- Randy Shilts
Randy Shilts, 1951–1994
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Dustin Lance Black
So said Randy Shilts, in his 1987 book And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic.
The book chronicled the first five years of AIDS in the U.S., was nominated for a National Book Award and was adapted into a 1994 HBO movie starring Richard Gere, Matthew Modine and Angelica Huston. Randy began researching the book and reporting on AIDS while working for the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was one of the first openly-gay journalists at a major U.S. newspaper and worked for 13 years.
I’m Dustin Lance Black. Randy’s first book, The Mayor of Castro Street: the Life and Times of Harvey Milk, was critical research for my Oscar-winning screenplay for the movie Milk, in which Sean Penn played openly-gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1978, along with Mayor George Moscone.
Randy’s reporting and positions were sometimes controversial within segments the gay community. Some criticized his suggestion that gay bathhouses were responsible for the spread of AIDS and his opposition to outing closeted and prominent gays and lesbians.
Randy delayed getting get his own HIV test results until he had completed the writing of And the Band Played On, because he didn’t want his test result — positive or negative — to affect his objectivity as a journalist. According to his New York Times obituary, Randy found out he was HIV positive in March 1987 on the same day he submitted the manuscript to his publisher.
In 1992, Randy contracted pneumocystis pneumonia, and later that year, suffered a collapsed lung. In 1993, he was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma. Although mostly confined to his home and on oxygen, he managed to attend the Los Angeles screening of the HBO film version of And the Band Played On in August 1993.
Randy’s last book was Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. Published in 1993, not long before the announcement of the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy by the Clinton administration, the book explored the mistreatment and weeding out of lesbians and gays in the US military, and was finished from his hospital bed.
In the spring of 1993, Randy told a New York Times reporter, “HIV is certainly character-building. It’s made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity. Of course, I’d rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character.”
Randy Shilts died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 42 in Guerneville, California. He was included in the inaugural honorees of the Rainbow Honor Walk in the Castro district of San Francisco, and he was among the first 50 inducted into the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the national monument in New York City’s Stonewall Inn.