Monkeypox virus (MPV), the hottest new trend in viruses, had recent outbreaks across the world and has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization. The disease shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially as it seems to have a foothold among men who have sex with men (MSM), and shows signs that it may have been spreading silently in the general populations for some time.
But anti-LGBTQ+ individuals and groups such as the Catholic League have already taken the opportunity to use MPV to produce some fresh fear-mongering disinformation. The virus had its first known human cases in the 1970s in Africa, but much is still unknown about both it and the origins and vectors of the current outbreak. As when Covid-19 first hit the world stage, this vacuum of information is easily exploited. Right-wing groups and outlets are already attempting to clickbait readers with the false narrative that MPV is a plague somehow caused by, as one outlet put it, “perverted sex acts” and the “gay fetish community.”
The most recent situation update from the World Health Organization reports 6027 confirmed cases of MPV across the world. WHO notes that the actual number is likely to be higher due to undetected cases and that the possibility of sustained community transmission has not been ruled out yet. The CDC noted that a majority (but not all) of reported cases in the U.S. have been among men who have sex with men, raising concerns that the disease may be spreading through their communities. But while current testing data is focused on MSM, it’s not at all a ‘gays-only’ affliction—and neither is it sexually transmitted. According to the WHO, transmission results from direct contact with the lesions caused by the virus or close contact with infected persons and recently contaminated objects. There is no evidence that people who have sex with men are more biologically susceptible to infection or transmission of the virus than anyone else. The most recent data from that same situation update says “Among cases with reported sexual orientation, 60% (1214/2025) identified as gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.”
Additionally, the traumatic legacy of the AIDS crisis might have contributed to the homophobic panic in a strange way. The higher rate of cases among MSM may be due to the fact that LGBTQ+ people are generally more aware of their own health and test or report more frequently when symptoms appear. Claire Dewsnap, president of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) told PinkNews in an interview that “It’s very common for a gay man who’s been sexually active with a new partner to think, ‘I’ve got a funny rash, it could be syphilis, it could be herpes, I’ll go to my clinic.’ We need to be very careful to remember that it’s a virus that’s spread through close contact. And the vast majority of MPV cases have been in the heterosexual community in Africa.”
But far-right websites like The Daily Caller (founded by Tucker Carlson and Neil Patel) don’t let the facts get in the way of forming their own conclusions. Such outlets have been reporting on MPV with pointed headlines like “MPV Outbreak Appears To Be Driven By Gay Sex.” These sentiments are shared by both far-right politicians and the online far-right, who now post about the infectious disease on forums and comments sections, calling it “gaypox,” and “AIDS 2.0” or suggesting that police and cities should raid and shut down gay bars or pride events. Proud “Christian nationalist” and U.S. congressperson Marjorie Taylor Greene’s recent tweets have been pretending that MPV is sexually transmitted disease, and cases in children must be the fault of gay men.
The recent homophobic disinformation’s origin can easily be traced to the clumsy messaging of health officials in Europe and the U.S. when large outbreaks began earlier this year. Back in May, since many cases had been detected in MSM and their communities, health officials like the CDC were worried that gay and bisexual men were at higher risk of contracting MPV. So their initial messaging mainly reached out to the LGBTQ+ community, issuing warnings about upcoming pride events and gatherings. Even Grindr put out a warning to try to get ahead of the curve. This had unintended consequences. By focusing their messages only on the MSM community, the CDC messaging implied that MPV is a virus that only affects gay and bisexual men, inadvertently cracking open the door for homophobes eager to find something else to villainize queer people with.
As usual, media coverage at the beginning of the outbreak largely parroted the most shocking and eyeball-grabbing suggestions in initial reports. We saw this in CNBC’s sensationalist headline that proclaimed “MPV outbreak is primarily spreading through sex” and The Hill’s “Sex at two Europe raves may explain unusual MPV outbreaks.” Both were referring to a large LGBTQ+ event and a LGBTQ+ rave where outbreaks were first detected. With health officials and media coverage alike implying the outbreaks were due to LGBTQ+ people and unusual sex, bigots like Greene and Bethany S. Mandel can throw open the door and leap at the chance to further their preferred narrative.
In addition to far-right politicians, chronic posters, and sites like The Daily Caller using this opportunity to fan the flame of homophobia, other, smaller websites that circulate disinformation and far-right narratives have leapt at the chance, as well. The homophobic and child rape-apologist Catholic League put out a release titled “GAY ROLE IN MONKEYPOX IS SERIOUS,” attempting to frame “the homosexuals’” supposed inability to practice restraint as the cause of the outbreak. “NetworkInVegas,” a far-right disinformation outlet in Las Vegas, has taken up the cause with even more gusto, posting several articles blaming the spread of MPV in the city on “degenerate gay sex” and “sex with animals.” With no given evidence or source to back it up, they claim that all known cases in Clark County “can be connected back to either illegal gay sex clubs or anonymous sex apps and the disgusting behaviors these men engaged in.”
This homphobic spin on MPV isn’t going to stay on the fringes, either. Arizona Congressperson Paul Gosar linked to an article from Restoring Liberty in his weekly newsletter. The article was essentially a copy-and-paste of two paragraphs from another article from The Daily Caller and over-emphasized the link between the gay community and MPV while omitting the full story and other details.
It’s hard not to think of the similar atmosphere during the 1980s HIV outbreak when we look at the attempts to use MPV to stigmatize LGBTQ+ people. If bigots are once again allowed to create a “gay disease” narrative, it’s easy to imagine MPV being used as a justification of violence and prejudice (both systematic and physical) against MSM and LGBTQ people overall. When HIV and AIDS decimated gay communities in the 1980s, public health messaging floundered, and gay men were blamed for the very existence of the disease. As noted in this article from the New York Times, Gaétan Dugas, a single gay man, was blamed for setting off the entire AIDS epidemic, when in fact, H.I.V. was already quietly rampant in the U.S. before Dugas or anyone else was even aware of it. But at the time, it absolutely didn’t stop politicians and homophobic groups from exploiting and demonizing the suffering of gay men for their own gains. And the mainstream media of the time was of no help either, with the New York Post in 1987 reporting the rumor and referring to the epidemic as “gay cancer.”
We can already see similar failures in today’s news around MPV as well, with the AP reporting on MPV as potentially “the dawn of a new sexually transmitted disease” while a University of Texas professor ponders a “cure for homosexuality.”
In addition to the potential to spark violence and hate against queer people, the “gays-only” framing endangers heterosexual people, as well. When it’s framed as a issue only for gay men (like the AIDS epidemic was,) then there’s an assumption that heterosexual folk shouldn’t have to worry. Overall community responses to outbreaks will be muted as a result, and then everyone will suffer. As GLAAD mentions in their factsheet for reporting on MPV:
“GLAAD urges public health officials and the media to elevate information that informs all communities to prevent and control the spread of viruses, and continue to work closely with vulnerable communities to inform and protect them without stigma. While currently there may be a portion of cases noted within a particular community, communicable diseases can show up in all communities. All communities need accurate information. Anyone can get MPV if they come into contact with it.”