On Aug. 4, the Biden administration and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra declared the monkeypox virus a public health emergency. The disease has been confused with chicken pox, acne and sexually transmitted diseases by the general public. Here are some facts we know about the virus:
The spread of the virus has been commonly linked to close physical contact — specifically through kissing and sexual acts. Though virus specialist Yannick Simonin told Le Monde the virus can be contracted through any close physical contact regardless of sexual orientation or gender, it has been explicitly associated with gay men.
Although this is a real phenomenon, the singular association is a dangerous one. The act of blaming the spread of an infectious virus on the gay community, and gay sex specifically, is exceedingly familiar.
Though the CDC has shared that it hasn’t been able to research all of the cases and the recipients’ respective identities, the data aligns the spread with the LGBTQ+ community. Jen Christensen, reporting for CNN, indicated, “Monkeypox can infect anyone. But the majority of cases in this outbreak have been among men who have sex with men, including people who identify as gay, bi[sexual] and transgender.”
What’s remarkably problematic about this association is the presentation of the research. It wasn’t until August that the bulk of the conversation was focused on avoiding stigmatization and pushing for vaccines in these communities. Also unacknowledged were the systematic differences and privileges at play that explained the increased vulnerability to the virus among LGBTQ+ individuals compared to heterosexual cisgender individuals. According to Gallup polling conducted earlier this year, only 10% of same-sex couples are married in the U.S., while 53% of the 12,000 people surveyed identified as single or never married.
While CDC has identified a higher concentration of monkeypox in the gay community, presenting the research without the above context is irresponsible. It enables the same fear-mongering and oppression placed upon Asian communities since COVID-19 and the LGBTQ+ community during the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
Is it surprising that a community that has only been allowed to marry legally in the past seven years and endures oppression at the hands of a cisgender heteronormative society is more likely to conceive a close-contact nondeadly virus? Instead of releasing data and indirectly pointing the finger, more substantive efforts need to be done to protect the victims of said data. It isn’t just data, but a measure of harm that contributes to greater oppression. Those numbers should have never been released without any substantial plan to support those who are implicated the most.
What’s most dangerous is the already active misinformation surrounding the virus. A more strident defense of those afflicted in the gay community should have been made earlier on a state and federal level. New York City officials admitted to fiery internal conversations regarding the presentation of their messaging. Dr. Don Weiss, a senior epidemiologist for the NYC Health Department, was recently reassigned following his comments. “For decades, the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community has had their sex lives dissected, prescribed, and proscribed in myriad ways, mostly by heterosexual and cis people,” Weiss said in a public statement.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic is still very recent in memory, and with the bulk of the conversation and research for the monkeypox outbreak indirectly linked to the LGBTQ+ community, this experience is painfully familiar. Fortunately, with modern advances, the stakes are lower than in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic as nobody in the United States has yet died from the virus, and treatments and vaccines are slowly rolling out.
Though a vaccine is technically accessible, it is remarkably difficult to receive, especially among those affected. There needs to be better access to the vaccine. For example, Samuel Garret-Pate waited for over five hours with tumultuous back and forth processing to get his first monkeypox vaccine in Los Angeles. While Garret-Pate patiently endured the process, not everyone can afford to. Nobody should have to jump through hoops for treatment.
Luckily, on Aug. 22, the Biden Administration announced that 1.8 million doses of the vaccine are being sent to various locales with specific emphasis on the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, 50,000 doses are being administered at Pride events, though some have expressed concern that this would only be the first dose, which would require the recipients to get the second dose on their own.
It is important that research on monkeypox is published, but improper publication has placed a dangerous target on the LGBTQ+ community. These numbers are important and shouldn’t be ignored. What needs to change is the context and plan to publish such research that could implicate diverse groups already in peril existing in a dominantly cisgender heteronormative society.
Monkeypox is not an LGBTQ+ virus chemically composed of rainbows. It cannot be forgotten that infectious viruses don’t discriminate. No disease should ever be a vehicle for hate. More needs to be done to preemptively stop stigmatization against vulnerable communities.