Randy Boyd’s “gay agenda” was to be radically open about who he was: a gay, HIV-positive writer—not the straight professional athlete he was always assumed to be. Determined to blow up stereotypes about Black people, gay people, and people living with HIV, he had his work cut out for him.
Learn more about Randy Boyd in this interview with A&U magazine and read his oral history in the second edition of the Making Gay History book. Eric Marcus first became aware of Boyd through his essay “My Gay Agenda,” which was published in 2000 in the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review (now called the Gay & Lesbian Review); read it here. Visit Boyd’s website, randyboydauthor.com, to read more articles and essays by Boyd, as well as years’ worth of blog entries.
Boyd’s novels are written from the perspective of Black men living with HIV/AIDS. They include Uprising (1999), Bridge Across the Ocean (2001), The Devil Inside (2002), and his 700-page opus Walt Loves the Bearcat (2005). All four novels were nominated for Lambda Literary Awards. Most recently, he published a collection of his writing in The Essential Randy Boyd (2018). Hear him discuss his work in this interview.
Boyd was born in 1962 and grew up in Indianapolis. In the episode he recalls his sister pointing out a gay bar on a drive through town. Back then, Indianapolis gay bars blackened their windows and kept a low profile. The community’s first Gay Pride event wasn’t held until 1981. For a deeper dive into the city’s LGBTQ history (with a special focus on Black drag culture dating back to the 1930s), watch this presentation by Indianapolis Special Collections Librarian Stephen Lane.
In 1980, young Boyd swooned over Christopher Atkins, the male lead in the film The Blue Lagoon. He wasn’t the only one. Atkins always appreciated his huge gay fan base. In 1996, the film’s director, Randal Kleiser, wrote and directed the AIDS drama It’s My Party, which was inspired by the suicide of a former lover.
In the early years of the AIDS crisis, safer sex education that was meant to reduce the risk of infection with HIV was often locally based and unevenly distributed. It was especially difficult to reach men who had sex with men, but didn’t consider themselves to be gay and distanced themselves from the community. In 1987, Congress compounded the problem of reaching these men when it banned the use of federal funds for AIDS education materials that were perceived, directly or indirectly, to encourage or promote homosexual activities. Decades later, these populations remain under-researched and are still at higher risk for infection today.
In the episode, Boyd describes the experience of disclosing his HIV-positive status to his colleagues as a “mini Magic Johnson thing.” Watch the basketball player’s 1991 announcement that he was HIV-positive as it was broadcast here. Learn more about the moment’s significance for HIV-positive people in this TIME article, and read how it affected Boyd himself in his Frontiers magazine essay.
In the episode, Boyd also remembers his coworkers’ horrified reaction after he blows out the candles on a birthday cake. Rumors and fears that HIV could be spread through saliva and casual contact persisted long after those theories were disproven. As Boyd notes, when Hollywood leading man Rock Hudson died from complications of AIDS in 1985, it was a wake-up call for the whole nation, but many gay men found themselves shunned by friends and relatives in the wake of the actor’s death. Others remember being served food at family gatherings on paper plates and told not to hug their nieces and nephews.
Boyd briefly references the efforts of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche aimed at the mandatory reporting and even quarantining of people with HIV. Read more about Proposition 64, which LaRouche and his followers in the Prevent AIDS Now Initiative Committee (PANIC) managed to get on the 1986 ballot in California here or in the full California Senate report.
The day after Eric Marcus interviewed Boyd, Boyd sent him a follow-up email about meeting gay rights pioneer Harry Hay at an AIDS vigil outside Los Angeles County’s General Hospital. Read Boyd’s full account of the encounter below. To learn more about Harry Hay, listen to his Making Gay History episode here.
In the late ’80s, when I was first beginning to define myself as an openly gay man, I participated in a vigil. It took place outside LA County’s General Hospital, the city’s main sickbay for those without insurance. The vigil was organized by ACT UP and was organized to bring attention to the terrible conditions for PWAs [People With AIDS] at this very underfunded hospital. I had heard about the event during the announcement portion of a Louise Hay meeting. I went, believing this to be a good opportunity to get in touch with my activist side.
