tv Journalist Randy Shilts the HIVAIDS Epidemic CSPAN August 27, 2021 4:01pm-4:40pm EDT
california state university professor andrew stoner talks about his biography of author and journalist randy schilt's, who covered the hiv will be aids epidemic for the san francisco chronicle. he died of aids in 1984. the professor skrid his work to bring coverage to mainstream media. andy rooeds books hosted this event. >> welcome to andy rooeds books. we are a bookstore. our mission is to promote literacy and english language proficiency of adults in indiana. we sell use asked new books for all ages, and we host multiple events a week. we are largely colonel volunteer run. if you would like to support us,
consider making a purchase tonight, a donation or volunteering your time as a bookstore volunteer or literacy tutor. tonight we have the press your of hosting andrew stoner who will be discussing his latest book, the journalist of castro street, the life of randy schilt's. dr. stoner is an indiana native and an associate professor of communications studies at california state university, sacramento. his books include campaign crossroads, politician politics in indiana from lincoln to obama. and notorious 92, indianapolis's most heinous murders in all 92 counties, among other titles. tonight his book can be purchased at the front register and proceeds will benefit both andy reads books and the author. join me in welcoming dr. andrew stoner to the stage. [ applause ] . >> thank you very much. i appreciate the opportunity to be back in indianapolis among
familiar faces and to talk about a subject i have spent nine or ten years working on. the topic i am going to talk, about randy schilt's tonight was originally by doctoral dissertation at colorado state university. through the help of some editors and a lot of hard work we have gotten it into a readable fashion for i think a broader audience and it has so far been well received and i excited for the potential to what i call reconsider andy stilts which was america's aids chronicler i want to do two things. i have a regular presentation that i do about randy schilt's and i give you background that also helps walk you through the book. but i often get asked about why i was interested in writing about this. i thought i would share some of the preface, briefly read from
that so you can get a sense why this topic was one of interest me in my degree pursuits getting my ph.d. in journalism in technical kmungs. i thought i would read for a few minutes from there and go into my formal remarks. i remember the winter moderning in 1994 when i heard the news report about death of journalist and author randy schilt's. i was in my graduate student apartment in indiana getting ready for a cold walk to the bus stop. i was sat down on the bed and listened to the discussion of schilt's and his work and i felt as if i lost someone i knew really well though i had never met him. his book, and the band played on made a strong impression on me. his writing style and journalistic attention to detail impressed me. in the day of the announcement, i decided to go looking for my paperback co copy of the mayor
castro street bass i wanted to read more about the life and times of gay icon harvey milk. at the time of his death aids seemed like a troubled and vexing issue that seemed far away. i had never known anyone with hiv or aids. people with aids were ghosts on television or in magazine articles in far away places like san francisco for new york city. i had a rude awakening ahead of me as schilt's's death from aids served as a forerunner of losses to come among my own circle of friends.
