The City of West Hollywood is hosting a special community event featuring a conversation with Richard A. McKay, author of Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic, and Steven Reigns, poet and educator.
Many are familiar with the myth of Patient Zero: Gaétan Dugas, a French-Canadian flight attendant, was widely regarded as responsible for the spread of HIV in the United States. He was dubbed Patient Zero and the narrative was exposed in the Randy Shilts book (and later award-winning film) And The Band Played On. Dugas and the concept of an HIV Patient Zero, has been loaded with myths, mistruths, and misinformation. The term didn’t exist before the emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
WEHO TIMES interviewed Reigns days leading to the event, which is set to take place on Wednesday, May 9, 7pm-9:30pm at the West Hollywood City Council Chambers, 625 North San Vicente Boulevard.
Reigns believes people want to know the truth about a vital part of our history. “HIV dramatically shaped our cultural landscape and this fuels our interest even more,” he said. “There has already been a strong response to the event.”
What was the genesis of holding this event where you have a conversation on the book Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic?
The sexy sounding flight attendant in And The Band Played On, who had infected men during his work travels, haunted me. According to the book, he knew he was infecting others and didn’t stop. Reading it, in my late 20s at the time, I felt unsure and kept thinking about Gaétan Dugas. Like with most things, I went to writing to workout my feelings and wrote a poem about Dugas that was published in my book Inheritance.
The sympathetic poem has received with the online comments: “Writing a poem for Gaëtan (sic) Dugas is like writing a poem for Jack The Ripper. Fucking hideous crap!!!”
“this guy makes poetry for the guy that intentionally infected a couple hundred people with the HIV virus? Isn’t that like Germans doing poetry for Hitler or the North Koreans for the Kim dynasty(sic)?” “I hope the devil is anally raping him everyday, but then he may be enjoying it…”
I see these harsh commenter’s misinformation as unfortunate and I’m glad an esteemed scholar like Richard McKay has researched and written a book to rectify the falsehoods.
How did this event come about?
I started corresponding with Richard McKay 5 years ago when I discovered he was doing research on Dugas and unearthing the sloppy, sensationalistic writing tactics of Randy Shilts. His book from that research, Patient Zero, was released this year and I reached out to see when he would be in LA. I contacted John D’Amico and John Duran, two HIV+ council members who worked through the epidemic, to sponsor the program as a City of West Hollywood event. They immediately saw the value and brought it to the other council members who voted in favor of it. Book Soup, Lambda Literary, and One Archives Foundation all agreed to co-sponsor it. I love living in a city that supports such progressive programming.
Are you able to reveal some of the topics that you’ll be discussing?
What’s great about this being a conversation and not a lecture is the spontaneity and informality of the interaction. I suspect we will address Dugas life and representation, Shilts promotion of his book, public reaction, and the concept of a “patient zero.”
Why is it important to clear Gaétan Dugas’ name?
This is a great question and I look forward to hearing Richard McKay giving his thoughts on Wednesday night about its importance. For me, I see a book publisher and publicity department wanting sales at a scary time with heightened emotions and a writer who dialed-up drama to make a compelling story. Gaétan Dugas’ life and legacy were the collateral damage to these forces. This reworking and rewriting of a person’s life could easily happen to any of us or our loved ones. It is gross and grossly unfair.
Have you had any resistance from fans of And the Band Played On after announcing you were hosting this discussion?
Given the response my one poem received, I can’t imagine what Richard McKay’s inbox might look like. People can have a high commitment to their beliefs, even unsubstantiated ones; though, I’ve yet to receive anything.
Why is it important to you that people read this book?
To me, the HIV virus and its transmission has always seemed like something straight out of science fiction. Richard McKay’s book almost reads like a mystery as he investigates and uncovers Shilts’ early notes and book drafts, as well as interviewing Dugas friends and ex-lovers. It’s a compelling, educational read.
Do you think people view Richard A. McKay’s book as conspiracy theory?
McKay’s book is not one for people who wear tinfoil hats. It is a well-researched, easy-to-read scholarly tome about a specific situation. I was so impressed with his handling of the dynamics of the situation. I could not imagine anyone reading the book would think of it as a conspiracy.
Who do you think is your audience at this event?
People wanting to know the truth about a vital part of our history. Everyone is interested in the origins of things. HIV dramatically shaped our cultural landscape and this fuels our interest even more. There has already been a strong response to the event!
What would you tell someone to convince them about the importance of attending this discussion?
HIV has caused great hurt, and we want someone to blame for the pain. And the Band Played On gave us a monster to point to, but it is false. When we scapegoat, we miss out on what really happens. Richard McKay is finally giving us the whole picture. This event is an opportunity to truly learn about that time.
Do you think young people care about whether or not there is any truth to a patient zero?
I think young people are hungry for the truth—most people are. In a climate of fake and biased news, we want reality represented. Youth are sometimes even more suspect of falsehoods and question authoritative voices. With McKay’s book, they can read of the machinations of a media machine and a science community trying to make sense out of viral transmissions.
What message do you hope to convey at this event?
This story of Shilts and Dugas taps into so many greater concepts, such as scapegoating, witch-hunts, fake news, and legacy. People will walk away with greater knowledge about that era but also about the factors that fueled it.
Steven Reigns is a Los Angeles-based poet and educator. He was appointed the first Poet Laureate of West Hollywood. He has published numerous chapbooks and collections. Reigns has lectured and taught writing workshops around the country to LGBT youth and people living with HIV. Currently he is touring The Gay Rub, an exhibition of rubbings from LGBT landmarks and facilitates the monthly Lambda Lit Book Club, www.stevenreigns.com.
Richard A. McKay is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. He lives in London, where he also works as a coach for academics, writers, and other creative thinkers.
There will be a reception and author book-signing following the discussion. The event is supported by Lambda Literary and Book Soup will have copies of the book available for purchase.
The event is free, but space is limited, so RSVP online through Eventbrite at: www.eventbrite.com/e/patient-zero-and-the-making-of-the-aids-epidemic-a-conversation-tickets-44436456638.
Parking is also free on site with validation.