An aspiring playwright named Emlyn Williams watched the rain fall from his bed in his New York City apartment. He had just turned 22 and had performed in a play the night before, but—as he recalled years later in his autobiography—”the feeling of being alone darkened in solitude.” Then a thought crossed his mind. Unlike in London, where he had spent some time after graduating from Oxford, he could go to New York City: the Everard Baths.
So he swung his feet off the bed, put on his raincoat, and “went down in the drizzle to Madison Square and up Broadway” to 28th Street, which in 1927 was in a neighborhood of brothels, theaters and the infamous Haymarket – the so-called Moulin Rouge. from New York. Tucked in the middle of the street, the Everard Baths was a church converted into a Turkish bath in 1888 by an Irish financier.
Jim Downs: Gay men need a specific warning about monkey pox
When Williams entered the bathhouse, it had become a clandestine establishment for men who wanted to have sex with men. As Williams later recalled in his autobiography, he paid a dollar to “an ashen bored man in shirtsleeves,” who gave him a towel and a key to a bracelet of a cubicle with a “workhouse bed.” Williams walked to a “large floor the size of a warehouse” with “rows of private rooms without windows” that looked like dark cells. When he got to his room, he undressed, put on a threadbare cotton bathrobe, and wandered around the bathhouse. He passed other men acting as if they were alone, their “eyes everywhere but on another walker.” He described them as ghosts and even referred to one man as “a concerned suburb of Dracula.” When he returned to his room, he lay down on the bed and tried to make sense of the sounds he heard: a slammed door, the banging of a shoe on the bare floor, the pop of a cigarette lighter, whispers that sounded like the chatter of men talking in a gym.
This description was hardly a resounding confirmation, but the possibility of sex in a dingy bathhouse in a lecherous part of town was how Williams and many other gay men found each other in 1927. Although these establishments were subject to police raids, before the 1969 Stonewall uprising that heralded the rise of gay liberation, they were one of the few places where gay men could find community. And the uninhibited embrace of sex they represented, even though it was far from universally shared by gay men, was something many fought to defend.
This attitude helps explain the curious reluctance of public health authorities to speak candidly about the risks of monkeypox, which has spread rapidly in the United States – and almost exclusively among men who have sex with men. The CDC recently — and lately — recommended that people avoid going to sex clubs and other spaces where “intimate, often anonymous sexual contact with multiple partners takes place,” as the virus is more likely to spread in these environments. But this message competes with well-intentioned claims by other experts that anyone can get monkey pox and that the virus can spread through shared bedding, for example.
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Many gay men have criticized the CDC’s recommendation for fearing a slippery slope. They point to the history of HIV/AIDS and how government agencies pathologised gay culture—and homosexuals—as deviant and shut down bathhouses, including the Everard Baths, which Mayor Ed Koch closed in 1986. As a gay man and historian of infectious disease, I know of the damage that comes when public policy becomes steeped in homophobia. But to protect gay men from discrimination and stigma today, public health officials don’t have to tiptoe around how monkeypox is currently transmitted. Drawing inaccurate historical parallels between Williams’ time and ours — or between HIV and monkey pox — adds confusion to an already controversial public health crisis, and makes the simple decision to simply forgo risky sex far more politically charged than that. is needed .
Two years ago, public health officials urged the public to stay home to stop COVID-19. But some agencies have become so cautious about advising sexual abstinence of any kind that they don’t even tell men with symptomatic monkeypox infections to avoid sex for a few weeks until they recover. Officials in New York and elsewhere have suggested, as a measure to reduce the damage, that patients cover their lesions during sexual activity. (In many patients, those sores are excruciatingly painful and are in hard-to-cover areas.)
When contemporary gay activists scoff at talking about restricting sexual activity, they often imply that the impetus for such restraint has historically come from the government. But even before the devastation of HIV, anonymous sex was criticized within the gay community. In 1978, Larry Kramer – who later became a leader in AIDS activism – published Faggots, a novel that questioned the sexual libertinism of the time. Loosely based on his quest for a meaningful relationship, Kramer’s book accused orgies, urban bathhouses, and sex-filled summers on Fire Island, which he said prevented gay men from having intimate, monogamous relationships.