what shilts accomplished with his writing, becoming a respected soughtafter expert on once hidden subjects, shining a light in dark places was what i envisioned it meant to be a journalist and a truly liberated member of this society as a gay person. the words on the pages that followed here needed to be more than just admiration and acclimation and needed to offer a more critical review of shilts. a necessity to take that more critical view grew not only from the academic requirements of a dissertation but also to add meaningful consideration to his work and finally because nothing short of a piercing honest review of randy shilts would do because that's what he had always been. he was sometimes equally determined to give back as good as he got. he knew some of the things he
wrote would incite anger. but he wrote them anyways. he wrote for the gay liberation movement. he learned in his life that a wounded heart stands sometimes right next to the determined soul. and he discovered that the bomb for the pain that the world can inflict can sometimes -- the balm for the pain that the world can inflict can be found in your work and in your desire to drive changes. from an early age he learned to take whippings and verbal abuse from home and somehow dried his tears during the walk to school where he presented himself as an engaged student. he remained determined to succeed. his rock ribbed intensity and his drive to succeed carried the sense of urgency. as we now know, it was the
reality of aids underneath was forcing him to work fast and furious. and he went after his work with a strong commitment to fairness and freedom and bullish epushing forward always. i have attempted to explore these issues here while being true to a critical examination of his work and the impact behind not only his words but also his bulldozer approach to life. he has been with me throughout the writing i think especially so when i spent a week or more in january of 2011 with his archives. it's as scholar cred craig kridel defined i have had company in the dusty archives and had the subject looking over my shoulder helping illuminate corners of the past through yellow and wrinkled papers and riddled audio and videotapes that are left over from his full yet interrupted life. with that preface, i wanted to go ahead and tell you some about
randy shilts. some you maybe already know, or some you don't. he has been gone 25 years this year. every year, fewer and fewer people know who we are talking about. i am hoping that i can illuminate some information on that. this is the title of the book, the journalist of castro street, the life of randy shilts. the title was selected because it plays off his first book, the mayor of castro street, the life and times of harvey milk of the it comes to us from the illinois press. he was born in davenport, iowa, raised his entire life after that in aurora, illinois, which is a suburb of chicago, in kane county. shortly after graduating stool in june 1969 on the one year an verse of robert f. kennedy's assassination he fled to oregon
because he heard there were hippies there and people living free and open life-styles and he wanted to escape some of the more rigid life he had known in illinois. he was one of five sons in the shilts family born in a 25-year period in the shilts family. so they were broadly spread out. but they were all very active boys. and all of them fled aurora at the first opportunity they could. when he got to, finally into the university ever oregon after one year at portland community college he decided to run for student body president his first year on campus. he did so as an openly gay candidate under the motto, come out for shilts. my students now are like, so what. but in 1970 and '71 to be an openly gay student at college was a big thing. made you stood you had to. randy stood out and was well-known on campus for being
outspoken and eventually switched to a journalism major. he had given up on politics as being able to change anything. this reflects -- early in life it was a barry goldwater republican and switched left and became more and more a progressive. but journalism seemed to hold a great draw to him, an interest to him in its ability to maybe change the world. randy had somewhat of a naive view at times. he thought if people had more information, they just understood more, they would accept more, people would be more willing to bring gay people into the fullness of life andi include gay people in everyday life. and he thought, as a journalist, that was part of his role, to bring that information to people. i think he found that was often a struggle because it wasn't quite so simple. he left college, and his professors told me he was one of the most talented majors in the department in journalism. he was in a class with ann curry
from nbc news but left unemployed. worked as a freelance writer for years struggling to find full-time work because he wanted to do it on his terms, to be an openly guy person. and newsrooms at that time didn't have openly gay journalists. he resisted suggests from professors and others that he get out of the floppies, and quit waried flowered shirts unbuttoned down to his stomach. and you know, assume the role of newsroom journalist. and wouldn't compromise on those things. eventual he was hired by the advocate. wrote for years for them, often contributed to the bay area reporter. was hired finally by kqed television in san francisco for a public television show called newsroom, which there is a screen shot of there. he lost his relationship with the advocate in a battle with the publisher at the time, david goodstein, and was banished from
the pages of the advocate for many years until goodstein sold the magazine to someone else. newsroom went for many years, but they lost their grant from the ford foundation. so he opened the '80s unemployed again and still looking for full-time work. interestingly, at the same time, the san francisco chronicle decided that they needed a full-time or more regular coverage of the gay community. they had become a political economic and social force in san francisco. randy lukd out and got hired for that job as the first openly gay reporter on a main treatment daily newspaper, a large newspaper, the san francisco chronicle. from there, his career really took off. he was with the chronicle up until the time he died. he was with the chronicle for a key period. at kqed at a key period. he covered the assassination of
