tv Journalist Randy Shilts the HIVAIDS Epidemic CSPAN August 27, 2021 10:07pm-10:45pm EDT
nonprofit organization indy reads. our mission is to promote and improve the literacy and english language proficiecy of adults in central indiana. we sell both used and new books for all ages, special orders for customers and host multiple events a week. we are largely volunteer run and our inventory is primarily made up of book donations for the community. if you'd like to support us, please consider making a purchase tonight, a donation or volunteering your time as a bookstore volunteer or literacy tutor. tonight we have the pleasure of hosting dr. andrew stoner, who will be discussing his latest book "the journalist of castro street, the life of randy shilts." dr. stoner is an indiana native and an associate professor of communication studies at california state university sacramento. his books include "campaign crossroads, presidential politics in indiana from lincoln to obama" and "notorious 92, indiana's most hay nous murders murders in all 92 counties"
among other titles. purchased at the front register, and proceeds will benefit both indy reads books as well as the author. and please join me in welcoming dr. andrew stoner to the stage. [ applause ] >> thank you very much. i appreciate the opportunity to be back in indianapolis among familiar faces and to talk about a subject i've spent about nine or ten years working on. the topic i'm going to talk randy shilts tonight was originally my doctoral dissertation at colorado state university and through the help of some editors and a lot of hard work we've got it into a readable fashion for i think a broader audience. and it's so far been well received. and i'm excited for the potential to what i call reconsider randy shilts, who is ultimately america's aids chronicler and a very important figure in journalism and also in the movement for gay and lesbian liberation in the united states. what i would like to do is do two things.
i have a regular presentation that i do for the -- about randy shilts and give you background that also helps walk you through the book. but i often get asked about why i was interested in writing about this. so i thought i might share a little bit of the preface for you, briefly read from that, so you can get a sense of why this topic was one of interest to me and in my degree pursuits and getting my ph.d. in journalism in technical communication. so i thought i would read for a few minutes from there and then go into my more formal remarks. i remember the winter morning in 1994 when i heard the news report about the death of journalist and author randy shilts. i was in my tiny graduate student apartment in muncie, indiana, getting ready for a cold walk to the bus stop. and i sat down on the bed and listened to the discussion of shilts and his work, and i felt as if i had lost someone i knew really well although i never met him at all.
his book "and the band played on" made a strong impression on me. shilts' writing style and his journalistic commitment to detail had impressed me. in the day of the announcement of his death, the man who wrote the most about aids who died of aids, i decided to go look for my paper book copy of "the mayor of castro street" because i was eager to read more about his words and gay martyr and icon harvey milk. at the time of shilts' death, aids seemed like this troublesome vexing issue that remained far away. it seemed like i'd never known anyone who had hiv or aids, and people with aids were still distant ghosts on television or in magazine articles, in far away places like san francisco and new york city. i had a rude awakening ahead of me as shilts' death from aids served as a forerunner to even more personal losses that would follow for me in the years to come, among my own circle of friends. randy shilts represented so much
of what i thought i might some day be, a proud openly gay man who offered the world his words, which could move people and things in positive ways. shilts was the journalist and the writer that i most wanted to be. it would be many more years before i could take up randy shilts' words in a more meaningful way, but they remained in my mind. what shilts accomplished with his writing, becoming a respected sought-after expert on once hidden subjects shining a light in dark places was what i envisioned it meant to be a journalist and a truly liberated member of this society as a gay person. the words on the pages that followed here needed to be more than just admiration and acclimation and needed to offer a more critical review of shilts. the necessity to take that more critical view grew not only from the academic requirements of writing a dissertation but also to add meaning to the consideration of his work. and, finally, because nothing short of a piercing honest look
at randy shilts would do because that's the kind of journalist randy shilts had been. while shilts was always a man with thin skin and easily hurt and felt slighted at any sort of criticism he received, he was sometimes equally determined to give back as good as he got. he knew that some of the things he wrote would incite anger, but he wrote them anyways. he also gladly soaked up praise and pay for a controversial story that exposed portions of the still emerging gay liberation movement that others would've preferred remained unexamined. he learned in his life that a wounded heart stands sometimes right next to the determined soul, and he discovered that the bomb for the pain that the world can inflict can sometimes be found in immersing yourself in your work and in your commitment to tell the truth, and a desire to try to drive change and change the world. from an early age, he learned to take whippings and verbal abuse at home and dry his tears and
