If you’re anything like me, there was only one possible reaction to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s opening remarks at the inaugural ceremony last week: Get me the names of her doctor and hair stylist!
Dianne is 75, people. Seventy-five! And she looks great. Clearly, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and President Obama were as amazed as I was and that’s why they couldn’t quite get it together during the oath portion of the festivities. Roberts was busy thinking, “Note to self: follow Feinstein’s skin-care regimen….[suddenly speaks aloud] FAITHFULLY!”
Dianne has been on my mind since I saw director Gus Van Sant’s Oscar-nominated biopic Milk last month. The movie is about San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay man to be elected a city official in the U.S. In 1978, Milk and San Francisco’s mayor, George Moscone, were assassinated by Dan White, who had resigned from the Board of Supervisors, only to change his mind and seek reinstatement. Moscone, with Milk’s encouragement, turned White down.
Feinstein, the president of the Board, succeeded Moscone as mayor. She announced the assassinations from the steps of City Hall; the actual news footage from that day is used in the movie. (That’s almost the only time Feinstein appears in the movie. Most of the work by the actress who portrayed her was cut, including a recreation of the announcement scene.) I recommend the movie: Sean Penn captures Milk perfectly and MrB, who knew Moscone, approves of Victor Garber’s portrayal of the mayor. However, to me, the film seemed muted compared to the couple of seconds of extremely emotional news footage shown at the beginning. You can see it starting here. Feinstein looks stunned and when she announces the assassinations, the crowd around her cries out in shock.
I also think the candlelit procession in memory of Milk and Moscone is more awe-inspiring in actuality than it was in the movie. You can see the procession starting at 3:13 here in this footage from The Times of Harvey Milk, a 1984 documentary narrated by Harvey Fierstein.
Watching the movie and the news clips inspired me to take another look at three books by the late journalist and author Randy Shilts. Shilts’s first book, which came out in 1982, was a biography of Harvey Milk called The Mayor of Castro Street. His second book, And the Band Played On, covered the first years of the AIDS epidemic. It was published in 1987 and later made into an HBO movie. Shilts’s last book, Conduct Unbecoming, a history of gays and lesbians in the U.S. military, came out in 1993. Shilts died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 42.
The best of the three is And the Band Played On. I’ve read it cover-to-cover at least four times. Shilts’s investigative reporting reads like a thriller: as more and more people (men, mostly) are killed by peculiar illnesses in the prime of their lives, doctors around the globe battle politics and bigotry — even among their own ranks — as they try to identity the mystery bug. Interestingly, Shilts refused to learn the results of his own HIV test until he finished the book. According to a 1993 profile in the New York Times, he was concerned that knowing his status would influence his reporting. Even after he knew, he didn’t publicly reveal his HIV status until 1993, supposedly because he’d feared that he would be seen as an activist, rather than an objective reporter. Since then, journalists have been praised for writing about their personal struggles with, among other illnesses, liver cancer (the late Marjorie Williams of the Washington Post), prostate cancer (Dana Jennings of the New York Times), and brain cancer (the late Ivan Noble of the BBC). It fascinates me that Shilts, who wrote so eloquently about people who were forced by prejudice to stay in the closet about their sexuality, health or both, wound up doing the same for fear his professionalism would be challenged. I like to believe that attitudes have changed since Shilts’s death, even if my sweatshirts have not.
And the Band Played On is particularly memorable for Shilts’s outing of the late Gaetan Dugas, a French-Canadian flight attendant, as the “Patient Zero” of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. The study, which helped scientists determine that the new virus was sexually transmitted, connected Dugas to more than a dozen early AIDS cases. Unfortunately, people with poor reading comprehension have come away from Shilts’s book with the notion that Dugas was single-penisedly responsible for spreading AIDS around the U.S. That is not true nor did Shilts claim that it was true, though he did vividly portray Dugas, who died in 1984 and wasn’t around to defend himself, as horribly selfish. In fact, the first AIDS patient Shilts described, in the first chapter of the book, is Grethe Rask, a lesbian doctor from Denmark who was working in Zaire. It’s pretty obvious she and Dugas never did the deed. In fact, as long ago as 1987, there was evidence that AIDS may have been in the U.S. in the 1960s.
