TO 'come out' and openly proclaim one's homosexual orientation in the provincial United States of 1970 was an act of brave defiance. Randy Shilts did so while still a journalism student at the University of Oregon, where he started his professional career as the provocative editor of a student newspaper.
The Seventies and Eighties were decades of an extraordinary flowering of gay militancy, sexual permissiveness and progressive homosexual politics and culture. The Stonewall riots and subsequent demos in New York and other big cities, the proliferation of gay bars, coffee shops, movie houses, magazines and publishing firms made Christopher Street in Greenwich Village and the Castro-Polk areas in San Francisco internationally known centres of gay liberation.
Shilts went to live in San Francisco, where there was a tremendous expansion of gay and parallel cultures, promoted notably by Winston Leyland's Gay Sunshine magazine and publishing company. Shilts worked off and on for marginal publications, for even in San Francisco he found it hard to get his work accepted by leading newspapers and magazines. When applying for jobs he made no secret of his homosexuality and gay militancy. Meanwhile, he explored the local gay scene - its bars, movie houses, leather shops and 'back rooms' - with scientific and documentary as well as emotional curiosity.
In 1978, San Francisco was shocked by the assassination of its socialist mayor, George Moscone, and one of his City Hall councillors, Harvey Milk, a brilliant young lawyer who was one of the first politicians to have 'come out' and to have been elected to the City Council. Shilts showed journalistic gifts of detachment, honesty and outspoken style to write a fine biography of Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street (1982).
The book's success came at a time when the Aids epidemic was becoming evident. Shilts began collecting information. He was now a regular radio and television broadcaster, and in 1981 the San Francisco Chronicle took him on as its reporter on homosexual politics. His book on Aids, And the Band Played On: politics, people and the Aids epidemic (a title suggested by Mart Crowley's Broadway success The Boys in the Band, filmed in 1970), was published to immense acclaim in 1987. In it he attacked governmental lethargy and indifference in the Reagan administration. He blamed federal organisations fighting to be the first to produce some highly lucrative treatment for the seropositive condition known as HIV. These organisations included the National Cancer Research Institute, one of whose staff claimed to have made findings that had actually been made by the Institut Pasteur. The book became a best-seller and made Shilts a pioneering hero.
But during the Eighties Shilts was a regular target of extreme gay militants and of the more scurrilous gay press because he advocated the complete closure of gay saunas, which encouraged the disease to proliferate through anonymous multiple sexual encounters, and the shutting of 'back rooms' in the basements of leather bars in whose pitch blackness promiscuous sex with unknown partners took place without any kind of protection.
Shilts's third book, Conduct Unbecoming (1993), was a brilliant study of gays, both men and women, in the US military, a controversial and still topical subject. It is also a valuable documentary work. In the same year, after long delays caused by media squabbles and changes of director, And the Band Played On was made into a television film starring Ian McKellen, screened in September on the HBO cable channel.
Shilts compared his war against Aids with the war in Vietnam, so widely covered in the press and in books, while his own war was ignored for so long. He also compared Aids to the Holocaust, but Susan Sontag went even further and understood it as a metaphor of the decline of civilisation.
One of the absurdities of gay life that Shilts often condemned (and was reviled for it by the gay press) was the practice of 'outing' - that is, revealing to the general public the homosexual nature of prominent people like Hollywood actors - which he denounced as an unpardonable interference with personal privacy and as an example of the malicious spite motivating certain unsuccessful and sexually prejudiced gays. Shilts had practised his own 'outing' and considered that to be the only permissible way to show one's true colours.
Randy Shilts had known he was HIV positive since 1987, and he developed Aids in 1992. He kept his illness a secret, as he did not want it to interfere with the necessary detachment of his reporting. It was a noble and honourable attitude, in character with the moral integrity of his professional work and his loyalties in private life.