somehow pull himself together during the daily walk to school where he presented himself as an able, interesting and engaged student who had overcome more than anyone could imagine. but he remained determined to succeed. his drive to succeed carried this sense of urgency, and as we know now, it's because the reality of aids was forcing him to work fast and furious. and he went after his work with a strong commitment to fairness and freedom and bullishly pushing forward always. i've attempted to explore these issues while being true to a critical examination of his work and the impact behind not only his words but also his bulldozer approach to life. he's been with me throughout this writing, i think, especially so when i spent a week or more in january of 2011 with his archives. it is as scholar craig divined that i've had company in the
dusty archives and had this subject looking over my shoulder helping illuminate corners of the past through yellow and wrinkled papers and brittle audio and videotapes that are left over from his full yet interrupted life. so with that preface, i wanted to go ahead and tell you some about randy shilts, something maybe you already know and some you don't. he's been gone 25 years this year. so every year fewer and fewer people know who we're talking about, so i'm hoping that i can illuminate some information on that. this is the title of the book "the journalist of castro street: the life of randy shilts." the title was selected because it plays off his first book about the mayor of castro street, the life and times of harvey milk. it comes to us from the university of illinois press. just a little bit about randy's life. he lived between 1951 and 1994, was born in davenport, iowa, but
raised his entire life after that in aurora, illinois, which is a suburb of chicago in kaine county. shortly after graduating high school in june of 1969 on the one-year anniversary of robert f. kennedy's assassination, he fled to oregon because he heard there were hippies there and people living free and open lifestyles, and he wanted to escape some of the more rigid life he'd known in illinois. he was one of five sons in the shilts family, born in a 25-year period in the shilts family. so they were broadly spread out. but they were all very active boys. and all of them fled aurora at the first opportunity they could. when he got finally into the university of oregon after one year at portland community college, he decided to run for student body president his first year on campus, and did so as an openly gay candidate under the theme "come out for shilts."
he did not win the election. and when i say that to my contemporary students now they're, like, so what? but in 1970 and '71 to be an openly gay student at college was a big thing. and it made it stand out. and randy stood out and was well known on campus for being outspoken and eventually switched to a journalism major. he'd given up on politics as being able to change anything. and this reflects, he early in life had been a barry goldwater republican and had slowly moved left and became more and more of a progressive. but journalism seemed to hold a great draw to him, a great interest to him in its ability to maybe change the world. randy had somewhat of a naive view at times. he thought that if people just had more information, if they just understood more, they would accept more. that people would be more willing to bring gay people into the fullness of life and include gay people in everyday life. and he thought as a journalist that was part of his role to
bring that information to people. i think he found that that was often a struggle, because it wasn't quite so simple. he left college, and his professors told me he was one of the most talented majors in the department in journalism, and he was in a class with ann curry from nbc news. but left unemployed, worked as a freelance writer for years, struggling to find full-time work because he wanted to do it on his terms to be an openly gay person. and news rooms at that time didn't have openly gay journalists. and he resisted suggestions from journalism professors and others that he, you know, get out of the floppies and quit wearing flowered shirts unbuttoned down to his stomach, and assumed the role of newsroom journalist, and wouldn't compromise on those things. eventually was hired by "the advocate," wrote for years for them. also contributed to the "bay area reporter."
and was finally hired for a public television show called "newsroom" which there's a screenshot of there. he lost his relationship with "the advocate" in a battle with a publisher at the time, a gentleman by the name of david good steen and was banished from the pages of "the advocate" for many years until goodstein sold the magazine to someone else. they lost their grant from the ford foundation. so he opened the '80s unemployed again and still looking for full-time work. interestingly, at the same time, the "san francisco chronicle" had decided that they needed a full-time or more regular coverage of the gay community, had become a very powerful political, economic, and social force in san francisco. and randy lucked out and got hired for that job as the first openly gay reporter on a mainstream daily newspaper, the large newspaper, the
"san francisco chronicle." and so from there, his career really took off. he was with "the chronicle" up until the time he died. he was with "the chronicle" in a key period. he had been at kqed at a key period as well. he had covered the assassination of harvey milk and mayor moscone. and he had been offered the opportunity to write the biography of harvey milk that was then made in 2009 the film "milk" by oliver stone -- or, excuse me, gus van zandt. excuse me. and so he had a lot of talent that people recognized early on. he was actually, though, assigned city beat reporting. during the loma prieta earthquake, for example, in 1989 he was coordinating all of their coverage of the damage in san francisco and oakland. but during this period, living in the castro, he began learning that other gay men were starting to get ill, and some of them were beginning to die from very exotic sorts of causes.
