Gay reporter who pioneered coverage of AIDS dies of the disease

February 18, 1994|By New York Times News Service

Randy Shilts, the author of best-selling books on AIDS and gay issues and a newspaper reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, died yesterday at his home in Guerneville, Calif. He was 42 and also had a home in San Francisco.

The cause was AIDS, said Linda Alband, his assistant.

Mr. Shilts was one of the first journalists to recognize AIDS as an important national issue. In the early 1980s he persuaded the Chronicle to let him report on AIDS full-time.

His work resulted in the widely acclaimed 1987 book "And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic." The book, a history of the first five years of the epidemic, charged the Reagan administration, the medical establishment and even some gay organizations with indifference to the disease.

"Any good reporter could have done this story," Mr. Shilts said in a newspaper interview at the time, "but I think the reason I did it, and no one else did, is because I am gay. It was happening to people I cared about and loved."

Mr. Shilts was born in Davenport, Iowa, and grew up in Aurora, Ill., near Chicago, in a politically conservative and religious household. As a teen-ager, he founded a local chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom.

While attending the University of Oregon in Eugene, where he studied journalism and was managing editor of the student newspaper, he openly declared his homosexuality. He became head of the Eugene Gay People's Alliance.

After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1975, he worked as a reporter for various news organizations.

In 1982, Mr. Shilts published "The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk."

The book chronicled the life and career of Mr. Milk, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and a champion of gay rights. He was assassinated in 1978, along with the city's mayor, George Moscone, by a former supervisor opposed to a pending rights bill for homosexuals.

Mr. Shilts did not always please all homosexuals with his reporting. In the early '80s, he wrote about the dangers of San Francisco's bathhouses and anonymous sex in the spread of AIDS.

And he later attacked the practice of outing, or revealing the homosexuality of public figures, unless the targets promoted anti-gay policies.

In 1987, on the day he turned in the manuscript for "And the Band Played On," Mr. Shilts found out that he had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In August 1992, he developed full-blown AIDS. Later that year his left lung collapsed.

Although Mr. Shilts said that he did not expect "And the Band Played On" to be a commercial success, he became "an AIDS celebrity" when the book took off.

For fear of letting his personal situation influence his reporting, he kept his illness secret until February 1993. In a magazine interview, he said: "Every gay writer who tests positive ends up being an AIDS activist. I wanted to keep on being a reporter."

He is survived by his companion, Barry Barbieri, and four brothers: Gary, of Aurora, Ill; Reed, of Billerica, Mass.; David, of Michigan, and Dennis, who teaches in Poland.

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