Others shared many of Kramer’s concerns. Craig Rodwell, a gay political leader who helped lead the first Pride march, feared the emphasis on sex within the gay community would undermine efforts to support the movement. He founded the very first gay bookshop, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, a location that offered an alternative to sex culture. Rodwell was not a prude and often drove through parks himself; according to some accounts, his infidelity led to the demise of his relationship with legendary activist Harvey Milk. But Rodwell also wanted to create non-sexual ways for gay men to communicate with each other.
Today, medical advances have made HIV transmission largely preventable, at least for those who have access to those advances. And queer activists are now confidently claiming that the government shutdown of bathhouses has done nothing to contain that virus. In fact, researchers have not proven such a thing. We lack conclusive evidence because there have been few, if any, epidemiological studies in the early 1980s that have thoroughly explored this question. The urgency to understand the virus drove the proceeds of fundraising campaigns toward virology studies. After HIV was defined as a retrovirus, money was released to create therapies to slow the virus’ attack on the immune system.
If epidemiologists at the time had been able to get funding to visit gay neighborhoods and investigate how bathhouse closures affected the infection rate, they might have learned that many gay men started boycotting bathhouses before the government closed them and others refused to even come out. off the shelf to pursue sex with men. When faced with a deadly disease, gay men adapted their behavior in other ways: they adopted condoms and, in many cases, reduced their number of sexual partners.
Further comparisons between HIV and monkeypox tend to revolve around the argument that if gay men are targeted by the main population at risk, monkeypox will only be seen as a “gay disease”. That sentiment was indeed evident in the early days of the HIV epidemic. But by the early 1990s, safe sex campaigns were also aggressively targeting heterosexuals. The message filtered into popular culture. The music video for the TLC trio’s 1995 hit “Waterfalls” portrays a woman exposed to HIV through sex without a condom; to encourage young women to talk about safe sex, members of the group wore condoms over their clothes.
In any case, the gay community will be better positioned to combat stigma in 2022 than it was in the 1980s, when there were few gay journalists and editors in positions of power in the mainstream media to report unbiasedly about the HIV crisis. Homophobia had quarantined many LGBTQ journalists from the gay press, which the government and medical authorities overlooked despite the vital coverage. That is much less likely these days. After publishing an article in The Atlantic in May about why gay men needed a specific warning about monkeypox, I was inundated with interview requests from reporters, both gay and straight, at some of the country’s leading media outlets, desperately trying to make sense of of the epidemic and the discourse surrounding it.
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If there’s one lesson Americans can learn from HIV, it’s about the damage caused by the framing of the public health crisis that primarily affects white men. This ultimately contributed to high infection rates among black men, who did not have equal access to information about prevention, testing and treatment. This history should remind us that gay men are not monoliths; that race, class and even region affect who has access to information; and that the lack of candid information about how a virus spreads can lead to devastating health consequences.
To me, the most pertinent information about monkey pox comes not from 1920s or 1980s history, but from the social media testimonials of patients now experiencing excruciating symptoms, especially the apparent inability of medical professionals to provide immediate and effective care. , and the fact that mysterious symptoms persist even as clinicians argue that the virus has run its course.
Any public health crisis creates the possibility of slippery slopes – of misuse of government authority in ways that ultimately reinforce the prejudices of society rather than protect the health of vulnerable people. Recognizing the role sexual freedom has played in the gay community since Williams’ time doesn’t rule out taking a temporary hiatus from multiple, anonymous partners during a crisis in 2022. I am not calling on the government to close gay establishments, not even bathhouses. I’d rather gay men make the decision of their own volition to be careful. But I would also hope that officials would base their recommendations to gay men on current information about the monkeypox outbreak.