The misinterpretation of Gaetan Dugas’s role in the spread of AIDS reminds me of the childhood game of Telephone, in which one kid whispers a message in another’s ear, then that kid whispers the message to the next kid, and so on down the line of kids till the last one announces the by-now totally garbled message to much amusement. (Nowadays, we call this game “the Internet.”)
Another example of the Telephone problem turns up in The Mayor of Castro Street in regards to Milk/Moscone-murderer Dan White’s “Twinkie defense.” Describing White’s trial, Shilts wrote, “Another psychiatrist talked about how Dan White’s habitual consumption of junk food — particularly Twinkies, potato chips, and Coca Cola — led to the killings, since the extreme variations in blood sugar levels exacerbated existing manic-depression. This soon became known as the Twinkie defense.” The jury was sufficiently convinced that White was operating under some kind of “diminished capacity” that it convicted him of two counts of voluntary manslaughter, rather than the malicious, premeditated murder that he obviously committed when he took a gun and ammunition to City Hall, sneaked in a window to avoid the metal detectors, shot the mayor, reloaded and walked down the hall to shoot Harvey Milk. The “Twinkie defense” was effective even though people to this day don’t seem sure exactly what it is. When people refer to it sarcastically, they’re usually under the impression that the defense argued that junk food alone was responsible for White’s diminished capacity. Shilts’s version of the defense’s theory was that excessive consumption of junk food worsened an existing mental problem. I’ve also read that neither of these interpretations is true, and that the psychiatrist was proposing that White’s switch to junk food from a previously healthy diet was a sign, but not a cause, of a mental problem. At this point, I would have to read the court transcripts myself to be convinced of the correct interpretation. I would track those down, but I’m too crazed from my excessive consumption of Cadbury Dairy Milk to make the effort.
By the way, The Mayor of Castro Street was published before Dan White was released from jail in 1984, after serving five years for the murder of two people, so Shilts didn’t have the pleasure of reporting that White killed himself in 1985.
Conduct Unbecoming is not as easy to read as Shilts’s other books. He chose to organize it chronologically, concentrating on the years 1954 to 1990. During those years, the more things changed, the more they stayed the same for gays in the armed forces. Sometimes things were better for them, sometimes they were worse, but for the entire duration, an astonishing amount of time and money was devoted to spying on people to determine whether or not they were gay and could be dishonorably discharged. If you like saying “Your tax dollars at work!” in a disgusted tone, this is the book for you, because practically each of the 752 pages inspires that reaction. Military officialdom was seriously obsessed with people’s sex lives in a pervy way. Usually I’m cool with perviness — some of my best friends are pervs — but voyeurs are annoying. They’re so damn lazy, letting everyone else do the work while they chill out with a pair of binoculars and a Diet Coke with lots of ice and a wedge of lemon. Okay, maybe I’m the one who enjoys a refreshing soda while doing pervy tasks, but the armed forces really did use binoculars, wiretapping, letter-reading, entrapment and anything else they could think of to learn the juicy details about soldier-y sex.
I’ll share two examples from the book that really define the oxymoron that is “military intelligence.” First, it was assumed that anyone who was married MUST be straight, which alone is enough to make me laugh my ass off. Allow me to introduce you to gay, married minister Ted Haggard. Plus, off the top of my head, I can think of five “straight” couples I know in which at least one of the parties is gay. Nevertheless, married people were usually safe from the military’s gay witch hunts, leading gays and lesbians to marry each other to save face while keeping their real lovahs on the side. So much for preserving the “sanctity of marriage” (my old friend Henry VIII laughs his fat ass off at the very phrase) by making homosexuality illegal. Second, Shilts does a terrific teardown of a study that grossly overestimated the rate of new AIDS infections among the heterosexual population. When the military decided it was going to screen everyone for the virus, it promised that it wouldn’t use a person’s viral status against him. But, if the patient had gotten the virus through homosexual activity, the armed forces WOULD prosecute him for having gay sex, meaning that patient would be booted from the army and lose his medical benefits. Naturally, almost everyone in the study lied, making the study’s application to heterosexuals worthless. In fact, so many dudes claimed they’d gotten the virus from heterosexual contact with a German prostitute that amused military doctors and nurses nicknamed the very busy, imaginary prostitute “Helga,” and the German health authorities got annoyed.
