LGBTQ+ – “If we allow these kinds of stigmatizing messages to spread and take hold, they will have long-term consequences,” warned Matthew Kavanagh in The world on May 25. The Deputy Director of UNAIDS was speaking about monkeypox, the media coverage of which has already, in part, led to stigmatization of the gay community.
“These cases occurred mainly, but not only, in men who have sex with men”, specifies Public Health France in its press release of May 23, 2022, like other national health agencies in the stranger.
Researcher at the CNRS and member of the African Worlds Institute, Christophe Broqua explains to the HuffPost “that several contextual elements favor the fact of designating homosexual men as being – by hypothesis – more affected than the others”. The researcher is the author of Act so as not to die! Act Up, homosexuals and AIDSpublished in 2006.
Several organizations such as UNAIDS or WHO have recently warned about the link made between monkeypox and the gay community. How do you view the fact that this link is put forward?
Christophe Broqua: We see here a risk inherent in any epidemic. This is the so-called “accused victim” phenomenon, that is to say the fact that groups which would be among the victims of an epidemic find themselves designated as being responsible. There, it is not yet the case but it is a risk since we clearly see a designation of certain groups in the communication.
This phenomenon was particularly visible during the AIDS epidemic since we were talking about “gay cancer” and we had established the list of “4H” which were homosexuals, heroin addicts, hemophiliacs and Haitians. Precisely populations that were extremely stigmatized for being said to be responsible for the spread of the epidemic.
To what other risk can this link lead?
In epidemic contexts, there are reflexes that can be dangerous and here what we are going to worry about are the coercive reflexes. That is to say that when we talk about an affected population, we can seek to isolate it, to constrain it, etc. And when an epidemic affects previously stigmatized minorities, these risks are increased. They are reinforced because the “accused victims” are all designated.
Can we blame the health authorities for mentioning that cases of monkeypox mainly affect homosexual men when the virus is transmitted regardless of sexual orientation?
There are two things to distinguish in the case of monkeypox. On the one hand, it is logical that the health authorities and that the specialists, the scientists are interested in the factors likely to make possible the development of an epidemic. We cannot blame the authorities or the scientists for looking for the factors that promote the spread and there, one of the hypotheses is that homosexuals are more affected than others. In the case of HIV, this observation has helped to explain the mode of transmission and the viral origin of the epidemic, for example.
On the other hand, where we can make a warning, it is in terms of public communication, and especially the way in which the media take up information. The greatest risk is the risk of media excesses. And in particular in countries where the coercive risks could be stronger and where the communication concerns the categories that are most stigmatized.
“It is legitimate to ask certain questions on the scientific level but it can be risky to make it an element of public communication.”
– Christophe Broqua, researcher at the CNRS
Saying certain things in France does not have the same implications as in other countries, whereas the epidemic can be global, so we must anticipate the risks that could be caused by communication that is not benevolent, that is not mastered. Media coverage can also lead to pointing the finger at certain practices, this can provide an opportunity for some to criticize homosexuals, sexual and gender minorities. It is legitimate to ask certain questions on a scientific level, but it can be risky to make them an element of public communication.
Even if scientists are now exploring all avenues, can we already have certain prejudices at the level of research?
Indeed, including in the fields of research and public policy, the knowledge mobilized can be marked by prejudice. We are not necessarily in neutrality and objectivity. And we see it in the case of monkeypox: if we establish today the fact that homosexuals are the most affected, this can quickly change in view of the modes of transmission.
It is necessary to take into account an element which makes that we establish for the moment a more important presence of this virus among gays: it is a population particularly monitored on the health level. This was already the case at the start of the AIDS epidemic and this is what made it possible to identify the very first patients. This may therefore imply that these people are over-represented in the reported cases. This is only a hypothesis but, in this case, one could wonder about the neutrality of the designation of certain groups by the public authorities, in particular if it turned out that it was not relevant.
Converselycan there be a risk in not focusing on the communities that are most affected today?
In fact, we must not neglect certain factors on the scientific or political level for the sole purpose of avoiding the risks of media coverage. This is what we observed in the case of the AIDS epidemic, for example: the people involved were confronted with a double bind.
On the one hand, it was necessary to fight against the epidemic in the groups where it developed and at the same time, it was necessary to do as much as possible in order to avoid stigmatization, which could have had the consequence of minimizing the importance of the epidemic in certain groups, particularly in the late 1980s. There was a phenomenon that has been called the “dehomosexualization of AIDS”.
Act Up, for example, criticized the fact that, in the discourse of the public authorities, the fact that the epidemic remained concentrated in certain populations, and in particular homosexual men, was no longer taken into account, which required redoubled efforts. towards this population. Other associations have also criticized the same phenomenon of hiding the epidemic among migrants.
In an ideal society, medical, scientific and political leaders should be able to indicate which populations are affected by an epidemic without these populations suffering the consequences in terms of stigmatization or violence. Basically, what is in question is not so much the way in which public authorities or scientists proceed as the status reserved for certain social groups.
See also on The HuffPost: “Links between monkeypox and Covid are not what you think”