we carry each other

killing patient zero

I just wanna tell a little story about a thing that happened during today’s HotDocs screening of the documentary Killing Patient Zero at Hart House. It’s not about the film exactly, except that it kind of is.

(The film is a devastating doc that thoroughly debunks the myth about Gaetan Dugas, supposed original spreader of HIV/AIDS. It’s kind to every source; it carefully investigates history and exonerates a man who in fact helped doctors figure out that “gay cancer” was indeed an STI. SEE IT.)

So it’s a packed house. Heavily gay / queer audience, by my read, not surprisingly. The film is about halfway through. Suddenly a woman’s voice rises in the middle of the theatre. Calling out a man’s name in increasing panic. “Are you okay? Are you okay? OMG, somebody call 911!”

Murmurs in the crowd. Lights go up, film stops. There’s a flurry of activity. Staff appear – I don’t know names, but some very competent-sounding woman with a badge asks everyone to stay in their seats, sends someone to call an ambulance. Not clear what’s going on.

Someone calls out and asks for juice, and a bottle of orange juice appears and is handed down the seats until it reaches the spot. I’m figuring diabetes. So, serious, but fixable with prompt attention. Then the murmur reaches me, “Oh, she says he’s not diabetic.”

Then I see a man hitching his way over the seated audience. He speaks. “I’m a doctor,” or similar (I didn’t quite hear). So calm. Deep smooth voice that carries without yelling, like he does theatre maybe. Thick-rimmed glasses, big reassuring body, good haircut.

He reaches the guy. He does that thing I know about from SM scenes, like I watch him create a bubble of calm around this man and get his focus. I hear him say, “Pretend nobody is watching.” (Because the entire theatre is of course watching.) Asks him quiet questions.

Staff clears the row. The competent woman gets on the mic and assures us an ambulance is on the way. After a moment or two, the big guy and another man come out from the seats, supporting this ashen-faced guy bodily, arms wrapped around him to hold him up as he walks unsteadily. Like this sick (?) guy is fully held up from behind in a bear hug. Audience obediently stays out of the way. They get him out of the hall.

Competent woman announces he’s taken care of and she’ll endeavour to keep tabs and give us an update on his condition after the film. Audience applauds loudly. House lights go down, film rewinds a minute and starts up again. A few minutes later I see the big guy in silhouette as he returns and makes his way back to his seat. He sits down, melts into the dark and disappears.

The film is just so excellent. All about responses to the early AIDS crisis. About how (some) nurses wouldn’t touch AIDS patients, wouldn’t let lovers visit. Families wouldn’t let lovers attend funerals. Reagan let 3600 men die before he even deigned to mention AIDS in a speech. There’s footage of a White House press meeting that brought me to tears. A reporter asks whether the President has heard of AIDS, and the press secretary jokes that he can’t catch it, he’s not gay. “Are you? Could you get it?” Laughs. Then so does everyone else in the room.

It is such a gut punch to watch, to hear that response. This is why the gay/queer community had to develop such a huge, coordinated internal response to the crisis. Because the powers that be just… didn’t. Wouldn’t. Would rather *literally laugh* as people died in droves.

And it occurred to me that if you had to suddenly get very sick and not know what was wrong with you and need immediate medical help, probably the best place you could possibly pick to do that would be in the middle of a film about the early HIV/AIDS crisis. I’m sure other audiences in other places would have been able to manage. But this sick guy’s crisis at the movie today rolled out so smoothly it almost felt practiced. And that’s because it fucking was. People attached to this film’s topic actually know *exactly* how to do this.

It was an enactment of the kind of community response the film discussed, by people who, quite likely, were part of it. I mean I’m making guesses and inferences here, right? I could be way off the mark. I don’t know who the big man was. But it *felt* like a perfect reflection. No fear of touch, of contamination. Immediate, efficient help. Calm, warm, kind, caring energy. People who could help stepped in, and those who couldn’t got out of the way. Communication was timely and clear. It was just so fucking exemplary in every way.

Film ends. So incredibly well done. Great Q&A with the director. No announcement about the sick guy. I have no idea what his trouble was or how he’s doing – I hope he’s all right. Nothing more to tell, other than: I’m grateful to have witnessed the way this was handled today.

It left me feeling kind of euphoric. It reminded me of how resilient, how effective, how kind, queer communities can be. Of how we (sometimes literally) carry each other when things go wrong. I think I needed that reminder. So, sharing it with you, too.


4 thoughts on “we carry each other

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