milk and mass coney. it provided him with an opportunity to write the biography of harvey milk which was made in 2009 into the film "milk". he had a lot of talent that people recognized early on. he was assigned city beat reporting. during the loma prieta earthquake in 1989 he was coordinating all the coverage of the damage in san francisco and oakland. during this period loving in the castro, he began learning this other gay men were starting to get ill. some of them were beginning to die from exotic sorts of causes. in some cases, car posey sarcoma or a viralent strain of pneumonia that normally people had good resistance to. infers no name for what was going on. but in new york, los angeles,
and san francisco gay men were showing up ill. eventually it spread other groups, intravenous drug users, prost constitution workers. not a very politically important group in the '80s. he began writing about it. he didn't write the chronicle's first article about aids. but he wrote their second one in 1982. it appears on page 6, of all places. so it was still not a front-page story for san francisco. eventually, it would become so as tens of thousands of people died. and randy covered all of this even before there was even a name for this disease. as it first started out it was called gay cancer. then it was gay related immune deficiency or grid. once the human immunodeficiency
virus was discovered and isolated, hiv, then caused aids, the name evolved for that. that's when randy decided to take up n 1985, '86, the idea of a book about aids and how america had responded. he found very little or support among publishers for that. st. martin's press finally decided to go ahead and include or pick up the topic for him. and it is still the first and most comprehensive issue of the aids even though a lot of the clinical and medical information and scientific research that's included has been overcome by time and new information. the issues related to how society reacted, how communities reacted is still viewed as essential reading for understanding this period of american history. there were some cue points that shilts used to drive band in
addition to the fact there was a growing infection and death rate that continued to climb every year. one is that the world health organization and u.s. government health organizations including the cdc and the centers for disease control were slow to respond to this disease because of who it was impacting and there may have been political problems with the victims of this disease, and so there wasn't as particularly as great a concern as if it started to spread in other kmuns. he netted concern did grow once hemophiliacs were affected quite a bit by hiv infection. he also took on the news media in terms of their inability or unwillingness to cover anything about gay people. when you were talking about hiv and aids you had to talk about its transmission, which included gay sex for example. newspapers weren't used to that sort of coverage. they weren't used to writing about such things. so the news media were slow to follow up on exactly what was
going on. and the chronicle led the way on that. and randy pushed and pulled the san francisco chronicle into a leadership role on this issue well beyond what you saw at the "new york times," the "washington post," or elsewhere. he also noted that loathsome feelings and hatred toward gay people were linked to aids, whether true or not. as you know, the narrative on gay people has often been they are a threat to society or to family. this furthered that narrative. shilts's research also led to criticism of the gay community and how it responded to the issue. this is where some of the most lingering criticism for shilts
remains in that he shined light on aspects of the gay liberation movement to that point which made people a little uncomfortable. in reality, the gay liberation movement to that point had been a sexual liberation. you are talking about a group of people whose sexual expression had been illegal prior to the mid 1970s, 1980s in most states. it still was something that if you engaged in homo south carolinaual contact, you could still be arrested, put in jail, lose your job or have other social penalties to pay. so it's not coincidental that there was a lot of expression of sexual freedom in the early days of the gay liberation movement. shilts was one of the first though to begin raising questions about is that all there is? we now know there are social economic and cultural issues that flowed. employment rights, marriage rights, things about adoption and parental rights for gay
people have all flowed since that time. and also have very little to do with sexuality other than not having to have a system that discriminates against people on the basis of sexual orientation. by shining a light in that area, including writing a lot about std rates among gay people in the years leading up to aides brought criticism to shilts at that time, and continues. the biggest problem rising from that was the creation or the reporting on a character who is based on an actual person called the patient zero. he ends up being an important figure to considering randy shilts, although he was not necessarily an important figure in shilts' mind, he ultimately was one of the figures that helped sell "the band played on". what was patient zero? a canadian airline steward who
lived between 1953 and 1984 and died three years before shilts' book came out. he was a very cooperative person with the centers for disease control and other investigators who were trying to figure out what is this disease? he turned over his black book, those days when people didn't have phones, with all the numbers in it. he turned over his black book. he submitted to blood testing. he participated in extensive interviews and was at the center of a cluster study done in los angeles of 248 men who tested positive for whatever was to become hiv. and he was connected to 40 of those 248 people. so -- and he was coded in the study by the researcher who i ordinary as "o "or outside los angeles, because he was from canada and didn't live in los
angeles county. but that quickly began to be interpreted as patient zero as opposed to "o". shilts made that mistake as well. so what you get is he is transformed into essentially the typhoid mary character of the 1980s. you have the new york post with its headline, the man who brought us aids, and star magazine calling him a monster. these headlines come in october of 1987, three years after he has died, but at the time of the release of shilts' book. when shilts' book is being released most reviewers are taking a pass. they are not interested in reviewing it. aids is an incomplete story. we don't know where it is going. don't know how big it is going to be. there was not much interest in it. his publicist centers on patient zero. they decide the story begins and ends on that hook.