Despite its unwieldiness, Conduct Unbecoming is a very convincing argument against discriminating on the basis of sexuality. If you are a bigot or perv who doesn’t have time to read such a long book, I am willing to smack you in the head with my copy till I knock some sense into you. The book-smacking will be the faster option and I’ll enjoy it more, so drop me a line if you need my help.
You can check out a 1993 clip of Shilts talking to Charlie Rose about the book here.
Shilts was sassy, too. “HIV is certainly character-building. It’s made me see all of the shallow things we cling to, like ego and vanity,” Shilts told the New York Times in the 1993 profile. “Of course, I’d rather have a few more T-cells and a little less character.” Dang! I wish he were around to write about gay marriage now. Imagine the fun I’d have hitting people with that tome!
UPDATED OCT. 26, 2016, TO ADD: A new study has been published in Nature dealing with Gaetan Dugas, aka “Patient Zero.” I shared my thoughts here.
Deja Pseu says
Adding to my reading list now!
Great post, Wendy.
La Belette Rouge says
75????? Get out!! How could that be? When you get the doctor and the surgeons number would you share it with the rest of the class.
You’ve taught me…so much…
I cannot believe she is 75! But I can believe that you’re observant and smart enough to post it for us, along with the rest of this fantastic post, WendyB. Thanks!
Dianne is 75?!! She doesn’t look a day over like, 40-something! Damn! And Shilt’s book was great! Powerful stuff! You’re right-I wish he could’ve been around to give us some education!
I always wanted to taste cadbury chocolate – looks so delicious.
Once a journalist, always a journalist! Brilliant, well-written post, now I want to read these books. I know a few people who I will be sending your way for the smack over the head therapy.
Adding to my reading list – this is a fantastic post. Thank you for giving us the information.
Sharon Rose says
Hi there-what an insightful post, that is amazing that aids could have been in America as early as the 60s? Also, how did that Dan White get released after 5 years for killing 2 people? I thought the US system was a lot harsher than that!
m e l i g r o s a says
what a great post wendy. diane such an iconic woman for us in SF (&yes flalwless skin!!) and seeing both of her, along with Pelosi, side by side with Obama, was just a great woman-California feeling, for me anyways.
Phenomenal post, my lady! I’m going to pick up And the Band Played On today!
As of 2003, the Naval Reserve was still testing applicants for HIV as part of the physical evaluation. Don’t ask me how I know this.
I’m ready to add these books to my reading list. As soon as I finish the two you already recommended that I haven’t even opened yet.
Terrific post. I once married a hometown friend of White’s lawyer, and was acquainted with him… A mutual friend told me that the lawyer tod him, “I understand the criminal mind because I have one myself.”
What a dynamic post! It was compelling and hit home. I’m really motivated to see MILK now.
i love these posts (this post imparticular). they are informative, hilarious and so interesting. thank you!
And the best part is, she ISN’T wearing pink gloss!
What an essay! Feinstein does seem to have taken good care of herself — it’s amazing how little meaning age really has for people who keep their bodies in good working order!
Also, I had no idea that the so-called Twinkie Defense was such a muddled issue. I’m inspired to do some research!
Miss Janey says
Miss J was just last week reading about Harvey Milk and Randy Shilts as she finally got around to seeing “Milk”. The Prop 6 situation in the film so closely mirrored last year’s Prop H8, Miss J was almost stunned. Like history, idiocy repeats itself.
pretty face says
I definitely haven’t read enough non-fiction (I BOW DOWN to your non-fiction reading list!!!) and I found this post fascinating, after having watched Milk last weekend. I didn’t really know anything aboout Harvey Milk or the gay rights movement in the 70s before watching the film, and this post is even more fascinating. Especially the footage in the first video! Thanks, Wendy xx
You are my hero of book reviews. Off to add these to my list…
What a great post.
