“There are times, rare times, when the forces of social change collide with a series of dramatic events to produce moments which are later called historic.” What he wrote of Harvey Milk in his biography, The Mayor of Castro Street, applies just as well to Shilts himself, who entered his profession at a time when a gay journalist had plenty to talk about, in a city where he was permitted to do the talking.
Although Shilts graduated near the top of his class at the University of Oregon (and running for student office under the slogan “Come Out For Shilts”), his graduation year of 1975 made finding work as an out gay journalist a challenge he was forced to answer with a few years’ freelancing. When the San Francisco Chronicle took him on in 1981, he became one of the country’s first openly gay reporters. A short year later, he wrote Castro Street, one of the first gay biographies, about Milk, a San Francisco politician who had fascinated him.
Being a gay man in San Francisco in the early 80’s placed Shilts in a unique position to cover the health crisis that was beginning to attack his community. As he documented in And The Band Played On, the US government and media largely ignored HIV/AIDS due to its association with unpopular or powerless groups: hemophiliacs, Haitians, heroin users, and homosexuals. It wasn’t until 1987 that President Reagan publicly spoke on AIDS – by that time, 20,849 had died of the disease. To complicate matters further, gay liberation was viewed as being tied to sexual freedom, creating both a culture of bathhouses and regular anonymous sex that facilitated transmission, and a powerful resistance to sexual health precautions. Shilts was among the advocates for closing the bathhouses, and so found himself accused of colluding with the homophobic heterosexual community. Though his sexuality was no shield against his critics, he had enough admirers who recognized the importance of his work that he was honored with several awards, including posthumous placement on New York University’s “Top 100 Works of Journalism in the United States in the 20th Century” list and the 1988 Outstanding Author award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Shields himself passed away from AIDS-related complications in 1994, one year after publishing his final book, Conduct Unbecoming, which exposed the extreme homophobia in the U.S. military that began after the Vietnam War. He had refused to tested prior to the publication of Band because he was concerned it might influence his writing, though he later came to regret the decision, opining in a New York Times interview that knowing wouldn’t have mattered because “facts are facts.”