“Killing Patient Zero”
Zero, the Man and the AIDS Epidemic
Most of us are aware of the phrase “Patient Zero” as the man “responsible” for bringing AIDS to the United States and who has become increasingly forgotten over time. He was so-named in journalist Randy Shilts’ influential nonfiction book “And the Band Played On” which brought the AIDS conversation into the mainstream several years after it began. A French-Canadian flight attendant named Gaetan Dugas was widely believed to be the first person who brought the disease to the USA and around the world. He died three years before the book’s publication, and so didn’t live to see how his place as a footnote in the wider story of the epidemic was so twisted that he became something of a manipulative villain who deliberately spread the disease. Shilts, who died of AIDS related complications himself in 1994, was accused by many of internalized homophobia due to these negative (and seemingly sensationalized) portrayals of Patient Zero within his work.
Dugas may look irresponsible in retrospect in that he refused to take medical advice and continued with his sex life until he had concrete proof as to how the virus was spread. He was not intentionally evil but he was foolish on a catastrophic level, as opposed to being an evil man with intent to harm others. Eventually, it was revealed he was one of many people with the virus and not the originator, but this was years later and the damage had been done— the myth of patient zero has left a lasting impact while the truth of the man has been forgotten.
Director Laurie Lynd looks at “Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic” by Richard McKay and this film is the result. While the film criticizes Dugas for his actions, it is dedicated to his memory. It puts his reckless behavior in the context of the gay liberation movement and shows why so many gay men refused to give up one of the few joys they had in a culture hostile to their existence.
Lynd has conducted more than 40 interviews for this documentary, many of whom were subjects in Shilts’ original book. He was searching for the truths behind the harmful myths. The media’s depiction of the “gay cancer” at the time was seemingly designed to reinforce harmful stereotypes of gay men and their sex lives, with conservative governments across the world refusing to even acknowledge the crisis due to a hatred of gay people. As many interviewers state that if this were disproportionately affecting straight men, there would have been an urgency to find a cure a lot sooner. An interview with Shilts’ original publisher, who convinced him to divorce the minor Patient Zero story from the book and sell it to the conservative tabloid the New York Post, shows that in order to get this story into the public consciousness, the worst stereotypes had to be indulged to make headlines. A man who wanted to find the human story behind the headlines had to sacrifice his own findings to get noticed, and the result was harmful to the LGBT community.
Much of the film’s first half is dedicated to discussing the sexual freedoms of the 70’s, following the Stonewall riots that closed the previous decade. Within this context, it makes the spread of the disease and the reluctance to step away from sex lives understandable if not justifiable. It puts the promiscuity considered by many people in polite society at the time to be a sinful trait under a lens that removes all judgement. For years, trips to nightclubs and bathhouses were the only joys in life away from the scorn of the wider world, you can see why there’d be a reluctance to step away from that lifestyle. Through various talking head interviews, Lynd helps younger audiences understand why this disease was able to spread so widely, without judging as to the reasons why this was able to happen.
“Killing Patient Zero” is important to our understanding of the AIDS crisis. “People who are young do not understand in any real way, even if they know the fact, that homosexuality was against the law,” says author and activist Fran Leibowitz in the film. “It was against the law—not just that your parents didn’t like you or people you went to school with didn’t like you. It was actually a crime.” Leibowitz encapsulates the pervasive homophobia that allowed the AIDS crisis to devastate the gay community while the powers that be failed to take action. More significantly, Leibowitz’s comment highlights the significance of the period of euphoria that shortly preceded the AIDS outbreak as gay men and women enjoyed hard fought sexual liberation after being considered criminal deviants simply for whom they loved. It’s in this context that one must appreciate the life of Gaétan Dugas, who didn’t waste a second of his freedom.
Forget everything you thought you knew about the man known as “Patient Zero.” “Killing Patient Zero” says goodbye to the falsehoods that have characterized Gaétan Dugas, who unwittingly became the “face” of the AIDS crisis when a typo marked him as the point of origin for the virus as it devastated the gay community in the 1980s. Dugas was not the catalyst for the deadly contagion, but rather, like far too many members of the queer community, a victim of it. The film explains how the “zero” that marked Dugas like the scarlet letter was actually an “O” to signify him as “Out of California” in an elaborate cluster graph charting early known cases of HIV/AIDS. Lynd’s film reveals that Dugas was labelled “Patient O” (not “zero”) because he provided invaluable help to researchers trying to study and understand the virus.
This film puts Dugas’ personality and joie de vivre at the forefront and humanizes a man who has been demonized throughout history. Dugas’ peers rebuild “Patient Zero” as a young man who was flamboyantly and vivaciously open about his sexuality and could pick up any man he wanted, gay or straight, and enjoyed an incalculable number of partners during this era of free love. They all speak of him with uniform positivity.
Despite appearing in only 11 pages of “And the Band Played On”, Dugas life was stolen and re-framed. The film shows us the complexity of the falsehoods that compounded one another as misinformation spread while researchers tried to understand the virus in its early phases.
The film contextualizes the social movements that preceded the AIDS outbreak and inspired Dugas to live openly and fully. The interviewees share some wonderful and heartbreaking coming out stories and tales of finding relief in the ability to live without feeling like they were hiding. There are open and candid discussions of sexuality, the opposite of the kind of bashfulness that prevented a swift response to the AIDS outbreak.