I took a late shift and sat down with half a dozen other people outside the hospital grounds, our signs and candles doing most of the work. This was a quiet, peaceful vigil. Sometime during the night, I found myself next to a much older man. He had to be in his 70s. He began telling me stories about what it had been like to be gay in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. He told me about how [they] identified each other as lovers of men and all the lengths they went [to] to live, love, and survive. He had been (and still was) an activist, which you could imagine was quite a dangerous thing in those days. He had even started one of the first gay rights groups and told me of their struggles with the law and the world at large.
I sat in awe, in wonder, in amazement at this history being passed down to me. It was the first time I had heard a first-hand account of where we as gay people had been. Growing up Black, I had heard plenty of oral history about the Black experience in this country, including things like the time the Klan came to my mother’s family’s house in Indiana to scare her teenage brother into not playing in some very important high school basketball games in the early 1950s. My Black history I knew. My gay history I did not.
That night, I gained a new appreciation for what gay people had to go through in the past and how far we had come. I felt grateful for those who had risked so much. I felt like what I was doing outside that hospital that night was indeed important.
Listening with youthful wonder to that old man’s stories was one of many defining moments in my discovery of myself and my role as a gay person. I couldn’t have been more grateful to him if he were my great-grandfather and had told me wonderful, bittersweet stories about my parents as children.
The man later told me his name. It was Harry Hay. I had been talking to one of the most important figures in the early gay rights movement, to one of the Frederick Douglasses or Booker T. Washingtons of gay culture. I knew this man Harry Hay was special as we talked. I didn’t know how special until I read more about him in the ensuing weeks.
I’ll never forget him, his stories, or his deeds now.
Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus, and this is Making Gay History.
I first met writer Randy Boyd in print—in an essay he wrote for what was then called the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review. It was the year 2000 and I was working on an updated edition of my Making Gay History book and searching for new perspectives to add to the book’s original 1992 edition.
Randy’s perspective was a bracing one. In his essay, he outlined what he called his gay agenda: “to be myself wherever I go, no matter whom I’m around, whatever the circumstances—lock, stock and barrel; all of me, including the parts that are gay and HIV-positive.” That radical openness was part of Randy’s mission, in his life and work alike: to explode stereotypes of all kinds—about gay people, about Black people, about people living with HIV. As a strapping six-foot-four, 200-pound Black man, wherever he went, Randy was assumed to be an athlete, and straight, so when it came to combating lazy stereotyping, he got a lot of practice.
Randy was born in Indianapolis in 1962, the youngest of four children. He moved to Los Angeles to attend college, first at USC and then UCLA, where he studied sociology. After graduating, he worked for several years in broadcast promotion in Hollywood. But by the time I interviewed Randy, he was a full-time writer living in San Diego.
So here’s the scene. I arrive at Randy’s tidy garden apartment just a few blocks from the ocean, and in the flight path of San Diego’s main airport. Randy and his dog Boomer, a lab mix, greet me at the door. It’s easy to imagine that Randy’s height, build, and demeanor lead people to believe that he’s a professional athlete. But I wisely keep that thought to myself.
Once we get settled in, I clip my microphone to the collar of Randy’s T-shirt. I start by asking him about his experience of growing up in Indianapolis.
Eric Marcus: Interview with Randy Boyd. Monday, February 19, 2001. Location is the home of Randy Boyd in San Diego, California. Interviewer is Eric Marcus. Tape one, side one.
Randy Boyd: The first seven years or so of my life I grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Uh, and then after that we moved into one of the most integrated sections of the country, not only the city. Um, and successfully, voluntarily integrated.
