It was happy hour at a gay bar in Harlem, 4West Lounge, and the after-work crowd had come to drink rum punch and watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
But instead, the men, sitting on crutches, talked about the rapidly spreading monkeypox virus: their efforts to secure a coveted vaccine appointment, in a city where demand for the injections far outstrips supply; the slow roll-out of vaccines and treatments by the government; and their confusion about how the disease spreads and how to stay safe.
“It feels like survival of the fittest, with all the pandemic waves and now monkey pox and all these vaccine problems,” said James Ogden, 31, who got a vaccine appointment after weeks of navigating the city’s glitchy online application process.
Kelvin Ehigie, 32, the bartender, agreed. When asked about the future, he said, “I’m not confident.”
For gay and bisexual men in New York, the summer has been consumed with conversations similar to cases of monkey pox among men who have sex with men.
There is widespread fear of the virus, which spreads primarily through close physical contact and causes excruciating lesions and other symptoms that can lead to hospitalization. There is fear of the isolation and potential stigma of infection as those who contract monkey pox have to stay home for weeks. And some fear the vaccine itself, echoing the hesitation and distrust that hampered the coronavirus response.
Many are also outraged at the government’s delays and clumsy efforts to contain the disease, including delayed vaccines and mixed messages about how the virus is spreading and how people should protect themselves.
And some fear that monkeypox could be turned into a political weapon to be used against gay and transgender people, whose rights have come under increasing attack from Republicans in recent months.
Last week, the World Health Organization declared monkeypox a global health emergency after it spread over three months from parts of Africa where it is endemic to dozens of countries, infecting tens of thousands of people around the world. On Thursday, there were more than 3,000 confirmed cases in the United States and 1,148 in New York, but experts suggest there are too few cases being counted.
Mr. Ehigie received the first injection of the two-dose vaccine after a referral from his therapist, but he feared the city might never give him a second.
And while he said everyone understands how HIV spreads, Monkeypox still felt like a mystery to him and many others. “Especially in New York,” he said, “where everyone is in close contact with everyone all the time is scary.”
Nearly all cases outside of Africa were in men who have sex with men. In New York, only 1.4 percent of monkey pox patients identified themselves as straight, with the rest describing themselves as gay, bisexual or refusing to say anything, according to city data.
The disease is rarely fatal and no deaths have been reported outside of Africa.
But the combination of government failure and a virus that has hitherto mostly affected gay and bisexual men has drawn frequent comparisons to the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
What you need to know about the Monkeypox virus?
What is monkey pox? Monkeypox is a virus similar to smallpox, but the symptoms are less severe. It was discovered in 1958, after outbreaks occurred in monkeys kept for research. The virus was mainly found in parts of Central and West Africa, but in recent weeks it has spread to dozens of countries and infected tens of thousands of people, mostly men who have sex with men. On July 23, the World Health Organization declared monkeypox a global health emergency.
Those years were marked by acts of homophobia that continue to be seared in the minds of many gay Americans. The White House press secretary joked about AIDS during a press conference in 1982. Churches refused to provide funerals for the dead. And President Ronald Reagan didn’t make a public speech about the epidemic until 1987, when about 23,000 Americans had died from the disease.
Disagreements within the New York City Department of Health about how to communicate the risks of the disease surfaced last week. Some epidemiologists have argued that officials should more explicitly advise men who have sex with men to reduce their number of partners, or even consider short-term abstinence. (The WHO director general made a similar recommendation this week, including that men should reconsider having “sex with new partners,” according to STAT News.)
A spokeswoman for the department said messages advising men to especially abstain from sex could stigmatize gay and bisexual men and repeat the mistakes of the past.
That history captivated many people (and many banners) during a protest last week in Manhattan organized by activist groups including ACT UP, which was founded in 1987 in response to the government’s negligence on HIV/AIDS.
“I’m sorry we have to be here,” said Erik Bottcher, a city councilor whose district includes Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, neighborhoods hit hard by the outbreak.
“We’ve been forced to do this for so long, we’ve been forced to fight for our own health care when we were abandoned by the government,” he said. “Shame on the government for abandoning us again.”
Nearby, protesters carried placards comparing President Biden to Mr. Reagan.
Jon Catlin, 29, a graduate student, said he knew several people with monkey pox in New York and many more in Berlin, where he lives part-time doing research. He said he is studying the evolution of the idea of catastrophe in German thought, and “whose suffering counts as a crisis”.
“Because it happens to queer people,” Mr Catlin said, the government has been slow to treat monkeypox as a real crisis, waiting to deploy vaccine doses until cases have grown exponentially.
“AIDS wasn’t treated as a crisis at first either,” he added, before citing a homophobic saying from the time. “The joke about the ’80s is ‘the right people died’.”
But as much as the protesters were eager to fight what they described as indifference, many were also concerned that increased attention could bring hostility from heterosexual people.
At the meeting in Manhattan, Mordechai Levovitz, the clinical director of Jewish Queer Youth, warned the crowd of about 100 that the LGBTQ community could become a scapegoat in the event of a larger and more widespread monkeypox outbreak.
“You know what’s going to happen,” he shouted into a microphone. “In a few months, there will be children on the cover of every magazine with monkey pox on their faces, and they will come after us.”
That was a concern shared by some of the guys at 4West Lounge.
Chavis Aaron, 33, the bar manager, said the public focus on gay and bisexual men made him uncomfortable. He knew two gay people with the disease and understood the statistics about who the outbreak hit the most, but still thought “this really is everyone’s problem,” he said.
“The situation is still completely foggy and insane,” he added. “We get information from Instagram and the news and each one says something different.”
Some people improvise different ways to protect themselves from an illness that can last a month, but their methods can be dangerous and deeply unscientific.
“Most of my friends don’t have sex or they are just very selective,” said Mr. Ehigie, the bartender. He also knows men who are generally against vaccines “because they think the vaccines have a political agenda or will cause bad side effects.”
Two years of pandemic isolation has made people excited for human connection. So far there has been little incentive in the LGBTQ community to cancel events.
Some events have made minor concessions to Monkeypox, including Pines Party, a large annual gathering on Fire Island in July, asking partygoers to get vaccinated and not attend if they feel unwell.
But the outbreak has caused other events in the city to be canceled, including several regular sex parties that are less well-known but more at risk than dance parties.
Smaller bars like 4West Lounge have been quieter lately. Some of that probably had to do with the warm weather, or a clientele that partied too hard during Pride Month in June, the staff said.
But some of it was also a result of the outbreak, they said. Mr Aaron said he could think of a few regulars who stopped coming in after monkey pox cases started to climb in July.
“After Covid, many people have PTSD,” he said. “They’d rather not go out than take the risk.”