AIDS shadows Shilts' spotlight

May 11, 1993|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Contributing Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Randy Shilts is at home, sprawled out on the couch to ease his breathing, when by all rights he should be jammed into an airplane seat on a high-profile book tour. His new book, "Conduct Unbecoming," is already a best seller, a history of gay men and women in the military that is hitting the stores as the national debate on the issue intensifies. This is his moment.

But at 41, Mr. Shilts is traveling in the twin worlds of rapidly growing celebrity and slowly failing health; this year the book tour has had to come to him. The man who chronicled the course of so many AIDS deaths in his 1987 book, "And the Band Played On," has developed AIDS, limiting his mobility at a time when the reach of his work is expanding.

A movie based on his first book, "The Mayor of Castro Street," published in 1982, is about to start filming with Robin Williams in the lead role. An HBO movie of "Band" has just completed production, with an all-star cast including Lily Tomlin and Richard Gere. And "Conduct Unbecoming" is flying off the bookshelves. Just what Mr. Shilts had in mind.

Articulate, quick-thinking and ambitious, Mr. Shilts has long set his sights on nothing less than having a major impact on how heterosexual America views homosexuals. Perhaps the most widely read gay author in America, he has such star power that the release of "Conduct Unbecoming" has in recent days summoned the media to his living room -- Sam Donaldson, morning news anchors, newspaper and magazine reporters, a satellite crew for a linkup with Larry King.

With a string of mainstream successes at hand, the last thing he wants is to be pitied because of the fact that he has acquired immune deficiency syndrome. He especially does not want to become a spokesman on AIDS issues or a full-time martyr, the dumping ground for "people being totally depressed and projecting this negative death energy at me," he said.

He added, "Almost all the gay writers I know who've announced they're HIV-positive, like Paul Monette and Larry Kramer, they've essentially become cast in the role of being professional AIDS victims," he said. "I really never wanted to be in that role."

Although thin and too short of breath to jump up when the doorbell rings, Mr. Shilts has not lost any of his verve for the role he has defined for himself: the relentless reporter (he's a national correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle) who weaves his facts into dramatically rendered nonfiction and hammers away at a conclusion.

All three of his books circle the same theme: what a despised minority gay people are and how they are discriminated against because of that hatred.

He first explored those ideas in "The Mayor of Castro Street," the story of the late gay-rights leader Harvey Milk, who was assassinated. He hammered away again at homophobia in "Band," only to find that the book's message -- that a disregard for the lives of gay people had led society to ignore AIDS for years -- had not been grasped, he said in an interview in his modest condominium. Pacing the rug beside him was his golden retriever Dashiell; squawking from the cage was Ollie, a cockatiel belonging to Mr. Shilts' 23-year-old boyfriend, Barry Barbieri.

"I realized most heterosexuals are in denial about how pervasive and brutalizing homophobia is," he said. "It's like an alcoholic in denial. I wanted to do a book that would just be a battering ram through the denial, that would really make straight people understand that homophobia hurts people and affects every aspect of their lives."

The military he portrays in the 784 pages of "Conduct Unbecoming" is an institution run by men obsessed with proving they are "real" men. "It was so clear the real issue here was all about manhood," he said. "This issue has very little to do with gay people. It's all about heterosexual males."

Gay men and women either gay or straight are all threats to the male ideal, says Mr. Shilts, and so must be put in their place through intimidation, rape, sexual harassment, imprisonment and expulsion.

After more than four years of research and writing, including 1,100 interviews and 15,000 pages of documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, Mr. Shilts tells the stories of men and women caught in military "witch hunts" on such charges as having consensual gay sex in their off-base apartments. All are hounded for the names of other gays, some are threatened with losing their children, others are imprisoned or sent to psychiatric wards, and most are finally discharged.

"It's a brutal, vicious process in which people commit suicide, people see their careers destroyed," he said. "It really makes McCarthyism look like Romper Room."

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