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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Randy Shilts : Fighting Against the Rules Restricting Gays in the Military

July 25, 1993|Danica Kirka | Danica Kirka was an articles editor for Opinion. She interviewed Randy Shilts at the author's home

GUERNEVILLE, CALIF. — Walking from the front door to his back yard can be an exhausting experience for author Randy Shilts. The jaunt makes him breathless. But even as he collapses into a lawn chair, Shilts' thoughts and words seem to spill out at a pace out of sync with his frail form.

Diagnosed as being HIV positive before he plunged into the research for his best-selling book "Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military," Shilts seems an unlikely firebrand in the raging debate. But the author, who took it "as an article of faith" that he would live to complete his "Conduct," then took the results of his research a step farther, appearing on the talk-show circuit and roundly attacking terror tactics used by military investigators to purge homosexuals from the ranks.

Though recognized as a chronicler of gay issues, the 41-year-old journalist's role has not been without controversy. Within the gay and lesbian community, the onetime founder of the Illinois chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom has been criticized as being too conservative. His earlier best-selling book on the AIDS pandemic, "And the Band Played On," was attacked in the gay press. His articles on closing gay bathhouses at the outset of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco were so poorly received that one acquaintance told a reporter that Shilts could not walk within that city's predominantly gay Castro District without receiving abuse.

Shilts counters that, as a journalist, he's been obliged to cover both sides of that, and other gay issues. And he has taken steps to make sure his legacy is that of a reporter: He is endowing a journalism scholarship at his alma mater, the University of Oregon.

Though he has no plans to begin another book, Shilts says he will continue writing. He recently married his lover, Barry Barbieri.

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Question: What do you think about Clinton's decision on gays in the military?

Answer: It's sort of like saying: You can be a Catholic. But you can't tell anyone you're a Catholic and you certainly can't practice Catholicism. So, there's far less in this policy change than meets the eye. Another thought I have is that some will say, "Well, this is just a first step." But no President is going to want to go near this issue for the next 20 years. So any reform bills will have to go through the courts.

Q: Why?

A: After what we just went through? Politicians are terrified of issues with high emotional content.

Q: What should Clinton have done?

A: Well, I'm not good on that sort of thing. . . . (But) this is a policy-wonk solution. It's looking at the fine points and ignoring the broader principles.

Q: What made you, three years ago, start a book on gays in the military?

A: (It was) completely a fluke. . . . I started in the summer of '88 doing the preliminary research. And, of course, my great concern was that nobody would care about this issue . . . . I really didn't know that they were still putting people in prison for being gay. And that they did it fairly routinely . . . .

It really is a reflection, in a broader sense, of the whole gender conflicts that we're having within society now. We know that the old ways don't work, but we don't really have new ways of dealing with gender differences . . . . I don't think there is a better case study of homophobia than the military.

Q: Why is that?

A: First of all, everything is written down. It's the most bureaucratic subculture. If you deal with discrimination by a private employer, you know it very much is claims and counterclaims. Whereas here, it's mandated discrimination. So that it's much more black and white. There's a wonderful paper trail. A lot of the arguments about facts you don't have to worry about, which in any private situation you almost always do. You can say, "Oh, no, I didn't really fire him for that reason or something."

. . . The basic argument all boils down to showers and barracks and bunks--which all basically reflects the social attitude that gay men are all obsessed sexual predators whose sole purpose to get in the military is to glower at people in the showers. And that's a social attitude not a military attitude . . . .

It is absolutely remarkable that all of the arguments have been focused on men and around sexual harassment. And it's so interesting, 'cause it's like the men are petrified of the idea that they might end up being treated the way they've been treating women all these years.

Q: Are their fears unfounded?

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