San Jose LGBTQ leaders: Monkeypox ‘not a gay disease’

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The Silicon Valley LGBTQ+ community is livid another virus is being referred to as a gay disease.

Concerned about stigmatization, local LGBTQ+ leaders are reacting to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent declaration of monkeypox as a global emergency. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said 98% of cases are among gay men. Although anyone can get infected, he targeted gay and bisexual men in suggesting steps to stop transmission, such as reducing the number of sexual partners.

Gabrielle Antolovich, board president of the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ+ Community Center in San Jose, is upset over the WHO director’s comments. 

“Nobody would dare tell heterosexual men to reduce their number of partners,” she told “Then don’t you dare say that about gay men.”

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Monkeypox is spread through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person via rashes, scabs or body fluids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). People can also get monkeypox from an infected animal. More than 18,000 cases of monkeypox have been reported in 78 countries, with five deaths globally. According to Santa Clara County Public Health, there have been 46 cases of monkeypox reported locally as of Thursday.

Antolovich said monkeypox is not necessarily a sexually transmitted disease, and she doesn’t want history to repeat itself with the stigma LGBTQ+ people faced with HIV during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

“We don’t want to go back in time like with Roe v. Wade,” she said. “We’re speaking out that this is not a gay disease.”

Dr. George Han, deputy health officer for Santa Clara County, told he feels being both a member of the LGBTQ+ community and a public health official is useful in navigating “this tricky situation” and thinking about monkeypox in a way that benefits the community.

“Because of who the disease is currently impacting the most and because of the history of stigmatization around the gay community and new viruses, it’s really important to make sure we’re partnering with community members and communicating the right messages,” he said.

Nicole Altamirano, CEO of Silicon Valley Pride, said the timing of monkeypox is dangerous with the current political climate because it gives ammo to those who have historically persecuted the LGBTQ+ community.

She said WHO saying AIDS was mostly transmitted by gay men was extremely harmful to the LGBTQ+ community when the AIDS epidemic was at its height.

“It led to a lot of stigmatization around AIDS and that’s what I don’t want to see happen with monkeypox,” she said.

Ken Yeager, co-founder of BAYMEC Community Foundation and former Santa Clara County supervisor, said local politicians in the 1980s followed the views of conservative Christian political action committees. He said only a handful of officials at the time were courageous enough to speak out against bigotry and hatred aimed at homosexuals. BAYMEC advocates for the LGBTQ+ community.

Yeager said people with AIDS experienced rejection from family and friends and a loss of employment and housing. At the time, South Bay LGBTQ+ publication “Our Paper” reported two Santa Clara Valley Medical Center nurses resigned rather than treat someone thought to have AIDS.

Yeager told San José spotlight the LGBTQ+ community is once again being singled out. He said monkeypox is being connected with the behavior of the gay community, just as was the case with HIV, although anyone can be infected. 

“To think it’s just a gay disease, which is what they certainly called AIDS, is just false,” he said.

Monkeypox usually starts with flu-like symptoms including fever, low energy, swollen lymph nodes and body aches followed by a rash or sores and lasts two to four weeks, according to the CDC.

More than 500 Santa Clara County residents have received monkeypox vaccinations. Due to limited supply, the county is offering vaccines by appointment to people who have been in direct contact with an infected person and to sexually active members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

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