Is Long Beach ignoring gay men in its monkeypox response?

Long Beach Monkeypox

Gay residents are frustrated at the Long Beach Health Department’s education and prevention response to the monkeypox outbreak that is disproportionately impacting them. The generic messaging, with little to no mentioning of the community, treats gay men like they are invisible. Photo: Richard Grant/Special to Q Voice News

Gay residents are frustrated at the Long Beach Health Department’s education and prevention response to the monkeypox outbreak that is disproportionately impacting them.

“I’ve been following monkeypox since it appeared in L.A. in early June and contacted the Long Beach Health Department to see if they had any plans,” Mike Atchue, 36, of Long Beach, said. “What are we going to do to be proactive? I messaged them on Instagram and Twitter and nobody responded. I even tried to call their office, but couldn’t reach anyone.”

The health department announced on July 16 the city’s first presumptive case of monkeypox. It also was the first time the city mentioned gay men being disproportionately impacted by monkeypox, but that information was buried near the end of the document.

The generic messaging, with little to no mentioning of the gay community, treats them like they are invisible.

“You didn’t have anything to say until after a case was identified in Long Beach?” Atchue said. “It seems like they don’t care. It’s very disappointing.”

Approximately 10 days after that press release was sent, and the cases climbed to nine, Atchue said the department’s response is still weak.

Saturday night, he went to Broadway, Long Beach’s gay corridor that’s populated with gay bars, restaurants and other spaces.

“The city wasn’t out there doing anything to educate people on the vaccine or prevention,” Atchue said. “They should be out there talking with people.”

Health department responds to criticism

Long Beach Health Officer Dr. Anissa Davis disagrees and said “everyone is going to have an opinion and an experience about how the response was to them.”

“The rapidity of the response is in the eye of the beholder,” she said.

Davis said the balance is “making sure that the folks who are being disproportionately affected by this outbreak are getting the message without it being in a stigmatizing manner.”

Stigmatizing gay men

But some LGBTQ+ health activists said the gay men are being stigmatized by the department and its messaging.

In a July 19 press release, the health department said eligibility for the monkeypox vaccine was expanded to gay and bisexual men and trans people who meet certain criteria:

  • Are taking PrEP
  • Attended saunas, bathhouses, sex clubs, circuit parties, or sex parties where they had anonymous sex or sex with multiple partners
  • Had a diagnosis of gonorrhea or early syphilis within the past 12 months

“That press release bothered me,” said Carlos Torres, executive director of the Long Beach LGBTQ Center. “There’s no context. Providing context is important. Identifying groups without context stigmatizes the community.

“In a world where lots of misinformation is available, it’s important for the community to trust resources and messages that are put forth by local public health officials,” he said.

Gay men and LGBTQ+ health activists, including Atchue and Torres, point to specific departmental failures in their monkeypox response:

  • Lack of collaboration with LGBTQ+ community partners and health clinics to create targeted prevention campaign, including messaging on social media channels, to gay and bisexual men and trans people
  • No virtual or in-person forums to answer questions about monkeypox, prevention methods, or vaccine availability
  • No press conferences to answer questions from the media

Monkeypox cases increase

The Los Angeles County Health Department confirmed its first monkeypox case in early June. Since then, their numbers have increased to more than 215, according to department data.

As of Tuesday, more than 3,500 cases have been reported in the U.S. California has the second highest number of cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The department has hosted several virtual press conferences to address the outbreak and at least one live forum with the LA LGBT Center to answer questions from the community.

Lack of targeted messaging

Long Beach, however, hasn’t hosted similar events. When asked why the health department hasn’t created an prevention messaging targeting gay men or held press conferences, Davis said her department felt “the information was out there” and that “there wasn’t really anything different about what L.A. County was saying versus what we would say.

“We were prioritizing our limited time and resources on getting the vaccination site up and running,” she said. “It wasn’t a coordinated public health event. But we will work on that for the near future. Our goal and intent was always to inform folks who are being disproportionately impacted by the outbreak.”

Monkeypox response problems nationwide

The problems in Long Beach are part of a bigger problem related to the monkeypox response.

Health officials and LGBTQ+ activists in California and across the nation have been warning about monkeypox for weeks.

Many of them are frustrated, saying the LGBTQ+ community has been ignored by public health officials. As case numbers continue to rise, they are upset about a lack of testing, few vaccine appointments, long lines at those appointments, and limited vaccine supplies.

Dr. James Simmons, who identifies as queer and is known on social media as Ask the NP, said prevention is still a key component.

“The biggest issue is there has not been much coordination of a response across public health departments from the federal government down to the local level,” Simmons said. “When you have places like Long Beach who are reticent to discuss the sensitive but important reality that monkeypox cases — as of right now — are among gay men with multiple sex partners, they do a disservice to everyone by not partnering with and talking with the community. Long Beach health officials could have been more upfront, on the ground at bars communicating and educating gay men, and doing targeted messaging to the community.”

The absence of these efforts, he says, “speaks to systemic issues of lack of representation at the decision making level of LGBTQ folks.”

Long Beach problems

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, who identifies as gay, has said in various press releases that “we are taking monkeypox very seriously” and “we are working with urgency to address monkeypox in our community.”

Garcia and health officials are scheduled to hold a press conference Wednesday, but it will be the first time they have taken questions from the media on the monkeypox outbreak since the county announced its initial case in June and Long Beach reported its first case approximately 2 ½ weeks ago.

On his Twitter page this month, Garcia has created approximately 50 posts. At least 25 of them are related to his candidacy for Congress, but only two are related to monkeypox prevention.

Atchue said Garcia’s press release comments don’t reflect what’s happening in the community.

“He should have a better pulse on what’s happening in the gay community,” Atchue said. “It seems like his concern is his next political race.”

Michael Buitron, 60, of Long Beach, has been an LGBTQ+ health activist for more than 30 years and said he is disappointed by the health department’s response, which is reminiscent of how government agencies ignored the gay community during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

“There hasn’t been any direct outreach to the gay community,” Buitron said. “I shudder at the similarities between the early days of ‘gay-related immune deficiency,’ the precursor to AIDS. The messages then and now are to the general public with nothing addressed to gay men.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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