Halifax and Gaetan Dugas | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Halifax and Gaetan Dugas

The man who was mistakenly dubbed Patient Zero of the AIDS crisis and his connection to this city.

Halifax and Gaetan Dugas
The famous photo of Patient Zero AKA Gaetan Dugas.

“More than one comma.” Delivered with an impish grin, that’s the reply I received from author Randy Shilts when I asked, over a bowl of chowder, if he’d scored a decent advance for his new book project. 

It was 1991 and we were both in the Boston area, on leave from our jobs as reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle. Randy was treating me to lunch. 

The first openly gay journalist in the US to write exclusively about LGBTQ issues for the mainstream press, Randy had won international acclaim for his 1987 book, And The Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. 

Hailed as a masterpiece of investigative reporting, the work details the beginning of the AIDS crisis and provides a blistering rebuke of the individuals and institutions that allowed the disease to rage, unchecked, for years. 

Flush with cash for his new work—Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the US Military—Randy was in high spirits when we met. In 1994, at age 42, he died of AIDS. 

I believe that Randy would welcome recent news about Gaetan Dugas, a former Halifax resident and Air Canada flight attendant he’d erroneously pegged, in his AIDS book, as the likely source of the disease in North America. 

Writing last month in Nature, scientists concluded that Dugas, later pilloried as Patient Zero, had not sparked the AIDS epidemic. They noted that the virus had been lurking long before the Quebec native began frequenting gay bathhouses where, as Randy documented, he’d infected hundreds of men. 

As for the term Patient Zero, Randy maintained that Dugas was first tagged with the name by US medical experts who’d linked him to a cluster of California men who’d contracted AIDS. Dugas was identified as Patient O because he was from outside of California. The letter “O” was later mistaken for the number “0” and so Dugas became known as Patient Zero. 

“Ooh, that’s catchy,” Randy reportedly thought after hearing the term he popularized in his best-selling book.

Halifax resident Rand Gaynor holds a special place in the Patient Zero saga. An artist and owner of the downtown shop Drala Books and Gifts, Gaynor was among a group of local gay men who socialized with Dugas in the 1970s. At the time, Air Canada based many flight personnel in the city, he says. 

“We townies were in complete awe of glamourous flight stewards like Gaetan,” says Gaynor, 67. “We’d congregate in people’s homes and have drinks with them before heading out to gay dance clubs. 

“They wore beautiful clothes from Barcelona, London or Paris,” he adds. “We shopped at Mark’s Work Wearhouse.” 

Gaynor says that Dugas exuded a magnetic charm. “Gaetan was nice, worldly and very cute,” he says. “It was no surprise that he got laid all the time.”  

The men lost track of each other until the early 1980s when they chanced to meet in a Toronto park.

“I had my camera and Gaetan asked me to take his photo,” Gaynor recalls. “I went ‘Click, click’ and never saw him again.”

Dugas died of AIDS, at age 31, in 1984 and had cooperated fully with health officials in efforts to map the evolution of the disease.  

Gaynor says he was stunned to discover,  after the release of Randy’s book, that Dugas had emerged as “the poster boy for AIDS.” Word spread about his photos and he was soon fielding media requests to publish his image of Dugas cavorting on a swing. 

For $200, he licensed reprint rights to Life magazine. He still owns the negative.  

In his 2005 essay, “Light in the Loafers: The Gaynor Photograph of Gaetan Dugas and the Invention of Patient Zero,” Robin Metcalfe, the director and curator of Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery, discusses the image and its legacy. 

“The concept of Patient Zero dovetailed with a popular desire to displace the source of contagion as far as possible from white, heterosexual America,” Metcalfe writes. “Gay, Francophone, an international traveller, Dugas fit the bill.” 

Gaynor doesn’t fault Randy Shilts for the unflattering portrait of Dugas in his book. “With the information available at the time, it was not unthinkable that Gaetan would have infected lots of people as an early carrier of the virus,” he says.

“I knew about 30 people who died of AIDS back then,” Gaynor adds. “It was just horrible for everyone.”

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