Health

Gay, bi and queer people share their experiences with the monkeypox vaccine

Lily Wakefield August 1, 2022
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Gloved hands preparing a vaccine on a pink background

The UK is rolling out a smallpox vaccine for use against monkeypox – but stocks are about to run out. (Getty/PinkNews)

Queer people who have had the monkeypox vaccine have said they have been relying on social media and the LGBTQ+ community to access accurate information.

Of the more than 18,000 global cases confirmed by the World Health Organization, 98 per cent have been among gay and bi men, and other men who have sex with men.

Across the world, smallpox vaccines are being used to prevent monkeypox, but because of the unprecedented nature of the recent outbreak, they are in short supply.

PinkNews spoke with three UK-based queer people who have had their smallpox/ monkeypox vaccine about access, stigma, and the murky nature of public health messaging.

Mark, a gay man in London, said he was able to access a vaccine through his regular sexual health clinic as he was already part of its PrEP programme.

He was contacted by the clinic and was able to get his vaccine a few days later.

For Mark, accessing information about monkeypox was fairly straightforward: “I did work in public health, so I kind of spotted it quite early on… I’d never really heard of monkeypox before.

“I saw loads of stuff from the Terrence Higgins Trust, loads of social media stuff. That was just really good to see people putting my mind at rest.

“Like yeah, I don’t want to get it, but if I did get it, it’s very unlikely to sort of floor me. So I think it was a case of doing some of my own research.”

However, Son, another London-based gay man, has felt let down by public health messaging surrounding monkeypox.

“I don’t think I have had enough information from the NHS,” he told PinkNews.

“All the information I got on monkeypox was on Twitter, from people who work in that sexual health space, or the gay community, the LGBTQ+ community.”

To access his vaccine, Son relied on information from his friends and local queer community.

“I’m in a WhatsApp group where people were sharing information about the vaccine,” he said.

When available slots came up at London clinics, the group would alert each other, and after repeatedly refreshing a page, he managed to book an appointment.

People line up to receive monkeypox vaccinations at Guys Hospital
People line up to receive monkeypox vaccinations at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital on 24 July 2022. (Getty/ Hollie Adams)

Referencing the hours-long queues for a monkeypox vaccine drop-in clinic held last week at London’s Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital, he added: “I was lucky I didn’t have to queue for that long.”

Despite his disappointment with official sources, Son said he was grateful that the queer community was so ready to offer support and information: “I think it’s fantastic that so many people are mobilising and messaging around the community for people to get the vaccine… I think we’ll be entering another pandemic, if we’re not careful.

“So I think it’s extremely important to be mindful of what’s going on.”

He added: “We are actually the ones who are doing everything in our power to protect the community.”

Drawing on his background working in public health, Mark said that he suspects the lack of direct messaging from the government and NHS might be intentional, as the LGBTQ+ is likely to listen better to more trusted sources – their own community and charities that represent them.

However, he does feel that messaging has been very “London-centric”.

He said: “I don’t know whether that’s just because there’s a risk model, because there’s obviously a lot of GBMSM [gay, bisexual and men who have sex with men] in London compared to Bristol, for example.

“But I’ve seen people saying ‘I’m not sure how to access the vaccine in Manchester’, for example. It seems to be done in a very localised way.”

One person who has accessed the monkeypox vaccine who is neither a London resident nor a queer man is Melissa, a polyamorous trans woman in Devon.

“I’m polyamorous and I’m bi,” she told PinkNews.

“One of my partners is a bi man who plays on the gay and bisexual men who have sex with men scene.

“We’re all very careful – I have my main relationship, and then when we’re doing anything sexual with anyone else we take PrEP, use condoms, check into the sexual health clinic for the things that can be picked up that you can’t prevent and we’ve got the full set of vaccines for hepatitis and HPV.

“We are at risk, but we mitigate against those risks. Because I have PrEP for on-demand use for when I am seeing other people, then the clinical guidelines that the sexual health clinics are using at the moment are pretty much the same as for PrEP.

“If they’ll give you PrEP, they’ll give you the monkeypox vaccine.”

For men like Son, there is some fear about how accessing the vaccine, and monkeypox in general, could be weaponised against queer men, like “another HIV or AIDS epidemic”.

But for Melissa, the stigma surrounding monkeypox pales in comparison to stigma she experiences simply existing in the UK.

Sounding resigned, she said: “I’m out fully as a trans woman in all of my life, I’m poly, which is far more stigmatising… It’s comparative stigmas.”

More: Monkeypox, NHS

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