I am also struck by the excellent news reporting. What a difference between that and what passes as news today.
I remember the whole Harvey Milk thing well, I was in eighth grade. We watched the vigil on t.v. As a native San Franciscan, I have so much respect for Diane Feinstein.
Randy Shilts went to my Alma Mater, the University of Oregon. I’ve heard him speak after publication of “And The Band Played On.” The J-School at Oregon is a very tight family and it was amazing to have heard him. And a true loss when he died.
Good story, Wendy. You’re a super writer.
I love this post. This is one of the news events from my childhood that I remember really clearly…another was the Jonestown massacre. I’m going to see “Milk” this weekend.
THE HOUSE OF STYLE says
75?????? wow! ok who are her hair stylist and dr? that woman looks amazing at 75! also love those old 90’s sweatshirts.the just drum a certain nostalgia.Wendy I hope Milk opens up here as it sounds like a must see!
I heard about the movie. I knew I wanted to watch it. But, I was too lazy to find it. But, you just totally gave me 500 more reasons why I should watch it. And I now need to go out and buy some of Stilts books. I feel like I’m going to need to change my topic for my book report in history now!
You are one of the recipients of the “Your Blog is Fabulous” award – YAY! Act excited!
oh Miss Wendy! I’m volunteering assist you if anyone wants to be book-bashed! And the band plays on is an amazing book – i’d forgotten how much I had got from it till I read this post! I’m putting the others on my reading list, and taking my hat off to you – your fierce and sassy (cursing!) defense of human rights – and such great fashion insight. If Mr B and yourself ever feel like coming to New Zealand, I’m taking you out for dinner!
I love how its Keith Haring’s artwork on those sweatshirts! I think I’d better go do a post on him…
Duchesse, that guy understood the criminal mind the same way I understand the perv mind 😉
MissJ, it was unfortunate that this movie didn’t come out before the Prop 8 vote. It might have changed a mind or two.
CDP, I remember the Jonestown Massacre VERY well. I specifically remember reading about it in Time Magazine. It must have really affected me. I was going to mention it in this post but left it out due to length. I think the reaction to the assassinations was so emotional in no small part because they came 10 days after the massacre and the assassination of Leo Ryan in Guyana. I might do a follow-up post on it.
Farren, I think any of Shilts’s books would be an awesome topic for a report.
Other peeps, thanks for getting through this long post and commenting to boot!
fashion herald says
excellent closing point, Randy Shilts is dearly missed these days. I read The Mayor of Castro Street years ago, a fascinating story about an early gay activist.
75, wow. I would have never expected that. Early 60’s I thought, maybe. Anyway, interesting read!
I didn’t go see Milk because I thought it would ultimately be too sad for me to watch, even though Milk’s courage is inspiring. I would, however, love to read Shilts’ books. I love his quote that you included in the last paragraph.
Nina (femme rationale) says
wow. thank you for such an educational and informative post. and will you share feinstein's secrets, too, when you get a hold of it?
oh, and i like cadbury's fruit & nut bar.
I always learn so much from your Book Club Thursday posts. And argh, I need to get my act together and scrape together the time to go and see Milk! Maybe this weekend…yeah…
Girl Japan says
What an excellent post Wendy. Ms. D.. she is an iconic woman. I am new to your Book Club Thursday posts but I am reading and becoming familiar = )
Jen (MahaloFashion) says
I can’t believe the screw up during Obama’s speech…it’s not hard…
Wendy, I didn’t read the whole post but I love your Dancathon sweatshirt! I want a We Are The World sweatshirt but can’t find one anywhere 🙁
(OK, having read the comments I’m now going back to read the post…)
And the Band Played On is fantastic. I think I still have one of those Keith Haring shirts from Act Up in the early 90’s.
This post is awesome. You have officially outdone yourself!