In Monkeypox, gay people face a crisis with echoes of the past

It was happy hour at a Harlem gay bar, 4West Lounge, and the after-work crowd had come to drink rum punch and watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

But instead, perched on stools, the men talked about the fast-spreading monkeypox virus: their efforts to secure a coveted vaccination appointment, in a city where demand for vaccines far exceeds the offer; the slow deployment of vaccines and treatments by the government; and their confusion about how the disease spreads and how to stay safe.

“It feels like survival of the fittest, with all the pandemic waves and now monkeypox and all these vaccine issues,” said James Ogden, 31, who got a vaccine appointment after weeks spent navigating the city’s glitchy online registration process.

Kelvin Ehigie, 32, the bartender, agreed. Asked about the future, he said: “I don’t feel confident.”

For gay and bisexual men in New York, the summer has been consumed with similar conversations as cases of monkeypox rise among men who have sex with men.

There is widespread fear of the virus, which is spread mainly through close physical contact and causes excruciating lesions and other symptoms that can lead to hospitalization. There are fears of isolation and the potential stigma of infection, as those who contract monkeypox have to stay home for weeks. And some fear the vaccine itself, echoing the hesitation and mistrust that have hampered the coronavirus response.

Many are also furious at delays and fumbling in government efforts to contain the disease, including delayed vaccines and mixed messages about how the virus spreads and how people should protect themselves.

And some fear monkeypox could be turned into a political weapon to be used against gay and transgender people, whose rights have come under increasing criticism from Republicans in recent months.

Last week the World Health Organization declared monkeypox a global health emergency, after it spread from parts of Africa where it is endemic to dozens of countries and infected dozens of thousands of people around the world in three months. As of Thursday, there were more than 3,000 confirmed cases in the United States and 1,148 in New York, but experts suggest the cases are undercounted.

Mr. Ehigie received the first shot of the two-dose vaccine regimen after a recommendation from his therapist, but feared the city would never give him a second.

And, although he said everyone understood how HIV is spread, monkeypox was still a mystery to him and many others. “Especially in New York,” he said, “where everyone is in close contact with everyone all the time, it’s scary.”

Almost all of the cases outside of Africa have involved men who have sex with men. In New York City, only 1.4% of monkeypox patients identified as heterosexual, with the rest describing themselves as gay, bisexual or refusing to say so, according to city data.

The disease is rarely fatal and no deaths have been reported outside of Africa.

But the combination of government failure and a virus that has so far primarily affected gay and bisexual men has drawn frequent comparisons to the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Those years were marked by acts of homophobia that remain etched in the minds of many American homosexuals. The White House press secretary made jokes about AIDS during a press briefing in 1982. Churches refused to hold funerals for the dead. And President Ronald Reagan didn’t make a public speech about the epidemic until 1987, by which time an estimated 23,000 Americans had died from the disease.

Disagreements within the New York City Department of Health over how to communicate the risks of the disease became public knowledge last week. Some epidemiologists have argued that authorities should more explicitly advise men who have sex with men to reduce their number of partners, or even consider short-term abstinence. (The WHO director-general made a similar recommendation this week, including that men should reconsider having “sex with new partners,” according to STAT News.)

A department spokeswoman said messages advising men to abstain from sex in particular could stigmatize gay and bisexual men and repeat mistakes of the past.

This story was on many people’s minds (and on many banners) at a protest last week in Manhattan organized by activist groups including ACT UP, which formed in 1987 in response to the government inaction against HIV/AIDS.

“I’m sad we have to be here,” said Erik Bottcher, a councilman whose district includes Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, neighborhoods that have been hit hard by the outbreak.

“We were forced to do this for so long, we were forced to fight for our own health care when we were let down by the government,” he said. “Shame on the government for letting us down again.”

Nearby, protesters carried signs comparing President Biden to Mr. Reagan.

Jon Catlin, 29, a graduate student, said he knows several people with monkeypox in New York and many more in Berlin, where he lives part-time doing research. He says he studies the evolution of the idea of ​​catastrophe in German thought, and “whose suffering counts as a crisis”.

“Because it happens to gay people,” Mr Catlin said, the government has been slow to treat monkeypox as a real crisis, waiting to roll out doses of vaccine until cases have increased dramatically. exponential.

“AIDS was not treated as a crisis at first either,” he added, before quoting a homophobic saying from the time. “The quip about the 80s is ‘good people were dying’.”

But while the protesters wanted to combat what they described as indifference, many also feared that increased attention would lead to hostility from heterosexuals.

Speaking at the rally in Manhattan, Mordechai Levovitz, the clinical director of Jewish Queer Youth, warned the crowd of around 100 that the LGBTQ community could become a scapegoat in the event of a larger and more widespread monkeypox outbreak. .

“You know what’s going to happen,” he shouted into a microphone. “In a few months, on the cover of every magazine, there will be children with monkeypox on their faces, and they will come after us.”

This was a concern shared by some of the men at 4West Lounge.

Chavis Aaron, 33, the bar manager, said the public focus on gay and bisexual men made him feel uneasy. He knew two gay men with the disease and understood the statistics on who was most affected by the outbreak, but still thought “it’s really everybody’s problem”, he said.

“The situation is still all hazy and crazy,” he added. “We get information from Instagram and news and everyone says something different.”

Some people improvise different ways to protect themselves against an illness that can last a month, but their methods can be dangerous and deeply unscientific.

“Most of my friends either don’t have sex or they’re just very selective,” said bartender Mr Ehigie. He also knows men who oppose vaccines in general “because they think vaccines have a political agenda or will cause bad side effects.”

Two years of pandemic isolation have made people hungry for human connection. So far, there has been little appetite in the LGBTQ community to cancel events.

Some events have made minor concessions to monkeypox, including Pines Party, a large annual gathering on Fire Island in July, which asked revelers to get vaccinated and not attend if unwell.

But the outbreak has prompted the cancellation of other events in the city, including several regular sex parties that are less publicized but more high-risk than dance parties.

In smaller bars like 4West Lounge, things have been quieter lately. Some of that was likely related to hot weather or a clientele that partied too hard during Pride Month in June, its staff said.

But some of it was also the result of the outbreak, they said. Mr Aaron said he could think of a few regular customers who stopped coming as much after the number of monkeypox cases started to climb in July.

“After Covid, a lot of people have PTSD,” he said. “They’d rather not go out than take the risk.”

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