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The stigmatization of monkeypox: Did we not learn from the 80s?

By Ava Zardynezhad, September 12 2022

In late July 2022, the World Health Organization declared monkeypox a global health emergency, with men who have sex with men (MSM) as a high risk population. A few days after, news sources released the first articles that suggested the virus spreads like a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Soon, tweets like Majorie Taylor Greene’s made it clear that the perhaps progression of information through U.S. media outlets, specifically, wasn’t completely without intention and an ulterior motive. 

“If Monkeypox is a sexually transmitted disease, then why are kids getting it,” said Greene, who has a routine history of spreading politically-biased misinformation surrounding health and the pandemic. 

Two months later, homophobic sentiments forming around this global health emergency have become much clearer. When the topic of homophobia surrounding monkeypox is raised, many are quick jump to defenses, claiming that public health efforts to inform the risk group is not homophobic and should not be viewed that way. I agree. Public health messaging is most definitely not homophobic. It’s necessary. As at-risk individuals, MSM must have all the relevant information accessible to them when it comes to this health crisis. What is homophobic, however, is how right-wing media, politicians and civilians have started to frame the monkeypox outbreak and their approach to the crisis. 

“Still waiting for gay men who are having random sex with strangers during the monkeypox outbreak to get lectured and scolded by public health authorities the way that the rest of us did for going to grocery stores and restaurants during COVID,” said Matt Walsh, a right-wing commentator, not seeing the hypocrisy in his position.

“If we could be expected to give up our regular lives for a year, and our kids were expected to give up their education, can’t we expect gay men to stop having orgies for a few months? Isn’t that a reasonable sacrifice to ask of them?” he continued.

Narratives such as these bring out certain issues that have surfaced with this crisis. The first is how treating the monkeypox virus as an STD stigmatizes members of the MSM community and creates an environment where protecting oneself from the virus becomes a personal responsibility. This is a trend we’ve seen time and time again. The MSM community is no stranger to this narrative, since this was the approach to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, where HIV was long referred to as the “gay-related immune deficiency.” 

We’ve been seeing evidence of this over the past month with vaccine shortages in the U.S. and Canada holding back vaccine supplies and only offering the first dose of the monkeypox vaccine across provinces. The delayed government response is alarming and considering the history of diseases that affect minority communities, specifically MSM, the hesitation shown in managing this crisis reinforces old worries.

The second issue is vilifying and oversexualizing members of the queer community, specifically the MSM community in this case. The political narrative in the majority of the U.S. is villainizing queerness. Schools are sensoring all conversations on gender and sexuality through restricting teaching material and dissolving student support groups. State governments are creating a widespread fear of “gay indocrination” and the spread of the “gay agenda.” Members of the LGBTQ+ community have long been stereotyped with promiscuity. In the conservative context of right-winged voices, sex positivity and open navigation of sexual health and safety has no meaning. 

With recent policy changes and sentiments across the U.S., this issue brings up the question, whether this approach by the media and the government is creating yet another weapon, facilitating the further systemization of homophobia.

The stigma that comes with the monkeypox virus is dangerous. It not only ostracizes MSM but may also contribute to unreported cases out of the fear of outing oneself. Portraying the disease as an STD also eliminates risk for the rest of the population, as the disease clearly spreads non-sexually as well.

However, the crisis also brings out another alarming problem. Forty years after the HIV/AIDS epidemics of the 1980s, we’re seeing potentially similar patterns in the treatment of the MSM community by the government in the form of preventable shortage, lack of preventative care, being denied testing and more. 

At the end of the day, public health efforts shouldn’t be selective. Educating a risk group and providing them with resources should not be diminished for the sake of keeping them safe from stigmatization. Ensuring the health of individuals within society should be a priority, not only regardlessly but also specifically in the context of their race, gender, sexual orientation and socio-political orientation.

This article is a part of our Voices section.

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