The Queer Experience: The world’s reaction to monkeypox

We’ve come a long way since the AIDS crisis

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Joey Lorant / Daily Collegian.

By Zach Leach, Assistant Op/Ed Editor

Life finally started to feel normal again this summer. The COVID-19 pandemic was obviously not over, but we had a better grasp on it. Stores were reopening, mask mandates were dropped and people were starting to gather in groups again. The pandemic was still ongoing, but most people felt that they could see the light at the end of the tunnel. As people started to relax, there was another disease that began threatening Americans: monkeypox.

On May 19, the first case of this outbreak was reported in Boston. Many other states were quick to follow as the virus began spreading. Monkeypox, affecting the skin and causing lesions and rashes, is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. This makes it less contagious than the airborne COVID-19 but clearly still a threat.

It did not take long for professionals to realize that monkeypox was disproportionately affecting gay males. This fact was initially met with confusion, as monkeypox is not sexually transmitted. It is now theorized that the initial cases in this outbreak were of men who had sex with other men (MSM) and were active in gay networks. Because of this, anyone they had physical contact with within this network was exposed to the monkeypox virus. This caused early cases to spread quickly within gay communities and disproportionately affect MSM.

For many, this felt reminiscent of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. When the AIDS epidemic was first starting, doctors had no idea what it was. All they knew was that gay men were suddenly getting types of cancers and diseases that were linked to weak immune systems. Doctors and the press started calling this mysterious disease “GRID,” an acronym for gay-related immune deficiency. This term continued to be used in an official capacity until scientists eventually discovered what AIDS was and where it came from. By then, it was already too late, and AIDS had been labeled as a “gay disease.”

Anyone was capable of contracting HIV, but it disproportionately affected MSM, and pleas from the gay community fell on deaf ears. It seemed that no one in power was doing anything about this disease that was killing hundreds of thousands of people. President Ronald Reagan didn’t publicly acknowledge the disease until 1987, after more than 20,000 people had already died. Gay activists were met with scorn and frequently told that the “gay plague” was punishment for their sinful lifestyles.

Though very different conditions, monkeypox and AIDS have several similarities. Public response to the monkeypox outbreak, however, was very different than what we saw in the 1980s. It is common knowledge that monkeypox disproportionately affected MSM, but at no point was it ever labeled a “gay disease.” Instead of stigmatizing people who contracted monkeypox, much of the population recognized the importance of effective treatments and stopping the spread.

Government action was swift, as the FDA had already approved the monkeypox vaccine in 2019. Supply was far shorter than demand, however, and these vaccines had to be dispersed conservatively until more could be produced. Restrictions were put in place, and only certain groups of people could receive a dose of the vaccine. These groups included men and gender-nonconforming people who had sex with other men and people who had been recently exposed to the virus. Unlike the AIDS crisis, the monkeypox outbreak was met with swift action that ensured the people most at risk were the first to receive the vaccine.

It’s clear that the public’s response to monkeypox was much better than the response to AIDS. I believe that this is partially because society is becoming more accepting of gay people. Clearly there is still a lot of work to be done, not just in the U.S., but globally. Countless stigmas regarding gay people and queer communities are still held by many people, and HIV is still disproportionately affecting MSM. Something has changed, however, and people have started caring.

Though there is still a small percentage of people that believed monkeypox was another disease that MSM deserved, these people are a fraction of those that held similar beliefs regarding AIDS. There will always be more work to be done, and the fight for queer liberation will never be over, but it has become clear to me that society is moving in the right direction.

 

Zach Leach can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @ZachLeach12.