In Monkeypox, Gay Men Confront a Crisis With Echoes of the Past

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

But instead, sitting on poop, the men talked about the rapidly spreading monkeypox virus: their attempt to win a coveted vaccination appointment, in one city place demand for photos far beyond the supply; the government is slow to deploy vaccines and treatments; and their confusion about how the disease spreads and how to stay safe.

“It feels like survival for people,” said James Ogden, 31, who secured a vaccination appointment after weeks spent navigating the city’s glitchy online registration process. healthiest, with all the pandemics and now monkeypox.

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

For gay and bisexual men in New York, the summer has experienced similar conversations when monkeypox cases spiked among men who have sex with men.

There is widespread fear about the virus, which is mainly spread by close contact and causes severe lesions and other symptoms that can lead to hospitalization. There is fear about the potential isolation and stigma of the infection, as people with monkeypox have to stay home for weeks. And some fear the vaccine itself, in an echo of hesitation and distrust that has hampered the coronavirus response.

Many are also angry at the delay and failure of the government’s efforts to contain the disease, including vaccine delay and mixed messages about how the virus spreads and how people should protect themselves.

And some worry that monkeypox could be turned into a political weapon to be used against gay and transgender people who have rights. under a growing wave of 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 was endemic to dozens of countries. and infect tens of thousands of people around the world. three-month course. As of Thursday, there were more than 3,000 confirmed cases in the United States and 1,148 in New York, but experts say cases are undercounted.

Mr. Ehigie received the first shot of a two-dose vaccine regimen after it was recommended by his therapist, but worries the city may never give him a second shot.

And, while he says everyone understands how HIV spreads, monkeypox still feels like a mystery to him and many others. “Especially in New York,” he said, “where people are always in close contact with other people, it’s scary.”

Nearly all cases outside of Africa occur in men who have sex with men. In New York, only 1.4% of monkeypox patients identified themselves as normal, the rest identified themselves as gay, bisexual or refused to say, 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 pandemic.

Those years were marked by acts of homophobia that are still etched in the minds of many gay Americans. White House press secretary joke about AIDS at a press conference in 1982. Churches refused to provide funerals for the dead. And President Ronald Reagan did not give a public speech on the epidemic By 1987, about 23,000 Americans had died from the disease.

Disagreements within the New York City Department of Health over how to communicate the risks of this disease flooded into public view last week. Some epidemiologists have argued that officials should more explicitly recommend men who have sex with men to reduce their number of sexual partners, or even consider short-term abstinence. . (Given by the Director-General of WHO a similar recommendation this weekincluding that men should reconsider “having sex with a new partner,” according to STAT News.)

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

That history was imprinted on the minds of many (and the banners of many) at a rally last week in Manhattan organized by activist groups including ACT UP, which was formed in 1987 to protest. response to government inaction on HIV/AIDS.

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

“We have been forced to do this for so long, we are forced to fight to take care of our own health when we are allowed by the government,” he said. “It’s a shame for the government to let us down again.”

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

Jon Catlin, 29, a doctoral student, said he knows several people with monkeypox in New York and many others in Berlin, where he lives part-time for research. He said he studied the development of the idea of ​​disaster in German thought, and “whose suffering is seen as a crisis.”

“Because it’s happening to strange people,” said Mr Catlin, the government has been slow to treat monkeypox as a real crisis, waiting to roll out a dose of the vaccine until the authorities. case has grown exponentially.

“Aids wasn’t seen as a crisis at first either,” he added, before citing a homophobic quote at the time. “The secret of the 80s was ‘the right people died’.

But as much as protesters want to fight what they describe as indifference, many are also concerned that the increased attention could bring hostility from heterosexuals.

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

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

That was the concern of some men at the 4West Lounge.

Chavis Aaron, 33, the bar manager, said the public’s focus on gay and bisexual people made him uncomfortable. He knows two gay people with the disease, and understands the statistics on who the outbreak is affecting the most, but still thinks “this is really everyone’s problem,” he say.

“The situation is still dark and crazy,” he added. “We’re getting information from Instagram and the news and each one says something different.”

Some people are adopting different ways to protect themselves against the disease can last for a monthbut their methods can be dangerous and deeply unscientific.

Mr Ehigie, the bartender, said: ‘Most of my friends aren’t having sex or they’re just being really selective. He also knows men who are against vaccines in general “because they think vaccines are political or will cause bad side effects.”

Others, he says, have adopted a potentially dangerous approach – in which they wait a few days after sex to see if the rash flares up before resuming sexual activity. – which he thinks they may have applied after reading the wrong things online.

Two years of pandemic isolation have made people excited about human connection. So far, the LGBTQ community has been very reluctant to cancel events.

Several events have made small concessions to monkeypox, including the Pines Party, a large annual gathering on Fire Island in July that requires partygoers to be vaccinated and not attend if they feel unwell.

But the outbreak has caused other events in the city to be cancelled, including some casual sex parties that are less prominent but higher risk than dance parties.

At smaller bars like 4West Lounge, things have been quieter lately. Some of that could be related to the hot weather, or to a group of customers who over-partyed during Pride Month in June, its employees said.

But some of it is also the result of the outbreak, they said. Mr. Aaron said he can think of some regular customers who stopped coming in as many after the number of smallpox cases in monkeys started to increase in July.

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

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