he was infected with HIV on the day he finished the manuscript for And Band Played On. As Shilts wrote his last book, about gays in the military- Conduct Unbecoming, he dictated the final chapter of that book from a hospital bed & it was published in 1993 at almost the same time President Bill Clinton took aim at anti-gay discrimination in the armed services. Think of how he would have continued to chronicle the struggle of gay people & imagine his reporting of Prop 8 & the inevitable rise of the cause of Marriage Equality & 21st century LGBTQ issues like bullying.
In 1992, Shilts' older brother Gary performed the commitment ceremony that joined him to Barry Barbieri, a man 20 years his junior, & the primary beneficiary of his estate.
Perhaps because Shilts remains controversial among some gays, there is no monument to him. There is is no street named for him, as there are for other San Francisco writers Jack London, Jack Kerouac or Dashiell Hammett. He isone of Gay History’s real heroes, with an effect on the gay community as important as Harvey Milk. Both were immensely important. Where's the street, building or holiday named after Shilts?
"HIV is certainly character-building. It's made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego & vanity. Of course, I'd rather have a few more T-cells & a little less character."
A toast to you Randy, on your 61st birthday.