IT WAS IN 1987 that Randy Shilts’ epic book on the AIDS crisis and the political response to it, And the Band Played On, hit the stands, painstakingly presenting the moral, ethical, and criminal negligence of the Reagan Administration in its response to the emerging AIDS crisis. Despite its length and the rigor of Shilts’ research, the book contained one giant erroneous theory, a bit of misinformation that became conventional wisdom and ultimately stained much of Shilts’ legacy.
This was the idea that that there was a “Patient Zero,” the first person thought to have brought HIV to North America, as California scientists had speculated. While only a minor part of the book, the media—looking for a gay vampire of sorts whom they could demonize—seized upon this idea, and stories of a promiscuous Québecois flight attendant, Gaëtan Dugas, soon popped up everywhere. Once the story made 60 Minutes, where it reached a massive audience, the highly dubious theory had become an accepted truth about the epidemic’s origins.
The Patient Zero theory has since been completely debunked, and now Toronto-based filmmaker Laurie Lynd delves into the life and legacy of Dugas, who was so unfairly maligned after dying from AIDS-related causes. The film, Killing Patient Zero, features an array of file footage and tells the story not only of Dugas’ legacy, but also what living through the early years of the epidemic was like. Lynd interviews a broad range of people—from Fran Lebowitz to Toronto writer Richard Vaughan to Dugas’ friend Rand Gaynor—in his exploration of the misguided theory and its fallout.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I must acknowledge that Lynd interviewed me for the project (having written a piece on Patient Zero for Xtra), and I appear in the film. It was a fascinating experience, prompting me to re-examine my life during those painful years. Lynd has done an exceptional job of bringing those years into clearer focus.
I spoke with Laurie in his Toronto home.
Matthew Hays teaches film studies and journalism at Concordia U. in Montréal.