Randy Shilts, the conscience of Castro Street
Randy, who for 13 years was one of the stars of the San Francisco Chronicle, literally wrote the book on Harvey Milk, the subject of the acclaimed new Sean Penn movie, “Milk.” Randy’s book is titled “The Mayor of Castro Street.”
But Randy’s most enduring achievement is that he is the journalist who forced the world to pay attention to AIDS despite the indifference of the general public and the animosity of many of the people who were most vulnerable to the disease.
Even though Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome to date has claimed more than 2 million lives and the epidemic has infected some 33 million people around the world, who knows how much worse things would have been if Randy had not taken the initiative in the early 1980s to sound the alarm about the then-unknown disease?
Like Harvey Milk, who was shot to death at the age of 48 by a fellow city official in 1978, Randy also died way too young. He was only 42 when he succumbed in 1994 to the disease he dedicated himself to battling well before he knew he had it himself.
Through his tireless, passionate and spot-on reporting about this mysterious and frightening disease, Randy identified AIDS as a public health issue that demanded serious scientific research and immediate government attention. After sounding the early warning about AIDS, Randy later wrote “And the Band Played On,” the definitive book tracing the history of the disease and the early failure of scientists and society to respond rapidly to the threat.
To understand the enormity of Randy’s achievements, you have to understand that AIDS was not a subject most people wanted to hear about when it first came to light in he 1980s as an inexplicable syndrome that overwhelmed – often fatally – the immune systems of gay men. In fact, the original name for the disease was GRID, which stood for Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.
Because the disease initially was believed to affect exclusively homosexuals engaged in activities many people could not bear to contemplate, the subject was not considered fit for serious inquiry among most medical researchers, government officials and newspapers or broadcast outlets.
The topic was off-limits, as well, in large parts of the gay community, where many individuals either wanted to deny or cover up the problem. That’s because AIDS drew unwelcome and unfavorable attention to the gay community at a time it was making significant progress toward reversing decades of unwarranted prejudice and discrimination. (The battle continues to this day, as demonstrated by the passage last month of a shameful amendment to the California Constitution forbidding marriage between two people of the same gender.)
While AIDS quietly scourged the gay community in San Francisco in the early 1980s, few people had the standing – or the inclination – to draw attention to the problem. Few people, that is, except Randy Shilts, who fortuitously had been hired by the Chronicle in 1981 at almost the same time a bulletin to public health officials published an article about an unusual outbreak of a rare form pneumonia in a group of gay men in Los Angeles.
David Perlman, the indefatigable science editor at the Chronicle who last week marked his 90th birthday while working at his desk at the newspaper, spotted the bulletin and wrote what is believed to be the first story in the mainstream media about the emerging medical mystery.
The story resonated with Randy, because he had been observing similar cases of the rare pneumonia in the gay community in San Francisco, recalled Dave in a Chronicle podcast commemorating Randy’s achievements. “Randy was the first reporter who could see it would not be simply a gay disease,” said Dave.
While Randy never doubted the significance of the story or his ability to cover it, he first had to gain the confidence of the editors who had hired him to cover gay issues to broaden diversty in the newsroom.
Even though this was San Francisco in 1980s, many of the men in the surprisingly buttoned-down newsroom were nervous about working with the ebullient guy sporting bright flowered ties, loud suspenders and an ostentatious mane of curly blond hair. A few were downright hostile.
At a Newspaper Guild meeting a year or so after Randy joined the staff, he rose to argue for the importance of health benefits for domestic partners. “One of his colleagues shouted, ‘Sit down, you little faggot,’” recalled Jerry Roberts, who later rose to be the managing editor of the newspaper and just wrote a terrific piece fact-checking the Milk movie. “Nobody stood up to defend Randy, who left the meeting in tears, which tells you something about the enlightened views of the S.F. press corps about gay rights at the time.”
Assigned to the 2 to 10 p.m. shift as a general-assignment reporter, Randy soon began producing important enterprise stories.
“The one I remember from pre-AIDS fame was a series he put together on police brutality, pulling together lots of public records about a batch of cops who consistently got disciplined…for excessive force,” said Jerry. “His original tip came from complaints from gays about being hassled by cops. By the time he was done, it was in no way, shape or form a ‘gay piece,’ just a good, solid investigation of an under-the-radar problem in city government that affected everyone.”
The strength and accuracy of Randy’s reporting – augmented by his enormous personal charm – soon gained him the respect of his colleagues and the confidence of his editors.
He needed it, too, because he not only had identified a major public health problem but also had a fairly radical solution for it. He wanted city officials in San Francisco to shut down the bath houses where many gay men went to engage in unprotected sex with multiple, often anonymous partners.
Randy’s unstinting coverage of the issue not only discomfited the mayor and the director of public health but also met with widespread hostility in the gay community. Opponents viewed the proposal not as a legitimate public health initiative but as a return to the days of official harassment of gay establishments and an unwarranted infringement on the rights of the newly liberated community.
The controversy was front-page news when I joined the Chronicle as metro editor in 1984, arriving from Chicago thinking that I knew a thing or two about big-city journalism. But I had a lot to learn about AIDS, the gay community and the gnarly politics of AIDS in San Francisco.
Randy quickly brought me up to speed through solid reporting and fluent writing that were combined with intensity and a terrific sense of humor. One thing Randy never mentioned to me – though I learned about it elsewhere – was that his work was far from universally appreciated in the gay community he was trying to protect.
He was insulted, spit on and even subjected to a few threats on his life. But he stuck to his guns and stuck to the story and was vindicated when the bath houses were shut down.
“With a passion I have rarely seen equaled in the business, Randy pushed, wheedled and cajoled until his AIDS stories made their way from the back pages of the Chronicle to the front page,” said Susan Sward in a tribute published shortly after his death. After traveling to Africa, where AIDS was believed to have originated, “he hurled himself into the stories he wrote,” said Susan. “It was grim, it was horrible, and he saw it as his job to give witness.”
After “Band Played On” was published, Randy leveraged his newfound celebrity to urge an international convention of scientists to speed their research into the disease.
“You in science are not getting hundreds of millions of dollars in government research grants simply because you look fabulous in white coats,” Randy told researchers in Montreal in 1989. “You're getting that money because you're supposed to produce under the tightest deadline pressure the epidemic demands. Any solution to HIV infection that comes only after most HIV-infected people are dead will not be relevant science.”
By the time he gave that impassioned speech. Randy himself was battling the disease. But he didn’t tell very many people about his illness, because he didn’t want the story to be about him.
“I am a professional journalist, not a professional AIDS activist,” Randy told Charlie Rose in the television interview embedded below. “There are plenty of activists but not many journalists who can do what I have been able to do…. What I try to do is find issues that are not being written about. And then I do it.”
Randy never stopped working.
He got the formal diagnosis that he had AIDS on the day he finished the manuscript for “Band Played On,” which was published in 1987. After HBO made a critically and commercially successful movie of the book, Randy wrote a third volume about gays in the military called “Conduct Unbecoming.” He dictated the final chapter of that book from a hospital bed and it was published in 1993 at almost the same time President Bill Clinton took aim at anti-gay discrimination in the armed services.
As you can see from the following video, which was shot months before he died, Randy was courageous until the end.
“He was a wasted man full of tubes,” recalled Susan Sward, who visited him shortly before he died. “But he would not say good-bye.”