An unearthed treasure trove of notes written to author of Conduct Unbecoming, Randy Shilts, by warriors, veterans and rockstars of the epic battle against discrimination against gay and lesbian servicembers in the U.S. military are published here for the first time.
In 1994 I co-founded ApolloMedia with partners Steven Campbell and Trace Cohen, and in January 1995 we released Conduct Unbecoming, the first ever CD-ROM to tackle social issues and pioneering digital activism through its ‘e-post’ feature — the first ever technology allowing users to electronically communicate directly with their elected representatives.
Conduct Unbecoming, based on the book of the same name by renowned investigative reporter Randy Shilts, was ahead of its time for practical purposed, although it still won the prestigious USA Today’s Critics Choice Award and was dubbed “evolutionary” by Rolling Stone Magazine.
Randy Shilts, who also wrote the seminal book on AIDS, And The Band Played On, was pilloried in later years by some who felt his stance on closing bathhouses and focus on Patient Zero did not pass historical muster. While all good works can and should be subject to scrutiny, the spotlight Shilts shone on the issue of gays and lesbians in the U.S. military with Conduct Unbecoming was blinding in its intensity, as he interviewed thousands of servicemembers as well as those at the forefront of the legal battles seeking to end the egregious abuses.
Their stories humanized the issue in a way it had never been done before. With Randy’s blessing on the purchase of the CD-ROM rights to his book (a first for publisher, St. Martin’s Press) we re-interviewed many of the people Randy did on camera, in an effort to use technology to amplify and further humanize what he had started.
In addition, we compiled and digitized every important and pivotal document, creating an invaluable resource for those continuing the fight and those wishing to understand it. Randy, who was dying of AIDS at the time, sadly passed away before the completion of the project.
The book was released prior to the implementation of the insidious Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy that would cruelly subject lesbian and gay servicemembers to horrendous treatment for the next 17 years. At the time the CD ROM was released, DADT was in effect, and mere possession of the CD ROM was enough to trigger an investigation that could result in a discharge, prompting us to place a warning to servicemembers on the CD ROM itself.
Additionally, 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. Our legal muscle proved too much for the Navy. We prevailed.
“We think the (Navy’s) real motivation is prejudice, and we fortunately are not service members and don’t have to be silenced,” Fein said. “We can tell and we will. The bottom line for us is the poster, in our opinion, is in the public domain.”
I asked some of those I interviewed to please write a note to Randy in my copy of the book if I had it with me. Some were written while he was alive, and some were written posthumously. I decided to photograph and transcribe those notes for posterity. And more importantly, to depict the immense gratitude to Randy Shilts by those whose lives were so impacted by the cruelty of America’s policies towards gays in the military. And my gratitude to them.
These notes to Randy remind me of why we did what we did, the bravery of all those who fought back to eventually win, and the extent to which we are capable and must be willing to fight again. Our history is all too often whitewashed, or sanitized, or oversimplified for commercial consumption on streaming platforms.
These extraordinary notes have an extremely important place.
You will forever be my hero & my friend. Watch over the rest of us as we continue this journey & thank you for the wonderful works that you gave of our history.
To Randy –
For understanding the importance of this issue before anyone else. Thank you from the bottom of every gay & lesbian servicemember’s heart.
I miss you and your future works. We are so grateful to have had your gift. We will carry on the fight! Get some rest, my friend.
Love David Mixner
Who told the STORY — I cannot begin to tell how much this has meant to those who face “the policy.”
What an Honor –
Donna Lynn Jackson
Ì Que Vira Randy, and all his work on this issue.
You were one of the first to understand, the first to tell the story.
Our best thoughts,
To Randy, Linda, Barry, Clinton and Steve with much love for all you are and all you do for American’ civil rights.
Cliff Anchor 5/16/94
Thanks for your labor of love on our behalf. We will be with you in “the fellowship of the spirit” as we continue what you started.
Rev. Dusty Pruitt
Who would have guessed that being a big queen in the Navy would be historical?
I miss you so much. We all wish you were here to share the jokes and the rest of life. Scott — however maintains that you’re up there with Harvey causing trouble and telling all those bad jokes both of you so loved.
