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Shilts, Randy (1951-1994)  

Randy Shilts pioneered as an openly gay journalist, working in both the newly emerging gay press of the 1970s and then as a reporter assigned to cover the gay and lesbian community of San Francisco for mainstream newspapers and television stations.

Born in Davenport, Iowa, on August 8, 1951, he was educated at the University of Oregon, where he received a B.S. in 1975. After a stint with the gay newsmagazine The Advocate, he worked as a correspondent for several San Francisco television stations and newspapers.

By the time of his death of complications from AIDS on February 17, 1994, he had become by far the most successful openly gay journalist in the country, an astute interpreter of the various issues affecting American gay men and lesbians, especially gay and lesbian politics, the AIDS epidemic, and discrimination in the military, the subjects of his three highly acclaimed books.

Shilts's first book, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (1982), is a biography of the first openly gay elected official in the country, the charismatic San Francisco Supervisor, who was assassinated in 1978 and became a martyr for the burgeoning gay rights movement.

As the title indicates, the book is a history of a turbulent era as well as a chronicle of a particular life. Shilts tells the story of how San Francisco became the vortex of the national gay rights movement and how Milk came to personify the aspirations of a diverse constituency.

The book analyzes San Francisco city politics in illuminating detail; provides fascinating accounts of the various political campaigns waged by Milk, including the successful struggle to defeat a statewide initiative that would have banned gay men and lesbians from teaching school in California; and recounts the aftermath of Milk's murder, including the trial of his assassin, Dan White, and the riots that flared after White's so-called Twinkie defense allowed him to escape conviction for first-degree murder.

In And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987), Shilts tells the always fascinating, frequently depressing, and sometimes exhilarating story of the emergence of the disease that decimated gay communities throughout the country as it spread almost unchecked for the first five years after its appearance. Gripping and richly detailed, the book is an extraordinary work of investigative journalism.

Seeking to explain why American medical and political institutions did so little for so long, Shilts documents the petty bickerings, turf disputes, scientific rivalries, and failures of political vision that exacerbated the crisis, even as he also chronicles the heroism of individuals who struggled mightily to contain it.

Shilts's final book is another massive work that combines history and investigative journalism, Conduct Unbecoming: Gay and Lesbians in the U.S. Military: Vietnam to the Persian Gulf (1993). Influenced by Allan Bérubé's account of gays in World War II, Coming Out Under Fire (1990), Conduct Unbecoming brilliantly uncovers the scandalous mistreatment suffered by gay men and lesbians in the military.

While documenting the fact that many of the most celebrated American soldiers have been gay, the book also traces the development of a gay subculture within the ranks. Like Shilts's other two books, Conduct Unbecoming focuses on the stories of a host of individuals.

These stories, many of which are as compelling as finely crafted suspense fiction, function to humanize and render personal an important public issue. Beyond that, the stories mirror the that gay men and lesbians encounter in all sectors of society.

Perhaps Shilts's greatest achievement as a writer was that he brought novelistic skills to the practice of journalism. All three of his books are distinguished by compelling narratives and vividly detailed character portrayals.

Claude J. Summers


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Randy Shilts in the newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1987. Image courtesy
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Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

_____. Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military: Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. New York: St. Martin's, 1993.

_____. The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. New York: St. Martin's, 1982.


    Citation Information
    Author: Summers, Claude J.  
    Entry Title: Shilts, Randy  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 16, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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