Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, Pride Media.
Monkeypox is not a gay disease. It is not a gay virus. It is not a gay plague. It is not HIV 2.0.
I can’t tell you how many times over the last week or so I have been asked about monkeypox. Because I write for The Advocate, most everyone I know assumes that I know all about monkeypox.
Straight friends have asked me, “Are you going to get monkeypox?” Gay men have said to me, “This sounds like how AIDS started.” And the more I read and hear about monkeypox, the more I’m a little annoyed at how the media has anointed men who have sex with men as the biggest threat to our survival from monkeypox.
It’s a conundrum for the media. While the queer male population is presenting more than other communities, it’s the media’s job to warn these men about the increased risk at the moment; however, as a longtime PR professional who has worked with the media for years, I know there is some sensationalism with how monkeypox is being covered, particularly with headlines that scream, "Click here immediately!"
“Monkeypox Is Spreading Among Gay Men Worldwide.” How about "Monkeypox IS Spreading Worldwide" and put gay men in the subhead?
“Expert: Monkeypox Likely Spread by Sex at 2 Raves in Europe.” In other words, gay men rave, have sex, and are going to kill each other.
There are a lot more headlines to read, but most of them include gay men, gay men and sex, and gay men spreading.
It all seemed eerily reminiscent of The New York Times article by Dr. Lawrence K. Altman on July 3, 1981, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” I wasn’t old enough to understand that title, but really, no one understood it unless they had that gay cancer or were affected by it.
And once AIDS spread without regard to race, gender, or sexuality, we all read the truly alarming headlines that alarmed everyone about gay men. The stigma blew up in an instant, and over 40 years later, HIV is still stigmatized.
Things got so bad with monkeypox that the United Nations’ AIDS agency called out some of the coverage about the virus as “racist and homophobic,” and added that some of the reporting is “exacerbating stigma and undermining the response to the growing outbreak.”
Further, UNAIDS said “a significant proportion” of recent monkeypox cases have been identified among gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men. “But transmission is most likely via close physical contact with a monkeypox sufferer and could affect anyone,” it added, saying some portrayals of Africans and LGBTQ+ people “reinforce homophobic and racist stereotypes and exacerbate stigma.”
Indeed, just within my own circle, I saw how the coverage was affecting people’s perception of me as a gay man. It brought flashbacks of a time in my life when I was in denial about who I was because I was afraid people would think I had AIDS. For the ignorant few now, are they leery of getting too close to me because I might give them monkeypox?
To be thoroughly clear, on Friday the Times reported that there were 21 cases in the U.S., writing, "Of 17 patients for whom the agency has detailed information, all but one were among men who had sex with men; 14 had traveled to other countries in the three weeks before their symptoms began. Three patients were immunocompromised."
Remember at the outset of COVID-19, media reports said that it was mostly older adults who were being affected. We all know how that turned out, and Trump's obsession with keeping the numbers down. At some point, it is highly likely that not only will Monkeypox begin community spread, but that gay men will be only a small percentage of the growing number of cases.
Therefore, I wanted to write something that forcefully dispelled the association between gay men and monkeypox, not only for myself but for a lot of us who are undergoing the same type of accusatory questioning.
I reached out to Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention. Dr. Daskalakis was an HIV activist who played an integral part in designing and leading many HIV and STD programs in New York City, including the city’s Ending the Epidemic program, which is credited with reducing HIV incidence to a historic low.
It was important to talk with Daskalakis who understands both HIV and monkeypox. The first question to him was are gay men more prone to monkeypox. “No!” he said emphatically. “Biology doesn’t care about anyone’s sexuality. Anyone can get monkeypox.”
“Unfortunately, the virus hit the social network of gay men first, but it will not stay confined to gay men if it spreads. Anyone can get it, and anyone can get monkeypox through skin contact with sores, touching objects, and by respiratory. The virus does not discriminate and doesn’t care how or whose body it enters.”
Daskalakis pointed out our community is indeed being perceived as instigating the virus, which has been feeding into the present stigma, and he feels that certain messaging about gay men and monkeypox should have probably been avoided at the outset.
“This whole situation, to me, brings back the initial MRSA outbreaks that were attributed first to gay men in 2008,” he said. “Initially, it was being reported that the infection was striking gay men through close physical contact and who had close skin-to-skin contact during sex, which was considered a risk factor.”
However, Daskalakis recalled that MRSA then began to spread in gyms, prisons, and other places where people congregated or interacted closely, which helped defuse the rumors that MRSA was only spreading through the gay community.
“It’s dangerous to pin a virus and how it is transmitted on an identity because it can affect knowledge, treatment, and research associated with how the virus is spreading,” he explained. “People who are not gay men might become complacent thinking it won’t happen to them. The stigma that occurs can distort knowledge and the truth about the response.”
All that said, Daskalakis said it is important for gay men and for everyone to remain vigilant about monkeypox. “Safe sex obviously, but monkeypox can be spread by several ways, including droplets through kissing and touching surfaces, and that could apply to anyone.”
He added, “If you’re not feeling well, stay home. If you have a rash, stay home and make sure to seek out medical care and pay attention to local public health announcements. You need to be aware if monkeypox might be spreading through your community.”
The good news, according to Dr. Daskalakis, is that no one has died from the disease yet. He added, “Right now there are no lingering complications like long-term COVID, but it’s important to note that we’re again in the position of learning about this virus in its new context, so it will be vital to follow people who acquire the virus and study them to gain more insight.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.