By Ellis Schroeder, VOX ATL Teen Staff
The stigma is being spread everywhere: “HIV and Monkeypox = gift to gays,” graffiti in Berlin, Germany reads. “Monkeypox is really only transmitted mostly through gay sex,” Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene states in a viral video. “Gaypox” trends worldwide on Twitter. Lawmakers in Latvia attempt to cancel Gay Pride as a “public health precaution.” Anti-gay violence is rising in tune with the worldwide monkeypox virus outbreak.
So, what is monkeypox, and how is it impacting the LGBTQ+ community?
The World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared monkeypox a “public health emergency of international concern” in late July. According to the CDC, monkeypox is a disease caused by contact with the monkeypox virus through people or infected non-human animals and is marked by various symptoms, but most commonly, a rash. With more than 65,000 cases in over 90 countries, the virus is a concern for everyone, particularly low-income, queer BIPOC men and their sexual networks.
The Latest Numbers in ATL
However, the latest numbers seem to be going in the right direction, especially here in Atlanta. That’s good news with thousands of people headed to the city for Pride weekend Oct. 7-9.
Openly gay Fulton County Atlanta Public Health Official Dr. David Holland MD MHS told VOX ATL, “Monkeypox infection rates have dropped dramatically [as of September 2022]. In Fulton County, they have dropped down to low levels of about 4-6 [cases] per day.”
Along with WHO’s establishment of monkeypox being an emergency, a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine back in August reveals that, of confirmed cases, monkeypox overwhelmingly affects gay and bisexual men, with more than 98% of confirmed cases being in people who identify with those groups and 95% of cases being as a result of sexual contact between April and June of 2022. “These data point clearly to the fact that infections are so far almost exclusively occurring among men who have sex with men,” Brown University epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo told ABC News.
Homophobia VS The Data
These data have sparked an increase in LGBTQ+ stigmatization, as marked by homophobic statements from various authority figures, including UT-Dallas computer science professor Timothy Farage, who tweeted that there should “at least be a cure for homosexuality, especially among men,” and various conservative groups around the globe. Blame has been placed on gay and bisexual men for this crisis despite no data supporting monkeypox only being spread by gay men.
In fact, anyone can get the monkeypox virus. The virus does not have known origins and spreads through skin-to-skin contact, not just sexual intercourse. “While we may be seeing clusters primarily in certain groups of people, viruses do not discriminate by race, by religion, or by sexual orientation,” infectious disease researcher Dr. Boghuma Titanji told NPR.
There are no current federal policies in place that protect people from being discriminated against for their sexual orientation. In addition, in over 18 states, there are no laws preventing homophobia or transphobia, enabling the anti-LGBTQ+ trends to flourish during the monkeypox outbreak.
Good Messaging From Government
However, unlike during the HIV/AIDS outbreak of the 80’s, the U.S. government has made great efforts to create accurate messaging around monkeypox to make sure that negative stigmas are not spread. Dr. David Holland says, “I do like that there has been so much thought at the national level for trying to avoid making this a ‘gay disease.’” Health officials, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, have advocated for the involvement of LGBTQ+ voices in the fight against monkeypox. “[The federal government] has threaded this needle of not making this a gay disease and recognizing that anyone can get it, but, right now, it is circulating in a certain social network that happens to be among gay and bisexual men. That messaging has been very difficult, and they did a good job with it,” Holland adds.
The framing of monkeypox as only being a disease that gay and bisexual men can contract and transmit puts the entire population at risk because people who are not gay may feel a false sense of security from the virus. AIDS Project of the East Bay Executive Director George Mizrahi Jackson told San Francisco’s KQED, “If you hear that, for instance, monkeypox is only a gay man thing, you automatically check out if you’re not a gay man, and that misinformation is problematic.” This narrative of false protection from monkeypox parallels that of the HIV/AIDS outbreak.
The HIV and monkeypox viruses are both similar in that they have predominantly impacted gay men and have origins in sub-Saharan Africa. During early stages of both outbreaks, government response had been slow and grueling. In the early 80s, many U.S. health officials were aware of AIDS, but it wasn’t until four years later that any leaders really talked about it: they were silent, for the most part. With that being said, the government has acted much faster and sensitively dealing with the monkeypox outbreak compared to the HIV/AIDS outbreak. Both outbreaks saw delayed responses, but the HIV/AIDS outbreak was to a much greater degree and resulted in many lives being lost.
In early stages of the monkeypox outbreak, critics say the U.S. government had not done enough to combat the negative response to monkeypox, placing the load on sexual health providers. David Harvey, the executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, told The Guardian, “Local sexual health providers are being asked to respond to monkeypox on top of an already out-of-control STI epidemic in America. We are at the breaking point: we need the Biden administration and Congress to immediately fund STI public health programs and clinical services.” The monkeypox outbreak shares many eerie similarities with the HIV/AIDS outbreak of the 80’s.
