Killing Patient Zero: How a Quebec flight attendant was falsely accused of bringing AIDS to America
Laurie Lynd's new film debunks the myth surrounding Gaëtan Dugas once and for all
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.
Gaëtan Dugas was a handsome Air Canada flight attendant who passed away at the age of 31 of complications from AIDS on March 30, 1984. For decades, he was widely regarded as "patient zero," the man responsible for starting the AIDS epidemic in North America. But this narrative — as Laurie Lynd's new documentary Killing Patient Zero wants to once and for all make clear — was absolutely false.
The same month Dugas died, a study in The American Journal of Medicine traced many early HIV infections to him. Dugas was not named in the study but instead listed as "patient O," which stood for "outside California," where one of the researchers was studying cases. This was ultimately misread as "patient 0," leading many people reading and discussing the studying to refer to it was "patient zero." And then in 1987, journalist Randy Shilts identified "patient zero" as Dugas while also depicting him as something of a sociopath who intentionally infected his sexual partners — a move which received intense media coverage in the mainstream press.
Like so many folks, it was through Shilts's book that he first heard of Dugas.
"I'm embarrassed to admit now that when I first read the book, I totally bought into the 'patient zero' story and Shilts's hugely inaccurate version of Dugas," Lynd says. "With hindsight, I recognize that my reaction was in no small part due to my as-yet-unacknowledged internalized homophobia, as well as Shilts's persuasive — and subtly, unintentionally homophobic — writing, in which we can clearly see that he created 'good, respectable' gays vs. 'bad, prodigiously sexual' gays, for example Dugas."
One of the first major rebuttals of the Dugas myth was through the work of another Canadian filmmaker, John Greyson. In 1993, Greyson made a musical about Dugas (though he is just referred as "Zero") called Zero Patience. It was through Greyson, who he starting work with in the early 1990s, that Lynd learned Shilts's book was not exactly accurate — and this eventually spurred him to want to help correct the misconceptions around Dugas's story.
"Knowing John and then, of course, seeing his incredible film Zero Patience, totally woke me up to the ridiculousness of the whole 'patient zero' story and to the homophobia behind the need to assign blame for this disease," Lynd says.
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As for Lynd's own cinematic contribution to debunking the myth, the idea first came to his producer, Corey Russell, who had optioned Richard McKay's 2017 book, Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic.
"Right away, I realized I wanted to make this film because of having lived through the times it depicts, having experienced some — though mercifully not the worst — of the horrors of the AIDS years, and because I have long wanted to mark the costs of homophobia on my generation of queer men and women," Lynd says. "All these elements are in the tragic story of the vilification of Gaëtan Dugas. I realized that in addition to hopefully, and finally, rehabilitating Dugas's name, Killing Patient Zero could tell the story of the pernicious legacy of the homophobia of the times."
Lynd says that he "couldn't begin to list the countless ways" in which he learned about Dugas's story — and the history of HIV/AIDS — through reading McKay's book and making the film.
"I lived in New York City in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS years — but, I realize now, did so with blinkers on. It was clearly how I got through those horrible years," he says. "With the hindsight and knowledge that this film has given me, I marvel at my ability to have been so blinkered — but I think that is so often how we survive difficult times. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to make this film, to have been able to correct so much of my own ignorance of the history of something I actually lived through. And I think one of the strongest things I took from Richard McKay's remarkable book — and this suffuses my film — was his revelation of how the homophobia of mainstream culture fed the need for blame, and fuelled the dissemination of the ridiculous 'patient zero' story."
For example, one of the most shocking things Lynd specifically learned in researching the film was when he discovered the audio of a White House Press Conference in October 1982 (which is included in the the film).
"At a time when 600 men were dead or dying, the news of a 'gay plague' was greeted with derisive laughter," he says. "The complete disregard evidenced for the lives of gay men still leaves me speechless."
Lynd hopes that, beyond Dugas's true story, audiences of Killing Patient Zero remember — or perhaps even learn — that "a holocaust was allowed to happen to gay men in North America in the 1980s [and] the entrenched homophobia of our society — and governments — deemed queer men so undesirable that their deaths did not matter."
"In these strange political times — with 'populist' right wing governments seemingly in ascendance, and with the resulting rise in sanctioned homophobia — I sincerely hope that Killing Patient Zero, through the still-shocking example of the AIDS crisis, will remind audiences of the brutal cost prejudice incurs."
Killing Patient Zero. Directed by Laurie Lynd. Opens in Toronto July 26, followed by a rollout across Canada.