Differing Views on Randy Shilts
To the Editor:
As a fellow journalist with a 33-year focus on hiv/aids and as the author of Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America, I take issue with Randy Shilts because of the shortcuts he took to sex up the drama at the expense of the truth. A good journalist can weave together facts and figures into a compelling story without embellishing them. Shilts failed to trust the dramatic power of his subject matter and his own storytelling ability.
The problem wasn’t only that Shilts fictionalized the real-life Gaetan Dugas, the alleged “Patient Zero,” as a device to drive the narrative. He also presumed to have overheard private conversations and reported them as fact. Despite never actually having interviewed him, Shilts portrayed Dr. Robert C. Gallo, the microbiologist who proved that HIV was the retrovirus that causes AIDS, as a megalomaniacal monster bent only on winning a Nobel Prize. Shilts’ thin reporting on the hiv/aids responses in other cities, particularly New York, give the book a very San Francisco-centric focus.
And the Band Played On was probably the right book for its moment, when it was most needed to wake up the American public to the unfolding epidemic. But it is best read as a dramatization of the earliest years of hiv/aids as seen through the limited vision and far-looking ambition of a local San Francisco reporter—most assuredly not a reliable history.
John-Manuel Andriote, Norwich, CT
To the Editor,
Andrew Holleran’s latest among his always insightful contributions, “The Short Historic Life of Randy Shilts” in the July-August 2019 issue, along with the book under review itself, The Journalist of Castro Street: The Life of Randy Shilts, by Andrew E. Stoner, combine to document at last the life of one of the truly great heroes of the early post-Stonewall movement.
What Shilts accomplished as an openly gay correspondent for The San Francisco Chronicle and author of three important books on the early movement was immense. I am a fellow journalist (also gay) who knows that the best in our profession are far from perfect but still driven by a passionate calling as “truth tellers” who have to be willing to take flak from many different quarters to do our job well. Over the course of his career, Shilts drew the ire of many leaders of the movement, who blasted him as a “sellout” for reporting to general audiences on unsavory elements of the gay community and for treating the AIDS epidemic as a public health crisis and not a gay political issue.
I know firsthand how journalists can draw contempt for reporting the truth instead of what the public wants to hear. When I first came out as a gay activist in San Francisco in 1969, it was after years of aligning myself with the journalistic calling. As an out young gay man, I took a job as a writer for the alternative paper, the Berkeley Barb. At one point my gay radical colleagues staged an intervention to insist I quit because I was “selling out.” I refused, insisting I was filling an important role that could be a major benefit to the movement. So what Shilts subsequently went through was familiar to me, as to any good journalist.
I never met Randy Shilts, about eight years my junior, though we roamed the same blustery streets of San Francisco in the 1970s. My intense gay activist years in the City by the Bay covered 1969 to 1973, although I remained in the community there until 1977, when I moved away.
In San Francisco, as a veritable native, I knew Harvey Milk, about ten years my senior, who arrived at roughly the same time that I was backing away from my intense gay activism. Milk’s key aid, Cleve Jones, about ten years my junior, came to town as a teenager during my activist phase, before connecting with Milk. Finally, Armistead Maupin, my same age almost exactly, arrived there during my activist phase, but didn’t come out until a bit later and subsequently took up with the Chronicle for his legendary “Tales of the City” series.
Milk, as everybody knows, was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1978, and Shilts died from AIDS in 1994, while Jones and Maupin remain active to this day. Much has been written and produced about Milk, and both Jones and Maupin published their memoirs in recent years. So, it was left to Stoner to provide the first thorough treatment of Shilts’ life and career, and to Holleran, also gay and active in those days but on the other coast, to call attention to it.
There may have been more, but there was one occasion reported in Stoner’s biography of Shilts when all three—Jones, Maupin, and Shilts—were together at the same time and place, in 1976, as dinner party guests. On that night, none could have imagined the futures they faced. Of all the 1970s San Francisco gay giants—Milk, Jones, Maupin, and Shilts (and, of course, there were others)—only Shilts chose the path of being a serious journalist, or as many of us in the profession hold, the path chose him. His application of journalistic standards to his craft proved, in my opinion, unbelievably important in rallying the resources to staunch the spread of AIDS following the publication of And the Band Played On in 1987.
The book wound up also becoming an Emmy Award-winning HBO-TV docu-drama in 1993, and, notwithstanding issues of how it was marketed, the movie and the book on which was based became the backbone of the popular discourse on the epidemic that compelled the medical research and led ultimately to the breakthroughs of the mid-1990s.
