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Gay And Lesbian Community Notes Column

Randy Shilts: Conduct Unbecoming?

By Michael Bronski


The recent death of Randy Shilts has prompted a slew of obituaries in both the straight and the gay press. Most praised the writer, others repeated some of the criticism that Shilts had received during his life, and almost all mentioned the controversies that surrounded this journalist who was the first--and until now, the only openly gay journalist whose work was wholeheartedly taken up by the mainstream. But in all of the fresh ink hardly anyone has taken the very real issues that swirled around Shilts and his career.

Randy Shilts got his start in journalism at The Advocate, at that time the only national gay news and "lifestyle" magazine, in the late 1970s. He moved onto the San Francisco Chronicle covering local politics. This eventually led to his writing The Mayor of Castro Street, a biography of openly gay and eventually assassinated City Commissioner, Harvey Milk. While at the Chronicle he began covering AIDS and was the first U.S. journalist to be writing full time about the epidemic in the mainstream press. This work led to his enormously popular And the Band Played On in 1988. Buoyed by the enormous success of the book Shilts began work on Conduct Unbecoming, published last spring, which was a history of the U.S. military's treatment of lesbians and gay men. Shilts's health began to fail just before the publication of Conduct Unbecoming. The book was rushed to publication to meet the marketing moment of the March on Washington as well as cashing in on the gays-in-the-military media hysteria of 1993--Shilts was working on a final chapter about the U.S.'s war against Iraq when he died.

Randy Shilts was nothing if not opinionated and many people in the community--particularly activists--felt that he grossly misrepresented such issues as AIDS activism and the closing of the San Francisco bathhouses in And the Band Played On. Shilts was also an outspoken critic of most of the gay press which he felt was too parochial, too concerned with "agenda" rather than reporting, and he hated being called a "gay reporter"--considering himself a reporter who happened to be gay.

The criticism that Randy Shilts faced from within the community--including flack from many PWAS for keeping his HIV-status hidden for years--raises basic questions about the responsibility of reporters who are gay and who cover issues of concern for the gay community be in the mainstream as well as the gay press. Randy Shilts prided himself on being "objective"--that is having no overt, political agenda in his writing. His attacks on the national gay press were predicated on that fact that he considered them, because of their stated politics, biased and unprofessional. This was an angle that the mainstream press -always eager to find ways to attack the reliability of the gay press--loved. There was no doubt that Shilts had made it in to the mainstream, and reading his work--particularly in And the Band Played On --it is easy to see why. While he was surely critical of the way that the Federal government handled AIDS he was equally as critical of the gay community. And while criticism of the community from insiders is fine (god knows, as with any minority community, internal criticism is rife) Shilts's opinions dovetailed very neatly with those of mainstream society. The most serious criticisms included persistent attacks on AIDS activists as well as those whom Shilts calls "gay leaders," snide attacks on the sexual promiscuity of gay men, and an infuriating inclination to dismiss any "civil liberties" discussions--particularly in relation to mandatory HIV testing--with an unarticulated, and ill informed, "public health" rational.

It is amazing to see, again and again, in the obituaries Shilts's being praised for his sound reporting and for his adherence to facts when And the Band Played On is filled with reconstructed conversations, authorial intrusions and interpretations as well as such unknowable "reportings" as deathbed visions and inferred thought processes. And in spite of all of this Shilts claims in the introduction to the book that "there has been no fictionalization" here and insists that his book is a "work of journalism."

And the Band Played On might be a great work of semi-fictionalized, interpreted history but it is hardly--by any stretch off the imagination--hard-boiled, "objective" reporting. What was fascinating about the "objectivity" spin around And the Band Played On was that Shilts's supporters (in both the mainstream, as well as the gay press) praised his criticisms of the gay community as being "objective" and ignored the obvious reality that these criticisms (as well as much else in the book) were personal interpretations and opinions. It should be no surprise that Shilts's take on the legal and community fight over whether to close San Francisco's bathhouses--he was for it, blamed the bathhouses for the quick spread of AIDS, and saw no way in which they might have been used as community institutions for education or community building--has always been seen by the mainstream as hard hitting, "objective" analysis. In And the Band Played On the main gay proponents for not closing the baths are greedy gay business men. There is no mention of the widespread gay community support for turning them into centers for safe-sex education, of the complicated legal issues involved (it was still a time when bills advocating the quarantining of People with AIDS were being introduced in State legislatures), or of a coalition of activists--including grass-roots historian Allan Berube who wrote a brilliant 75 page historical analysis of the role of bathhouses as loci of community organizing--who were working to redefine the role and position of bathhouses in gay male culture.

