1994-02-17

RANDY SHILTS, American author and activist died(b: 1951); a highly acclaimed, pioneering gay American journalist and author. He worked as a reporter for both The Advocate and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as for San Francisco Bay Area television stations.

In addition to his extensive journalism, Shillts wrote three best-selling, widely acclaimed books. His first, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, is a biography of the first openly Gay San Francisco politician, Harvey Milk, who was assassinated by a political rival in 1978. The book broke new ground, being written at a time when “the very idea of a Gay political biography was brand-new.”

Shilts’s second book, And The Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic (1980-1985), published in 1987, won the Stonewall Book Award and brought him nationwide literary fame. And the Band Played On is an extensively researched account of the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. The book was translated into seven languages, and in 1993 was made into an HBO film with many big-name actors in starring or supporting roles, including Matthew Modine, Richard Gere, Anjelica Huston, Phil Collins, Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda, among others. The film earned 20 nominations and 9 awards, including the 1994 Emmy Award for Outstanding Made for Television Movie.

There is controversy, now, over Shilts’ coinage of the “Patient Zero” term to describe Gaetan Dugas. Turns out he probably had nothing to do with the initial spread of HIV.

When the book was released, Dugas’ story became a controversial subject in the Canadian media. Shilts claimed that “the Canadian press went crazy over the story” and that “Canadians… saw it as an offense to their nationhood.”

The original study identifying Dugas as the index case had been completed by William Darrow, but it was called into question by University of California San Francisco epidemiologist Andrew Moss. Moss wrote in a letter to the editor of The New York Review of Books, “There is very little evidence that Gaetan was ‘patient zero’ for the US or for California,” while also stating that Shilts did not overstress Dugas’ lack of personal responsibility.

Sandra Panem in the magazine Science uses Shilts’ approach toward Dugas’ behavior as an example of his “glib” treatment of the science involved in the epidemic. It was suggested that Shilts’ representation of Dugas as “murderously irresponsible” is in actuality “Shilts’ homophobic nightmare of himself, and that Dugas is offered as a “scapegoat for his heterosexual colleagues, to prove that [Shilts], like them, is horrified by such creatures.”

Many years later, in the 2000s, it was shown, by tracing the roots of the virus, that it had spread from Africa to Haiti, and then to the U.S. in the mid-1960s, before Dugas would have been very sexually active, if at all, and before he was working as a flight attendant.

In 2016, a study of early AIDS cases demonstrated that Dugas could not have been “Patient Zero”

His last book, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military: Vietnam to the Persian Gulf, which examined discrimination against Lesbians and gays in the military, was published in 1993. Shilts and his assistants conducted over a thousand interviews while researching the book, the last chapter of which Shilts dictated from his hospital bed.

Shilts bequeathed 170 cartons of papers, notes, and research files to the local history section of the San Francisco Public Library. At the time of his death, he was planning a fourth book, examining homosexuality in the Roman Catholic Church. We are immeasurably poorer for his loss.