SAN FRANCISCO — Randy Shilts, a tenacious, award-winning journalist who became the nation's foremost chronicler of gay life and the AIDS epidemic, died early Thursday at his ranch in the Sonoma County redwoods. He was 42.
Shilts, who learned he was infected with HIV in 1987, died of AIDS, according to a statement released by the San Francisco Chronicle, where Shilts worked as a national correspondent.
Best known for his groundbreaking writing on the disease that took his life, Shilts was hailed by gay leaders and fellow journalists as a pioneer whose work propelled AIDS out of anonymity and into the consciousness of mainstream America.
"Each and every person claimed by AIDS is a loss to the movement," said David M. Smith of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "But Randy's contribution was so crucial. He broke through society's denial and was absolutely critical to communicating the reality of AIDS."
William German, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, said the newspaper where Shilts worked for 13 years is indebted to him, as society should be.
"The entire world community has reason to honor Randy Shilts for his . . . relentless investigation that helped all of us become aware of a global epidemic," German said in a statement.
Respected for his dogged reporting, painstaking research and obsession with fairness, Shilts became the first newspaper reporter to cover the gay community full time shortly after he was hired by the Chronicle in 1981. Later, he persuaded the newspaper to let him focus exclusively on the then-mysterious disease that came to be known as AIDS.
In 1987, he published an acclaimed book about the epidemic and its neglect by government, science and some gay organizations. "And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic" was translated into seven languages and became a docudrama broadcast on HBO in September.
His most recent book, "Conduct Unbecoming," was published last year and examined discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military. Like "And the Band Played On," it reached the bestseller lists. Shilts also wrote "The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk," about the gay San Francisco supervisor who was murdered along with Mayor George Moscone. Warner Bros. is developing a film based on the 1982 book.
Cleve Jones, founder of the Names Project, which produced the AIDS quilt, called Shilts a hero whose writings are "without question the most important works of literature affecting gay people."
But Jones also sounded a somber note, arguing that despite the efforts of Shilts and other prominent gays "who believed they could single-handedly stop the epidemic," AIDS rages on.
"Randy's death is a very sad milestone because it underscores for me our utter failure," said Jones, a friend of Shilts for 20 years. "All of this extraordinary talent is gone and none of this has moved the Congress and President to responsible action."
Although he was worshiped by many in gay circles for enlightening heterosexuals, Shilts was controversial among more radical members of the movement, some of whom labeled him a "gay Uncle Tom." In the mid-1980s, his stories suggesting that gay bathhouses in San Francisco were breeding grounds for AIDS made him a pariah, unable to walk through the city's Castro District without being jeered or spat upon.
When "And the Band Played On" came out, he was attacked for charging that gay groups initially pretended that AIDS did not exist. More recently, he was faulted for opposing the "outing" of prominent, closeted gays, including two four-star generals he described anonymously in "Conduct Unbecoming."
Shilts was hurt by such barbs, but refused to alter his message or obscure the truth to win friends. In the author's note for "The Mayor of Castro Street," he offered this explanation:
"I can only answer that I tried to tell the truth and, if not be objective, at least be fair; history is not served when reporters prize trepidation and propriety over the robust journalistic duty to tell the whole story."
Randy Martin Shilts was born Aug. 8, 1951, in Davenport, Iowa, but spent most of his youth in the Chicago suburb of Aurora. His father, Bud, sold prefabricated housing, while his mother, Norma, saw that Randy and his four brothers grew up as solid Methodists. Early on, Shilts appeared to share his parents' politically conservative views; in high school, he founded a local chapter of Young Americans for Freedom.
He went west for college, choosing the University of Oregon in Eugene and beginning his journalism career on the student paper. At age 20, Shilts declared his homosexuality, and later ran for student office under the slogan "Come Out for Shilts."
Despite graduating at the top of his class, Shilts struggled to find work in Oregon, a fact he attributed to homophobia. Eventually, he signed on as Northwest correspondent for the Advocate, a national gay and lesbian magazine, and later made his way to San Francisco.