Culture Hack

Black and white, two black men embrace, photo cropped to just show heads and shoulders with one man staring in to camera

The Monkeypox Vaccine Rollout Leaves Many Wondering How Much We've Learned from the Past

I, like many other New Yorkers before me, have just received my jab of JYNNEOS. A bit lumpy and sore for a few days, but a very small price to pay for protection against a severe, life-threatening pox..

Fortunately, after over 25,000 people have been infected in the USA this year, we’re starting to see a decline in cases, largely due to vaccines and what is being euphemistically described as ‘behavioral change among populations at risk’.

From fear of being slutshamed in the vaccine lines to those asking “why do they get priority”, the communications rollout of these vaccines and behavioral changes have brought old tensions to light within the LGBTQ community. On one hand, many are nervous that the concepts of ‘being at risk’ and targeted messaging could be weaponized on social media as fodder for homophobes and a pathologizing of sexuality. On the other, are those claiming a reticence from public health and community leaders to talk ‘straight’ is leaving many gay men unwarned, underprepared and subject to severe illness that could have been prevented.

But we’ve been here before. It’s worth remembering the fraught tensions of the early 1980s. When Larry Kramer called for the closure of bathhouses in the midst of the AIDS crisis he was labelled a pariah by many in the community who were pushing for emancipation and sexual liberation. The term ‘safe sex’ had only just been coined by queer activists; before the concept took on new meaning as the AIDS crisis raged on. By the end of the decade, many in the community had come to realize that Silence = Death and reticence was getting in the way of saving lives; but four decades later we are still living in the shadows of the homophobia and stereotyping of HIV as synonymous with the LGBTQ community.

Even if there are lessons to be learned from AIDS messaging, the debate around saving lives at the expense of perpetuating generational stigmas persists today. Perhaps, the best lesson to be learnt is creating space for those conversations to take place, where prior crises had so little open space for those voices to be heard.

But there is another lesson worth noting. Black individuals are now being diagnosed with monkeypox more than any other racial or ethnic group, while white individuals have received the lion’s share of available vaccines so far. Like the HIV epidemic before it, how public health officials and the LGBTQ community can work to address these racial disparities will be the most critical conversation to have in the next phase of this epidemic.

-Ed Hunt