Missing in Stoner’s book are some important items. It touches on the furor and anger aimed at Shilts in 1984 for his news coverage that pointed fingers at the city’s sixteen bathhouses as places where the virus was being spread most actively, along with bars with dark rooms, sex clubs, and peep shows. Stoner does not address the issues associated with the financial gains that operators of those facilities were fighting to keep. Nor does he address the pressures of sexual addiction, trafficking, and systematic exploitation as driving factors to keep them open. Nor does he report, as Shilts did, that a major factor leading to the eventual closing of the baths was the role of an early gay activist, Larry Littlejohn, a founder of the Society of Individual Rights (SIR), who, in his passion to deter the spread of the virus, threatened to carry the bathhouse issue onto a citywide referedum.
In these days when the very institutions of journalism and the free press are coming under fire from no less than the White House, affirming the great contribution of Randy Shilts is timely, indeed.
Nicholas F. Benton, Falls Church, VA
Don’t Call Me “Queer”!
To the Editor:
Since you devoted a whole issue [March-April 2019] to the labels we use for our community, let me address the resurgence of the use of the word “queer.” Self-hatred is not something to celebrate; it is something to overcome. Any use of the “Q” word actively promotes self-hatred. Of course the word is all over the Internet, but when I now see it in the New York Times, I feel deeply threatened and offended.
Surely some people must be wondering whether the gay community has lost its collective mind. Has some kind of toxic groupthink established itself? Throughout history, minorities have made terrible political mistakes and found themselves in a backward spiral. “Queer” makes me feel that the rug we have so carefully woven over the years is being pulled out from under us. The fact that no one is sounding the alarm bell about the casual use of this word in the mainstream press is deeply disturbing. Has the ubiquity of “queer” given people the false impression that the expression is de rigueur? Has the constant repetition of the word brainwashed people into thinking that it is the new normal?
Many greet this development with puzzlement. Serious writers and thinkers who care about gay civil rights, dignity, and equality will have to look under this rock that has so suddenly been placed in our midst. I don’t think they will like what they see. This may seem like only a word or a trend, but it is in fact an agenda that we must all resist. A future that is “queer” is not one that we who have fought for five decades are ready to permit without some kind of serious inquiry and opposition. I knew some of the pioneers of the modern gay movement, and those who have passed on must be rolling in their graves every time they hear “queer.” We must fight this verbal atrocity for them.
Do you really want to live in a world of “queer” husbands and wives, doctors and nurses referring to you as a “queer?” Must celebrities like Anderson Cooper, Andy Cohen, Elton John, and Ellen DeGeneres be labeled “queer?” Writers like Gore Vidal, Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, and Gertrude Stein referred to as “queer writers?” Can anyone call Harvey Milk a “queer?” Do we really think that anyone in his or her right mind would come out to parents by saying, “Mom and Dad, I have some news for you. I am a queer”? Does anyone believe that “Queer Rights” is an inspiring banner that anyone with a modicum of self-respect would march behind?
Years ago, leaders in the African-American community took a stand against the use of “the N word” in the media. Today it is generally agreed that this word is extremely offensive. Gay leaders need to sound the alarm to make sure the media understand that “queer” is our N word and always will be.
One of the most noble gay endeavors in recent years has been the “It Gets Better Project,” which was devised to send a message of hope to young gay people. But telling them that they will be “queers” when they grow up and come out should be called the “It Gets Worse Project.” Promoters of “queer” are creating a potentially catastrophic political future for them.
Luckily, many others, including most of my friends and family members, are horrified by this development, and they have the common sense not to fall for the bogus claim that gay people are “reclaiming the word.” When we hear that cult-like lame rationale, we must in turn reclaim the words “not in our lifetime.”
Tom Steele, New York City
How’s This for an Alternative?
To the Editor:
A word, a word, my Kingdom for a word! That is, a word for us! This is not an unimportant issue; what you call yourself has power. Am I queer? Am I lgbtq? Not really and No! What are we when we want to refer to ourselves broadly, inclusively?
We are stuck with alphabet soup: lgbtqi++? “Queer” has been a suggested replacement and is used by some, firmly rejected by others. Recently Jonathan Rauch suggested (The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2019) dropping the LGBT and using “Q” as a word: as in “Who would have expected that a Q person would be a credible candidate for president?” I see two problems with this: Q inevitably references “queer” and it just does not feel like a usable word.
As you might expect, I have a word, a neologism, to suggest: Globatiq (glō-BAT-ik), as in: “Who would have expected that a globatiq person would be a credible candidate for president?”Definition of the word: Adjective and noun; all sexual and gender minorities. For those who need references, they’re all there: gay, lesbian, other, bisexual, asexual, transsexual, intersex, and queer. The “other” includes any sub-groups and possible future additions.
