Building Community, Combating Phobia, Part 1: The Media’s Narratives on “Patient Zero” and Gay Sex during the AIDS Epidemic

Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 5
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Michigan State Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Chet DeFonso, Northern Michigan University
"Patient Zero" and the "Recalcitrant" Queer
Phil Tiemeyer, Philadelphia University
AIDS, the Religious Right, and Gay Sex in Late 1980s North Carolina
David C. Palmer, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Ian Lekus, Harvard University

Session Abstract

The HIV/AIDS epidemic devastated North America in the 1980s. Gay men, who made up well over 80% of the initially reported cases in the US, faced fear and discrimination amidst sensationalizing media claims of a “gay plague.” This panel embraces the conference theme by exploring the complex interaction amongst three elements: the gay community, a deadly epidemic, and communication networks—the media—covering the crisis.

At times, the epidemic challenged the very notion of a “gay community.”  Indeed, sexual activity between men never tracked neatly with gay identity, forcing the creation of a new nomenclature – “men who have sex with men” – over the sense of a discrete, identifiable community.  Our panel considers another notional “threat” to the sense of a unified gay community: persistent media narratives that demonized gay men and their non-normative sexual behaviours for AIDS.  Each panellist explores media narratives from the 1980s and the deep challenges to the gay community they embodied.  Because our panel unites the AHA’s overall conference theme with analysis of gay men in the AIDS crisis, we have gained sponsorship from the Committee on LGBT History.

Two of our papers consider the most salacious media-generated myth of the AIDS crisis: “Patient Zero” – the gay flight attendant alleged to have deliberately spread HIV across North America. Richard McKay examines how Randy Shilts uncovered the identity of the medical literature’s “patient 0” and cast him in his infamous role in AIDS history. Drawing out the parallel importance of personal networks – in the original epidemiological study and in Shilts’ investigations – McKay questions the limits of public health confidentiality and reveals how Shilts came to depict the flight attendant as the human face of HIV itself. Phil Tiemeyer explores the specific timing of the “Patient Zero” revelation and its neat embodiment of social conservative fears. Reading Shilts’ book in the context of 1987 quarantining efforts, he argues that Shilts was targeting so-called “recalcitrant queers” – gay men who refused to abandon a sex-positive conception of homosexuality. Together, these papers consider the threat posed to gay communal norms of sexual freedom by a myth advanced from within the community itself.

Our third paper focuses on more localized media outlets that expressly embraced a role as gay community advocates. Yet, given their location in the US South, these media outlets found it necessary to maintain a more cautious position towards gay sexual freedoms. David Palmer explores these variations in the expression of sex-positivism with specific attention to commercial and political context. He argues that despite constraints of community size and visibility, gay writers in North Carolina successfully promoted the spiritual and social importance of gay sex.

Overall, the panel examines the complex interplay between the “gay community” and networks of communication.  Especially during times of crisis like the AIDS epidemic, these entities have significantly influenced each other, to the point of challenging supposedly stable notions of the “gay community” itself.  Chet DeFonso, Chair, and Ian Lekus, Commentator, will join the panellists in developing these key themes.