The spread of the monkeypox virus and its prevalence among gay men has provoked widespread fear, growing anger and a range of uncomfortable questions for a community still scarred by the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
While there is still public confusion about the exact nature and spread of the disease, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of monkeypox patients in the United States identify as LGBTQ and are male.
For some, the situation evokes dark parallels to the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS was stigmatized as a “gay plague,” hospitals and funeral homes turned away patients and victims, and White House officials either cracked homophobic jokes or simply ignored the new virus.
At a gathering this week in West Hollywood, a hub of Los Angeles’ LGBTQ community, actor Matt Ford received a standing ovation when he spoke candidly about the “excruciating” symptoms he suffered when contracting the disease – an experience he also shared online.
Afterwards, he told AFP that he “definitely had doubts before speaking publicly about my experience.”
“I was quite hesitant before tweeting because of the potential for social stigma and the cruelty of people — especially online — but thankfully the response has been overwhelmingly positive,” he said.
What prompted Ford to speak out was the urgent need to warn others about the disease in the days leading up to West Hollywood’s big LGBTQ Pride celebrations.
While monkeypox has not yet been classified as a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and can infect anyone, men who have sex with men are currently the hardest hit.
The disease spreads through skin-to-skin contact and is most commonly transmitted through sexual activity, and the World Health Organization this week urged gay and bisexual men to limit their sex partners.
“Ultimately, it’s not homophobic to say that certain groups have been disproportionately affected by the monkeypox outbreak,” said Grant Roth, who is part of a network gathering information about the disease in New York.
“And right now it’s about the queer community.”
– ‘Fault’ –
While the idea that monkeypox primarily affects the LGBTQ community has fueled fears of homophobia and stigma, it has also sparked anger that the US government is not taking the disease seriously enough.
A lack of available vaccines to meet demand has sparked outrage in a country where about 4,900 cases have been detected – more than any other nation.
On Thursday, San Francisco and New York State declared public health emergencies to ramp up efforts to stem the spread of monkeypox.
The US Department of Health and Human Services announced plans to allocate an additional 786,000 doses of vaccine, which will fill the stockpile of over a million – but the response is too late for many.
“Why isn’t the government acting as quickly as it should?” asked Jorge Reyes Salinas of Equality California, a coalition of LGTBQ activists and organizations.
“We need more resources and we need more attention to this issue. It’s not just an LGBTQ concern. It shouldn’t be portrayed that way.”
The way the health emergency is being handled brings back painful memories, he said.
“I think that’s always going to be a risk to keep in mind because of the HIV and AIDS pandemic.”
Roth said a lot of “blame” has been placed on men who have sex with men, when in reality the government “should have secured the vaccines sooner and made testing more widely available”.
– ‘Concerned’ –
At the West Hollywood meeting, Andrea Kim, director of the Los Angeles County immunization program, said a mobile monkeypox immunization unit would be arriving “soon.”
Other speakers outlined actions the community can take to protect themselves until then.
Dan Wohlfeiler, who has worked with HIV and STI prevention for more than three decades, urged people to use the “lessons of Covid” to fight the spread by temporarily constricting social circles and creating bubbles, including for sexual activities.
“This event is another traumatic time for many of us. Hopefully, vaccine access will increase significantly over the next six to eight weeks,” he said.
“The more steps we as individuals take to protect ourselves and our partners, the sooner we can end this outbreak.”
“I’m proud to belong to this city and to have this opportunity” to learn more about the disease, said a Latina trans woman after the meeting, who asked not to be identified.
“But how can we not be afraid when we have historically been discriminated against?” She said.
“I hope it will be different this time.”
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