Right-wing media embraces AIDS-era homophobia in monkeypox coverage

The conservative campaign against LGBTQ+ rights has found a new fixation for its hatred: monkey pox. On television, right-wing commentators openly mock monkeypox victims, the vast majority of whom are men who have sex with men, and blame them for contracting the disease. On social media, right-wing users exchange memes about how the “cure” for monkeypox is heterosexual marriage while questioning the effectiveness of monkeypox vaccines.

This aggressive stigmatization of monkeypox, reminiscent of the homophobic response to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, poses a serious challenge to public health advocates and community leaders trying to have honest conversations about the disease with men gay and bisexual people who are most at risk during the current outbreak. Should public messages highlight the fact that monkeypox primarily affects men who have sex with men? And should public health agencies urge gay men to change their sexual practices?

The simultaneous threats of homophobia and monkey pox require a difficult decision about which to tackle first, says author and veteran AIDS activist Mark S King, a 61-year-old gay man.

More than a hundred people wait in line to receive a monkey pox vaccine in Los Angeles.
More than a hundred people wait in line to receive a monkey pox vaccine in Los Angeles. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA

“I’m about to kill the alligator closest to the boat. And right now that means getting information to men who have sex with men about how to avoid it.”

Early in the outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) struck a note of caution in its communications about monkeypox, which causes painful lesions, fever and other symptoms. On May 18, the agency said that “cases include individuals who identify as men who have sex with men” while stressing that “anyone, regardless of sexual orientation” could spread the disease. But an international study published on July 21 found that 98% of recent cases of monkeypox outside Africa were found in gay or bisexual men, with transmission suspected to have occurred through sexual activity in 95% of cases. these cases.

That’s why King is aligned with a growing number of US public health officials and advocates who believe the messages around monkeypox need to be brutally honest in communicating the risks to the wider population. affected, even if the homophobes will flock to it.

Last week, the CDC named Dr. Demetre Dasklakis, a gay man and renowned AIDS activist, as deputy coordinator of its national smallpox response. Days later, the agency released a guide to prevent monkeypox through safer sex that includes an illustration of two men in a bed. The article recommended that people limit the number of sexual partners, avoid anonymous connections and “wash hands, fetish clothes, sex toys” after having sex. He also suggested social distancing or video masturbation as alternatives to sex.

Sex-positive public health messages like these have been scorned by conservative commentators.

“Chastity celibate modesty disciplined Don’t be dirty. Keep your legs closed. All viable options, folks,” tweeted Republican commentator Kathy Barnette in response to the CDC instructions.

Mark S King.
Mark S King. Photograph: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

“We’re still waiting for gay men who have random sex with strangers during the monkeypox outbreak to be lectured and scolded by public health authorities the way the rest of us were for going to grocery stores and restaurants during the Covid,” tweeted the Daily Caller’s Matt. Walsh.

And in late July, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson tweeted a poll declaring the disease should be renamed “schlong Covid,” tagging the CDC.

But King says these right-wing attacks are just a distraction. “We must ignore this if we want to deliver an effective public message to the community that we care.”

King contracted HIV in 1985 and remembers being frustrated by the lack of official recognition of the toll on gay men. “How many years did it take until our president said how many people died of AIDS, before there was detailed, explicit language about how the virus was transmitted?” he says. “Fast forward to 2022, where at least we’re getting all this great explicit information about monkey pox so gay men can protect themselves. I consider that progress.”

But not everyone in the queer community agrees on how to talk about the new outbreak. Prominent rights group Glaad has notably warned against treating monkeypox as a disease that mainly affects men who have sex with men in a guide released to the media.

Framing monkey pox as a disease within the gay community will discourage others from educating themselves about prevention, says DaShawn Usher, Glaad’s director of communities of color and media.

“If history has taught us anything, it would show us that a communicable disease like this does not stay within a community,” he said. “Stigma drives fear, and then fear turns into public health resistance and stops the spread of disease.”

the person wearing mask and face shield has a document in front of the computer monitor
Microbiologists process tests for Covid-19 and monkeypox in Nashville. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Usher says the belief that monkeypox only affects some people can also deter employers from offering accommodations for monkeypox or prevent workers from disclosing that they have monkeypox for fear of being labeled or seen as queer.

There is also disagreement within the queer community about whether and how to discuss changing sexual behavior during the outbreak. Suggestions by some health officials that affected communities curtail their sexual activity while the US grapples with vaccine delays may seem uncomfortably similar to conservative attacks on gay culture.

Usher says simply telling people to abstain from sex would send the wrong message. “You could still get monkey pox if you kissed someone who had an active case of monkey pox or if you hugged someone without clothes. I would just encourage people to understand all the ways it could be spread.”

King says he’s gotten pushback in his community for telling others to consider re-dialing their connections. “I’m being attacked by people who think I’m contributing to the stigmatization of gay sex. My response to that is: You can go back to any kind of sexuality that suits you in a few weeks. The vaccines are on the truck. Give- give him a minute.”

The campaigner believes the best way to offer frank public health advice about sex is to remove any moral judgement. “We’ve learned over the last 40 years of HIV that moral judgments only help HIV,” he says. “Moral judgments shame people who are most at risk, which causes people to go underground, not admit what their behaviors are, and not want to talk about the risks.”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room to discuss why gay men make the choices they do, King says. “But right now it’s a completely pointless conversation when it comes to stopping the spread of monkeypox.”

King says it’s a mistake to think that avoiding the realities of monkey pox will reduce homophobic aggression, which has been on the rise for many years. The number of reported anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes has risen substantially over the past decade, federal hate crime statistics show. During this period, US state legislatures have passed an unprecedented number of anti-LGBTQ+ measures, and 2021 was deemed the “worst year” on record by the Human Rights Campaign. Many US schools have banned LGBTQ+ books and attacks on queer spaces are on the rise. In recent months, right-wing activists have stoked fears by promoting conspiracy myths that queer-friendly people are “priming” children for sexual abuse.

“Those people who are looking for gay men to beat up, they have a pocket full of hate for a lot of issues that will lead them to pick up that beer bottle,” King says. “They might have new language to use while beating us over the head, but they’d still be beating us over the head.”

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