Saturday, February 9, 2008

Randy Shilts & Conduct Unbecoming

Wikipedia has some interesting material on the late Randy Shilts, author of the book Conduct Unbecoming that I've been posting about lately and am still reading. He apparently authored other books that I will have to look into. Unfortunately he passed away from an AIDS-related illness in 1994 right after the book I'm reading was first published. He seems to have been an interesting and stubborn fellow, unafraid to voice his opinions no matter whom he ticked off. I particularly liked this bit from an obituary on his life:

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.

Frankly, I don't give a damn what some "radical members of the movement" may have thought of the man. I agree with him about bathhouses and not just because they are "breeding grounds for AIDS". As far as those kinds of places go, I suppose you could say that I definitely have a NIMBY attitude towards them.

Shilts' book Conduct Unbecoming has received a lot of praise, rightfully so in my view, but some of this writing has also received a bit of criticism for sloppy work. One example of this is Shilts' telling in the book of the life of the famous Dr. Tom Dooley:
Shilts's first mistake in Conduct Unbecoming is an overreliance on the work of Diana Shaw, whom he misidentifies as a "biographer." Shaw, a researcher for the film industry, published an article on Dooley in the Los Angeles Times Magazine in December 1991 which was riddled with factual errors. (For example, she dismissed Dooley's "Vientiane clinic project" as a "sham"; while it is true he never worked in Vientiane, his village clinics were no sham.)

Shilts describes Shaw's heroic pursuit of the secret Navy file on Dooley: "from the first time Diana Shaw attempted to retrieve Dooley's official Navy records, it was clear that the service had something to hide." Actually, the ONI report is readily available to scholars who will simply pay a visit to the Naval Operational Archives in Washington and request the documents. In relying upon a single journalist's questionable work and a couple of interviews, Shilts has made a remarkable number of errors in his brief but central discussion of the Tom Dooley case, from calling Cardinal Francis Spellman "John" to elaborately setting Dooley's funeral Mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral. (It actually occurred a thousand miles away in Saint Louis.) [...]

Shilts's discussion is, in its way, as misleading and mistaken as the most garish Dooley tributes in The Sign or St. Anthony Messenger in 1958. Shilts's claim that "everything good and everything evil that he did can be traced back to the shame he carried over his homosexuality" reduces Dooley to the sum of his sexuality for polemical reasons and is no more justified than the ill-fated campaign for his canonization...

One can find such hagiographies of Dooley today on some ├╝ber-conservative sites, such as this from Daily Catholic which vehemently denies that the man was gay:
The same with slanderous statements that he was homosexual. They base this on wild rumors of his sympathy for those who were gay, the fact he never married, and his successful recruiting of young men at Notre Dame to serve as doctors. Again, these are slanderous statements with no credibility, only more persecution to slur Catholics and the man, perpetuating the ridiculous myth that if one doesn't marry, they must be gay; sinisterly implying that priests as well were gay and there was a vast homosexual network within the Catholic clergy in America. It was merely more Catholic-bashing by many in the secular media who were unabashedly anti-Catholic, a trend that began with Nast in the 19th Century and continues to our present day. The truth is Dr. Dooley never married for he did not have the time. He was married to his vocation in life. Though not a priest, nevertheless he lived a celibate life and held his faith dear to him. Yes, he was sympathetic to gays, but he was sympathetic to everyone. Rank had no privileges with Dr. Dooley. Like Mother Teresa he saw in each person Jesus Christ and used his God-given talents of healing and reaching people in his mild, bedside manner to heal both body and soul.

Perhaps most interesting to me about how Conduct Unbecoming was received when it was published, was the reaction of the U.S. Navy after Shilts had sold the electronic rights to ApolloMedia:
The controversial subject matter dealing with gays in the United States military provoked the United States Navy to threaten a First Amendment lawsuit—the first time a court would be required to determine whether First Amendment protections afforded to traditional media applied to electronic publishing as well.

Days before the release of Conduct Unbecoming, the Navy attempted to bar the use of a 1972 recruiting poster featuring the first African American used in a recruiting campaign. Servicemember Ed Graves had been discharged from the Navy a few years later for being gay. ApolloMedia refused to pull the image.

Following high profile press attention ApolloMedia announced its intent to defy, the Navy obliged and withdrew their initial threats.

ApolloMedia, represented by Michael Traynor at Cooley Godward, effectively established the de facto acknowledgement that First Amendment protections must be extended to CD-ROM publishers.

Bloggers and publishers everywhere should be grateful for ApolloMedia's firm commitment to the First Amendment.

UPDATE: Perhaps I should take what Shilts writes in this book with a great deal of caution. His overall theme is correct, but there are serious charges that some of the details are fabricated. Besides the criticism above on Shilts' telling of Tom Dooley's story, there are similiar charges that he falsified one of the most compelling stories in this book: that of Gerald Rosanbalm & Donald Winn. These charges are coming from conservative websites from what I could find, but Stolen Valor isn't exactly a disreputable source in my eyes. Politics about the Vietnam War aside, that book helped expose some genuine phonies who made fantastic claims to military heroism only to be shown for the liars they are. These critiques are also citing military records and other sources that at least appear to be credible. Since I'm coming into this many years later, it's very difficult for me to know what the truth in all of this is. However, if there is any validity to these charges than I am greatly disappointed that Shilts sunk to such a level instead of being honest and forthright in his research. I despise it when authors lie about history, regardless of their reasons. I'm still finishing this book, but I must admit that I'll have to be skeptical of the details unless I can find some substantiation for them elsewhere.


Anonymous said...

What is your opinion on Tom Dooley's um...personal inclinations?

JohnAGJ said...

Given that he was forced to leave the Navy, the reasons for which are a matter of public record, it would seem that he was either bisexual or more probably homosexual.