I never want to speak ill of the dead. At the same time, some lies take hold and don’t let go, and when they become part of an embellished history they’re very difficult to correct. When possible, we should clear the record. That rule applies even when the person who got the lie started is deceased himself. True, Randy Shilts can’t defend himself. However, this particular case involves a lie he circulated about a deceased person.
I haven’t read any of Randy Shilts’s books from beginning to end. My first impression of his work, in 1979, was negative. I admit I didn’t like him. That was before we knew anything about HIV — that is, before speculation on GRID diseases, “gay cancer” or any of the other misguided labels. In other words, it was before Mr. Shilts wrote And The Band Played On, which was promoted as a timeline for the early years of the AIDS crisis.
The April 1979 issue of Christopher Street, a gay literary magazine ordinarily focused on the Greenwich Village arts scene, featured a cover story about Harvey Milk, who had been shot to death in his City Hall office a few months earlier. Later, I learned the article, by Randy Shilts, was the outline for his biography of Milk, The Mayor Of Castro Street.
The Milk article was a hatchet job, and when I heard about it being expanded to a book-length biography I decided not to read the book. Presently, though, there’s a copy of the book in my apartment, so the decision to skip it couldn’t have been made very adamantly. I may get to it someday, but I’ll keep an open mind.
Randy Shilts died of HIV in 1994, ten years after the passing of Gaetan Dugas, the man identified as Patient Zero in And The Band Played On.
A link to a New York Times post appears below. Whether or not you’ve read Mr. Shilts’s book, please take a look at the Times story. Mr. Dugas, who apparently conducted intimate matters without much caution, may have infected many people, but exaggerated accounts of his behavior have unfairly demonized him. There’s no evidence he spread HIV intentionally.
Most publishers find it acceptable to issue nonfiction books with no source notes or evidence of fact checking. I don’t know if And The Band Played On has documentation to back up the author’s claims. However, with or without crediting sources, the book is one example of how we must engage our critical thinking skills when we try to educate ourselves.