As a a gay men 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 whole epidemic was started by a promiscuous gay Air Canada flight attendant who had a man at literally every layover. Demonised as a villain by both the tabloid press and the gay community, Lynd now tells the true story of how in fact Gaetan Dugas was a hero who helped the medical community establishing that the virus was passed by sexual intercourse which would help them save lives of gay men not infected yet.
The beginning of the ’80’s were 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 all after the Stonewall Riots. The queer writer Fran Lebowitz, one of the many talking heads interviewed, recall those heady days when she would be walking down a Manhattan street with a gay friend and she would suddenly noticed he had completely disappeared having being 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 rumours of how this new virus spread replaced the lack of any sheer facts . They knew it was prevalent in the LGBTQ community and were thinking the culprit could poppers, but it wasn’t until the CDC (Center of Disease Control & Prevention) in Atlanta did their famous Cluster Study that sexual intercourse was finally named as the source.
Dugas was also one of the first 57 AIDS cases reported to the CDC and 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 involved into Patient Zero.’. This in itself had a negative impact as the whole world was looking at someone or something to blame for AIDS so 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 testified 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. It was the fact that Dugan lived as a proud and very open gay man, which was still unusual at that time, and flew to Atlanta and volunteered to help the researchers that actually made him a hero and not the devil as he has been so vilely portrayed.
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 so happy to bear witness to what a warm and generous man he had been, and finally have the chance to dismiss the public reputation that had been so unfairly been hoisted on him
The other surprising face was that Randy Shilts the lone US newspaper reported who had covered the AIDS crisis in detail from the very beginning earning him the respect and admiration of the Community, sullied his own reputation by insitsing 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 demonise anything and everything to do with the disease.
Lynd reminds us that this all happened on President Reagan’s watch. It was very common knowledge that he refused to either 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 hetrosexual populatiin the Authorities would have spent millions and moved heaven and earth to deal with it. It is crucial that we should never forget that that 800000 gay men and women that died on AIDS in the US during this period are Reagan’s real legacy..
Asides from restoring Dugan’s reputation and recognising our debt to him, Lynd also ends on a note of optimism. With several of the LGBTQ people interviewed confirming that when we came through the plague as a community that survived, we vowed never ever again. It had empowered so many of us to lead more authentic lives and appreciate that have been given life, we had a debt to our loved ones no longer physically here, We know that as an LGBTQ communuty we need to be openly proud and celebrate now every single day.
Lynd’s totally unmissable movie should be compulsory viewing for any, and everyone, that wants to feel a sense of community and appreciate how our past helps to shape our future.