HIV, Monkeypox, and the Demonization of Queer People

Monkeypox has recently generated great buzz within the media as a frantic populace is jarred by images of blister-like pimples dotting the skin of affected individuals, a zoonotic disease now spreading outside Africa. As of July 29th, there have been 21,148 cases worldwide, with deaths appearing outside Africa. In tandem with the developments of new variants of COVID-19, the summer with its festivities and the return of children and teenagers to the school environment is now associated with fears of lockdown and a return to panic and disorientation. 

Instead of providing accurate information to viewers across the United States, most journalism continues to state that most cases remain associated with men-who-have-sex-with-men and spread outside of the LGBTQ+ community will largely not occur. Moreover, these same sources of information claim it is an STD, which has never and will not be its mode of transmission. As new cases appear outside of the community, especially in children, the continued false association of monkeypox with men-who-have-sex-with-men will be a deleterious move led by the CDC and the wider public health community.

History has shown that the LGBTQ+ community remains a target for attacks, ultimately to decry the community as undeserving of love, compassion, value, and inclusion into civil society and the rights afforded to American citizens. Continued HIV-related stigma affects this community, leading to violence, isolation, and discrimination. This association led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands—the complete elimination of a generation of queer ancestors—due to the willful negligence of public health officials and systems within the United States. Gay men continue to be seen as pedophiles and “deviant sexual offenders”. Transgender people (and to an extent, the wider queer community) remain occupied within their own segregated medical, housing, and employment spheres. An overlooked sector of the queer community, intersex individuals are subject to incredible medical violence as their violation of the sex binary continues to deny them personal, sexual, and social agency.

This recounting of the extended harm, torture, and ridicule inflicted on a marginalized and outcasted sector of the population should not be necessary. But at this moment, the history of HIV-AIDS and LGBTQ+ discrimination is playing out in the current narrative of monkeypox espoused by the media. The exact ways in which monkeypox is being considered a “gay sex disease” are the same methods by which newspapers and TV media bastions claimed HIV-AIDS was a sin afflicted by God against gay people. This homophobic framing of media coverage allowed for it to be out of mind and out of sight for the cisgender, heterosexual majority, condemning queer people and continuing to perpetuate their oppression. 

However, when Magic Johnson was diagnosed with HIV-AIDS in 1991 and queer people maintained continued pressure against the establishment, the media began to present HIV-AIDS as “everyone’s” problem and activated mass testing among heterosexuals. Even with a near-militant fight to bring HIV-AIDS into public conversation, the media began a shift in HIV-AIDS coverage, presenting HIV as a “global problem”. This allowed the start of the dissociation of HIV-AIDS from a “domestic issue” that still displays significant disparities, especially among African-American populations in the United States.

This same practice of dehumanization and discrimination is playing out, today, within mainstream media coverage. Continuing to simply associate monkeypox as a “gay STD” that we “heterosexuals” can never obtain will ruin the public health response. As cases rise, they continue to sound this false alarm. Only until it begins to affect the general population in great numbers; only until children come home from school with those characteristic blisters; only until pregnant women are shocked at the fact they have contracted it, will we begin to care. 

As queer people line up in droves to receive the vaccine, the wider world has begun an assault to socially ruin a class of individuals just beginning to gain agency. Lined up perfectly with a far-right judicial move within the courts, LGBTQ+ rights are now on the chopping block, and the media’s reaction to monkeypox is an omen for their potential destruction.

It is up to the public health community to take the responsibility of advocating for queer people. It is up to queer people across the United States to continue to fight for their rights. Because… who will?

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