A “Grim Understanding”
LGBTQ+ community members feel the commonalities, too. Atlanta journalist Ryan Lee wrote in an essay recounting his recent experiences with monkeypox for The Reckoning Magazine, “…as a gay man who came of age in the 1980s and ‘90s, I feel the terror of being in the first wave of an emerging epidemic.” The HIV/AIDS outbreak has left lasting trauma on LGBTQ+ communities nationwide, and the recent monkeypox outbreak has echoed it hauntingly. Lee adds, “The most painful symptom during my two-week bout with monkeypox has been the grim understanding that if this were a different era, any column or essay I wrote about my experience with the illness might’ve been among my last words.”
Despite these similarities, there have been commendable steps taken by the government and healthcare officials to make sure that the mistakes of the HIV/AIDS outbreak are not repeated. On the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) website, there is a section designated to reducing stigmas surrounding monkeypox.
Vaccinations Are Working
Additionally, vaccination efforts have taken turns for the better. During early stages of the outbreak, testing and vaccination centers were scarce, and the ones available were only for LGBTQ+ community members who are comfortable with people knowing their sexual orientation. Dr. David Holland says, “Just showing up to the [vaccination] site was announcing that you were gay, and if you were not comfortable doing that, then people just did not get a vaccine. The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report recently came out [with a report] showing that there’s a huge risk reduction for people who have been vaccinated [against monkeypox] versus people who haven’t.” Thus, before the vaccination eligibility requirements and accessibility changed, not enough people were getting vaccinated against monkeypox, the key to stopping this disease.
“Teens Should Be Cautious”
While most cases of monkeypox have been in adults, over 130 cases have been reported in young adult and teen populations ages 16-20 according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. While teens are not at the forefront of monkeypox conversations, 18-year-old Nigerian-American Louisiana State University student Kesiye Ogoun told VOX ATL he thinks that the monkeypox outbreak is “both familiar and unfamiliar.” Ogoun knows that the virus has not yet taken over the lives of teenagers, like with Covid-19, however, he states, “Teens should be cautious about the virus. Teens should worry about anything that can be spread through sexual activity, whether it be monkeypox or HIV/AIDS.”
Ogoun says, “As a non-LGBTQ+ teen, I have seen people’s reactions towards others change. Me being Nigerian, people would always talk to me about diseases, like I would understand them.” Kesiye has noticed a recent shift in the negative connotations people have surrounding monkeypox. “I would first hear people talk about monkeypox like it was an African disease, but once it started appearing in the states, people have targeted the LGBTQ+ community. People always like to have a target for diseases, even if it is not true. They have been using the LGBTQ+ community as the scapegoat for this virus. People have been referencing it as ‘the gay virus,’ just like during the HIV/AIDS outbreak.” Ogoun believes that there are two main ways that teens can help stop homophobia in correlation to the monkeypox virus: awareness and activism. Specifically, Ogoun sees the prevention of misinformation as a top priority in protecting LGBTQ+ communities and stopping the spread of monkeypox.
“It Can Reach Anybody”
LGBTQ-identifying Atlanta teen Mieko Peebles would like people to be more educated about the virus. “People need to know that this is not an STD…it can reach anybody,” Peebles told VOX ATL. Like Ogoun, Peebles sees misinformation as fuel for the increased targeting of LGBTQ+ communities for the spread of monkeypox. “If the information [news outlets and people] spread is incorrect, that could lead to LGBTQ+ people getting hate-crimed.” Hate crimes being fueled by misinformation can be seen in Washington D.C., where in August, two gay men were attacked by assailants who used a homophobic slur and referenced the monkeypox virus. Misinformation can fan the flames of homophobia and, ultimately, can also result in largely preventable infections.
On an individual level, it can feel hard to stop the spread of monkeypox misinformation and combat homophobia, but there are a few ways that everyone can help. Sharing information about where people can get tested and receive access to the JYNNEOS monkeypox vaccine is the first step. To find vaccine appointments for eligible Georgia residents, go to dph.ga.gov/monkeypox and click on the Learn More tab under “Find a Vaccine and Register for an Appointment.”
Advice For Teens
Dr. David Holland has advice for how teenagers, both LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+, can protect themselves from monkeypox. “The key thing is to look for the [monkeypox vaccine] eligibility requirements, which have changed,” Holland says, “If you are a sexually active teen, especially in areas where there’s transmission, consider getting a vaccine because it is approved for younger ages.”
Additionally, teens should check out and follow the CDC’s guidelines for monkeypox and practicing safe sex. Holland states, “[the guidelines] are very good, very accessible, and use good language. Take [the guidelines] to heart. The key message is to be thoughtful about who and how many people you have sex with.”
Stopping the spread of monkeypox and the negative stigmas associated with it is a joint effort of both non-LGBTQ+ and LGBTQ+ teens, adults, clinicians, and more in preventing misinformation, spreading awareness, sharing vaccination resources, and advocating for those impacted most.
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