Legacy

REPORTING FROM THE FRONT LINES

In 1987, on the day he finished writing the book that would make him famous, And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts learned he had tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS. But he didn't talk publicly about it until early last year, when he was struggling to finish Conduct Unbecoming, his timely history of gay men and lesbians in the military. ''Every gay writer who tests positive ends up being an AIDS activist,'' he explained. ''And I didn't want to end up being an activist. I wanted to keep on being a reporter.'' By the time he succumbed to AIDS on Feb. 17, at the age of 42, Shilts had done more to affect public opinion and policy on AIDS and gay issues than an army of activists ever could have. As a reporter, Shilts had a gift for dramatizing facts, getting past statistics to the individual stories behind them. And the Band Played On (made into an HBO movie) turned the early history of AIDS into a detective story- people inexplicably dying, with a few lonely doctors piecing together the clues. Raised in a conservative Midwestern family, he became involved in antiwar and gay politics on the West Coast-an experience that taught him to believe in the power of truth to reconcile extremes. ''I think people on both ends of the political spectrum tend to dehumanize people on the other end,'' he told Rolling Stone last year. ''Having been on both sides...let me say that people tend to be motivated by sincere beliefs.'' In a shrill time, Shilts' candid and civil voice will be missed. *Conduct Unbecoming (1993, St. Martin's) A brilliantly documented account of the Pentagon's gay purges of the '70s and '80s. A *And the Band Played On (1987, Penguin) A riveting and compassionate history of the birth of an epidemic. A+

Originally posted Mar 04, 1994 Published in issue #212 Mar 04, 1994 Order article reprints
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