Cowley: Stop Monkeypox Stigma in its Tracks

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Sydney Stam

(Design by Sydney Stam | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Elle Cowley, Opinion Writer, Audio Producer

 

On July 23 2022, the World Health Organization declared the monkeypox virus an “international concern.” Only 12 days later, the Biden administration declared a public health emergency when   reported cases of monkeypox in the United States reached over 6,000. U.S. cases are now over 9,000.

After two years of lockdowns, mask mandates and isolation, many people fear the idea of another disease sweeping the globe. Unfortunately, this anxiety leads to people viewing public health crises through more bigoted lenses. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian Americans experienced a higher degree of violence and racism. Many people used the excuse that because COVID-19 originated in China, they could pin the blame on people who aren’t at fault for what’s happening.

Now with monkeypox, I have started to see a pattern emerging. Many news sources are spreading the false suggestion that the spread of monkeypox began with gay men and other members of the LGBTQ+ community. The classification of monkeypox as a “gay disease” is extremely harmful and promotes further discrimination against a historically marginalized group.

What is Monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a disease caused by infection from the monkeypox virus, which is in the same family of the virus that causes smallpox. Symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, fever chills and most recognizably a rash that can evolve into pus-filled bumps all over the body, which can cause a lot of pain and permanent scarring. Monkeypox primarily spreads through close personal contact.

After close to three years of wearing masks in most public spaces, the anxiety of close contact with others still lingers. The added stress of contracting monkeypox in places like public transport, concerts and other densely populated areas has put people even more on edge. 

Even though smallpox is considered eradicated, we’ve made few strides in tackling monkeypox. Infectious disease experts have been warning the world about the disease for decades, but only after the virus had spread beyond Africa did the rest of the world begin taking notice. Experts agree that inaction has allowed an otherwise very easily preventable and treatable disease to spread.

Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

With the added pressure of a continuing global pandemic, a stigma has already begun to form around monkeypox. Preliminary reports of monkeypox specifically highlight its transmission between gay and bisexual men. 

LGBTQ-centered gatherings have been viewed as hot spots for its spread, even though any large gathering at this time can expedite the spread. Pride gatherings may contribute to the spread of monkeypox, but any group holding large events could also proliferate cases.

There have also been talks of monkeypox being considered a sexually transmitted disease, though the CDC states the opposite

A recent article from Northwestern University is titled “Monkeypox is ‘not an STD in the classic sense.’” Such titles continue to perpetuate notions that monkeypox is a “gay disease.”

Bigotry and Disease

We can draw many parallels between the perception of monkeypox today and the perception of AIDS in the ‘80s. Both diseases spread through LGBTQ+ communities, and we’ve already seen anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric begin to spread like it did back then. 

The AIDS epidemic had a long-lasting impact on the way the general American public viewed the queer community, and we still witness those effects today. Gay men are still discriminated against due to fear of disease. The lasting effects of the AIDS epidemic get largely ignored by the general population, even though almost every single older member of the LGBTQ+ community has been impacted by AIDS in some way, shape or form. 

I worry that the same rhetoric from the ‘80s will have a resurgence with monkeypox, but we can’t let that happen. Due to recent monkeypox cases among children, far-right groups have already used the virus as an excuse to accuse the queer community of grooming children. Just as AIDS has been used as an excuse to discriminate against gay and bisexual men, I fear monkeypox is headed down the same path.

As a journalist myself, I feel news outlets have a responsibility to learn from the past and report on current events with hindsight. With a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ bills sweeping our country, queer people are worried enough about their future. 

I am saddened that it seems like we’ve learned nothing from the AIDS epidemic, or even the COVID-19 pandemic. As monkeypox spreads more and more, we must consciously prevent such unfounded discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.

 

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@elle_cowley_