So, um, starting at age seven, I was around whites and Blacks. But, uh, I was never really enveloped by a lot of racism and racial tension. I mean, people pretty much got along. Of course I was aware of the problems in our country, I mean, you know, having been a very small child in the ’60s and seeing those images and, and so forth. But I didn’t feel threatened as a Black kid. Um, but I certainly felt threatened if I revealed my—that I was one of “they,” because “they” did these weird things that straight people always told me about.
EM: Do you remember growing up the first time you, you heard about gay people or…?
RB: Um, I remember… I have scattered memories of different incidences. Such as my sister, the older know-it-all, we were driving down a street and she said, you know, “That’s a gay bar.”
EM: In Indianapolis?
RB: In Indianapolis.
EM: This is in the ’70s?
RB: Yeah. And then there was another time, we were taking her to college, so I was probably about 13. And again she’s driving, and we see maybe an effeminate guy walking, and, and she makes a comment about his butt. And she says something like, you know, “They like those kinds of butts,” um…
EM: But what did you think when she said that, what did you think? Did it apply to you in any way, or did it just not apply at that time?
RB: Well, I mean it totally, it totally applied. I’ve always identified myself as a lover of males. There were times when I didn’t articulate it to anyone, including myself. There were times where if I admitted it to myself, I would think, I’m a “fag,” because that was the word du jour back then.
But it just, you know, my heart and soul and every pulse and everything beats with men. So I knew… When, when I heard these references, I knew they were referring to something that I was a part of.
EM: I imagine you were not perceived to be gay, like some kids who are called names at an early age.
RB: Well, I, I think, what I did in school was I was able to have two separate personalities. Um, not that I was claiming straight, but I certainly wasn’t claiming gay. And I would, would talk about girls and be interested in girls. I wouldn’t really fag bash, so I was sort of a passive straight person, I guess you might say. And then the other part of me was, like, oh god, I, you know, I want this best friend, this lover, so bad—this male. And, and, uh… But it was all very inside of me.
EM: So did, did you get through all of high school without telling anybody that, what your thoughts and feelings were?
RB: Oh, absolutely. Oh, no, there was, there was no outlet. There was no outlet whatsoever.
EM: How did you wind up at USC? Was it, uh…?
RB: Uh, I wanted to go to a big school with the whole, you know, football and collegiate… It was always very important to me to be popular and do the things the popular kids do. And, and be one of the beautiful, popular kids.
But I got to USC and I was all set for this frat world. And they didn’t have Blacks in the, in the white fraternities. And I was there… The first week I was there I was called “nigger” by a bunch of frat boys.
EM: September of 1980?
RB: Correct. The first week before school, and I, I’m with a, a bunch of Black kids and we’re walking home. And USC’s in the ghetto, so you have to… You know, they told us to walk home in packs. And we’re going down Fraternity Row and we hear some laughing inside one of the windows. And they hear our voices and so they stop and look out, and then the guy goes, “Oh, niggers.”
And I’m, like, just… All I can think about is coming to California and dreaming of being a part of this. And, and in my mind, I definitely—I mean, I’m, I find myself being attracted to all races, but at that time I had this ideal version of this guy, and he was definitely blonde and, and curly-haired. He was like Christopher Atkins in Blue Lagoon, which had been out the summer before, I think. But, uh… So, and, and this fraternity was Sigma Chi, which is a very, you know, it’s like one of the biggest fraternities nationwide. And, and, um, you know, so these were the gods on the mountain high calling me “nigger”—the ones, the very ones I wanted to worship.
Uh, and so I knew right there that, you know, that I wasn’t going to be able to fit in as a Black person. And I remember crying that week and knowing this wasn’t the pace, place for me, and I was gonna have to leave.
EM: Crying in your room by yourself?
RB: Actually, I went to the Coliseum. The, uh, sports venue. I borrowed a bike and I rode it there and stood outside the gates where you could see the whole bowl of the Coliseum, and, uh, just stood there and cried. You know, I was really standing there at, at the very shrine of, of, of what USC meant, and what I wanted my college experience to mean. And I knew it wasn’t the place for me, and I hadn’t even been to class one day.
