Twenty years ago, a handsome young physician looked into a camera and spoke words he was not sure all Canadians were ready to hear.
“We’re going to be approaching this from a different point of view — a more human point of view,” Dr. Peter Jepson-Young said of HIV/AIDS.
“I’m going to be introducing you to someone with AIDS to help provide a name, a face, and an identity to this disease,” the Vancouver-based doctor famously explained.
“The person I’m going to introduce you to…is myself.”
Despite the initial fears and disapproval of his loved ones, Dr. Peter told audiences that he was struggling with HIV/AIDS at a time when many thought everyday interactions – like shaking hands – could lead to infection.
He also told them he was gay at a time when gay men were widely feared and demonized.
Far before the dawn of youtube confessionals, he showed Canadians that it was possible to talk about a poorly-understood disease openly and honestly.
“I am a doctor, but I’m also a patient.”
Filming the young doctor was David Paperny, who will be leading my advanced television course at the UBC School of Journalism this semester. He still remembers the project as one of the most important of his career.
In class yesterday, David told us that some viewers told Peter to “rot in hell” and cried out for the CBC to take him off the air. But, at the same time, something more powerful happened.
Many Canadians were educated and inspired by the young man’s courage.
Although he was only supposed to tape a handful of shows, the Dr. Peter Diaries ended up chronicling about two years of the man’s life in 111 episodes. People grew familiar with him, and bore witness to his worsening condition. Many felt as though they knew him, or even loved him.
Before his death in 1992, the doctor set up the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation, a non-profit organization that continues to care for people living with HIV/AIDS. His diary series was nominated for an Academy Award in 1994.
Twenty years later, the mayor of Vancouver has declared Sept. 3 – 10 Dr. Peter week, and the diarist is being remembered as a national hero. David is currently working on a new series of diaries that will allow a new generation to talk about how the disease affects their lives today.
But as we remember Dr. Peter, let’s not forget how much further we have to go.
• UBC Alumni screening of The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter, Thursday Sept. 9 at 6 p.m. at the CBC Studios, 700 Hamilton St.
• 20th anniversary screening of The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter, Friday Sept. 10 at 6 p.m. at the CBC Studios, 700 Hamilton St.
• Passions: A Benefit for the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation, Sunday Sept. 19 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Dr. Peter Centre, 1110 Comox St.