Blame Health Authorities for Monkeypox Spread, Not Queer Men

The disease isn’t ‘gay,’ but it’s spreading rapidly through our sexual networks 

By |2022-07-14T09:57:37-04:00July 13th, 2022|Michigan, News, Opinion|

On my way to Chicago this past weekend, I had the idea to explore getting vaccinated for monkeypox while visiting the city. I knew that the virus was spreading and that vaccines were currently being distributed across the country to state and local health departments. I also knew that, as a sexually active gay man, I was at the highest risk for contracting the disease.

First things first: The disease is not likely to be deadly. And the variant that is spreading right now in the United States is not as scary as some of the early sensational reports showing huge blisters all over a person’s body. The sores most people in the U.S. are experiencing right now can sometimes look like a zit, which certainly complicates efforts to raise awareness about the disease. 

But while not deadly, monkeypox does cause painful sores all over the body that take two-to-four weeks to resolve. According to the CDC, the sores can be on “the face, inside the mouth, and on other parts of the body, like the hands, feet, chest, genitals, or anus.” Other flu-like symptoms often accompany these sores, including fever, swollen lymph nodes, headache, and chills. The disease spreads through close skin-to skin contact, which of course can include sex. 

Deadly? Maybe not. But monkeypox is not a walk in the park. And since vaccines are already available and I am in the highest risk group, getting vaccinated has been top of mind since first reports of the disease spreading in the U.S. were announced.

I read on Twitter that Steamworks Chicago hosted a vaccine clinic the week before last. But there was no word on social media whether that might be repeated, only vague rumors. My friend forwarded me an email chain promising that the sender was “94% confident” that there would be a vaccine clinic at the bathhouse Friday night. I was in luck, I thought! I waited to see if there was an official announcement on the club’s Twitter. But there was radio silence. 

Another Twitter post instructed readers to contact Project WISH. So I fired off an email to the listed address. No response. My husband, as it turns out, was also working the phones to try to track down a jab. He called that same clinic, got a number to text, and started exchanging messages. They gave him the cold shoulder, saying the doses they had were being reserved for those with the highest risk — without even asking him about his risk profile. They did end up adding him to a waiting list, with the proviso that there were hundreds already on it.

As we drove to Chicago, we phoned Steamworks to try to figure out if there was actually a clinic happening that night. “No,” the kind receptionist informed us, adding that “apparently someone is spreading bad information on social media.”

That weekend, we struck up conversations with various gays  in town about monkeypox. Everyone had a different story about where they thought vaccines might be available. “Oh I heard it’s available at Rush hospital on Wednesdays, but only by appointment.” Other people heard that Howard Brown Health had doses by appointment. A receptionist at a small clinic told me they thought that a Catholic clinic nearby might have them. By the end of the weekend, our search became a hilarious but tragic wild goose chase.

On my way home from Chicago, my phone buzzed with a text from my best friend in San Francisco. “I got my monkeypox vaccine bitch.” Steamworks out west delivered, and online the California location is pushing out announcements about multiple upcoming clinics. 

I understand that different cities and health departments are going to decide on different strategies for tackling any disease. Perhaps Chicago authorities have decided they are only going to vaccinate people who they know were exposed through contact tracing. But why the solo pop-up clinic at Steamworks? That created buzz on social media and the expectation that there will be more, similar events. 

Health authorities in every state across the country, including Michigan where monkeypox was recently diagnosed in an LGBTQ+ patient, must provide clear, authoritative information yesterday about plans to vaccinate. Tell us when, tell us where, tell us priorities. Set expectations. Otherwise you are opening the door to the clusterfuck that is currently going on in Chicago, where everyone seems to have heard a different rumor about where and when you might be lucky enough to be vaccinated.

This disease is spreading like wildfire. Although the CDC is reporting over 800 diagnosed cases (at the time this was written, anyway), the truth is that we are testing almost nobody for the disease. With reports out of Belgium recently that the disease can be asymptomatic and still transmissible, American health authorities’ complete failure to ramp up testing is especially alarming. It is extremely likely that the actual number of cases right now is much higher.

I don’t blame the gays on Twitter spreading faulty information or Steamworks in Chicago, really. I put the blame squarely where it belongs: on health authorities. They hold the power to stop this disease in its tracks. And they knew it was coming: reports about its global spread started in May, well in advance of global LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations. 

As it was for so many epidemics before this one, it seems like queer men are left holding the bag to fend for ourselves. And to be clear, nearly everyone contracting monkeypox right now is gay, bisexual, or a man who has sex with men (MSM). A recent report out of England showed that 151 out of 152 of the men interviewed with the disease were MSM. That doesn’t mean that the disease is “gay” or even that it is sexually transmitted — it means that the disease is spreading rapidly through our sexual networks. 

What can we do as queer men to protect ourselves while health authorities are out to lunch? I found one compilation of vaccine clinic reports from various U.S. cities compiled by a Twitter gay (nothing, as of July 12, on Detroit or any other Michigan cities). 

So get vaccinated, if you can. Raise hell on Twitter if you can’t. If you’re sexually active, maintain vigilance when it comes to you and your partner’s (or partners’) body. Unexplained zit? Watch it closely. If it looks unusual or is in a place you don’t usually see sores like that, call your doctor. Get tested if you can. 

About the Author:

Trevor Hoppe, PhD, is the author of the Lambda Award-winning book, “Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of Sickness.” He is assistant professor of sociology at UNC Greensboro where he teaches about law, social control, and sexuality.