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Benjamin Ryan has been covering infectious diseases and LGBTQ health for two decades and contributes to the New York Times, NBC News, the Guardian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In March 1983, writer-activist Larry Kramer published a legendary New York Native screed titled “1,112 And Counting” – a chilling reference to the US AIDS case counting two years into the plague.
“If this article doesn’t scare the s— out of you, we’re in trouble,” Kramer wrote. He demanded that his gay colleagues take on the political establishment that was diligently watching them die. But it also informed gay men who demanded calls to change their own sexual behavior to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Today, in the face of the chicken pox outbreak, gay and bisexual men, among whom nearly all 9,492 US diagnoses have occurred, are at a similar crossroads. A virus that is transmitted largely through sexual contact between men is a serious affliction. And while public health leaders now strongly support gay men, they still fail to provide timely prevention and treatment and are often confused about the messages.
As during the AIDS crisis, gay men cannot wait for the government. We must change our sexual behavior now. We must do this as an act of empowerment to protect ourselves.
Until the prickly monkey subsides, this could and should mean reducing the number of our partners, skipping sex, practicing monogamy and even abstinence.
Gay men have a remarkable history of such home-grown public health solutions. During the early 1980s, gay activists launched a safer gender movement that (often controversially) countered the dominant post-Stonewall liberation of the previous decade. Ultimately, the pressure helped to significantly reduce the risk of sex. HIV transmission among gay men fell accordingly.
In recent years, safer gender fatigue, as well as the availability of effective HIV treatments and the HIV prevention pill, PrEP, have shifted gay men back to higher-risk sexual practices. The rise of hookup apps has fueled a renaissance of sexual freedom among many gay men – left reeling since monkeys reconnected sex with virus-related terror.
Gay men who have looked to the government for answers on how to deal with this frightening new reality have met with a public health establishment that often seems more afraid of their responses to chicken pox prevention messages than of the virus itself. Many officials are shying away from clear statements about how the public can best protect themselves. Crucially, they often failed to point out emerging scientific theories that if men avoided anal sex – or perhaps used a condom during intercourse – they could curb at least some of the symptoms. most common pox, including severe proctitis.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials, including the new White House deputy chief of staff, Demetre Daskalakis, often play up the central role that sex between men plays in the transmission of herpes simplex and overemphasize the cases. rarely transmitted by other means. The agency can’t even use the words “gay” or “men” in its safer-sex content.
This reluctance is driven by an ingrained belief in gay men to change our sexual practices in a homophobic or stigmatizing way. The notion is partly understandable; he admits that such demands can be counterproductive, given the all-too-human resistance to being told what to do in private matters, especially within a community whose sex life has been criminalized. It also recognizes that anti-LGBTQ policies and attitudes (including monkey-led attacks) are on the rise, and that some parts of the country are still using gay men’s sexual norms to justify discrimination.
However, this idea patronizes gay men as perennial youths determined to overcome anything related to fatherhood regardless of the cost to themselves or the community at large.
Just as we gay men deserved our disproportionate share of the monkeypox case count at the start of this outbreak, we deserve the best advice from the government on how to protect ourselves now. But we can’t stand it until public officials understand that too.
Encouragingly, many gay Americans are already taking action. Some followed in the footsteps of AIDS activists and published sexual harm reduction guides. Colorful infographics about safer sex are being circulated on Instagram. And anecdotal evidence suggests that many gay men have indeed already changed their sexual practices to reduce the risk of this virus.
More hopeful evidence of what is possible comes from Europe. Experts have theorized that changes in sexual behavior could be one reason Britain’s prickly curve has softened. That could soon become a reality if we do what needs to be done today.
If the cantankerous Kramer had lived to see this crisis, he would surely have pumped his fists and demanded more from gay men. He would only do that because he had great respect for his gay brothers and knew what we were capable of.
As he wrote at the end of his New York Native article: “Gay men are the strongest and toughest people I know.” Let’s prove it right.