in some cases, kaposi sarcoma really a very virulent strain of pneumonia that normally people had good resistance to in their immune systems. and there still was no name for what was going on. this is the reality that people in new york and san francisco and los angeles, gay men were showing up ill. eventually this spread to other groups, particularly intravenous drug users, female sex workers, and haitian immigrants. combined with gay men, you're talking about a not a very powerful group in the reagan '80s. shilts became frustrated by the slow reaction to the number of people who are being impacted by this disease on a regular basis and began writing about it. he did not write "the chronicle's" first article about aids, but he wrote the second one in 1982, and it appeared on page 6 of all places. it was still not a front-page story for san francisco. eventually it would become so as tens of thousands of people
died. and randy covered all of this even before there was even a name for this disease. as it first started out it was first known as gay cancer. then it was gay-related immune deficiency or g.r.i.d. and then eventually once the human immunodeficiency virus was discovered and isolated, hiv, that then caused aids, the name evolved toward that. and that's when randy decided to take up in 1985, '86 a book about aids and how america had responded. and he found very little interest or support among publishers for that. but st. martin's press decided to go ahead and include or pick up this topic for him. it is still the first and most comprehensive coverage of the issue of aids even though a lot of the clinical and medical information and scientific research that's included has
been overcome by time, and new information, the issues related to how society reacted, how communities reacted is still viewed as essential reading for understanding this period of american history. there were some key points that shilts used to drive band in addition to the fact that there was a growing infection and death rate that continued to climb every year. one is that the world health organization and u.s. government health organizations, including the cdc and the centers for disease control were slow to respond to this disease because of who it was impacting and that there may have been political problems with the victims of this disease. and so there wasn't particularly as great a concern if it had started to spread in other communities. he noted that concern did grow once home feel jacks began to be affected quite a bit by hiv
infection. he also took on the news media in terms of their ability or unwillingness to cover anything related to gay people. when talking about hiv and aids you had to talk about its transmission, which included gay sex, for example. so newspapers weren't used to that sort of coverage. they weren't used to writing about such things. so the news media were a little slow to follow up on exactly what was going on. and "the chronicle" led the way on that. and randy pushed and pulled the "san francisco chronicle" into a leadership role on this issue well beyond what you saw at the "new york times," "the washington post," or elsewhere. he also noted that loathesome feelings and hatred toward gay people were quickly attached to people with aids, whether they were gay or not. and there was a lot of historical talk in the period about quarantining people with aids and about somehow curtailing them in society so that they could be controlled, that their risk was even greater than before. as you know, the narrative on
gay people has often been that they're a threat to society or to family, and this furthered that narrative. shilts' research also led to criticism of the gay community and how it responded to the issue. and this is where some of the most lingering criticism for shilts remains in that he shined light on aspects of the gay liberation movement to that point, which made people a little uncomfortable. in reality, the gay liberation movement to that point had been a sexual liberation. you're talking about a group of people whose sexual expression had been illegal prior to the mid-1970s, 1980s in most states, it still was something if you engaged in homosexual contact, you could still be arrested and put in jail or lose your job or have other social penalties to pay. so it's not coincidental that there was a lot of expression of sexual freedom in the early days
of the gay liberation movement. shilts is one of the first, though, to begin raising important questions about is that all there is? and we know now of course there are many social, economic, and cultural issues that have flowed, things like employment rights, marriage rights, things on adoption and parent parental rights for gay people have all flowed since that time, and had very little to do with sexuality other than just not having a system that discriminates against people on the basis of sexual orientation. but by shining a light in that area including writing a lot about std rates among gay people, for example, in the years leading up to aids brought criticism to shilts at that time and continues. the biggest problem rising from that was the creation or the reporting on a character who is based on an actual person called
the patient zero. and he ends up being an important figure to considering randy shilts, although he was not necessarily an important figure in shilts' mind, he ultimately was one of the figures that helped sell "and the band played on." who was patient zero? he was a canadian airline steward who lived between 1953 and 1984 and died three years before shilts' book came out. he was a very cooperative person with the centers for disease control and other investigators who were trying to figure out what is this disease. he turned over his black book, in those days when people didn't have phones with all their numbers in it, he turned over his black books. he submitted to blood testing. he participated in extensive interviews, and was at the center of a cluster study done in los angeles of 248 men who tested positive for whatever was to become hiv.
