Sightlines by Mercy A. Quaye

It’s a threat to everyone to forget that anyone can contract Monkeypox.

But the growing rhetoric of the epidemic hones in on the transmission rates between men who have sex with men — a justifiable framing since gay or bisexual men have accounted for 98% percent of reported cases.

But justifiable doesn’t always mean responsible or just.

This framing touts an irresponsible and even dangerous narrative that vilifies gay men and, perhaps most importantly, gives false relief to people outside the gay community — the same way we did in the 80s during the AIDs crisis, which has killed roughly 40 million people, gay and straight around the world since 1981.

Let’s start with the basics: Monkeypox, as we now know, is spread through lesion-to-skin contact. Depending on how you do it, this may or may not occur during sex.

It can also occur during handshakes, hugs, and, according to the CDC, touching objects, fabrics (clothing, bedding, or towels), and surfaces that have been used by someone with Monkeypox.

I recently visited Lake Compounce for the first time since I wasn’t tall enough to ride Boulder Dash in ’96. While there, I couldn’t help but notice how, though an amusement park may be a great COVID-safe activity, with hundreds of people touching the same surfaces and packed densely in long meandering lines, it may not be the best Monkeypox activity.

The typical levels of pandemic caution we’ve come to know and trust (masking, bumping elbows or fists instead of shaking hands, etc) may now be insufficient against this latest health threat. But, the biggest threat may actually be a misguided belief that it’s simply a gay disease.

While Monkeypox cases are waning in New York City and around the world, Dr. Anthony Fauci recently warned against making the same assumptions about the current monkeypox outbreak that were made during the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“… any assumption that it will remain restricted to a particular segment of our society is truly an assumption without a scientific basis,” Dr. Fauci wrote in a piece for the New England Journal of Medicine which he penned with H. Clifford Lane, deputy director for clinical research and special projects at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Ayesha Clark, Interim Executive Director of Health Equity Solutions, underlines the need to take this and any quickly spreading disease as the public health crisis it is, for everyone’s sake.

Ayesha Clark, Interim Executive Director of Health Equity Solutions Health Equity Solutions

Her organization focuses on policy and gets its marching orders from directly impacted communities. Right now, she said, people aren’t voicing concerns about Monkeypox during her listening sessions with communities. But, she’s still directing people to agencies that are disseminating information about it, like the Connecticut Department of Public Health and UCONN Health.

“I believe we should be taking this very seriously,” Clarke said. “This is another form of Smallpox and we need to pay attention to it. We need to be keeping an eye out for how it’s transmitted and what the signs and symptoms are. We also need to ensure we’re not isolating any one group of people.”

History has proven time and time again that linking an identity to an illness only brings stigma and inaction, especially when the scapegoated identity is already a marginalized one.

Examining that stigma, we know that people living with HIV may avoid getting tested or seeking treatment because of fear of discrimination of any kind. In the 1980s and ’90s, discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS took many forms, such as referring to people as “HIVers” or “Positives,” health care workers refusing to treat HIV-positive and AIDS patients, avoiding casual contact with those who had been diagnosed with the disease, and socially isolating people because they were HIV positive.

Imagine the number of unreported or untreated cases that may occur when a disease carries a stigma.

It’s fair to assume none of us knew how to navigate a pandemic before March 2020. But, since then, we’ve all become micro experts on what keeps us all safe from the spread of the virus. As such, we know that someone avoiding care is a serious red flag. Yet still, we have a propensity to exhibit behavior that will lead people to potentially avoid care and put us all at risk.

“I think in addition to the virus we risk one, the spread of people thinking and stating that some people can’t get it and two, people not being as vigilante as they should be,” Clarke said. “Once we stigmatize one group, we’ll have others who stop worrying and stop being cautious in their own behavior. We know that happened with the HIV/AIDS epidemic and we’re watching it happen now.”

It’s not new or unique behavior. When we blame an already marginalized group for the spread of illness, a disaster of some kind, or a tragedy felt by millions (see: ‘China Flu’, Pulse Night Club Shooting, and 9/11), hate crimes targeting that group go up substantially.

PrEP navigator Tatiana Melendez, standing tall next to the PrEP promotional poster, is doing HIV prevention outreach at Hartford's South Green Park on a recent Friday. Melendez, a.k.a. Lady Tatiana, began working for the Community Renewal Team in May and is trying to reach populations vulnerable to the virus. Photo by Ryan Caron King.
HIV prevention outreach at Hartford’s South Green Park in 2018. Workers with the Community Renewal Team held numerous events to try to reach populations vulnerable to the virus. (file photo) Photo by Ryan Caron King, CT Public Radio. Ryan Caron King / WNPR

“We can even include the war on drugs,” she said. “There are certain drugs that society considers to be Black drugs or Mexican drugs. So instead of thinking that [addiction] can happen to anyone, we leave ourselves vulnerable to exposure.”

“With Monkeypox, we want to make sure that, although there are some major cases that put the LGBTQA community at risk, this virus is spreading broadly and we want to be careful of not isolating already marginalized communities.”

It’s clear we like to play hot potato on social issues and pass blame so that we don’t get stuck with the potato. The result of that is a lot of burned hands, no matter how quickly we pass it.

Said another way, we know that our society likes to place blame and we, in response, are fine bending to society’s desire as long as we aren’t the subject of that blame.

It’s time to turn that around. Let’s check the language we’re using to talk about Monkeypox so we don’t duplicate the peril of the AIDS crisis and can adequately protect anyone at risk — a demographic that includes everyone.

“It’s important that we take a look at how we’re messaging the spread, and ensuring that we’re getting the clearest information from organizations like the CDC and DHS,” Clarke said. “They’re doing all they can to distribute information all the way down to the local level.”

Sure, men who have sex with men are at risk. So are women who have sex with men, men who have sex with women, non-binary folks, anyone who shakes someone’s hand or likes hugs, or spends long periods of time in a densely packed line at an amusement park.

Most of these activities aren’t sexual and aren’t even that intimate. So, simply put, it puts everyone at risk to forget that anyone can contract Monkeypox.

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Mercy A. Quaye | Columnist

Mercy A. Quaye writes a monthly column called Sightlines for CT Mirror and is the editor of CT Mirror's Community Editorial Board. In 2015 she founded and continues to lead The Narrative Project, a mission-driven communications consulting group providing communications support to non-profit organizations throughout the state. Born and raised in New Haven, Mercy has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and a master’s degree in Public Relations, Social Media and Applied Communications, both from Quinnipiac University. Her work experience includes roles as a columnist for Hearst Connecticut, Adjunct Professor of Digital Journalism at Southern Connecticut State University, radio show host, and communications specialist for advocacy, community, and educational organizations.