Review: 'Killing Patient Zero' Sets the Record Straight

by Roger Walker-Dack

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday April 26, 2021

'Killing Patient Zero'
'Killing Patient Zero'  

As a gay man of a certain age who personally survived the brunt of the AIDS pandemic but lost a husband and far too many friends, Canadian filmmaker Laurie Lynd's excellent new documentary is way overdue. Like most people, we had bought the story that the epidemic was started in North America by a promiscuous gay Air Canada flight attendant who had a man at literally every layover. Lynd now tells the true story of how Gaetan Dugas, demonized as a villain by both the tabloid press and the gay community, was a hero who helped the medical community. Dugas helped researchers establish that the virus was passed by sexual intercourse, and that helped save the lives of gay men not infected yet.

The beginning of the '80s was a scary time for all gay men. We barely had enjoyed a decade of sexual liberation and freedom which sort of kicked off for us after the Stonewall Riots. The queer writer Fran Lebowitz, one of the many talking heads interviewed in the documentary, recalls those heady days when she would be walking down a Manhattan street with a gay friend and she would suddenly notice he had completely disappeared, having been lured away by another pretty face.

The advent of AIDS (first known as "gay cancer") would change all that. At first, as the medical profession struggled with the initial onslaught, wild rumors of how this new virus spread replaced facts. Medical experts knew it was prevalent in the LGBTQ community and were thinking the culprit could be poppers, but it wasn't until the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta did their famous Cluster Study that sexual intercourse was finally pinpointed as a primary means of transmission.

Dugas was also one of the first 57 AIDS cases reported to the CDC. Unlike the other men on their radar, he was able to provide the names of 72 of his former sex partners — and, in so doing, landed in the middle of the study. He was referred to as Patient O (as in the letter, 'O,' for 'Out of California'), which somehow evolved into "Patient Zero." This in itself had a negative impact, as the whole world was looking for someone or something to blame for AIDS; they grabbed at the misconception that Patient Zero was the first one diagnosed, so, therefore, was responsible for the plague.

Lynd interviews several former CDC experts, who testify that although Dugas was at the center of the Cluster Study that linked with all the others that were diagnosed, his story was one of several at the time. There were many more men with AIDS that would be at the center of other, very similar clusters. The fact that Dugan - a proud and very open gay man, which was still unusual at that time - flew to Atlanta and volunteered to help the researchers actually made him a hero, and not the devil he has been so vilely been portrayed as having been.

Kudos to Lynd for not only having the CDC experts testify as to what really happened at the time, but also for interviewing several of Dugas' closest friends and colleagues, who were happy to bear witness to what a warm and generous man he was, and finally have the chance to dismiss the unfair reputation that had been foisted on him

The other surprising fact was that Randy Shilts, the lone U.S. newspaper reporter who had covered the AIDS crisis in detail from the very beginning, earning him the respect and admiration of the LGBQ community. Shilts sullied his reputation by insisting on naming Dugan in his seminal book on AIDS, "And the Band Played On." His motives at the time for doing this were very questionable, and it ended up playing into the hands of the far-Right, who wanted to demonize anything and everything to do with the disease.

Lynd reminds us that this all happened on President Reagan's watch. It was common knowledge that he refused to publicly acknowledge the very existence of AIDS, let alone do anything to help. However, what Lynd also included was a recording of Larry Speakes, Reagan's Press Spokesman, mocking a journalist who dared to ask him about what Reagan was doing about the AIDS Crisis. The despicable sound of the whole room of the Press Corps laughing is something we will find very hard to forget.

So many people interviewed for this documentary acknowledged that if AIDS had just affected the heterosexual population, the authorities would have spent millions and moved heaven and earth to deal with it. It is crucial that we should never forget that the 800,000 gay men and women that died of AIDS in the U.S. during this period are Reagan's real legacy.

Aside from restoring Dugan's reputation and recognizing our debt to him, Lynd also ends on a note of optimism. When we came through the plague as a community that survived, we vowed never again. It empowered many of us to lead more authentic lives, and appreciate that as we have been given life, we have a debt to our loved ones who are no longer physically here. We know that as a community we need to be openly proud and celebrate now every single day.

Lynd's totally unmissable movie should be compulsory viewing for anyone that wants to feel a sense of community and appreciate how our past helps to shape our future.

"Killing Patient Zero" streams today on Sundance Now

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.