LGBTQ+ – “If we allow these types of stigmatizing messages to spread and take root, it will have long-term consequences,” warned Matthew Kavanagh in The world on May 25. The deputy director of UNAIDS was referring to monkeypox, whose media coverage has already caused, in part, the 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 abroad.
CNRS researcher 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 -my hypothesis- more affected than the others”. The researcher is the author of Act not to die! Act Up, homosexuals and AIDSpublished in 2006.
Several organizations such as UNAIDS or the WHO have recently warned about the link between monkeypox and the gay community. How do you see the fact that this link is presented?
Christophe Broqua: We see here a risk inherent in any epidemic. This is the so-called “accused victim” phenomenon, that is, the fact that groups that would be among the victims of an epidemic are identified as responsible. There it is not yet the case but it is a risk since we 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” who were homosexuals, heroin addicts, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. Precisely populations that were extremely stigmatized for being considered responsible for the spread of the epidemic.
What other risk can this link lead to?
In epidemic contexts, some reflexes can be dangerous, and here what is going to concern us are the coercive reflexes. That is, when we talk about an affected population, we can seek to isolate it, constrain it, etc. And when an epidemic affects previously stigmatized minorities, these risks increase. They are reinforced because the “accused victims” are all designated.
Can we blame the health authorities for mentioning that monkeypox cases 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 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 favor the spread and there, and one of the hypotheses is that homosexuals are more affected than others. In the case of HIV, this observation has helped explain the mode of transmission and the viral origin of the epidemic, for example.
On the other hand, where we can make a warning is in terms of public communication, and especially in the way, the media assimilates information. The biggest risk is the risk of media excesses. And in particular in countries where coercive risks could be stronger and where communication concerns the most stigmatized categories.
“It is legitimate to ask certain questions on a scientific level, but it can be risky to make it a public communication item.”
– Christophe Broqua, CNRS researcher
Saying certain things in France does not have the same implications as in other countries, while the epidemic may be global, so we must anticipate the risks that communication that is not benevolent, that is not controlled, can cause. Media coverage can also lead to finger-pointing at certain practices, which can provide an opportunity for some to criticize homosexuals, and sexual and gender minorities. It is legitimate to ask certain questions on a scientific level, but it can be risky to turn them into an element of public communication.
Even if scientists are now exploring all avenues, can we already have certain biases at the research level?
Indeed, even in the fields of research and public policy, the knowledge mobilized can be marked by bias. We are not necessarily in neutrality and objectivity. And we see it in the case of monkeypox: if today we establish that homosexuals are the most affected, this can change quickly given the modes of transmission.
We must take into account an element that makes us establish for the moment a more important presence of this virus among gays: it is a population that is specially monitored at the health level. This was already the case at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and this is what made it possible to identify the first patients. Therefore, this may imply that these people are overrepresented in reported cases. This is just a hypothesis but, in this case, one might wonder about the neutrality of the designation of certain groups by public authorities, in particular, if it turned out not to be relevant.
On the contrary, could, there be a risk in not focusing on the most affected communities today?
We must not neglect certain factors at 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 faced a double bind.
On the one hand, it was necessary to fight the epidemic in the groups where it was developing, and, at the same time, it was necessary to do everything possible 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 the discourse of public authorities no longer took into account that the epidemic was still concentrated in certain populations, and in particular in homosexual men, which required redoubling efforts to do so. 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. What is being questioned is not so much how public authorities or scientists act, as the status reserved for certain social groups.
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