and he was connected to 40 of those 248 people. and he was coded in the study by the researcher who was interviewed as o. for outside los angeles because he was from canada and didn't live in los angeles county. but that very quickly began to be interpreted as patient zero as opposed to o. and shilts made that mistake as well, and so what you get is he's transformed into essentially a typhoid married character of the 1980s. you have the "new york post" with its headline, the man who brought us aids and star magazine calling him a monster. these headlines, however, come in october of 1987, three years after duga has died but at the time of the release of shilts' book. when shilts' book is being released, most reviewers are taking a pass, they're not interested in reviewing it. aids is an incomplete story, we
don't know where it's going, we don't know how big it's going to be. there was not that much interest in it. the editor shares the book, the manuscript, with the publicist that creates a press kit that centers on patient zero. and they decide that people will be interested in that if we can begin to understand where did aids come from. so what is created then is patient zero, this monster-like character who brought aids to america. and it was very problematic. shilts spent a lot of time trying to tamp that down and get back to the major themes of the book that he thought were more important in terms of the government's response, the gay community's response, the media response to this issue and less on this idea of patient zero. he viewed it as a storytelling element, but it did explode, and he did allow for that publicity to go forward, and never lived to correct the issue because we
know by 2016, researchers at the university of arizona conducted tests that cleared him as patient zero, that the particular strain of hiv that he carried was introduced to the united states as early as 1970 when he was just a little boy and had never ever visited the united states before. so he was not the person who brought aids to america. aids had been in america prior to that time. and we know now, of course, there are many types of hiv strains. so it's rather absurd to think we can connect a pandemic on a continent of 200 or 300 million people down to one person. it's just not possible to do. so this is where shilts' posthumous review of his work has been most critical. there are books and a documentary coming about patient zero and about the problematic creation of that character, and how duga was set up as being somehow different from many other gay people in that era, or
really any person in their 20s who is interested in expressing themselves sexually and otherwise, meeting new people and exploring life. duga had not lived his life necessarily a whole lot different than anyone else, he just had been a lot more cooperative with the investigators. so there's been an effort to reclaim his reputation, and my effort has been also to not reclaim necessarily randy's reputation but to clarify or reconsider that one of the most important things is he's not here to have updated this story. the story stops in 1994 when randy shilts dies of aids. his last book written in the last year of his life was called "conduct unbecoming," about the struggle for gays and lesbians to serve openly in the u.s. military. and this had become a big issue through the 1992 presidential campaign with clinton and george h.w. bush. clinton had pledged that he
would eliminate the ban on gays serving openly. it was called don't ask, don't tell. you don't tell us you're gay, we won't ask you if you're gay. that remained the policy of the u.s. military until 2011 when president obama eliminated that with an executive order. but shilts' book came right on the edge of that discussion and was very helpful toward illuminating for people this whole concept of we're training military members to be experts in all sorts of skills, and then as soon as we find out anything about their personal life in terms of who they love or who they spend their life, and we're throwing them out and throwing away their careers. this was particularly the only work that shilts was able to dedicate to any real measure of coverage to gay women, to lesbian women, because they were suffering disproportionately the number of discharges from the military based on their sexual orientation. and a lot of them were being threatened with losing their families and their children because of their sexual
orientation being exposed. this book was finished as randy was actually in a coma in a hospital. and then he recovered from that for the better part of 1993, but was not able to tour the book. so if you see interviews from that period, you'll see him doing them all from his home in san francisco. and then he finally died in february of 1994, at the age of 42. during this period "conduct" came out, there were a lot of questions about why randy had not been more forthcoming about his hiv status. he did not disclose it until really it was beyond his control to disclose it because he had been hospitalized. he mentions that he had not been up front about his hiv status not because of shame but because he didn't want the fact that the man who had wrote the most about aids had aids, he knew that what was potentially a story that was going to overcome the story that he really wanted people to focus on, which was his work on
conduct unbecoming and the ability of people to be able to continue to serve in the u.s. military. as he said to the "rolling stone" magazine in 1993, he was concerned about his work being overcome by it. and in many ways it was. he still viewed the world at the end of his life very much like he had when he first started in college, and that is, i have facts and information to share, the world can benefit from this information. so if you place journalistic function into the discussion, i think you find shilts across the objectivity line and into the advocacy role that he thought journalism could play. it's much like walter lit man's ideas about the media playing a social elitist function of explaining the world to the rest of us. if you think about theories about agenda-setting theory, it very much falls into that sort of idea that not necessarily telling you what to think but helping you think about what to think about and
