Europe's monkeypox outbreak sparks fears of anti-LGBTQ+ backlash

by Lucy Middleton | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 25 July 2022 15:10 GMT

Test tubes labelled "Monkeypox virus positive and negative" are seen in this illustration taken May 23, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

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With most of Europe's monkeypox cases reported among gay and bisexual men, LGBTQ+ campaigners fear the outbreak could fuel homophobia

  • WHO declares monkeypox outbreak a global health emergency
  • Most European cases among gay, bisexual men - WHO
  • Outbreak risks fuelling homophobia, say LGBTQ+ campaigners

By Lucy Middleton

LONDON, July 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Louis, a 29-year-old gay man, realised he had caught something "nasty", the doctor initially thought it was herpes. His symptoms started with a rash, followed by a high temperature and blisters on his face.

"I was warning any guys I'd had contact with, 'Be careful - I've got something that's weird'," Louis, who asked not to use his real name to protect his identity, said by phone. "I called the doctor again and that time he said it was monkeypox.

Louis, who is French and lives in Berlin, is one of more than 10,000 people across Europe who have been infected in the first monkeypox outbreak in multiple countries outside of areas of West and Central Africa where it is endemic.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has now declared the outbreak a global health emergency – the highest level of alert – its Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Saturday.

In the current outbreak, the viral disease has been spreading chiefly among men who have sex with men.

"Although I am declaring a public health emergency of international concern, for the moment this is an outbreak that is concentrated among men who have sex with men, especially those with multiple sexual partners," said Tedros.

Anyone can contract monkeypox through prolonged close contact or from particles on items such as bedding or towels.

Evidence of monkeypox has also been detected in semen among a handful of cases in Italy, with scientists now investigating whether sexual transmission is a possibility.

As a precaution, the WHO has advised monkeypox patients to use condoms for 12 weeks after their recovery.

Louis told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he contracted the virus after having sex at a private party in Berlin.

The virus has low fatality rates. But for Europe's LGBTQ+ community, the emergence of a disease that is so far disproportionately affecting gay and bisexual men has recalled the HIV epidemic in the 1980s and raised fears that the community could be stigmatised over the outbreak.

PRIDE LINK?

Monkeypox cases rose as Europe hosts about 750 Pride events over the summer - with most taking place in June but some as late as August and September - prompting debate about how to stem infections without whipping up anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment.

When an WHO adviser suggested several early monkeypox cases might be linked to a massive Pride event held in the Spanish Canary Islands resort of Maspalomas, it made headlines at home and abroad.

A local newspaper recognised the risk that the cases could spark a homophobic backlash, but suggested the organisers were "irresponsible" for not having issued a statement immediately after the outbreak came to light.

In Latvia, 10 lawmakers sought to cancel the capital's Riga Pride march, citing concern over monkeypox, but their parliamentary proposal was swiftly rejected after the ombudsman called it a "discriminatory initiative".

The WHO has repeatedly said Pride events are unlikely to increase the risk of the virus spreading.

At a news conference in June, WHO's European director Hans Kluge said the virus is "not in itself attached to any specific group".

His words were echoed by Tedros on Saturday, as he called for non-profit organisations, including those working with people with HIV, to work with the WHO.

"Stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus," he said.

'REASON FOR HOMOPHOBIA'

Europe is at the epicentre of the current monkeypox outbreak, the WHO has said. Spain, Germany, England and France are among the nations with the highest case numbers.

Organisers of Pride events which took place in London, Berlin, Lisbon, Amsterdam had confirmed they would go ahead as planned, while those behind upcoming celebrations in Malta and Stockholm have also said they will take place as normal.

Pride representatives in about a dozen other European cities did not respond to requests for comment.

In Britain, a proposal by activist group the LGB Alliance to close sex venues - such as massage parlours and saunas - regardless of their customers' sexuality was rejected as unnecessary by other LGBTQ+ groups and scientists.

Still, the Health Security Agency has published new cleaning guidance for such venues, recommending additional measures they can take.

In Riga, the failed bid to ban Pride celebrations highlights how politicians are using anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in a bid to win votes ahead of an October general election, said Kristine Garina, president of the European Pride Organisers Association.

"It was just a reason to express homophobia once again because elections are coming up in October. They're (using monkeypox) to remind voters they're still anti-LGBT," Garina said.

One of the lawmakers who backed the proposal, Aldis Gobzems from right-wing party For Each and Every One, who is himself gay, defended the initiative and compared it to public health measures aimed at controlling the spread of the coronavirus.

One of the organisers of Berlin Pride, Ulli Pridat, said the monkeypox outbreak could fuel stigma towards LGBTQ+ people in Germany.

He cited a ban on blood donation by gay and bi men in the country, which has reported a rise in hate crimes targeting LGBTQ+ people in recent years.

"The community had to fight for many, many years with the stigma of HIV and it takes so long to get over this again," Pridat said.   

This article was updated on Monday July 25 2022 after the WHO declared a global health emergency.

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(Reporting by Lucy Middleton; Editing by Helen Popper, Hugo Greenhalgh and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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