Monkeypox virus (image by kontekbrothers)
Artillery Row

The LGBTQ+ monkeypox failure

Gay men have been failed by a lobby that trades in fear rather than facts

The LGBTQ+ lobby’s reaction to monkeypox has been a failure of historic proportions. In just six weeks the number of cases, outside those countries where it’s endemic in Africa, has risen from two to over three thousand in more than 40 countries. More worryingly still, a report on 24 June in Nature suggests the virus is evolving much more rapidly than was expected. Instead of the two mutations a DNA virus like monkeypox usually accumulates in a year, the team in Lisbon found over fifty.

The three events that kickstarted its rapid spread were all gay

The unavoidable and indisputable fact is that the vast majority of confirmed cases have been in gay and bisexual men. While the virus may have been circulating unnoticed at very low levels, the three events that seem to have kickstarted its rapid spread were all gay: a sex sauna in Madrid, a fetish event in Belgium and a Pride festival in Gran Canaria. You might think a lobby that claims to represent a community affected so disproportionately would spring into action to try to limit any more exposure. 

Instead, the LGBTQ+ lobby, with a few notable exceptions, did the opposite. Any suggestion by health authorities that the outbreak was a particular risk to gay men was howled down as unfair. “Monkeypox is not a gay disease,” activists raged, as if anyone suggested it was. Monkeypox can be caught by anyone…but if you’re planning this weekend to get hot and sweaty with a dozen guys in a dark room, wouldn’t you want to know there’s a new virus being spread through lesions on the genital areas of other gay men? I mean, call me old fashioned. 

When LGB Alliance defied the groupthink at the end of May and urged the UK government to close commercial sex venues for a month, to allow health officials to gain control of the outbreak, the noted LGBTQ+ activist Peter Tatchell compared this to Far Right extremism.

Other activists have spent much of their time emphasising monkeypox is usually mild and passes in a few weeks. Reports of serious cases then began to filter out of hospitals. In a minority of cases, sores were so painful that patients were put on morphine and developed lesions along the mucus linings of the throat and colon. These lesions may leave scars or perforations.

So what gives? Why did the LGBTQ+ lobby bury its head in the sand in the crucial first weeks of this outbreak? Its reaction reminds me of the behaviour of Hiroo Onada, the Japanese WW2 soldier who finally surrendered in 1974, after hiding in the jungle of the Philippines for 29 years.

Many gay men have been so traumatized by their experience of the AIDS epidemic, and the bigotry and shame associated with the media coverage of the day, that they cannot bring themselves to behave rationally about this new and (so far) much less serious threat. They still act as if the new age of tolerance and acceptance we live in is some sort of ruse.

What if this new variant evolves to become more deadly?

As with Hiroo, any evidence that the world has changed is filtered through a blinding sense of loss and rage. When the Americans dropped leaflets with the Emperor’s message of surrender, Hiroo discounted it as faked. When they dropped personal messages from his family, he assumed they’d been forced to write them. 

The irony is that the LGBTQ+ lobby’s equally stubborn refusal to face the facts about monkeypox, is in danger of creating the very “stigmatisation” it has complained about. It makes no sense to play down the likely impact since we can’t be certain what will happen. What if this new variant evolves to become more deadly?

Even the usually mild version can be serious. In 2003 in a much smaller outbreak in the US, a mother was left with 200 permanent scars, and her child fell into a coma that lasted 12 days. Most deaths in Africa affect children. God forbid a child dies or is maimed in this outbreak. That’s not exactly the way to win friends and influence people. 

Gay men still have the opportunity to rise to the challenge that monkeypox has presented to us. Some volunteer groups are already being proactive, organising vaccinations in clubs and clinics and spreading health messages that are explicit and sufficiently alarming to grab attention. But a search of the websites of most commercial sex venues in the UK or US (gay or straight) still do not warn customers they should not visit if they have symptoms.

That’s an irresponsible outrage that gay men should call out loud and clear, not just because we care about our own health, but because we want to look after the health of our fellow non-gay citizens. 

Perhaps one reason so many gay men haven’t been able to think clearly about this outbreak is that the LGBTQ+ lobby constantly pushes the fantasy that we live in some irredeemably evil “heteronormative” society. Our job as a community is therefore not to integrate and play our part to help as adults in the wider social family, but to be continual infantile disruptors and rebels. When this was just an academic debate, it may have been an entertaining sideshow. It has failed its first serious test: a health crisis. 

Like that stubborn Japanese soldier, one day the gay community is going to have to accept reality. The war has ended. It’s time to stop living in the shadows. Maybe we can start by taking more responsibility for our own health?

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