EM: So you thought it was over for, for you at USC.
RB: Yeah, and essentially it was. I got out of there two years later.
EM: You did. What were those two years like, though?
RB: Well… You know, I had a couple of goals when I, when I got to California. Number one, I was gonna find my buddy right away. I thought he was gonna be my roommate. I thought, okay, my roommate’s gonna be this gorgeous, blonde, curly-haired guy like Christopher Atkins and we’re just gonna automatically be best friends forever, and, and lovers. And that didn’t turn out. He… and then I would be scouring the dorms, you know, figuring out, well, which guy is it, you know, which one kind of looks at me with a little bit of interest? You know.
And, uh, and that wasn’t quite working out. And so then I discovered… Back in those days, they had the bathhouse listings in the yellow pages. Under “Bathhouses,” if you can believe that. And so I looked up a bathhouse, and went to one. You know, I’m 18, I’ve got urges. So I started going out. And in my mind I’m thinking that somehow I’m going to try to meld these two lives together. My, you know, the side of me that’s going out and the side of me that’s here in college. I mean, this is California, you know, there’s got to be boys like me.
So, um, the second year I was there, I was out on this foursome double date. Straight double date. And, uh, and I, and I was really attracted to the guy, the other guy in the party. And we’re at this Oktoberfest, everyone is drinking beer, and, and, you know, I’m with my date and he’s with his date. And he lean—he says to me, “Randy, there’s something I have to tell you.” And he leans across the table. And he, in my ear so no one else can hear, he goes, “I think I’m gay.” But me, in my infinite wisdom, I just look at him and laugh like he’s telling a joke. And then of course, you know, his, his moment of honesty and vulnerability just evaporates, and then he, too, laughs. And we go back to this, you know, beerfest.
Then we drive back to the dorms. And we’d, we dropped the girls off. And he’s at my place, and we’re just sort of sitting there. And I’m, like, waiting for this to happen, you know, where somehow me and this guy would just somehow… Like these true selves would burst out of us like that little thing in Alien, you know, out of the stomach. And simultaneously, and we, you know, couldn’t deny it anymore. But he just, you know, eventually says, “Well, I’ve gotta go.” And that was it.
But then later on in the year, uh, I was really, really ready to, like, come out to him or to someone. And I made a date with him to have lunch. And so we go out to lunch. We’re getting drunk at one of the student pubs and, uh, I say to him, “Remember back at Oktoberfest? You said, ‘I think I’m gay.’” And he just exploded, like, “What?! No way! I’m not a fag.” All that stuff, you know. And then he, um, after, after feeling satisfied enough that he had proclaimed his non-homosexuality, he kept saying things like, “You know, if you’re gay, just tell me. Are you gay? Are you gay?” And finally I said, “Yes.” And that was the first person I had ever verbalized it to.
EM: When did you, um, become aware that there was a gay rights movement, that, um, you had any place in it… how did that evolve?
RB: Well, I think the kind of life I’ve just explained was very indicative of a good deal of my life, especially up until the age of 26. It was being very much in the closet in what I, what I thought of as my real world. And having this whole other life where I would dip in and out of, but it really wasn’t real. It mostly happened at night and in places where I didn’t want to be seen. Um, and I hated that. I hated lying. I hated pretending I was interested in girls, instead of telling the gorgeous guy, “You’ve got wonderful eyes. Can we get to know each other?”
EM: So up until age 26… This is already 1988. And, um, well, now ’88, the ’80s you have the issue of HIV. Were you aware already of that issue in the ’80s?
RB: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I was aware of it. The first time I was aware of it was sometime ’83—’82, ’83. Uh, I was tricking with a guy. We had just finished. And we started talking about, you know, VD and whatnot. And then he said, “Yeah, and there’s this new thing that can kill you.” And I’ll never forget that. And I’ll never forget those words. I mean, it was such an alien thing. I, you know, it’s…
So I was aware of it, um, although I certainly didn’t get the facts and the information. I got the true story, the real story, when the rest of the world did in the fall of ’86 when Rock Hudson, uh, announced that he was… Was that ’86 or ’85?
