The Journalist Who Changed How We See Gay America

Randy Shilts was stubbornly committed to truth telling—no matter the cost.

Randy Shilts was the most significant gay journalist of the twentieth century. The first openly gay reporter to cover gay issues for a mainstream outlet, he authored the first biography of a gay American politician and a mammoth, definitive book on the AIDS epidemic. Given all that he accomplished in his relatively short career, it is daunting to consider what Shilts might have achieved had he not died of the disease he devoted so much of his life to covering, in 1994, at the age of forty-two. 

The Journalist of Castro Street: The Life of Randy Shilts
by Andrew E. Stoner
University of Illinois Press, 288 pp.

Shilts was diagnosed with HIV on the very day he completed the manuscript of what would become his magisterial tome about the plague, And the Band Played On. This was not a coincidence: he had actually been tested for HIV antibodies years earlier, but consciously chose not to learn the result until after he completed his book. Keeping himself in the dark about his HIV status, Shilts took the risk because he believed the alternative “would affect what I wrote. . . . If I knew I was [HIV] positive I might be angrier and not be as rational in my analysis.” So committed was Shilts to his sense of journalistic integrity that he was willing to potentially sacrifice his own health in its exercise. 

A stubborn commitment to truth telling—his reputation within the gay community and even his physical welfare be damned—is the character trait that shines through strongest in The Journalist of Castro Street, a new biography by Andrew E. Stoner. An assistant professor of communication studies at California State University, Sacramento, Stoner uses Shilts’s diaries and personal papers, as well as interviews with some of the late writer’s friends, colleagues, lovers, and critics, to tell the story of a singular figure whose life, from liberation to tragic coda, in many ways paralleled that of the post-Stonewall gay experience. 

Shilts grew up in Aurora, Illinois, the third of six sons. Like his future biographical subject Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco city supervisor who would be assassinated in 1978, the young Shilts was a libertarian-conservative admirer of Barry Goldwater. (This was a political orientation not uncommon among gay men at the time, but one both Shilts and Milk would abandon as they grew older.) After studying journalism at the University of Oregon, where he came out of the closet and wrote for the student newspaper, Shilts got a job as a towel boy at a San Francisco gay bathhouse, a bit of happenstance that would take on deeper significance given the role those establishments would play in the coming AIDS epidemic. 

From the very start of his career, everyone advised Shilts to avoid the label of “gay journalist.” A journalism professor told him that his job prospects would be limited if he became known for specializing in a realm of life decent people thought best not discussed at all. Before getting hired by the San Francisco Chronicle (just a few weeks after the Centers for Disease Control released a barely noticed item detailing the spread of a rare cancer afflicting homosexual men), Shilts was fired from a freelance local television reporting gig after a magazine named him one of the city’s ten most eligible gay bachelors, so discomfited was the station’s management by the prospect of an openly homosexual contributor. Years later, after Shilts had established himself at the Chronicle as a respected voice on the nascent national gay beat that he had done so much to establish, more than a dozen publishers rejected his proposal for And the Band Played On. Upon publication, most major news outlets initially declined to review it. 

The book, of course, became a huge best seller, and solidified Shilts’s standing as the nation’s premier journalist covering gay issues. What enabled Shilts to ignore the many naysayers was a trait all great journalists share: a nose for compelling stories. “[Y]ou can’t hurt as many people as get hurt under the status quo, you can’t disrupt that many people’s lives without it ending up causing a kind of reaction that breeds news stories,” Shilts told Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes shortly before his death, describing the many ways in which homophobic discrimination, both official and customary, was inspiring resistance. Shilts also recognized that the still-secretive nature of homosexuality gave him an opportunity to carve a niche explaining this mysterious world to mainstream America. Shilts became, Stoner writes, an expert in “once-hidden subjects,” like the gay sexual demimonde through which a deadly virus spread, and, later, the centuries-long saga of gay men and women in the U.S. military, the subject of his final book, Conduct Unbecoming. According to a friend, “his audience was really straight people, because he wanted them to understand what it was like to be gay in America.” 

