You’ve probably heard the story of “Patient Zero,” a.k.a. French-Canadian flight attendant Gaetan Dugas, who had the misfortune to be labeled to be blamed for the appearance and spread of AIDS in the United States. The problem is that most of this story is wrong. In fact, Dugas was listed in medical records as “Patient O” (the letter “O” meaning Out of California), and also patient 57 (so he was hardly the first). In addition, recent genetic research doesn’t point to him being anything more than one individual among many who had the bad luck to be infected with AIDS.
Laurie Lynd’s documentary Killing Patient Zero explores how Dugas got stuck with the unfortunate label quoted in the title, reaching the conclusion that publicity for Randy Shilts’ 1984 book And the Band Played On, and the human predilection for simple stories and placing blame on anyone considered “other,” are the primary villains in this regard. You may have noticed a similar pattern at work with the COVID-19 pandemic, with a certain politician insisting that it’s all the fault of the Chinese, and the choice to limit testing on in the early weeks and months of the pandemic only to people who had recently traveled to China or had contact with someone who had.
Killing Patient Zero is effective in debunking the patient zero myth, and it’s hard to think of a line of argument Lynd has overlooked in service of this goal. He also takes pains to establish the context in which the AIDS crisis occurred. As film critic B. Ruby Rich notes, the disease showed “eerie, almost Shakespearean timing” in decimating a gay community whose members had only recently been able to come out of the closet and enjoy their sexuality freely. The problem is that much of this information, which is presented through archival materials and black-screen interviews, is already well-known, particularly to most people likely to be interested in watching this movie. Those without that background are unlikely to understand the reference to “Patient Zero” or to be interested in learning why the reference is based in error.
Jen Rainin’s cheerful documentary Ahead of the Curve accomplishes several things at once. First of all, it’s a history of the groundbreaking lesbian magazine Curve, originally titled Deneuve. Second, it’s a profile of the magazine’s founder, Franco Stevens, whose nerve, positive attitude, and sense of self are enough to lift anyone’s day. Finally, it’s a cultural history of lesbians and other gender nonconforming women in the United States from the 1980s to the present.
Frances “Franco” Stevens grew up in Maryland and at age 18 married Blaine Stevens, a physician in the U.S. army stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco. At the time, she had no idea that she wasn’t what everyone assumed she was—a straight women who would lead a conventional heterosexual life. Then she came to the realization that she was a lesbian; she left her marriage, a move which also left her broke and homeless—and, rather unfortunately, her mother refused to provide any assistance. Stevens went to work at A Different Light, the legendary Castro Street bookstore, and lived in her car until a sympathetic friend offered her a tiny bedroom for free. That stroke of good fortune allowed her to make the decision that would define her career—to found a publication catering to the lesbian community. That she got the money to get started by maxing out her credit cards, then taking the money to the track, is the kind of thing you grow to expect in the narrative of Stevens’ life—risk everything, and watch it pay off.
The world has certainly changed for the better since the founding of Deneuve/Curve in 1989 (the name change was due to a lawsuit by the French actress Catherine Deneuve, although the magazine was not named after her), and Curve has changed along with it. The media market has also changed—while the print magazine was once a lifeline to many women, particularly those living outside major cities, today there’s all kinds of electronic media and social media systems to allow people to connect with both alternative cultures and with other people. Plus, people of all gender and sexual preferences are now much better integrated into American society, and lesbian and transgender content is part of publications and media that used to be exclusively heterosexual. Stevens, to her credit, is willing to consider that a print magazine might not be the best way to move forward, and although Curve remains the best-selling publication of its type, she has also created an online foundation to carry out the same work. | Sarah Boslaugh
NewFest 2020 runs from Oct. 16 to Oct. 27, and most films in the festival are available for remote screening. Both single tickets ($12, $10 for members) and all-access festival passes ($95) are available. Further information, including details on the films and other events, is available from the festival web site.