Randy Shilts, R.I.P.

February 23, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

When I interviewed Randy Shilts six months ago, he still looked healthy -- he even offered to drive me back to my hotel. But he could not fly to premieres of his TV movie ''And the Band Played On.'' One lung had already collapsed, and doctors feared the other would collapse in the rarer atmosphere of an airplane.

This week Mr. Shilts died, at 42, one of the best journalists of his or any other generation. Among other things that lend it horror, AIDS is a great brain drain.

Mr. Shilts came of a conservative family. He told me his parents went crazy when he let his hair grow long in high school. That disturbed them more than the revelation, several years later, that he was gay.

His sexuality and his profession came to him together, turning a mediocre student of history into a brilliant student of journalism. His ambition was to be an openly gay reporter on a mainstream newspaper. That seemed an unlikely if not impossible dream when he started out -- no paper would hire him on those terms, despite his outstanding record in journalism school.

So he started working for gay publications, and did some television reporting around the time of Harvey Milk's assassination in San Francisco. That was his passport onto the San Francisco Chronicle, where he blazed a trail for other gay reporters on major newspapers.

Mr. Shilts was a model reporter. He did not join activist groups or demonstrate. When he was drawn into controversy, it was with great reluctance, resistance and diffidence. Only if you asked his opinion would he finally give it, often in ways that bothered other gay people. He supported the closing of bath houses, for instance, and opposed the involuntary ''outing'' of prominent gays.

His own interests were spiritual. I asked him why so many of the people he covered in his two major books were gay Catholics. He said he had not planned that, but when a pattern emerged he was intrigued by it, mainly because the starkly defined moral issue of their church's condemnation made some gay Catholics formulate their choices in a very conscious way.

To reason that God does not condemn one though one's church does made certain Catholic responses intrigue Mr. Shilts, who was brought up in a Protestant home he himself called not very strong in its beliefs.

Strong beliefs impressed him. He meant to study them outside a gay context in his next book, which will never be written. The only consolation is to reflect on all those who will write because of Mr. Shilts -- because of his example, his refusal to be marginalized, his matter-of-fact acceptance of his world, and his determination to report on it for others. Courage obviously crosses the boundaries of gender and of sexual behavior.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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