Shilts saw himself not as a representative of the gay community, but as a reporter who happened to be gay. “I’m always going to be a journalist first and a gay person second” was his mantra.

Crucially, Shilts saw himself not as a representative of the gay community, but as a reporter who happened to be gay—an approach that set him apart from most other gay journalists working at the time. “I’m always going to be a journalist first and a gay person second” was his mantra. Shilts refused to let his sexual orientation get in the way of reporting a good story, as when he developed a cordial relationship with John Briggs, the California state senator whose 1978 Proposition 6 would have banned gay people from teaching in public schools. This personal code, along with his belief that “being gay is no more of a defining characteristic for you as a human being than being left-handed,” frustrated many in the gay community. The animosity was most intense when it came to Shilts’s coverage of bathhouses, which he described unflinchingly as hotbeds for the spread of AIDS. Some gay activists condemned Shilts as a self-hating homosexual who aimed to curry favor with straight society by branding his fellow gay men as promiscuous lepers; the head of San Francisco’s gay Democratic Club called Shilts “the most homophobic person in the Bay Area.”

Shilts saw the matter differently. With equality comes responsibility, he thought, meaning gays should be held to the same standard as straights. “Gay activists may be able to bullshit some reporter from the Los Angeles Times by telling him that the baths don’t play any role in the AIDS epidemic, but they can’t bullshit me, because I know what goes on in the bathhouses,” he said in 1984. “I used to go there myself.” 

Shilts forthrightly addressed gay promiscuity in And the Band Played On, identifying it—alongside Reagan administration indifference and media apathy—as one of several factors that “allowed [AIDS] to happen.” While rightly remembered as a classic, the book has in recent years been faulted for its sensationalist portrayal of Gaëtan Dugas, a dashingly handsome and insatiably randy Quebecois flight attendant whose sexual exploits across North America Shilts blamed for spreading the disease, and who posthumously earned the moniker “Patient Zero” because of his proximity to many of the earliest AIDS cases. Though Shilts never claimed that Dugas was the first person to bring AIDS to North America, that is how many in the media, egged on by the book’s unscrupulous publicists, portrayed him. “The Monster Who Gave Us AIDS,” screamed the tabloid magazine Star, while the ever-tasteful New York Post characterized Dugas as “a modern-day Typhoid Mary.” 

Shilts remained an independent voice throughout his career, repeatedly finding himself at odds with gay activists. When members of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP began disrupting Catholic masses, Shilts asked, “What if Catholic militants vandalized the headquarters of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation? Wouldn’t ACT-UP be screaming ‘Nazis!’?” Shilts also emerged as a cautious critic of “outing” gay public figures, decrying those who demanded ideological conformity on the part of gay public figures as “lavender fascists.” 

The quality of The Journalist of Castro Street is ultimately not at the level that Stoner’s subject matter deserves. The book often reads like the academic dissertation from which it stemmed, and is at times clumsy. Harvey Milk was not America’s “first openly gay elected official,” nor did Iraq invade “neighboring Libya” in 1990. A fuller, more engaging biography of this pioneering figure remains to be written. 

“There’s no room in the gay community for people of good intention having different opinions,” Shilts complained to the New York Times in 1993.  If Shilts’s unshakable insistence on not letting his gay identity overwhelm his professionalism was controversial twenty-six years ago, it is even more anachronistic today, as many gay writers who question various “LGBTQ community” shibboleths are routinely condemned as sellouts and faulted for not being team players. Randy Shilts belongs to that storied tradition of gay iconoclasts who, gleaning from their minority status the value of intellectual pluralism and individual integrity, proudly refuse to abide by any sort of orthodoxy.  

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James Kirchick

James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age. He is at work on a history of gay Washington, D.C.