'Killing Patient Zero' profiles Quebec man unfairly targeted in AIDS epidemic

TORONTO — In the late 1970s, Quebecois flight attendant Gaetan Dugas was openly and proudly gay, described by friends as flamboyant, sexual and generous, with a supportive family and penchant for makeup.

Unashamed of his lifestyle despite lingering societal stigmas, he co-operated with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the early 1980s after he contracted what was initially called "gay cancer" in the media, providing blood samples and the names of 72 of his former sex partners.

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Dugas played a key role in contributing to a study that helped prove HIV/AIDS was sexually transmitted.

But as the new documentary "Killing Patient Zero" notes, he became demonized because of his promiscuity — and a typographical error.

In the CDC study, Dugas was labelled "patient O," as in the letter "O," representing "Out-of-California Case," a state where researchers began to look for links.

However, some misinterpreted the "O" as the number "0," as in "patient zero," leading to the long-standing and incorrect implication that Dugas brought AIDS to North America.

"He really should be thought of as a hero of the fight against AIDS," said Laurie Lynd, the doc's Toronto-based director.

"For him to have been vilified, it's like the classic 'No good deed goes unpunished.'"

Making its world premiere Friday at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, "Killing Patient Zero" details Dugas' life as well as the homophobia and prejudice surrounding the AIDS epidemic. American author Fran Lebowitz is among the 40 interviewees in the film, which is based on Richard McKay's book "Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic."

Dugas, who grew up in Quebec City, was one of the first 57 AIDS cases reported to CDC and was part of its cluster study in Atlanta.

He died on March 30, 1984 but became an international name in '87, when American journalist Randy Shilts published his book on the AIDS epidemic, "And The Band Played On."

In the book and a feature in the New York Post titled "The Man Who Gave Us AIDS," Shilts identified Dugas as "patient zero" and accused him of being the source of the U.S. outbreak.

Shilts, who died in 1994, maintained Dugas wasn't singled out and noted many others were also named in the book.

The 60-year-old Lynd, who is openly gay, said he read Shilts's story about Dugas in 1990 and thought it was correct until he saw the 1993 John Greyson film "Zero Patience," which debunks the myth.

"It was a real gift to be able to revisit this story, just personally, to look at those years again and to be able to rehabilitate Gaetan's name," said Lynd.

"I think he's a gay everyman. I think what he did was heroic with the CDC."

Still, Shilts's book also drew attention to the epidemic at a time when many politicians weren't talking about it, added Lynd, noting it woke him up politically and prompted him to make his short film "RSVP," about a man who loses his partner to AIDS.

"It's hard for us to realize how little traction it had gained in public attention. Randy's book was a kind of wakeup call," Lynd said.

"In a way, Randy did the wrong thing for the right reasons."

Lynd said he worried his film would open old wounds for Dugas' family, but they've seen the trailer and will get a link to the doc through McKay, who is in touch with them.

"I also hope they will feel it's ... worth it," said Lynd, "because it so thoroughly, I hope, and finally rehabilitates Gaetan's name."

Lynd also hopes the film will be "healing" for gay men and women and serve as a reminder that the fight against HIV/AIDS isn't over — and that homophobia is still around.

"You need look no further than the gay serial killer in Toronto, where it seems fairly clear that had those victims been straight white men, it would have been handled very differently, and how so many of that killer's victims clearly had to live on the down-low because of the homophobia in their communities," Lynd said.

"And we need look no further than our neighbours to the south. I feel homophobia is on the rise again in some ways in this populous climate."

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