Patient Zero: the man who brought AIDS to North America, sparking the gay plague epidemic, killing several hundred thousand gay men. His name was Gaëtan Dugas – a French Canadian flight attendant for Air Canada. His name was published, his lifestyle vilified, his family shamed.
Except it turns out Patient Zero didn’t really exist, and even if he did, he wasn’t Gaëtan Dugas.
When the CDC was frantically trying to crack this strange and terrifying disease, they interviewed a bright young flight attendant who was quite forthcoming. They greedily drank up every piece of information he offered. Ultimately, Gaëtan’s extensive recollections helped them piece together a cluster chart that helped them identify the sexually transmitted nature of the disease. He was labelled patient O – as in Out of California (where the first group of men they interviewed had lived). But that O would later be mistaken for a 0 and was interpreted as meaning the beginning of AIDS in North America.
Obviously, that was 100% factually incorrect, but a reporter who seethed at the government’s lack of response decided to galvanize the world with a book. In it, he constructed the Patient Zero narrative, which guaranteed that the book would be published, read, talked about, regardless of whether it was even remotely true.
Killing Patient Zero is about correcting this notion and rescuing Gaetan’s name. Director Laurie Lynd interviews many: friends, coworkers, leaders at the forefront of gay civil rights and AIDS advocacy, doctors and more. Together they weave a portrait of a man joyfully enjoying life and his newfound freedoms. AIDS happened just as the world was opening up to gay men. Some called it the ultimate punishment for a sinful life. Gay men lived in terror, but terror of the unknown, because AIDS proved elusive, hard to define, impossible to treat, easy to contract, but by what means? No one could say.
Gaëtan too would have lived with that fear. Still, he took the time to talk to the authorities and tell them what he knew. He did more than most. Killing Patient Zero is as enlightening as it is profound. It’s an important historical record, one that honours not just Gaetan’s memory, but all of those who witnessed a vital community’s near-extinction and did something about it.
Friday, Apr 26, 8:30 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Saturday, Apr 27, 12:30 PM, Scotiabank Theatre 4
Friday, May 3, 2:45 PM, Hart House Theatre