Love Linda (Alband)
To Randy –
I miss you already.
How many generations of our people have to keep fighting this wicked policy before we can win?
We gave them a good run for their money, and your books will be keeping them on the run for years. I miss working with you immensely, but am truly thankful we got the chance to fight together.
Michael Denneny (Conduct Unbecoming publisher, St. Martin’s Press)
For the first time, you told it as it is! Thank you for allowing us to be part of your book and making sure the shame and hurt that has been inflicted will some day come to an end. Xx
For Randy with great appreciation for documenting what we have all known for many years. No one can argue with this record. You did good!
Vernon E. Berg “Copy”
Your powerful work will live forever in the heritage of our community.
Randy, Linda & Clinton
Your work has already made a difference in the lives of many…I can only thank-you for giving us the opportunity to share our story and to feel our lives may make the world a safer place for gays & lesbians in the military.
I love you and what you have given –
Thanks for telling these stories. Hopefully with your help, dedication will make life better for all gay & lesbian servicemembers all q n S’s.
You have been a word warrior fighting on the front lines for humanity leading many of us to enlightenment. Thank you for your courage, your friendship and your imopination!
To Randy —
You told the truth and the truth shall prevail. This book will never let anyone ever forget how shamefully America treated its finest, youngest and most trusting citizens.
We shall overcome the deceit and lies. History will redeem us all.
Thanks for doing our community a great service.
I’m honored to add my name to those to those who acknowledge the great debt we owe Randy for his courage and his talent.
Barney Frank (former Democratic Representative, Massachusetts)
Your work, your courage and your words have made the struggle easier & the outcome better — for many, many of my clients & friends. May you know the strength you have given them,
A wonderful, caring, giving person who tried to change the horrible system.
Pat Schroeder (former Democratic Representative, Colorado)
To Randy –
You became a visionary as well as a brilliant journalist. We strive on in your name to transform the world to make room for the love & the joy & the genius of gay men & lesbians.
You are the true hero and the true talent and you are missed by all of us.
Thank you for being.
Lynn Woolsey (former Democratic Representative, California)
Indeed, the band played on — Thanks for your part in it.
When I first received your book, I could not immediately open it. Instead I wept as the sheer weight and size of the volume sank in. I wept for joy that finally someone had told our stories and had done so with such care. I wept in sadness of the many lives harmed that are represented by the size of this book and its pages. I honor you for caring about military people at a time when it was not popular to do so and when so many — even now — remain ambivalent about us. Thank you for shattering the secrecy of military abuse after opening the door of the military closet.
Michelle Benecke (Co-founder, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network)
Randy, you have made the issue of gays in the military real for millions of Americans by detailing in painstaking detail the abuses gay men and women suffer. Your contributions will advance not only the rights of gays in the military but everyone struggling to be free and honest.
Dixon Osburn (Co-founder, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network)
Thanks for making our case superbly and effectively.
Frank E. Kameny
Your life has not been in vain. All Americans will & can benefit from this everlasting spotlight you’ve created. May it shine brightly as does our choice of freedom, for all to see & may you rest in peace.
Your words of wisdom in the days before I came out were an inspiration I will personally pass on to fellow gays and lesbians ready to accept and demand acceptance of their identity in this world!
José M. Zuniga
Your incredible work has aptly demonstrated the pen is truly GREATER than the SWORD. Your work has gone so far to give people back their dignity and freedom from terrible oppression. We’ve got so far to go, but you’ve carried us a long way and lightened our load and given us inspiration.
Applause from the depth of my spirit for your dedication and commitment and celebration of all us queers! Our oppression makes us stronger, fight back!
Penny Rand , 1994
Your words immortalized us — your insight lead us to continue to speak out in outrage. Our day of freedom will come.
Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, Aug 94
God knows, I miss you. You made light from darkness. If ever I wonder about dignity, your writings remind me…
From Tohu va Vohu came Creation.
I love you Randy…
Miriam Ben Shalom
P.S. Watch over us, will you?
This time maybe we’ve done it — by allowing others to see how utterly in control the government can be, you allow us to know how much we need to take back — my thoughts have been with you since we first met — thanks for your concern and continued support. I miss you.