Cases of monkeypox are rising both nationally and here in Wisconsin. As of yesterday there have been 13,517 cases of monkeypox in the US, with 47 of those in Wisconsin, according to the CDC and Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
As monkeypox spreads, so too does the harmful stigma around the virus.
Monkeypox, a smallpox-related virus that is transmitted from person-to-person through long periods of skin-to-skin contact, is currently spreading mostly among men who have sex with men. Because of this, a misconception has formed in some segments of the public that monkeypox is a “gay disease.”
This misconception is hurtful to the LGBTQ community. AJ Hardie, the program director of OutReach LGBTQ Community Center, explained.
“We’ve already seen this association with monkeypox as being something that is a sort of ‘queer person’s problem.’ At the moment, the vast majority of cases are in men who have sex with men, but it is a disease that is just transmitted through prolonged contact, especially with the exposed lesions. And so it’s something that can affect anyone, it’s just as of right now, because of the way that our social networks work – our social systems that we have and our networks of communication and interaction – it’s primarily impacting one community.”
And that impact can lead people to be more reluctant to seek out care, he said.
“But that can be incredibly stigmatizing for people, especially if they’re closeted or if they’re not out to certain people in their lives, it can make it difficult to do things like talk to a healthcare provider about even safer sex practices but also about getting vaccinated. Or it can make it really high-risk for people to go and stand in line outside of a vaccine clinic.”
This misconception of monkeypox is also misleading.
I spoke with Dr. Ajay Sethi, professor of Population Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, about monkeypox. When I broached this topic, he said, “Anybody with skin can be infected with this virus because the virus really doesn’t discriminate…The stigma is unfortunate. Unfortunately, we have too many people in our society that, you know, use information like this as a way to continue to discriminate and maybe even hate on groups in our communities. And that’s wrong. It’s something that we shouldn’t do.”
He explained that the reason the virus is largely isolated to men who have sex with men is due to a confluence of coincidence.
“Why is it in men who have sex with men right now a lot of it has to do with chance. There was an opportunity this year as we’re kind of coming out of the pandemic and people are resuming their lives – and also June, which was Pride month – there were probably a lot of events around the world where people got together and events that were also associated with people having intimate contact, people having sex. And those kinds of events, you know, have been occurring for centuries. So it just happened that there’s this perfect storm where people are getting together one person has the virus because it made its way into that person. And in the community. And when you get that kind of spark, then the right conditions can cause a spread of that virus and that’s what’s happened I think we should all just remember that it’s not all men who have sex with men who have a risk for monkeypox. If someone is not sexually active or they’re in a monogamous relationship, they’re at low risk for this virus. It’s really people who have more casual sex, have multiple partners, particularly recently.”
People who do contract the virus – usually first developing flu-like symptoms and then a rash – should see their healthcare providers to discuss treatments and pain management options. Public Health Madison and Dane County is offering vaccinations by appointment as well.
Dr. Sethi emphasizes that this is important because, “Men who have sex with men are part of our communities and we want everybody in our community to be healthy.”
And LGBTQ Madisonians make up a vibrant part of the city’s community, one that is worth both protecting and celebrating.
Hardie shares his experience being trans in Madison. “In my experience, Madison has a really active and engaged LGBTQ+ community that takes care of each other really well and is concerned with the wellbeing of one another and [is] very supportive. I think that, in my experience as being a trans person here, I’ve been able to find a really solid community that provides a lot of resources for each other and then also just a lot of emotional support as well.”
He says the biggest issue the Madison LGBTQ community faces is discrimination, especially in access to resources like housing or healthcare. And monkeypox maps onto these issues in ways that can compound these barriers.
“The new concern about monkeypox fits in to the larger picture and larger situation of the queer community right now in a couple of ways,” Hardie explains. “We have these existing health disparities where queer people tend to have – and especially queer people of color tend to have – less access to healthcare and a harder time finding the care that they need or the care that they want. And then it also fits in with the increase in discrimination that people have been facing, especially lately, the legal attacks or attempts at legal discrimination, of different legislation that’s been passed targeting the queer community in a really elevated level of rhetoric aimed at the queer community, coming from certain parts of the United States.”
Monkeypox comes at a time where LGBTQ people are vulnerable. Last year the Wisconsin legislature proposed an ultimately failed bill requiring parents be notified and able to opt their children out of “any program related to sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or gender expression.” More recently, on July 8th the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a contested school policy that provides support for trans and gender non-conforming students after a group of parents challenged the policy. And within this larger environment, the mental health of LGBTQ people takes a toll. Earlier this year, a survey by the US Census Bureau found that nearly a third of LGBTQ Wisconsinites reported experiencing depression “nearly every day” – the 6th highest rate in the nation.The developing stigma of monkeypox adds to that vulnerability – through discrimination by others, through isolation or fear of being out, happening simultaneously as anti-LGBTQ legal attacks gain traction.
Hardie says the community has been here before and is drawing on that previous experience as a source of strength.
“I think probably as a result of decades and centuries of collective of discrimination against queer people of all identities, and especially the experiences of people who lived through the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the worst of it in the 80s… The queer community is very resilient. We take care of one another. We provide support to one another, financially, emotionally, physically, mentally, all of these things, and I think that that’s one strength that we have that we can always kind of fall back on. A lot of the same people that were involved with and have been involved with the response to HIV/AIDS over the last several decades are the same people that are at the forefront of a lot of these discussions about monkeypox and how it spreads. There are people that have been doing this work for a long time, and we’re able to rely on that.”
He ends by saying, “But we’re also still trying to get our bearings and still trying to deal with a situation that’s very, very rapidly evolving as far as the community spread levels, the availability of vaccine doses, the information and the guidance we’re getting about who’s eligible for the vaccine. And I think it’s really important in these instances for people to have places that they can trust and people that they can trust, and for a lot of queer people, that means other queer people.”
If you live in Dane County, and believe you are eligible for a vaccine, you can call Public Health at (608) 243-0556.