‘A crutch to continue to prejudice’: Montreal’s LGBTQ community fears monkeypox stigma

David Hawkins was not alive at the height of the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s, but decades later his organization is still working to dispel harmful myths associated with the disease.

“All these years later, it’s still considered the gay disease, and it’s those kinds of things that people still point to as the reason for the ban on blood for men who have sex with men. to donate blood… We are still fighting against that,” said the Executive Director of the Montreal West Island LGBTQ2+ Center.

Today, advocacy groups and LGBTQ experts are concerned about a new wave of discrimination hitting the community as several countries, most recently Canada, confirm cases of monkeypox, which has so far been identified primarily in men who have had sex with other men.

“The risk and the fear of this being used to further stigmatize the LGBTQ2+ community, I think that fear is very real for a lot of people, and I think it’s very well-founded in the story,” Hawkins said.

Two cases of monkeypox have been confirmed in Quebec – the first such cases in the country – and 20 cases in the province are under investigation.

“We are still recovering from the stigma that comes with HIV and AIDS as a community… This risk is also potentially present for monkeypox if this continues to be a trend,” he said.

Dangers of stigma, memories of the AIDS crisis

Ken Monteith, executive director of the Quebec Network of Organizations for the Fight Against AIDS (COCQ-SIDA), shares Hawkins’ concerns, saying the virus feels like deja vu.

“It just underscores the experience we’ve had with HIV… We have a bad tendency to blame and attach shame to illnesses,” he said.

Monteith said the danger of stigma attached to a health condition is that “if people are afraid of being identified with a particular group, they might not go to get tested and they might transmit.”

Ken Monteith, executive director of the Provincial Coalition of AIDS Service Organizations, says stigma only exacerbates health problems and the only way to stop the transmission of monkeypox is to talk about it. (Simon Martel/CBC News)

Until now, monkeypox outbreaks have been mostly confined to central and western Africa, but in recent weeks cases have been identified in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Spain.

Symptoms may include fever, severe headache, swollen lymph nodes, back pain, muscle aches and lack of energy. Infected people may also develop a rash and lesions.

Health officials have said the virus is not transmitted sexually but spreads primarily through prolonged face-to-face contact and respiratory droplets. It is also spread through open wounds, contact with bodily fluids, or by touching contaminated clothing or bedding.

“It’s a virus, it doesn’t matter who it is, who has it. It’s not identity-generated, it’s self-generated,” Monteith said.

“We need to stop judging and encourage people to do the right thing… We stop a disease by talking about it and acting on these things and not keeping them quiet.”

Affecting the LGBTQ community “by chance”

Dr. Réjean Thomas runs Current medical clinica clinic in the gay village of Montreal specializing in the care of people living with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

He says he has seen up to six patients with symptoms associated with monkeypox, such as lesions on their genitals, in the past two weeks. But it’s not something that worries him.

“The disease is not dangerous…at least the form we see here, it doesn’t look serious,” he said.

Thomas pointed out that everyone is at risk of getting monkeypox, and just because it circulates primarily in the LGBTQ community doesn’t mean it will stay there or that it’s a “gay disease.” “.

“It’s probably coincidental that it’s in the gay community,” he said.

Dr. Réjean Thomas of the Clinique médicale l’Actuel says monkeypox is likely circulating in the LGBTQ community “by chance” and not because it started there or affects members of the community differently. (Radio Canada)

“This [likely] started in the gay community in the UK, and in the gay community, people traveled – Portugal, Spain – and Montreal has a big gay community. Gay men like to come to Montreal. »

Asked about stigma on Friday, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, cautioned against associating the disease with any particular group.

“Certainly we will provide support and information… but I think people should understand that [transmission is through] close contact and it could happen in different ways,” she said, pointing to cases in the UK, two involving people who lived in the same household.

But for Hawkins of the West Island LGBTQ2+ Center, no amount of information that monkeypox isn’t an LGBTQ disease will dispel ignorance.

“People are always going to use this as a crutch to continue harming queer communities, just like people are using COVID to harm Asian communities,” he said.

“For a lot of queer people in particular, that’s just another thing that’s going to be a challenge to overcome.”