During 1981, Gaetan Dugas, a French-Canadian airline steward, was having sex with possibly hundreds of men. Unbeknown to them, Dugas, later known as “Patient Zero,” was inflicting upon them a virus which, years later, was identified as HIV or so the story goes.
Not much is known about Gaetan’s childhood, except that he was born in 1953 in Quebec City, was adopted and grew up perpetually bullied by the neighborhood kids.
Jaw-droppingly handsome, the former hairdresser began working for Air Canada in the summer of 1981. He was assigned flights to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities, where he was enormously popular in the gay ghettoes.
He had recently been diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma.
Meanwhile, four researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control were trying to determine if this outbreak of Kaposi’s sarcoma in gay men, and a similar outbreak of a rare form of pneumonia only seen in immunocompromised patients, were somehow related. After months of contacting patients and inquiring about their sexual encounters, they slowly reached the conclusion that most had sex with Dugas or someone Dugas had slept with.
In the summer of 1982 Dugas was brought to the CDC in Atlanta as part of the government’s study. After his encounter with the CDC he returned to San Francisco where he had been living. Although the doctors at the CDC had advised him not to have sex, he was a frequent visitor at the bathhouses of San Francisco. Rumors started circulating in the Bay Area about a sandy-haired French guy who would have sex with men at the bathhouses, only afterward showing his cancerous lesions. He reportedly would say, “Look, gay cancer. Maybe you’ll get it too.”
In 1983 his condition worsened. He had a long bout with Pneumocystis. He was afraid to be alone through all this so he stayed with his family in Quebec City in early 1984.
The myth of Gaetan Dugas being the one who spread AIDS throughout America was not known nationally until March 1984 when the CDC doctors published their research. Their conclusion was that AIDS was transmitted through sexual contact. Shortly thereafter the New York Times published an article titled “U.S. Medical Study Singles Out a Man who Carried AIDS,” which talks about “Patient Zero.” The paper indicated that the person might still be alive. Surprisingly enough, Dugas died of kidney failure in Quebec City just three days after the article was published.
Today much of the emphasis on Dugas has been discredited. There was no assurance that he contracted AIDS and spread it like butter on toast throughout gay communities in America. But today he still bears the stigma of being “Patient Zero.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, June 30, 2006.