RB: Yeah, uh, that’s when I really got the story. So between ’86 and ’88 I was definitely aware of what was going on.
EM: What was it that happened in ’88 that pushed you over the edge of…?
RB: Well, for one thing there was an earthquake in L.A. And it was the first real kind of earthquake that I had been in. Um, so that made me, it made me confront death a little bit. You know, what a quake does, it, it cracks the ground and things come out of it. Well, that earthquake cracked, in my mind, mentally, and my fear of death, by AIDS of course, came out.
And I knew I was at risk because I’d had plenty of, um, casual, anonymous, marginally safe or unsafe sex. Um, because I didn’t get the safe sex message because I wasn’t in the gay community, um, in that way—in that sort of active, interactive, reading the newspaper, finding out things way. I was only in the gay community in the sexual venues. Um, and I had had a period of night sweats in ’85, too… And I had heard enough about night sweats to know that was a potential, um, symptom.
And, uh, then I… I think it’s also just a matter of growing up, you know. So by the end of ’87 I was definitely making some life-altering changes and really focusing on the things I wanted to do in life. And I started coming out to my family, friends, and co-workers… That was a very powerful time. To be who I am without any reservations or hesitations. To the people that I look in the eye every day, um…
EM: But then in ’88 you tested…
RB: I, I got tested.
EM: This is after you’d come out to your colleagues?
RB: Right. Um, got tested, was positive.
EM: But that wasn’t something you shared with people at work…
EM: … that you shared with anybody…
RB: Well, I shared it with my mother right after I got the news, that same hour. Um, and then shared it with family members shortly thereafter. And I think for quite a while I still kept it a secret from everyone else, um, because I still remembered the years where they were saying, “Don’t get tested,” you know. Uh, the Rev. LaRouche, if you know about California politics, was trying to quarantine people for a while. So there was, you know, still some concerns there.
But eventually, um, in ’90 I, my, I was healthy, fairly healthy in terms of all the significant numbers when I first got tested. But by ’90 my numbers were really starting to decline steadily. And the only thing I could, could contribute it to was the stress at work.
I worked in Hollywood, uh, in a department of a major studio that surprisingly was very straight. Uh, so I left the job, and when I left I came out as being HIV-positive in a staff meeting. As everyone is getting up to go, and I go, “Uh, one more thing… I’m leaving after five years and here’s why.”
EM: And what was the reaction?
RB: Oh, they were all stunned, you know, they were all just, you know… It was like a little mini Magic Johnson thing before that ever happened. A year or so before that. And then one by one, you know, they would come up to me in the next week that I had still there and, um, you know, pledge their undying support. And they would offer me money and food and, you know… As if I were suddenly homeless or something.
But it happened to be that I was leaving right around the time of my birthday and another fellow’s birthday. So they, they threw us a simultaneous little, you know, five-minute birthday thing with a cake and everything. And we were all gathered in, in someone’s office to do this. And it was a larger office. And there’s maybe 15, 20 people. And it comes time to blow out the cake. And, and so me and the other guy do it. And then suddenly nobody wants cake. Not a soul.
EM: But you just blew out the candles?
RB: Yes. And then this one gal comes in. She came in late because she was still doing some work. So she comes in late, you know. So she’s oblivious to the fact that I just blew out the cake. And everyone had, was like frozen, standing against this wall, very erect, like they were just, you know, trying to back out of the room. And so she comes in, “Oh, okay, there’s cake. I missed the singing, but now there’s cake.” And every… You could just see the terrified look on everyone’s face as she’s getting this piece of cake. And, you know, they were just all dying to scream, “No!”
EM: But they didn’t.
