Twenty Years Ago Today: Death of Randy Shilts

25_RandyShiltsA croppedTwenty years ago today, the journalist Randy Shilts died of an AIDS-related illness in California. He was only one of many to fall before what people ten years earlier were calling 'the gay plague' - and it's the ignorance that lies behind that opinion that he chose to fight against, as a journalist and as a campaigner. His book, And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, makes it clear that AIDS was not just a viral plague, but a social one, with two very different vectors: firstly, the US establishment, which had no interest in dealing with the public health consequences of an illness which seemed to be striking a community for which it felt nothing but disgust. Remember that this was in the early days of the Reagan presidency, during a massive swing in attitudes to the political right - which seemed to be all too comfortable with abandoning so many people to a lingering, agonising death, and did little to commit the kind of funding necessary to deal with a new and devastating disease. Secondly, there were the attitudes of the gay community itself. Having only recently secured the freedom to live openly and engage in the kinds of hedonism that young people of all kinds are wont to pursue, some gays treated anyone telling them they needed to close down such things as the bathhouses in the Castro district as tantamount to a betrayal - especially given that Shilts himself was gay. He was spat on in the street, and accused of being a gay 'Uncle Tom'. It didn't stop him.

Shilts did more than almost anyone to bring the AIDS crisis to public attention, but he wasn't finished there. As his illness closed in on him and sapped his energy, he wrote another book about homosexuality in the US armed forces, anticipating Clinton's implementation of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy - something we regard as problematic now, but which was a massive step forward in its day. If he had lived, he would have gone on to investigate homosexuality in the Catholic church - and doubtless he would have stumbled on all the other sexual problems that the church has spent so long covering up.

He wasn't an angel. He had an ego the size of San Francisco, and made a habit of pissing people off. But he was definitely a hero.

Here's a 60 Minutes segment from 1987, in which Shilts talks about his theory of a patient zero for the US AIDS epidemic: