According to extensive research conducted for his recently released book, Philadelphia University scholar and professor Phil Tiemeyer says the infamous myth of a “Patient Zero” who brought AIDS to the U.S. in the early 1980s was based on a willful misrepresentation of Centers for Disease Control data and a calculated effort to manipulate the media to generate publicity for a book on the crisis itself.
In Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants , Tiemeyer details the story of how author Randy Shilts, in his bestselling book And the Band Played On (later the source of an HBO docudrama of the same name) painted Air Canada flight attendant Gaetan Dugas as the “Typhoid Mary” for the AIDS crisis through a systematic misrepresentation of both scientific and anecdotal data. Though the CDC’s study on AIDS transmission was supposedly Shilts’ “smoking gun” for naming Dugas as “Patient Zero,” the scientists most familiar with the research immediately criticized the claim. In fact, Dr. Harold Jaffe, who worked on the CDC study, called Shilts’ claims about Dugas “preposterous.”
Still, Shilts’ publisher knew a media goldmine when he saw one.
Through interviews with Shilts’ publisher Michael Denneny, Tiemeyer uncovers the deliberate decision to feed the American media this fallacious story of a single, promiscuous, homosexual male flight attendant bringing the AIDS virus to the shores of the U.S. as a way to garner attention for the book and its subject. Shilts and Denneny saw And the Band Played On as an extensive work of investigative journalism, an expose of the AIDS crisis and, in particular, as Denneny explained in an interview for Plane Queer, “a massive attack on the Reagan Administration” and its approach to the AIDS epidemic.
However, as Denneny told Shilts in 1987, “You’re not going to get on the Today show with an attack on the Reagan Administration. You’re not going to get reviewed in the New York Times . That’s not going to float.”
Thus, as Tiemeyer details in Plane Queer, Shilts and Denneny made the decision to “get their hands dirty,” to play to the salacious desires of “yellow journalism,” and to deliver the media – and the American public – a scapegoat, in the person of Gaetan Dugas. The plan succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. On October 6, 1987, the New York Post led the way in unleashing a media frenzy with its bold front-page headline proclaiming Dugas as “THE MAN WHO GAVE US AIDS.”
Though it had been discredited by the medical community, Shilts and Denneny succeeded in creating one of the most culturally divisive, politically damaging and scientifically fallacious mistruths of the latter half of the 20th century. In so doing, they unwittingly gave ammunition to politicians such as U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, who sought to pass discriminatory legislation targeting those with HIV and limiting critical funding for treatment. The damage done to the cause of AIDS activists – who, after years of struggling, had finally begun making strides in the public arena at the time of the book’s publication – was immense.
“This was perhaps the cruelest irony,” explains Dr. Tiemeyer, “since both Randy Shilts and Michael Denneny saw this as their goal – expanding the cause of the movement. But they made the fateful decision to run with this false story of a fictitious ‘Patient Zero.’ And by continually feeding the media frenzy that they sparked, they provided those in opposition to the AIDS cause with a story that helped embolden just the sort of demonizing and fear-mongering that so many had fought for so long to quell.”
Plane Queer, published by the University of California Press, provides a thorough exploration of the science behind the CDC’s initial study, the misrepresentations in Shilts’ book, the manipulation of the media in its promotion, and a complete debunking of the Patient Zero myth once and for all.
SOURCE Philadelphia University