A panel of historians set to work deconstructing the "Patient Zero" myth Jan. 7, as the American Historical Association ( AHA ) 's Committee on LGBT History convened at the Chicago Marriott Downtown, 540 N. Michigan Ave.
"In 2011, we marked the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic," said Ian Lekus of Harvard University. "To be precise, it was the anniversary of the June '81 epidemiological reports. The origins of HIV are far murkier. Where did the virus originate? How long did it manifest in gay men and other people infected in the United States before it became clear there was a crisis?"
In his 1987 book And the Band Played On, journalist Randy Shilts identified gay Canadian flight attendant Gaétan Dugas as "Patient Zero," or the man who may have brought AIDS to North America. While myriad medical officials have since debunked Shilts' hypothesis, it nonetheless managed to captivate the American public.
In his paper "'Patient Zero' and the 'Recalcitrant' Queer," Philadelphia University's Phil Tiemeyer outlined how Dugas was used as a catalyst for anti-gay legislation and quarantine efforts in the 1980s and 1990s.
"Randy Shilts's narrative may not have led directly to [ anti-gay ] laws," Tiemeyer said, "but it did tighten the perceived link between AIDS and queer sexual depravity, thereby allowing such legal changes to occur more easily."
Tiemeyer argued that the origin myth's arrival some six years after AIDS was 'discovered' was uniquely suited to aid conservative agendas.
"Gaëtan seemingly proved that men who engage in anal sex and cavort in bathhouses invite plague-like diseases on themselves and the rest of society," Tiemeyer said. "For the world to make this sensational myth about the origin of AIDS in America… demonstrates more than anything else society's revulsion with gays post-Stonewall sexual freedom."
Richard McKay from King's College London used his paper "Communicative Contacts: Randy Shilts, Gaétan Dugas, and the Construction of the 'Patient Zero' Myth" to examine Shilts's reporting tactics.
McKay argued that Shilts circumvented patient confidentiality laws and misused personal stories to construct a largely biased characterization of Dugas.
"Shilts' dark characterization of Dugas drew its intensity from — and indeed combined with — the journalist's intention to cast the disease itself as a character in his history," McKay wrote.
David Palmer from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also presented a paper titled "AIDS, the Religious Right, and Gay Sex in Late 1980s North Carolina." He illustrated how gay press and local conservative figures helped shape a nuanced region-specific response to the pandemic, challenging the popular notion that the Religious Right had presented one unified, monolithic reaction.
"AIDS is a national, indeed global, issue, but…. it is also an epidemic rooted in local concerns and political considerations," Palmer said. "Responses to AIDS took shape in concert to a host of locally drawn political concerns."
Chet DeFonso of Northern Michigan University emceed the panel, and Lekus closed with a call for more AIDS-related investigations.
"Scholarship on the pandemic is one of the most exciting emerging fields in U.S. history," Lekus said. "This growing body of work is overturning all the ways that we thought we knew the historical narrative in the 1980s and first half of the 1990s."