The first time I watched the HBO film “And the Band Played On“, I found myself speechless after it had finished. The AIDS crisis had grown exponentially and the invisible enemy that was originally thought to be a “gay disease” had shown the world that it did not discriminate. The HIV virus that can develop into AIDS spread fast and furiously, claiming the lives of people no one would have expected to succumb to it. Among those figures were movie star Rock Hudson (1925-1985), tennis great Arthur Ashe (1943-1993) and music legend Freddy Mercury (1946-1991). And no one can forget the story of teenager Ryan White (1971-1990), whose experience captivated America. I personally will never forget the announcement on national television by former NBA star Ervin “Magic” Johnson that he had tested positive for HIV. The HBO film was a success and the adaptation of the book by journalist Randy Shilts (1951-1994) for the silver screen has continued to honor his legacy decades after his death. Prior to writing “the Band” as it is called in this biography, Shilts had also written “The Mayor of Castro Street” about the life of the late San Francisco City Supervisor and gay rights activist Harvey Milk (1930-1978). Having read both books, I instinctively knew that this biography of Shilts was a book that I needed to read.
Admittedly, there was much about Shilts’s life that I did know prior to reading this book. I was aware that he had succumbed to AIDS. But his personal life still held an aura of mystery. This book removes the mystique and peels back the layers to Shilts’s short but incredible life that began in Davenport, Iowa and ended in Guerneville, California. At the time of his death, Shilts was only forty-two years old and had authored his final book titled “Conduct Unbecoming”, about the experience of LGBT personnel in the military. Here, author Andrew Stoner takes us back to Aurora, Illinois where we are given an inside look into the home of Bud and Norma Shilts who raised six sons. At first the story feels like a typical mid-western account. We soon learn that the Shilts household has its problems that would affect everyone within.
It is evident early in the story that Randy is “different” from his siblings. But he was able to maintain relationships with them to varying degrees. It was here that I learned the story of all six sons for the first time and what the author reveals is interesting and mystifying. In fact, readers may find themselves puzzled as the story of brother Ronald Shilts is told. The boys’ parents also have their own demons to confront but it is a story that we have seen many times before. But despite the issues at home, Shilts never wavered in his love towards them and in later years comes to understand them in separate ways. But I do believe his childhood experiences explain in part why he left home in search of acceptance. Ironically, he later finds acceptance from one person I did not expect. As Shilts gets older, his life takes unexpected turns and when he lands in San Francisco, the story quickly picks up in pace. I do not believe that he had any idea how San Francisco would change his life and American history.
Shilts soon finds himself working for the San Francisco Chronicle, writing about issues in the gay community of which he is a part. As I read this section of the book, I felt as if I were transplanted back in time to Castro Street as Harvey Milk and others were challenging the establishment emboldened by the actions of anti-LGBT activist Anita Bryant. Shilts is a first-hand witness and covered the issues extensively while at the same time struggling to confront his own demons and vices that threaten to derail his life and career. The author left no stone unturned and allows us to see the battle in private that Shilts was waging against himself. Happiness became a lost item in his life as one challenge after another presented itself. And lurking in the shadows was a virus that would leave death and devastation in its wake as it ravaged communities and exposed the dark side of politics and the health care industry.
In some ways this biography rivals the story told in “the Band”. In particular, the complicated situation Shilts found himself in must have been difficult and emotionally draining. As the issue of the bath houses comes to a boiling point, Shilts nearly becomes an enemy of the state in the LGBT community. Readers will find his interactions with both Harvey Milk and former California State Senator John V. Briggs (1930-2020) highly interesting. The AIDS epidemic continues to gain speed and it becomes clear that it is a threat no one had seen before. Shilts eventually makes the decision to author the book that catapulted him into the national spotlight but the path to complete was anything but simple. Further, the author provides an interesting assessment of the patient zero origin and the truth about Gaëtan Dugas (1953-1984), the Air Canada flight attendant who was demonized and accused of intentionally spreading HIV. In October 2016, news reports surfaced that Dugas did not spread HIV to the United States. However, at the time of Shilts’s work on the book, the flight attendant was believed to be the main person responsible for the destruction in San Francisco’s gay community. Shilts did not live to see Dugas vindicated but I believe that if he had lived, he would have regretted the turmoil press reports caused the Canadian until his death on March 30, 1984.
Shilts’s masterpiece did have its flaws but has stood the test of the time as a literary classic. But the HIV virus spared no one, not even Shilts himself. Exactly when he learned he had HIV is lost to history but as the virus progresses and develops into AIDS, his life becomes a race against the clock. His decline and realization that he cannot escape his fate spurs him to author his final book. If you have read other books that describe death from AIDS, you know that this story will not be easy to finish. The information presented about the final years of his life as he struggled with his health and the raging AIDS crisis will remind older readers about a time in history when no one knew how to interact with someone who had AIDS yet many of us knew someone who had contracted HIV. Today the virus that causes AIDS is no longer a death sentence but in the 1980s, the diagnosis of Kaposi sarcoma and a positive HIV test result meant a trip to the grave as doctors struggled to develop medication to combat the growing menace. If Shilts were alive, he would have the benefit of modern medicine and the ability to live a full life. He is gone but his work will never be forgotten. And I am glad that I decided to read his life story which has left me with a better understanding of what inspired him to author the classics that continue to give knowledge and wisdom to new readers. This is a good look at the life of Randy Shilts.