It’s not a bad-sounding English word, rolls easily enough off the tongue, and is unusual, if not unique, ending in a “q,” which catches your attention a bit, and just a slight bow to “queer.” The initial “glo” gives it a bright feeling.
David J. Kundtz, Kensington, CA
Editor’s Note: The following two letters, which refer to the Nov.-Dec. 2018 issue, were received months ago but vanished for a time when we switched servers in early 2019.
Bi- and Pansexuals Slighted in “BTW”
To the Editor:
In the “BTW” column of your November-December 2018 issue, you have an item about Millennials, mentioning that among Yale’s first-years, the largest subset of lgbtq+ students were “Bi/Pansexual,” clocking in at nine percent. This is indeed the way identity is trending on college campuses and beyond.
But then you somehow felt it appropriate to dismiss this data with the following commentary: “The fact that we’re talking about nineteen-year-olds undoubtedly accounts for some of the equivocation—fully fifteen percent were questioning or bi/pansexual—and things may sort themselves out over time. (Can one still be ‘pansexual’ in late middle age?)”
There is so much wrong with your dismissive tone. First, you seem to conflate questioning and bi/pansexual identities, grouping them under “equivocation.” I have identified as bisexual for 42 years and three months. I am entirely certain that I am bisexual. And to answer your snarky question about whether one can still be “pansexual” in late middle age: I identify as bisexual, pansexual, and queer. And I am sixty years old. So, yes.
Robyn Ochs, Boston
Absolutely no offense was intended toward the bi- and pansexual communities, which I totally support. The BTW item was meant as a cheerful report on a study showing that around 25 percent of young people identify as something other than “straight,” while the final remark was my clumsy attempt to find a wry twist to the story.
I am aware of the sensitivities around bisexuality as a stable identity. No doubt the trigger word was “equivocation,” which could imply that it’s a hedge or perhaps a temporary phase. I have no doubt that for many people bi- or pansexuality is a lifelong identity, which is wonderful. What I don’t understand is why this excludes the possibility that for some people it is in fact transitional in some way. Bisexuality has always been a safety zone for young (and other) people who are trying to sort out their sexual identity, as it was for me all through college.
Also, the momentum now is toward seeing gender and sexuality as fluid over time. Indeed the labels themselves are always in flux (e.g., “pansexual” is fairly new). I think there needs to be room for bi- and pansexuality—or any sexual identity—to be part of a journey rather than a fixed destination.
Finally, the bit about being pansexual in late middle age was entirely self-referential—another attempt at humor.
Richard Schneider Jr., Boston
Portrayal of We’wha Was Off the Mark
To the Editor:
One of the newest additions to San Francisco’s Rainbow Honor Walk is a 3’ square bronze plaque honoring the Native American We’wha (for whom I use the pronoun “they”). The inscription reads: “Respected Zuni lhamana or two spirit, accomplished potter, weaver and cultural ambassador of the Zuni nation.” The somewhat unexpected inclusion of We’wha in an article by Tomás Prower titled “Between the Greeks and Stonewall” [Nov.-Dec. 2018] is not unwelcome and, in broad strokes, captures the arc of this remarkable individual’s life. However, nearly all of its details are wrong.
We’wha was indeed initiated into the men’s kachina society, but there were no comparable “female mysteries” at Zuni into which they might have been initiated. There’s no evidence that We’wha’s “latent feminine energy” was any more pronounced later in life than earlier. They were not the “featured subject” of Matilda Coxe Stevenson’s “literary studies”—Stevenson wrote ethnologies in which she mentioned We’wha occasionally, and these had not been published at the time We’wha visited Washington in 1886. They were not “hired” by the Smithsonian to make pottery, although Stevenson did purchase pieces for the museum. Stevenson did not make a special note of We’wha’s male sex in her diary when she learned of it—she did not keep a diary, or at least none that has survived. Finally, We’wha and other Zuni leaders were never accused of witchcraft—rather a young man was so accused and tried by Zuni leaders, and We’wha, who resisted the soldiers sent to arrest those leaders, was themself arrested.
Details matter if for no other reason than respect for the work of LGBT scholars who have recovered stories such as that of We’wha at great effort, often without institutional support, knowing that their work would be held to a higher standard. Twenty-five years after publication, my book The Zuni Man-Woman remains the only scholarly source for We’wha’s career. And it is still in print. It’s strange that Mr. Prower did not consult it, and I can only guess that he relied on unreliable Internet sources.
Will Roscoe, PhD, San Francisco
A BTW item in the July-August 2019 issue stated that Brian Sims is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He is instead a member of the Pennsylvania House.