people will be interested if we can begin to help them understand where did aids come from? it is created then in this patient zero, this monster-like character who brought aids to america. it was problematic. shilts spent time trying to tamp that down and get back to the major themes of the book that he thought were more important in terms of the government response, the gay community response, the media response to this issue and less on this idea of patient zero. he viewed it as a story telling element. but it did explode, and he did allow for that publicity to go forward and never lived to correct the issue because we know by 2016, researchers at the university of arizona conducted tests that cleared patient zero. the particular strain of hiv that he carried was introduced to the united states as early as 1970 when he was just a little boy and had never visited the united states before. so he was not the person who brought aids to america.
aids had been in america prior to that time. we now of course there are many times of hiv strains. so it's rather absurd to think we can connect a pandemic on a continent of 200 or 300 million people down to one person. it's just not possible to do. this is where shilts's -- the post humous review of it is shhh's work has been most critical. there are books, and a documentary, coming about patient zero, and about the problematic creation of that character and how he was set up as being somehow different from many other gay people in that era or really any person in their 20s who is interested in expressing themselves sexually and otherwise, meeting new people and exploring life. and he had not lived his life necessarily a whole lot different than anyone else. he just had been more cooperative with investigators. there has been an effort to
reclaim his reputation. my effort has been also to not reclaim necessarily randy's reputation, but to clarify or reconsider one of the most things, he's not here to have updated the story. the story stopped in 1994, when randy shilts dies of aids. his last book was called conduct unbecoming about the struggle for gays and lesbians to serve openly in the u.s. military. it had become a big issue in the 1992 presidential campaign with clinton and george h.w. bush. clinton pledged he would eliminate the ban on gays serving openly. the compromise that was reached was called don't ask, don't tell. don't tell us you are gay, we won't ask you if you are gay. shilts' book came on the edge of that discussion and was helpful
for illuminating for people this concept of we are training military members to be experts in all sorts of skills then as soon as we find out anything about their personal life in terms of who they love and who they spends their life with, we are throwing them out and throwing away their careers. this was the only work that shilts was able to dedicate to any real coverage of gay women, lesbian women. they were severing disproportionately the number of discharges from the u.s. military based on their sexual orientation and a lot of them being threatened with losing their families and children because of their sexual orientation being exposed. this book was finished as randy was in a coma in the hospital. he recovered from that for the better part of 1993 but was not able to tour the book. if you see interviews for that period he is doing all of them from his home in san francisco. he finally died in february of
1994, at the age of 42. during this period that conduct came out, there were a lot of questions why right handy had not been more forthcoming about his hiv status. he didn't disclose it until it was beyond his control to disclose it because he had been hospitalized. he mentioned that he had not been up front because of his hiv status not because of shame because he didn't want the man who had wrote the most about aids had aids. he knew that was potentially a story that was going to overcome the story he wanted people to focus on was on cutting unbecoming and on the effort of military members who happened to be gay to be able to continue to serve in the u.s. military. as he said to rolling stone magazine in 1993 he was concerned by his work being overcome by it. in many ways, it was. he still viewed the world at the
end of his life like he had when he first started in college, that was i have facts and information to share, the world can benefit from this information. if you place journalistic function into the discussion i think you find shilts across the objectivity line and into the advocacy role that he thought journalism could play. it's a bit much like walter lipman's ideas about the media playing a social elitist function of explaining the world to the rest of us. if you think about theories about agenda setting theory, it very much falls into the that sort of idea of not necessarily telling you what to think but helping you think about what to think about and pointing you in certain directions. and he offered a rather sad quote that he was really at the pinnacle of his career and could do almostning he wanted to in journalism at that point in life but had this feeling his life was finished without being completed. in fact, it was. my work has been to look at some
