Asking Gay Men to be Cautious Over Monkeypox Isn't HomophobiaRoundup
tags: public health, LGBTQ history, HIV-AIDS
Jim Downs, a history professor at Gettysburg College, is the author of Maladies of Empire: How Colonialism, Slavery, and War Transformed Medicine.
An aspiring dramatist 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 into loneliness.” Then a thought darted across his mind. Unlike in London, where he had spent time after graduating from Oxford, there was a place for him to go in New York City: the Everard Baths.
So he swung his feet off the bed, put on his raincoat, and “hurtled down into the drizzle over 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 of New York. Tucked in the middle of the street, the Everard Baths was a church that had been converted into a Turkish bathhouse by an Irish financier in 1888.
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 on a bracelet to a cubicle that had a “workhouse bed.” Williams walked toward a “large floor as big as a warehouse” with “rows of private windowless rooms” that appeared as dark cells. When he got to his room, he undressed, put on a threadbare cotton robe, and wandered through the bathhouse. He passed by other men who behaved as if they were alone, their “eyes anywhere but on another walker.” He described them as ghosts and even referred to one man as “a solicitous suburban Dracula.” When he returned to his room, he laid on the bed and tried to make sense of the sounds that he heard: a door slammed shut, the thud of a shoe on the bare floor, the snap of a cigarette lighter, whispers that sounded like the chatter of men talking in a gym.
This description was hardly a ringing endorsement, but the possibility of sex in a dingy bathhouse in a salacious part of the city was how Williams and many other queer men found each other in 1927. Though subject to police raids, these establishments were, before the 1969 Stonewall revolt that signaled the rise of queer liberation, some of the only places gay men might find community. And the uninhibited embrace of sex that they represented, even if far from universally shared among gay men, was something many fought to defend.
This attitude helps explain public-health agencies’ peculiar reluctance to speak frankly about the risks of monkeypox, which, in the United States, has been spreading rapidly—and almost exclusively among men who have sex with men. The CDC has recently—and belatedly— recommended that people avoid going to sex clubs and other spaces where “intimate, often anonymous sexual contact with multiple partners occurs,” given that the virus is more likely to spread in these environments. But this message competes with well-meaning assertions by other experts that anyone can get monkeypox and that the virus can spread via, say, shared linens.
Many gay men have criticized the CDC’s recommendation because they fear a slippery slope. They point to the history of HIV/AIDS and how government authorities pathologized gay culture—and gay people—as aberrant and shut down bathhouses, including the Everard Baths, which Mayor Ed Koch ordered closed in 1986. As a gay man and a historian of infectious disease, I know about the harm that comes when public policy becomes infused with homophobia. Yet protecting gay men from discrimination and stigmatization today does not require public-health officials to tiptoe around how monkeypox is currently being transmitted.