"They are coming for us. The question is, Will we be ready when they do?"
The first thing I noticed when I got off the 9:30 a.m. ferry in Cherry Grove were the rainbow posters that had been hung from each of the community bulletin boards lined along the boardwalk. White letters were written across the top that spelled out "Monkeypox." I always make it a point to peek at these boards when I'm on Fire Island. They're a place for event flyers, STI testing notices, and protest information. Yet this newest poster was larger and covered the rest. I had not seen it when I was on the island just two weeks prior.
"Protect your community and the people you party with. Know the signs and symptoms." The poster read across the middle in blue letters. Below that there was a QR code with a link to the New York State Department of Health page. I scanned the code and started reading. As of July 3, there were 93 confirmed cases in New York State. (As I write this, that number has changed to 120.) "Monkeypox spreads through close, physical contact between people. Anyone could get it, however, certain populations are being affected by monkeypox more than others, including men who have sex with men."
I had heard two men behind me joking on the train earlier that morning, "Better not catch monkeypox this weekend." Their nervous laughter was eerily similar to the jokes I overheard from commuters on the subway during the early days of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Certainly, gay and bi men were particularly singled out in similar jeering during the height of the AIDS epidemic.
In an opinion essay for The New York Times, New York University microbiologist and LGBTQ+ activist Joseph Osmundson pleaded with the medical community to learn from the debacles of the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. "As the world confronts monkeypox, we must not make similar mistakes in disease surveillance and public communication," he wrote. "We can't help people if we don't let them know what they're up against."
An epidemiologist at Brown University, Jennifer Nuzzo, told NPR, "Infections have been largely found in men who have sex with men, who may typically seek care at a sexual health clinic." (These LGBTQ+ clinics Nuzzo mentions exist primarily in large cities like New York and Los Angeles.) "Those providers may be particularly well-educated now about monkeypox and may be more willing to send a specimen out for testing," Nuzzo said. "But we may not be seeing that level of education and willingness to test with other health care providers, who see different kinds of patients. And that means we may be missing infections in different patient groups."
Nuzzo's point that education around emerging infections saves lives is salient and one the queer community learned well 35 years ago or so.
I ran into producer Michael Fisher on the boardwalk in Cherry Grove. He was out walking with his partner, Gary Sachs. The two told me they have been coming to the island for more than 25 seasons. I asked if they foresaw homophobic stigmatization becoming attached to monkeypox.
"Of course, there's going to be a backlash towards gay people," Fisher said.
"It has the origin, just like AIDS, of spreading through the gay community. Along with the lesions," Sachs was quick to add.
The skin lesions associated with both AIDS and monkeypox, while the diseases are not the same, were a commonality many of the locals I interviewed pointed out. It seemed that the physicality of the disease was the thing that all of the men I spoke to feared the most.
"Unlike COVID, we can see it," one of the waiters at Cherry's Bar and Restaurant told me.
During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan successfully weaponized the disease to demonize our community. These forces convinced the American people that gay men's zest for sex with multiple partners was immoral and filed AIDS away as a "gay disease." Today we are seeing a similar effort from the right as it continues to cause uproar over drag queen brunches and wish-label us as "groomers" and "pedophiles."
Let us learn from our own queer history. Let us anticipate that the right is going to use monkeypox against us. In an act of resistance, we must first release the shame we are holding within ourselves. The same shame the right has convinced us we must carry.
It is important to remember that monkeypox is not a gay disease, even though this outbreak has been largely, at least in its early life, among men who have sex with men.
"Unfortunately, the virus hit the social network of gay men first, but it will not stay confined to gay men if it spreads," Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's director of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, recently told another Advocate contributor. "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."
At a mutual friend's pool party later that day I spoke to Saturday Night Live Associate Producer Greg Scarnici about his thoughts on the outbreak.
He spoke of the need to halt the spread of the virus "before it explodes. Which I think is going to happen in the next month based on the people I speak to in the medical community."
I thought about Scarnici's comments while I took a walk on the beach that evening. I took in the scenery as I tried to conceptualize the history of a place like Fire Island. I thought of all those leaders and activists who died of AIDS and their fight to exist that in many ways afforded me the rights that I have been given in my life. I wondered what many of them would say. In recent months, my community has seen a systematic erasure of LGBTQ+ people by right-wing politicians. "They are coming for us" is a common phrase used within gay circles following the Supreme Court's Clarence Thomas's opinion late last month in the wake of Roe v. Wade's overturning. In addition to removing protections for queer people who can become pregnant, Thomas declared that the Supreme Court should reconsider rulings that protect LGBTQ+ rights. He specifically called out Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case that decided marriage equality; and Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which overturned anti-sodomy laws.
"They are coming for us" could also be applied to the stigmatization of monkeypox. It's safe to assume that it is only a matter of time before the right begins to weaponize this virus against us to further its political agenda. The question is not "Will they use monkeypox against us?" It is "Will we be ready for them when they do?"
Andrew Sciallo has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from the New School, and now works as a freelance journalist and content creator on TikTok @generationshallow. He was recently hired as an adjunct professor of English at Pace University for the fall 2022 semester. His writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Backstage, Ruxwood Journal, and Greenpointers.
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