The Monkeypox outbreak raises fears of gay stigmatization

When mysterious cases of a rare virus with a threatening name began to emerge in Europe, the German disease control center quickly told people to stay alert.

In a May 19 notice, the agency listed telltale symptoms of monkeypox: fever, aches, a rash. Then, in a further comment that raised several alarm bells, the bulletin specifically warned men who have sex with men to “seek immediate medical help” if they detect signs of the disease.

The finding has sparked fears that gay and bisexual men, who so far appear to be responsible for the majority of monkeypox cases in Europe, are once again at risk of being stigmatized as carriers of an exotic and frightening disease, just like it is. they were during the AIDS crisis, although the monkeypox virus can affect anyone.

About 250 confirmed and suspected cases of monkeypox have been reported in about 20 countries, including the first probable case in California, in Sacramento County, earlier this week. Although health officials are keeping an eye on the outbreak, the workload is minuscule compared to the 528 million coronavirus infections of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as reports of the disease make headlines, along with suggestions that the spread could be linked to a massive gay pride event in the Spanish Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa, some LGBTQ people and organizations are bracing for a backlash.

Here in Germany, where once the Nazi regime they sent homosexuals to concentration camps, officials say there are already comments online slandering the gay community, with some calling the virus “gaypox”. A piece of graffiti painted inside a Berlin train said: “HIV and monkeypox = gift for gays”.

The country has recorded five cases of monkeypox so far. Far greater numbers of infections have emerged in other countries on the continent, including Spain, Portugal and Belgium. Britain has around 80 confirmed cases.

The bulletin issued by the Robert Koch Institute, the German center for disease control, has since been withdrawn, although the institute has refused to specify why. Some critics claim that the damage had already been done.

“It is important to pay more attention [to the disease]yes, but it is a mistake to oversimplify and, more than anything else, it is totally wrong to attribute any blame, “said in an interview Tobias Oliveira Weismantel, managing director of the AIDS support group Hilfe in Munich.” It is wrong to attribute it to a particular group. “

A columnist for the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel was more blunt. The institute’s notice contained “just one sentence that addresses a group directly,” noted columnist Ingo Bach. “For some, the message quickly became clear: ‘Only gays understand.’ The threat of stigmatization is strong ”.

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach speaks into a microphone

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach talks about monkeypox at a press conference in Bremen on Tuesday.

(Sina Schuldt / DPA)

On Tuesday, German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach tried to clear up misunderstandings about the outbreak, saying at a press conference in Berlin that it wasn’t the start of a new pandemic and that monkeypox wasn’t a disorder that afflicted only gay and bisexual men.

“It is true that some homosexual men – sex workers for example – are now most affected,” said Lauterbach, who had been criticized for previously identifying men who have “anonymous sex” as particularly at risk. “But the pathogen … can spread to all sexes, children, adults and adolescents.”

The virus, first discovered in 1958 in monkey colonies held for research e in humans in 1970, is found mainly in Africa. It spreads through close contact with an infected person, which includes sex but is not limited to it; Shared clothing or bedding can also cause transmission, as well as potentially respiratory droplets.

Most patients recover from the disease on their own, without hospitalization, within two to four weeks of the onset of symptoms. The World Health Organization says that, historically, up to 11% of people with monkeypox have died from it, with the highest rate among children. No deaths were reported among the current cases.

A German government report to lawmakers this week said four of the confirmed cases in Germany were linked to exposure “to party events, including in Gran Canaria and Berlin, where sexual activity took place.”

Lauterbach’s comments on the outbreak reflect the often difficult position for health officials who want to warn populations they consider particularly vulnerable to a disease without demonizing them at the same time.

“It is really important to avoid panic and stigmatization,” said Markus Ulrich, spokesman for the German lesbian and gay federation. “Yet this is exactly what many gays see right now in the language of the Minister of Health and the Robert Koch Institute. They need to take a look at how they are communicating it. They need to enlighten without stigmatizing anyone “.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes on its website that recent cases of monkeypox in Europe and North America “include people who self-identify as men who have sex with men.” But the agency urges health care workers to pay attention to signs of the virus in patients “regardless of whether they have travel or specific risk factors for monkeypox and regardless of sex or sexual orientation.”

Janosch Dahmen, Green Party leader and medical expert in the German parliament, said it was a mistake to focus on one particular group in the monkeypox guide.

“We need to communicate more clearly that heterosexual contacts can also lead to monkeypox transmissions,” Dahmen said.

Messaging care is important in a country that has long been a bastion of ugly intolerance from LGBTQ people. Sex between men has been criminalized since the founding of modern Germany in 1871, in a section of the legal code known as paragraph 175.

Crowds at the Berlin Gay Pride Parade in 2017

Crowds gather in Berlin for the city’s 2017 Gay Pride parade. The German capital is home to a thriving LGBTQ scene.

(Markus Schreiber / Associated Press)

The Nazis zealously persecuted homosexuals, sending 5,000 to 15,000 to concentration camps, where they were forced to wear pink triangles as part of the camp prisoner classification system. Even after World War II, more than 50,000 men were prosecuted for sex. gay under paragraph 175, which was not repeated until 1994.

The convictions were overturned by parliament in 2017. In the same year, Germany legalized same-sex marriageone of the last major Western and Central European countries to do so (civil unions, but not “marriage”, were already allowed).

Cities like Berlin and Cologne now host vibrant gay scenes and grand pride celebrations. The capital had a popular gay mayor, Klaus Wowereitand former Chancellor Angela Merkel appointed Germany’s gay foreign prime minister, Guido Westerwelle, in 2009. Under current Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the federal government now boasts a “commissioner for the acceptance of sexual and gender diversity” .

However, some fear that the spread of monkeypox may be armed by homophobic segments of society.

“The question is whether homosexual and bisexual men will have some kind of again ‘how disgusting’ [‘yuck’] label attached to them that will somehow devalue them just like in the 80s with AIDSWrote Bach, the newspaper’s columnist.

“There is a fear that some groups will see this as a welcome opportunity to say, ‘Look, homosexuals have brought a new disease upon us,’” added Weismantel of the Munich AIDS support group. “We are already seeing a lot of it on social media. This kind of thing is especially dangerous in countries that are not that tolerant. …

“I really hope there is no stigma and I believe our society is advanced and better informed nowadays.”

Special correspondent Kirschbaum reported from Berlin and writer Chu from London.