pointing you in certain directions. he offered a rather sad quote that he was really at the pinnacle of his career and could do almost anything he wanted to in journalism at that point in life but had this feeling that his life was finished without being completed. and, in fact, it was. so my work has been to look at some of the issues that have remained. one is his clash with radical queer theorists and activists who viewed him as a gay uncle tom, who viewed him more interested in mainstream journalism and its demands than with advocacy. you also have people who say, well, he was too much of an advocate and not enough of a journalist. so he wasn't pure in that sense. so he has this mixed review going on. and there's a struggle on where to place him ultimately in the whole discussion of this era. and i think my book is meant to answer -- or, excuse me, ask the question can we distinguish between his obvious merit as a journalist from the mistakes or the issues
that he wasn't around to reconcile. certainly knowing as well as i feel like i know him, he would not have let the patient zero issue remain unresolved. he would have revisited the issue and corrected the issue and probably his brother has told me that he was very sad about the attention that that was getting over other things that he had written about. and he did feel like the ultimate result had been of victimization of duga. and that wasn't something he was happy about. and so i think a consideration is that we should take in his impressive credentials, his successes along with his failures, look at it all. so that's the attempt of the book is to be very balanced, and that we should acknowledge that he didn't live long enough to reconcile all these things, but that there's no question that he was there on the pulse of important issues. he was there at the start of the gay political movement with harvey milk. he was there at the start of aids, this huge issue that threatened to blow up the entire gay liberation movement.
and he was there on a big issue for the '90s in terms of how gay people may openly serve in society and employment, in this case the military. interestingly, his last work that he wanted to go to next was allegations of abuse and neglect of children within the catholic church. he was very interested in looking at how the catholic church had not responded to that sort of thing. if you think about the decades that followed after 1994, that's been a very prime social issue and cultural issue that we've had to grapple with. so i think it reflects shilts is a pretty amazing character in terms of his ability to get a sense of what's bubbling under the surface, what's that next thing. and i think we would have had a lot of wonderful writing in the subsequent years. ultimately i think that everyone -- as most people settled on the fact that randy is someone worth celebrating. there were 20 people inducted into the lgbtq hall of fame in san francisco, and their image was placed on sidewalks in san francisco. and if you go to castro, walk
down castro street, you'll see randy's picture there. he was one of the first 20 notable gay americans who are so enshrined. i'd like to think of him that way and do so though with the honesty and the completeness of his whole story. so thank you very much. [ applause ] if there were any questions i could try to answer them, or we can call it a day. yes, sir? >> you mentioned his brother. how much insight did his family give you? >> i had the cooperation of his oldest brother gary shilts and one of his youngest brothers reed shilts. there's only three brothers living. his youngest brother david is autistic and lives in a group home and is not available for interviews. but gary and reed were both very cooperative.
they had very interesting perspectives on the family. gary is the oldest child. his family experience was very different than reed's. by the time reed had grown, was coming into adolescence, the family had begun to settle down. his parents' marriage had resolved some of the previous issues. his mother's drinking had been brought under control, and she had stopped drinking. so the experience that randy and gary had was a little different than what the younger boys had. but they are pleased to know that there are still people that remember randy and still honor his work. >> did he always want to be a journalist? and how early did that avenue of expression hit him? was it in high school? was it in college? when did it happen? >> it was in college. he had started out as an english
major. and i think the combination of understanding that that meant a lot of long writing and reading but also that there weren't a lot of jobs for english majors. but also this idea that journalism could move people, it could change people. he had a big ego, he liked seeing his name in print. he liked people the center of attention. he ultimately was the managing editor of "the oregon daily emerald," which was the student newspaper of oregon. so he carved out a good role for himself very early on. i think that what his friends had told me at the end of his life, he viewed himself more as a columnist, as opposed to a reporter. columnist and author. so he would be pursuing longer form projects over the rest of his career. >> if he were still with us today, have you given any thought to what he'd be doing? where he would be working? what he would be covering? >> i think he'd still be a pretty sought-after figure. and in his period he was on "larry king" and "nightline," he
-- david blank listen and all of those shows of that era so he was a very sought-after television personality. i think the cable television and the online world would've enjoyed randy's contribution considerably. and he was well known to turn a good phrase, as it were. so i think he would have made for good television. i note from talking to his family and friends that he wanted to continue writing books. what those topics would've been, anybody knows. but given his track record, he had a good ability to figure out what people were interested in. all right. thank you very much. i appreciate it. [ applause ]
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