How Randy Shilts went from Aurora conservative to gay icon

  • After growing up as a conservative Republican during his years at West Aurora High School, Randy Shilts, left, seen here with one-time partner Steve Newman, became an outspoken journalist in San Francisco who led the investigative reporting into the AIDS epidemic.

    After growing up as a conservative Republican during his years at West Aurora High School, Randy Shilts, left, seen here with one-time partner Steve Newman, became an outspoken journalist in San Francisco who led the investigative reporting into the AIDS epidemic. Courtesy of Steve Newman

  • This image of journalist Randy Shilts of Aurora was among the first 20 installed on the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco.

    This image of journalist Randy Shilts of Aurora was among the first 20 installed on the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco. Courtesy of J. Wesley Cunningham

  • Inspired by the work of Randy Shilts, Andrew E. Stoner has written the first biography of the trailblazing gay journalist, who grew up in Aurora.

    Inspired by the work of Randy Shilts, Andrew E. Stoner has written the first biography of the trailblazing gay journalist, who grew up in Aurora. Courtesy of University of Illinois Press

  • Randy Shilts was all smiles for this elementary school photo when he was growing up in Aurora.

    Randy Shilts was all smiles for this elementary school photo when he was growing up in Aurora. Courtesy of Gary Shilts

  • Courtesy of University of Illinois Press

 
 
Updated 6/4/2019 6:50 AM

An outspoken conservative Republican activist while growing up in Aurora, Randy Shilts would no doubt have voiced strong opinions about Aurora Pride 2019, which kicks off Friday and features a gay Pride Parade on Sunday through his old hometown.

"They'd have made him the grand marshal," suggests Andrew Stoner, author of the first biography of Shilts, who died of AIDS in 1994 at age 42 at the height of his career as a trailblazing gay journalist whose investigative AIDS coverage led the pack. "I think he'd be pleased."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

One of six boys born to Bud and Norma Shilts, Randy Shilts came to Aurora as a toddler and mirrored his parents' political opinions as a boy. Wearing his Boy Scout uniform (he'd go on to be an Eagle Scout), a young Randy posed next to a pockmarked photo of President John Kennedy, which he had used as a dart board in 1962. In 1964, just 13 and already a volunteer for Republican Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign, Randy was one of the student winners of the Aurora Beacon-News' "Why I Wish I Could Vote" essay contest. He founded the local chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a group originally promoted by conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. He graduated from West Aurora High School in 1969, spent the next year at Aurora College, and then moved to Oregon with his girlfriend.

"Our lives are pretty parallel," says Stoner, who grew up 150 miles east of Aurora in conservative Goshen, Indiana, and was active in Republican Party groups until college. An admirer of Shilts' reporting and writing, Stoner's desire to chronicle Shilts' life is driven by much more.

"I thought somebody would write it before me, but I'm glad nobody did," says Stoner, an assistant professor at California State University who will discus his book "The Journalist of Castro Street: The Life of Randy Shilts" from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Aurora Public Library. "I think he's an extraordinary, interesting and important subject."

Having come out as gay to friends and family by the time he graduated from the University of Oregon, Shilts took a job with The Advocate, a national newspaper dedicated to issues in the gay community, before he was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1981. The first of three best-selling books was "The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk," a biography of the first openly gay politician who was assassinated by a political rival.

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Shilts began writing about AIDS when it was called "gay cancer" and later "gay-related immune deficiency." In 1987, his book "And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic" won the Stonewall Book Award and was made into an HBO movie.

He wrote about the sex taking place in bath houses and urged them to close. "The gay community was very unhappy with him shining a light," Stoner says. "Randy was raising the question: Isn't gay liberation bigger than just sexual?"

Much of the criticism leveled at Shilts is for his treatment of the so-called Patient Zero, a patient initially targeted as the one responsible for spreading AIDS in the U.S. That allegation was disproved by researchers in 2016.

"Randy died in 1994 so he didn't have the ability to correct that," says Stoner, who is confident Shilts, a dogged pursuer of the truth, wouldn't have stubbornly dug in. "He would have fixed it."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Shilts' final book, "Conduct Unbecoming," explored the military's stance on gays, lesbians and transgender people. Shilts was working on a book about the child abuse in the Catholic Church when he died of AIDS.

"This guy had his finger on so many important issues," Stoner says. "I think of the contribution he'd still be making if he were here."

Sometimes thin-skinned and known for an ego that allowed him to refer to his birthday as "Shiltsmas," Shilts has a plaque on the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco, and that city's municipal buildings flew flags at half-staff after his death.

"The whole thing dominating his life was equality for gay people, and now it's no big deal," says Gary Shilts, Randy's oldest brother, who retired last year from a 40-year career as a lawyer with offices in Aurora and Montgomery. "I'm proud of the contribution he made to this social change."

Stoner is quick to point out that Randy Shilts today could still be writing about the reinstated ban against transgendered people in the military, the lack of job protection for gays, and other areas where gay rights are not guaranteed.

"He learned in his life that a wounded heart stands right next to a determined soul," Stoner wrote of Shilts. "He discovered that the balm for the pain the world can inflict is sometimes found in immersing one's self in one's work, one's commitment to tell the truth, and a driving desire to change the world and lessen the pain."

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