The first headline I saw about monkeypox damn near pushed me over the edge. Covid still raging and another possible pandemic? The symptoms — and name! — sounded nasty. But there were few cases and coverage trailed off, so I filed it under “bad news I can’t deal with right now.”
Forward to July: I started hearing about an outbreak among queer men through my fellow New Yorkers. Alarmed, I pored over CDC releases and media sources only to find vague guidelines that downplayed the transmission and effects of monkeypox. Yes, it was mostly affecting “men who have sex with men,” but “most cases were mild, with effects like fever and a few pimple-like lesions.” Articles assured their straight readership that it wasn’t their problem.
Despite limited, contradictory information, word got out — thanks to queer men and some women who took to social media bravely telling their stories. Fever, weakness, then pus-filled lesions breaking out all over their face and body, most awfully within their mouth and anus. All described excruciating pain, which one man said felt like “constantly sitting on broken glass.”
Almost uglier than the symptoms was the treatment they got. Sufferers were often misdiagnosed by doctors, and few would administer tests. Among those correctly diagnosed, only a handful who fought like hell obtained TPOXX, the only available drug for treatment.
Queer men like me began to search for the vaccine, approved in 2019 but still nearly impossible to get. The NYC Health Department would quietly release online a thousand or so appointments every couple weeks, but they would disappear in minutes. I was one of the lucky ones to get an appointment, but we only received a half-dose due to shortages. A few others were able to snag doses in other cities, if they were able to drive or fly out of town. This restricted access erected barriers to many Black and Latinx people, who make up the majority of those with the disease.
The vaccine scarcity was totally avoidable. The government took a wait-and-see approach which left over a million reserved doses sitting in Denmark while cases doubled and tripled by the week. This public health crisis in the gay community in the face of callous government inaction echoed the AIDS crisis.
Reminiscent, too, is the dangerous, homophobic scapegoating by the far right. FOX News bigots like Greg Gutfeld make a cruel joke out of monkeypox, blaming it on “gay men’s orgies.” When a few children contracted it, Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted this was proof that gay people are pedophiles and “groomers”— a vile lie spewed into the mainstream by the growing fascist wannabes.
This vitriolic stigmatization of queer people prevents the broader public and officials from taking this painful and sometimes fatal disease seriously. This is not a “gay disease,” and it is not just our problem. Like AIDS and the countries where monkeypox has had previous outbreaks,
it can and will spread into the broader population.
Contrary to the stereotype of the LGBTQ+ community as irresponsible and hedonistic, we are in the majority medically literate, community-minded and pro-active. These are the hard-won gifts of the AIDS tragedy and ACT UP movement.
So once more, driven by necessity and anger, the queer community and healthcare workers began to organize. Social networks spread clear information on how it’s passed (which yes, is commonly through sex, but also through other skin contact, cloth-type surfaces, and respiratory secretions) and how to prevent it. We posted vaccine alerts and called a protest on the city to do more. People’s demand for vaccines and use of preventive measures were slowing new infections in NYC by the end of August.
Once again, oppressed communities and selfless healthcare workers have had to go up against a capitalist state incapable of putting people’s health over profits, and are making an impact. Such experiences give this queer revolutionary renewed optimism that someday we will take power for ourselves and accomplish the fully liberated, science-run, sex-positive system of healthcare we need and deserve.