Sick of the Stigma: ‘Gay Diseases’ and Monkeypox

Similarly to HIV/AIDS, conservative commentators are using monkeypox as a way to justify their homophobia.

I was 14 when I first kissed a boy. With my eyes closed, I lent in, missed his lips entirely and landed on his cheek. He laughed. Thankfully, the second attempt was successful. I assumed that my years of watching rom-coms with mum had prepared me for the aftermath — that I would immediately fall in love, become more ‘grown up’ and have butterflies in my stomach.

But there were no butterflies, just daggers.

“I have to go”.

We didn’t kiss after that.

At 16, I had sexual health ‘education’ classes. We focused entirely on heterosexual sex, with the teacher only mentioning gay sex when the topic of HIV came up. There was no discussion on how to have safe gay sex and prevent HIV transmission, making HIV seem like an inevitable consequence of being gay rather than an avoidable and treatable condition.

When I was 18, I went to my first gay bar. I danced, made friends and had fun. I woke up the next morning not with a hangover, but with regret. What if I had caught something? Rhian, you can’t catch anything from a kiss. But what if? Rhian, be rational.

I got a HIV test despite being a virgin. I stared at my phone all day waiting for the results. It came back negative.

I grew up in a time where the horrors of the AIDS epidemic had largely ended, yet its ghosts still haunted me. My hypochondria was socially and historically imposed. To be gay was to be ‘sick’, both mentally and physically.

Academic Derek Dalton says that “the notion that homosexuality can be passed on to others [like a disease] has long held currency in cultural constructions of homosexuality”. The criminalisation of male homosexuality has acted as a method of preventing homosexuality from ‘spreading’ and ‘contaminating’ Australian society — a society which was seen as dependent on the continuation of heterosexual relationships.

The perception of homosexuality as ‘contagious’ continues into the present day. This is evident from Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, which prohibits the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms in the name of ‘protecting’ children against the ‘perversion’ of gay teachers. This view that homosexuality spreads through ‘indoctrination’ is reflected by the fact that a third of the books banned in public schools in America over the past year contain LGBTQI+ characters and themes. Conservative activist Charlie Kirk stated “we’re talking about gay stuff more than any other time. Why? Because they are not happy just having marriage. Instead, they now want to corrupt your children”. 

The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law reignited harmful depictions of LGBTQI+ people as being mentally depraved ‘predators’ and ‘peadophiles’ — stereotypes which have long been associated with the LGBTQI+ community, in particular gay men and transgender women. In the month after the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill was passed, an average of 6,607 tweets per day used slurs such as ‘groomer’, ‘paedophile’ and ‘predator’ in relation to the LGBTQI+ community, a significant increase from the 1,307 tweets per day the month prior.

The characterisations of gay men as ‘predatory’ terrified me as a child. Is that what I would grow up to become?

When I told a family member that I was gay, he said that he could not accept me because he had been sexually abused by a man when he was a child. It was as though that experience of sexual abuse was intrinsically connected to that identity, my identity. It was as though all gay men were that man. It was as though I was that man.

Homosexuality has been culturally constructed as not merely a disease of the mind, but also the body. HIV/AIDS was labelled a ‘gay disease’, ‘a gay cancer’ and a ‘gay plague’, despite the fact that gay men are not the only ones who contract this disease. However, the impact that this disease has had on the LGBTQI+ community is undeniable. HIV/AIDS emerged in the West in 1980, and by 1995 1 in 9 gay men had been diagnosed with AIDS in the USA and 1 in 15 had died, claiming the lives of 10 per cent of the 1,600,000 men aged 25-44 who identified as gay. As stated by Dr Dana Rosenfeld, this was a ‘literal decimation’ of gay men born between 1951 and 1970. Due to the profound social stigma associated with homosexuality, President Ronald Reagan failed to publicly mention AIDS until 1985; even then it was only because a reporter brought it up at a news conference. He gave his first major speech about AIDS in the spring of 1987. By that time, 20,849 had died from the disease.

At the peak of the AIDS epidemic in Australia in the early 1990s, about 1000 Australians died from AIDS each year.

Activist and playwright Larry Kramer encapsulates the profound anger and loss felt by the LGBTQI+ community during the height of the AIDS epidemic in his play ‘The Normal Heart’ in which the character Tommy says:

“We’re losing an entire generation. Young men, at the beginning, just gone. Choreographers, playwrights, dancers, actors. All those plays that won’t get written now. All those dances, never to be danced. In closing, I’m just gonna say I’m mad. I’m fucking mad. I keep screaming inside, “Why are they letting us die? Why is no one helping us?” And here’s the truth, here’s the answer: They just don’t like us.”

Due to medical advancements in the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS, the number of gay men who die from the disease has drastically reduced but the profound stigma associated with the disease still remains.

However, a new ‘gay disease’ has emerged: monkeypox. Like HIV/AIDS, monkeypox does not just infect gay men. However, men who have sex with men are at the highest risk of infection, with about 99 per cent of U.S. cases being related to male-to-male sexual contact. 

Similarly to HIV/AIDS, conservative commentators are using monkeypox as a way to justify their homophobia. Conservative writer Rod Dreher wrote that “if you want to avoid monkeypox, stop acting like an animal, screwing your brains out with multiple strangers”. This language continues the portrayal of gay men as being ‘mentally depraved’ and ‘animalistic’. Fox News host Tucker Carlson labelled monkeypox ‘Schlong Covid’, a ‘joke’ which diminishes the harm caused by the disease and mocks the sexual lives of gay men. Conservative writer Anna James Zeighler tweeted “from the abortion rhetoric to the coverage of Monkeypox, they try to avoid the obvious: physically and emotionally it’s absolutely clear that we are meant to be in a monogamous sexual relationship, that any other arrangement has far-reaching consequences”. This seemingly portrays gay men as ‘deserving’ the illness for exceeding the bounds of heterosexual monogamous relationships.

I must emphasise that I do not believe that it is ‘homophobic’ to recognise that monkeypox disproportionately affects men who have sex with men. In fact, I think that it is crucial that we do. By doing so, it allows to focus medical treatment and resources to this marginalised group and hopefully prevent further harm from occurring. However, this is not what conservative commentators are doing. They are not just merely stating ‘the facts’ that gay men are at a higher risk of contracting the disease. Conservatives are using monkeypox to continue the narrative that gay men and their sexual behaviours are ‘sick’, therefore making them ‘responsible’ for their own suffering. Again, this is drastically different from recognising that monkeypox disproportionately affects men who have sex with men. 

Recognising that monkeypox significantly impacts this demographic allows us to better support them, whilst what conservatives are doing is perpetuating stigma which prevents people from accessing help and disincentivises gay men receiving medical treatment. Afterall, why spend money on public health initiatives if gay men could just stop having sex? Isn’t it their fault that they’re getting sick?

On TikTok, I have seen gay men post about their experiences with monkeypox. In one video posted on the platform by @tonanty, viewed over 33 million times, he says: “Hey guys, this is what monkeypox looks like. My whole body is basically covered, and it’s not fun. Get the vaccine and stay safe because this is really painful and I don’t even know if I won’t have scars for the rest of my life”. You can see large blisters on his face and hands.

If I was a teenager watching that video I would have been terrified. The fear of getting this ‘gay disease’ and having everyone know that I was gay and was being ‘deservedly’ punished for it, would have been traumatising.

I can assure you that I would not have had that first kiss.

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