In Monkey Pox, gay men face crisis with echoes of the past

It’s happy hour at 4West Lounge, a gay bar in Harlem, with an after-work crowd drinking rum punch and watching RuPaul’s Drag Race.

But instead, sitting on a bench, people talked about the rapidly spreading monkeypox virus: their efforts to get the coveted vaccine in a city where demand for the shot far outstripped supply; government-sponsored distribution of vaccines and treatments; and their confusion about how the disease spreads and how to stay safe.

“With all the waves of pandemics, now with monkeypox and these vaccine issues, it feels like survival of the fittest,” said James Ogden, 31, who secured a vaccine appointment after weeks of navigating the city’s rigorous online registration process.

Kelvin Ehigi, 32, a bartender, agreed. When asked about the future, he replied: “I don’t feel confident.”

Summer for gay and bisexual men in New York City has been fraught with similar conversations, as monkeypox has been on the rise among men who have sex with men.

There is widespread fear of the virus, which is spread primarily through close physical contact and can cause severe sores and other symptoms that could lead to hospitalization. Because those infected with monkeypox must remain at home for several weeks, there is a risk of isolation and the stigma of infection. And some fear the vaccine itself, a hesitation and skepticism that has hampered the response to the coronavirus.

Many are angry about the government’s efforts to contain the disease, including delayed vaccines and mixed messages about how the virus is spreading and how people should protect themselves.

And some worry that monkeypox could become a political weapon to be used against gay and transgender people, whose rights Republicans have come under fire in recent months.

Last week, the World Health Organization declared monkeypox a global health emergency after it spread to dozens of African countries and infected tens of thousands of people worldwide within three months. As of Thursday, there were more than 3,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. and 1,148 in New York, but experts say the number of cases is small.

Mr. Ehigi received his first injection of the two-dose vaccine regimen following a referral from his therapist, but the city feared he would never receive another.

He said everyone understood how HIV spread, but monkeypox still seemed a mystery to him and others. “Especially being in New York,” he said, “everyone is always so connected to everyone else, it’s scary.”

Almost all cases outside of Africa have occurred in men who have sex with men. Only 1.4 percent of people with monkeypox in New York self-identify as straight, with the rest identifying as gay, bisexual or refusing to say so, according to the city.

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

But the combination of government failure and the virus’ impact on gay and bisexual men has drawn comparisons to the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Those years were marked by acts of homophobia that remain in the minds of many gay Americans. A White House press secretary joked about AIDS during a 1982 press briefing. Churches refused to bury the dead. And President Ronald Reagan did not speak publicly about the epidemic until 1987, by which time an estimated 23,000 Americans had died from the disease.

Disagreements at the New York Department of Health over how to communicate the risks of the disease went public last week. Some epidemiologists argue that officials should explicitly recommend that those who have sex with men reduce the number of partners, or even briefly abstain. (The director general of the WHO made a similar recommendation this week, including that men should reconsider “having sex with new partners,” STAT News reports.)

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

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

“I’m sorry we have to be here,” said Eric Boettcher, a district councilor for Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, the neighborhoods hardest hit by the outbreak.

“We’ve had to do this for so long, we’ve had to fight for our own health after we’ve turned away from the government,” he said. “Shame on the government for letting us down again.”

Nearby, protesters held up signs comparing President Biden to Mr. Reagan.

John Catlin, a 29-year-old graduate student, said he knows several people with monkeypox in New York and many more in Berlin, where he lives part-time to conduct research. According to him, he explores the evolution of the idea of ​​collapse in German thought, “sadness counts as crisis.”

“Because it happens to people,” said Mr. According to Kathleen, the government is not treating monkeypox as a real crisis and is waiting to roll out vaccine doses until cases increase exponentially.

“AIDS was not initially treated as a crisis,” he added, before quoting a homophobic remark from the time. “The joke about the ’80s was ‘the right people were dying.’

But while protesters wanted to fight what they described as indifference, many worried that the increased attention could lead to hostility from heterosexuals.

Speaking at a rally in Manhattan, Jewish Queer Youth Clinical Director Mordechai Levowitz warned about 100 people that the LGBTQ community could become scapegoats in the event of a monkeypox outbreak.

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

This worried some of the men in the 4West Lounge.

Bar manager Chavis Aaron, 33, said he was troubled by the public’s focus on gay and bisexual men. He knew two gay men with the disease and understood the statistics about who was most affected by the epidemic, but still thought “it’s really everybody’s problem.”

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

Some people come up with all kinds of ways to protect themselves from a disease that can last for a month, but their methods are dangerous and unscientific.

“Most of my friends don’t have sex, or they’re just picky,” said Mr. Yes, the bartender. He also knows men who are generally against vaccines because they “think vaccines have a political agenda or cause side effects.”

Two years of pandemic isolation have left people desperate for human contact. In the LGBTQ community, there was little appetite for canceling events.

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

But the outbreak has led to the cancellation of other events in the city, including several regular sex parties, which are less expensive than dance parties but have a higher risk.

Things have been quieter lately at smaller bars like 4West Lounge. Some of that may be due to the hot weather or customers who are heavily involved in June’s Pride Month, her staff said.

But some of it was caused by the epidemic, they said. Mr. Aaron said he would think of several regular customers who had been absent since the monkeypox cases began to increase in July.

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

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.