Randy Shilts's enormous success rested on the reality that many of his opinions fitted quite nicely into accepted mainstream thinking. After the publication of And the Band Played On there was much concern in the gay community about the media hype around the character of Gaetan Dugas--the man whom Shilts's claimed was "Patient Zero": the man who brought AIDS to the U.S. and purposely spread it in bathhouses. The mainstream media latched onto--and popularized--the idea of Degas as the gay killer, the "Typhoid Mary" of AIDS. When the criticism became too strong Shilts claimed that he too hated how his publisher promoted this angle of the book. Yet everyone in the publishing industry knew that from the very beginning the Gaetan Dugas angle of the book was seen--by both Shilts as well as the marketing people--as a major key in the publicity campaign. The line between "objective" journalism and between what the reading public (and the mainstream critics) want to read is a thin one. All too often reporting that suits the popular prejudice, that panders to the common denominator is seen as correct and "objective"--anything that bucks that thinking is "biased."

But there is another angle in the Randy Shilts's story that no one has mentioned. Journalists have a responsibility to be fair, and comprehensive in their reporting--qualities that are quite different from what people disingenuously call "objective"; meaning that the writer or his ensuant work is uninfluenced by any political or social opinion. But journalists are also mandated to "disclose" any conflict of interest in their writing. A reporter should not work on an electoral campaign and also write about it; a movie critic should not be on the payroll for a film production company as review its films (or those of competitors); a reporter should not be sleeping with the people he or she is writing about.

The rules for this have changed over the years.

It used to be that African-American reporters were not assigned news in the Black community because they could not be "objective." In the late 1960s women were not assigned stories about the woman's liberation movement if they were seen as being "libbers" and could not be "objective." (The stories were, however written by men, or women, who disliked feminism--that was the "objective" stance.) The same has always been true for--and to a large degree continues to be true--for openly lesbian and gay reporters. Randy Shilts helped break down that barrier: he was an openly gay reporter to covered issues important to lesbian and gay people. This was a great advance. But it came with its costs. In order to achieve and maintain this position Randy Shilts had to distance himself from the "biased" gay press, he had to promote an ideology of "objectivity" which his books never delivered, he had to pretend that he had much less to do with his stories than he ever committed in print. Shilts's relationship to the issues of bathhouse closings is a case in point.

During the `1970s Shilts--like most all gay men in San Francisco--was an avid bathhouse attendee, both in the more mainstream baths as well as the more s/m oriented South of Market establishments. This is not news, it is common knowledge and up until the publication of And the Band Played On Shilts was always forthcoming about the details and the vagaries of his sexual history. The story of how he was accidental locked outside of South of Market's Handball Express (an establishment that specialized in fist-fucking), naked and handcuffed, was told by everyone--including Shilts's himself. What would have happened in the critical reception of And the Band Played On if Shilts's had been more forthcoming about his own involvement with the institutions about which he spoke. Would straight critics and media folk have treated him with the same respect he received by not disclosing his relationship to his material. I suspect not. And are we supposed to presume that Shilts's acclaimed "objectivity" meant that he had no feelings, no thoughts, no prejudices--either for or against--about the community about which he was writing? That is, of course, absurd.

The reality is that the gay man who speaks--unrepentantly--about his sexuality is taken less seriously than the one who never discusses his sexual life. Shilts tested positively for HIV after he finished the last page of And the Band Played On. He did not make his HIV status public until much later. And while no one is mandated to announce their health status it would have been interesting to see how the straight media would have responded to Shilts the "objective" reporter as an out, openly HIV positive gay man. For among all of the things that AIDS has contributed to our thinking and culture it has made the link between the more palatable idea off a "gay identity" and the less palatable reality of "gay sexual behavior" inevitable; simply put: you have to get fucked to get AIDS. And would Shilts's public position as a Person With AIDS have made the mainstream press see And The Band Played On as a document of special pleading--a label that is quickly attached to most all "non-objective" minority writing from Kate Millett to Larry Kramer to Lani Guinier.

The fault here lies not so much with Randy Shilts, but with the context and parameters set up from the mainstream press and media about what is acceptable. Randy Shilts understood that he lived in a world that would not take him seriously as a journalist if he was too partial to the gay press or showed too many signs of "non-objective" writing. The question is not really about "objective" of "biased" reporting, or even good and bad reporting. The far more pressing question is how long will it be before lesbian and gay writers will be able to write truthfully from the heart and the head about their lives and be taken seriously both by themselves and the heterosexual world.