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.
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.
“This is a man whose name needs to be rehabilitated … Dugas really should be proclaimed a hero of the fight against AIDS,” Laurie Lynd, the doc’s Toronto-based director, told The Current’s guest host David Common.
“For him to have been vilified, it’s like the classic ‘No good deed goes unpunished,'” he told The Canadian Press.
Making its world premiere Friday at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Killing Patient Zero details Dugas’s 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.