As of Tuesday, there were roughly 2,600 reported monkeypox cases in 44 states—at least that we know of. This number has more than doubled in the last two weeks, and the World Health Organization over the weekend declared monkeypox—a non-fatal but utterly miserable disease that can cause weeks-long, extremely painful lesions, sores, and blisters—to be a public emergency.
Despite these increasingly urgent realities, public health experts and LGBTQ advocates have called U.S. government officials’ response an abject failure, as people struggle to reach highly inaccessible tests, vaccines, and medications to treat symptoms.
Since cases of monkeypox in the U.S. first made headlines, the disease has largely—and inaccurately—been framed as a sexually transmitted infection that spreads among gay men. The first case was confirmed in Massachusetts in May, but since then, the government has said little about about the numerous ways monkeypox spreads beyond sexual activities: skin-to-skin contact, contact with items like infected sheets and clothes, even contact with pets that live with an infected person, and significant exposure to respiratory drops.
Clearly, monkeypox isn’t exclusively to gay men; but it’s hard to ignore that the government’s slow response has been during a phase of this disease in which LGBTQ people have been disproportionately impacted. (So far, most of the reported cases are among gay and bisexual men.) Health and Human Services said that it’s made 374,000 vaccine doses available, but those who want the vaccine say they aren’t able to get it. In cities like San Francisco, people seeking the vaccine are reportedly waiting in hours-long lines, only to be turned away when doses run out.
Experts have known about monkeypox since the 1950s, and the Food and Drug Administration has already approved tests and medication, along with the vaccine, but all remain fairly inaccessible: Earlier this month, New York City, the epicenter of the outbreak, was testing as few as 10 people per day for monkeypox.
On top of the woeful public health response, on Democracy Now! on Monday, scientist and LGBTQ advocate Joseph Osmundson expressed concern about the “incredibly dangerous” narrative that’s emerged as monkeypox has become more high profile: that “queer people are having sex with children,” following the first cases of kids being infected last week, as well as expected back-to-school outbreaks.
This is already feeding right-wing, queerphobic “grooming” panics. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has already suggested that children are getting monkeypox from sexual contact with adult gay men. “If Monkeypox is a sexually transmitted disease, why are kids getting it?” Greene tweeted over the weekend. Amidst his ongoing attacks on trans people, Dave Chappelle called monkeypox “the gay disease” during a surprise appearance at a Chris Rock show in New York City on Saturday night.
Suggesting that monkeypox is an STI spread only by gay men not only obfuscates the information people need to stay safe and healthy, it places LGBTQ people at greater risk of hate crimes and retaliatory violence when heterosexual people contract the disease and queer people are blamed by default.
For queer communities, anti-LGBTQ attacks fueled by the monkeypox outbreak further compound the devastating impacts of the disease itself: The lesions and sores that monkeypox creates can form in the throat, mouth, anus, and rectum, and last for two to four weeks. During these weeks, infected people are required to fully isolate—causing loss of work or income, as well as other financial burdens.
Poor people are, of course, being hit the hardest by the monkeypox crisis and the government’s ineffective support. Vaccines, testing, and medication are even harder to access in low-income neighborhoods, and in California, monkeypox testing isn’t covered by Medi-Cal, the state insurance plan for low-income people.
The origins of this epidemic can be traced to another failure of the U.S. government. Nigeria has struggled with smallpox—a disease very similar to monkeypox—since 2017, during which time the U.S. allowed nearly 30 million stockpiled doses of smallpox vaccines to expire. “If they had countermeasures there to care for this painful infection [in Nigeria], it’s likely that we may have prevented the international spread of this virus,” Osmundson said. “Infectious diseases show us that borders are meaningless. Viruses will spread because people interact around the world.”
We’re once again staring down a rapidly spreading infectious disease, just over two and half years since the emergence of covid, while anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and violence is distressingly on the rise. As covid variants continue to mutate and monkeypox—and disinformation—spread, Americans are exhausted, terrified, and confused amid yet another stunning public health failure. And we—especially the already marginalized among us—are being left to fend for ourselves against the worst of it.