of the issues that have remained. one is his clash with radical queer theorists and activists who viewed him as a gay uncle tom as more interested in mainstream journalism and its demands than advocacy. others say he was too much of an advocate and not enough of a journalist. there is a struggle where to place him ultimately in the whole discussion of this era. i think my book is meant to answer or ask -- excuse me, to ask the question, can we distinguish between his obvious merit as a journalist from the mistakes or the issues that he wasn't around to reconcile? certainly, knowing him as well as i feel like i know him he would have not let the patient zero issue remain unresolved. he would have revisited and corrected the issue. his brother has told me he was sad about the attention that was
getting over other things he had written about and he did feel like the ultimate result had been a victimization of due gau, and that was something he wasn't happy about. i think we should take in his impressive credentials, successes ads well as his failures. that's the attempt of the book, to be balanced and we should acknowledge he didn't live long enough to reconcile all of these things but there was no question that he was there on the pulse of important issues. the political movement with milk. at the start of aids, with this issue that threatened to blow up the gay liberation movement. he was there on a big issue in the '90s determining how openly gay people may serve in society and employment n this case, military. the area he wanted to go to next was allegations of abuse and neglect of children within the catholic church. he was interested in looking at
how the catholic church had not responded to that. if you look at the decade that followed, 1994, that was a social issue we have had to grapple with. i think it reflects shilts as an amazing character in terms of his ability to get a sense of what is bubbling under the surface. what's the next thing. i think we would have had a lot of wonderful writing in the subsequent years. ultimately, i think most people settled on the fact that randy is someone worth celebrating. there were 20 people inducted into the lgbtqq hall of fame in san francisco, and their image was placed on sidewalks in san francisco. if you go to castro street and walk down at 18th street you would see randy's picture there. he is one of the first 20 notable gay americans who are so enshrined. i would like to think of him that way and do so, though work the honesty and the completeness of his whole story. so thank you very much.
[ applause ] if there were any questions, i could try to answer them. or we can call it a day. yes, sir. >> you mentioned his brother. how much insight did his family give you? >> i had the cooperation of his oldest brother, gary shilts. and one of his youngest brothers, reed shilts who are -- there is only three brothers living. his youngest brother, david, is autistic, lives in a group home and is not available for interviews. but gary and reed were cooperative. they had very interesting perspectives on the family. gary is the oldest child. his family experience was very different than reed's. by the time reed had grown, was coming into adolescence, the family had begun to settle down. his parents' marriage had
resolved some of the previous issues. hismer's drinking had been brought under control and she had stopped drinking. so the persons that randy and gary had was a little bit different than what the younger boys had. but they are pleased to know that there are still people that remember randy and still honor his work. >> did he always want to be a journalist? and how early did that avenue of expression hit him? was it in high school? was it in college? when did it happen? >> no, it was in college. he started out as an english major. the combination of understanding it meant a lot of long, long writing and reading and also that there weren't a lot of job for english majors but also this idea that journalism could move people. he liked seeing his name in print being the center of
attention. he also was the managing editor of the oregon daily emerald, the student newspaper at oregon. so he carved out a good role for himself early on. i think that what his friends had told me at the end of his life he viewed himself more as a columnist as opposed to a reporter. columnist and author, so he would be pursuing longer form projects over the rest of his career. >> if he were still with us today, have you given any thought to what he would be doing, where he would be working, what he would be covering? >> i think he would still be a soughtafter figure. in his period he was on larry king and nightline and david brinkley and all of those shows from that era. he was a soughtafter television personality. i think the cable television and the online world would have on joyed randy's contribution consider bleechlt he was well-known to turn a good phrase as it were. i think he would have made good
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