Story by Aaron Weintraub

Video by Jack Dulzo

When Graham Kislingbury, BS ’75, drives into San Francisco, he can’t help but think of Randy Shilts, BS ’77. He recalls the late journalist’s prolific career writing and advocating for education and awareness during the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. As the first openly gay reporter in the United States, Shilts became an inspiration to the LGBTQ community who changed history and U.S. policy by making AIDS a topic of national discussion.

Shilts passed away in 1994, but he hasn’t left Kislingbury’s thoughts. “A regret that I had was that I went to San Francisco a lot, and I always thought I ought to see Randy, go have a beer with him or something,” Kislingbury said. “Then he died. I had followed his career from afar. I was a big supporter. But I had gotten married, had kids. I had work. I was busy.”

If Shilts’ memory should be preserved and treasured anywhere, Kislingbury figured it should be at their shared alma mater, the UO School of Journalism and Communication. So, on Jan. 25, he decided to share Randy’s legacy with student and faculty at an event called Gay Storytelling Started Here: Memories of Randy Shilts.

A legacy of inclusion

Among the faculty present at the SOJC event was SOJC Ph.D. student and UO National Lesbian and Gay Journalism Association (NLGJA) chapter founder and president Bethany Grace Howe.

“I was convinced a year ago that Randy Shilts is an iconic member of this school and an iconic journalist in this country,” Howe said. “I am even more convinced now that what Randy did is more necessary today and that recognition of who he was … not only emulates what a journalist is or what an Oregon Duck is, but what a decent human being should do.”

The event is part of a series that Howe hopes will continue to celebrate the SOJC’s proud history of LGBTQ activism and reporting.

In the opening remarks of the night, SOJC Edwin L. Artzt Dean Juan-Carlos Molleda emphasized that advocating for minority cultures and populations is a cornerstone of journalism.

“We should be sure that we include in our professions, in our practices, in the teaching and the education we provide, different perspectives,” he said. “So for us to acknowledge the LGBTQ community and its contribution to journalism in particular is to acknowledge they have been present in the history of journalism. Sometimes that presence has not been highlighted for historical, theological or political reasons.“

Molleda also spoke about the impact such work has made on his own life and career. “If we are being honest, if it were not for Randy Shilts,” he said, “I would not be standing here today with my husband.”

Memories of Randy Shilts

At the event, Kislingbury spoke not just about Shilts’ accomplishments and struggles, but also about his own memories of the lauded writer and columnist. Kislingbury remembers working with Shilts at the Daily Emerald back when both men studied in Allen Hall. At the time, Shilts was the managing editor of the paper.

“I remember him telling me that he would go up every year to the Drag Queen Festival in Portland and report on it and win money! Money that even today would be good for a college student,” Kislingbury said. “That always impressed me so much. He was just good. He was fast, and he was accurate.”

Kislingbury also remembers Shilts as an advocate for hyper-local news. He recalls several situations when Shilts objected to a story because he felt it didn’t pertain to the local community, a perspective he carried into his professional life.

“One of the most embarrassing moments of my life up until that point: We were describing our projects — it was right around here somewhere,” Kislingbury said, gesturing around Allen’s Hall’s third-floor atrium. “I’m talking about how I wanted to go down to San Francisco and interview Cecil Williams, who was the minister at Glide Memorial Methodist Church…. To this day it’s still the largest social service church in San Francisco; they feed 800-1,000 people three times a day. I’m going on about how I’m going to go down there and talk about this, and Randy raises his hand and says, ‘Well, San Francisco’s good, but why would you waste your time going down there when we have a treasure trove of stories right on this campus?’”

Kislingbury and Shilts both covered for the Emerald one of the biggest stories to ever hit the University of Oregon: the death of Steve Prefontaine. Kislingbury still recalls working the news desk the night before the accident happened.

“We had to wait for this track meet to finish. Prefontaine was running. He had invited these Finnish runners and some other athletes,” Kislingbury said. “The sports guy came back and said, ‘Pre won, let’s go home.’ This was about 6 in the morning. One of my roommates … who used to play practical jokes on me called me and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but Prefontaine is dead…. Turn on the radio,’ and I did. And I didn’t go to class that day. The whole town went into grief.”

When Kislingbury and Shilts went their separate ways after graduation, Kislingbury watched as his former colleague advocated for attention and consideration for the gay community as it struggled with the AIDS epidemic. He sees Shilts’ contributions on the topic as a big part of its history.

“You’ve got one of the biggest stories in the nation … and nobody’s covering it because it has to do with gay people, and no one really cares,” Kislingbury said. “[Randy] pushed, and he was the only reporter in the country that was doing this stuff.”

The future of LGBT in the SOJC

Gay Storytelling Started Here was part of a series intended to not only celebrate the SOJC’s proud history in LGBTQ activism and reporting, but also to establish it as a center of LGBTQ journalism. It’s a goal that dovetails well with the UO’s philosophy of diversity. In the past couple of years, the university has made strides in its efforts to create an inclusive environment for all students. Just after the tragic shooting in Orlando, Florida, last year, the Knight Library put on a full showcase of the school’s LGBTQ history that featured the first LGBTQ groups on campus, founded as early as 1969, as well as prominent leaders on campus later on, including, of course, Shilts.

Howe said she hopes the Gay Storytelling Started Here event and others like it will encourage students from all backgrounds to consider the importance of advocacy in their future careers. “I think it effectively laid the foundation for what I hope will be a conference in the year to come and what I hope will eventually be the Randy Shilts Center for Critical LGBT Journalism,” she said.

 

Aaron Weintraub is a senior in the SOJC studying journalism and Arabic, which he hopes to use as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. This is his first year working as a digital media intern for the SOJC’s Communications Office. In the past, he studied Arabic and Islamic studies in Keble College at Oxford University and at the Qasid Institute in Amman, Jordan, where he worked as an independent feature writer during the summer of 2016. He has also served as a writer and photographer for the UO’s environmental publication, Envision Magazine. You can find Weintraub’s collection of photography, much of which he took while traveling, at aaronweintraubphotos.wordpress.com. When he’s not writing or shooting photos, he enjoys climbing, biking and other activities that occasionally injure him.

Jackson Dulzo is a student athlete with a creative background and a focus on creative strategy and strategic communication. In addition to being a senior in the SOJC majoring in both advertising and public relations, he is an intern in the SOJC Communications office and serves as a member of the UO Club Sports Advisory Board. In the past he has worked as a summer intern for the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities in Traverse City, Michigan, on campaigns such as Oil and Water Don’t Mix. This spring he will be working as an intern in Portland for the SOJC’s Portland Senior Experience. You can see his work and learn more at jackdulzo.com.