RB: They didn’t. And, you know, I… She got the cake and she ate it.
EM: Was she the only one to eat cake or were there others who took her lead then?
RB: No. No. I think maybe the guy who was blowing out the candles with me ate it. Or got a piece. I don’t know if he ate. But, no, that cake stayed there untouched. I’m sure it was thrown away.
EM: How did that make you feel?
RB: Like shit. If they were gonna be that scared, why the fuck did they buy a cake in the first place?
RB: What did they think was gonna happen? And put candles on it. And it was for me. What did they want?
EM: You’re still here. It’s 19—it, uh, 2001, and a lot of people who had night sweats in ’86 are not—or ’87— are not here anymore.
RB: Hmm. It was actually ’85.
RB: That, that’s even… The percentages…
EM: Right. And you said your numbers began to fall in the late ’80s, early ’90s.
RB: Yeah. I’ve been through very many ups and downs, health-wise. I’ve been hospitalized once. Um, but I actually realized, um… Late last year I actually realized, um, that I’m not going to die of AIDS. Because if I was going to do that, it would have happened a long time ago. Now, that… I say that, but I also wanna add that that may change. But that’s how I feel now.
Uh, but certainly… I mean, how could I not have been HIV-positive? I turned 18 in 1980. A month after my 18th birthday, in February of 1980, I go to my first bathhouse. And I start going to these sexual venues as my only real way of defining myself as a gay man. Um, you know, so I went for social and sexual reasons. And by god, let’s face it, we all need sex, and when you’re young you really need it bad. There’s no way in the world I couldn’t be HIV-positive. But that doesn’t mean, um, I have to die from it.
EM Narration: The day after I interviewed Randy Boyd, he sent me a follow-up email about an AIDS vigil he attended in the late 1980s outside Los Angeles County’s General Hospital. At the vigil he met an old man who shared with him stories of gay life back in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. The old man turned out to be Harry Hay, one of the lead founders of the Mattachine Society, the first sustained LGBTQ rights organization in the U.S. Randy was in awe of having crossed paths with history, and called the encounter one of the defining moments in his self-discovery as a gay person. You can read the full story on our website.
Since I interviewed Randy more than 20 years ago, he’s written numerous essays and short stories, and published four novels whose main protagonists are Black gay men living with HIV/AIDS. That much I was able to learn from his website. But my efforts to find out more about what Randy’s been up to have come up short. Emails and messages to him have disappeared into the ether. And various other leads led to dead ends. Randy’s last blog post is from December 2020. And he hasn’t posted on Facebook since March 2021.
But if Randy’s taught us anything, it’s to not make assumptions. So I hope one of you can help me track him down. If you have any idea what happened to Randy or know where he is, please email me at email@example.com.
For one thing, I’d love to tell him that, like Harry Hay, he’s been featured in a Making Gay History episode all his own. I bet he’d get a kick out of that.
Thank you to everyone who makes Making Gay History, including story editor Inge De Taeye, associate producer Ali Lemer, audio engineer Cathleen Conte, researcher Brian Ferree, genealogist Michael LeClerc, photo editor Michael Green, and our social media producers, Cristiana Peña and Nick Porter. Special thanks to our founding editor and producer, Sara Burningham, and our founding production partner Jenna Weiss-Berman at Pineapple Street Studios. Our theme music was composed by Fritz Meyers.
Thank you to the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division for their assistance. And thank you to Con Edison for their generous support of our education work.
Season ten of this podcast has been made possible with funding from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation; the Calamus Foundation; the Kipper Family Foundation; Christopher Street Financial; Mary Cadagin and Lee Wilson; Bryan, Christine, and Alex White; Hal Brody and Don Smith; and scores of other individual supporters.
You can find all our previous episodes, archival photos, full transcripts, and additional information on each of the people and stories we feature at makinggayhistory.com. And while you’re there, sign up for our newsletter so you know what’s coming up next.
I’m Eric Marcus. So long, until next time.