The first case of monkeypox in the GW community came in June when only 306 cases were reported in the United States. As of July 25, the District leads the country with the highest number of cases per capita, according to D.C. Health. And while this viral infection spreads, so do misinformation and stereotypes. With a large number of monkeypox cases concentrated in the gay community, ongoing rhetoric is perpetuating harmful stigmas about queer people. Blaming monkeypox on gay men and the inaccurate idea of a more sexual LGBTQ+ community fuels lies instead of slowing the disease. To combat this virus, GW should use language that dismantles social stigmas and informs students that everyone is susceptible to monkeypox.
It is undeniable that monkeypox is mostly reported among men who have sex with other men in the United States. Ninety-nine percent of monkeypox cases occur in men, and 94 percent of them engage in sexual intimacy with other men, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. These statistics are not the issue – the issue is how these statistics are used to demonize the queer community. Language like “gay disease” perpetuates the narrative that gay men are to blame for monkeypox and homophobic hate crimes in the past month prove its danger. Misinformation circling social media also suggests this virus is a sexually transmitted infection that hypersexualizes queer people and leaves the rest with a false notion of immunity.
Africa, where monkeypox originated, has little evidence that any demographic is disproportionately affected in the continent. When it comes to monkeypox in Africa, sexuality is not an indicator of risk. Monkeypox has been endemic, spreading through small amounts of people in the continent since 1970, according to the CDC. African health officials report that the virus spreads more commonly in confined spaces and between animals that spread it to people around them. The criminalization of homosexuality in most African countries is the main reason that reports do not show monkeypox being contracted by queer people. Just because the United States is experiencing most cases in queer people does not mean that monkeypox is a “gay disease.”
On Sunday, someone who allegedly used anti-gay slurs while referencing monkeypox attacked a couple in D.C. While they sustained non-life-threatening injuries from the assault, this hateful act is unacceptable. If conversations surrounding monkeypox continue to blame a community in its entirety for the virus, more disgusting violence will continue. Similar to how hate crimes against Asian Americans increased with a rise in COVID-19 cases, it is incorrect and hurtful to blame a group of people for a worldwide virus. Gay men are not to blame for monkeypox, and they do not deserve to be assaulted, ridiculed or blamed because of the spread of it.
Casting blame on gay men for monkeypox also lulls the rest of the general public into a false sense of immunity. If people believe that only gay men will contract the virus, they are less likely to take precautions against it, like using condoms, limiting anonymous sexual partners or wearing masks. Similar to HIV/AIDS, anyone is at risk of infection, but lack of that knowledge is dangerous. Women started contracting HIV/AIDS when they had sex with men whom they didn’t know were having sex with other men. But since society accepted it as a “gay disease,” the first women to experience symptoms either did not know they had HIV/AIDS or were denied access to treatment due to disbelief among health care professionals. Eventually, AIDS became the leading cause of death for Black women ages 25 to 44 years. Everyone needs to be safe and recognize they too are at risk of monkeypox infection.
Another misconception is that monkeypox is a sexual transmitted infection. It is spread through close skin-to-skin contact and through bodily fluids. Monkeypox has the potential to spread through hugging, cuddling, kissing, clothes and bedding. Even if one is not having sex with a man, visiting their dorm room, sitting on their bed, borrowing a shirt or dancing with someone at a party could transmit the disease. In July, a professor at the University of Texas Dallas tweeted, “Can we at least try to find a cure for homosexuality, especially among men?” after suggesting that monkeypox is an STI. While the tweet has since been deleted and the professor has been condemned for spreading misinformation and homophobia, this is a perfect example of how lack of knowledge is dangerous. The public needs to know that there are other ways of contracting the virus or else they will not know how to keep themselves safe.
GW officials sent an email to students Wednesday explaining the causes, symptoms and treatment of monkeypox to students. While their communication of the logistics of the virus is commendable, no steps were taken to address its social effects. Staying silent will not combat the narrative that monkeypox is a “gay disease.” The University should promote more inclusive conversations among its students and staff by starting them. It is imperative to be aware of public health recommendations, like limiting the number of sexual partners one has while understanding that condoms also won’t guarantee protection. GW must be incredibly clear that people of all sexualities and gender identities can contract it. As students return to campus, they deserve to make informed decisions concerning their sex lives.
Assuming monkeypox will forever be limited to only gay men is not just a naive way of thinking, but it also piles on guilt, shame and blame to that community. We cannot wait to take this virus seriously until its spread widens even further. Ultimately, World Health Organization Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it best. “Stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus.”