Anyone can get monkeypox, Windsor's LGBTQ community says amid concerns over stigma

People in Windsor's LBGTQ community are pushing back on messaging from health officials on the monkeypox virus, saying that it stigmatizes the community and could lead to discrimination.

1 case of monkeypox confirmed in Windsor-Essex; health unit says risk is low

John Shellhorn is the interim pastor at the Metropolitan Church of Windsor, a church that "provides a spiritual home for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people," according to its Facebook page. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

People in Windsor's LBGTQ community are pushing back on messaging from health officials on the monkeypox virus, saying that it stigmatizes the community and could lead to discrimination.

"I remember back in the 80s [and] 90s when AIDS-HIV started spreading around the world and it was the quote gay disease," said John Shellhorn, interim pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Windsor. 

"It seems like once again, the media and the extreme right-wing religious groups are jumping all over that once again, calling monkeypox a gay disease, which it is not." 

"It is a virus and it can spread to anyone that comes into contact with it."

As of Monday, there were 423 confirmed cases of the virus in the province, according to Ontario Public Health. Only one of those cases has been confirmed in Windsor-Essex County.

The agency says in its reporting that anyone can get monkeypox but cases have "mostly been identified among males who report sexual or intimate contact with other males."

A colourized transmission electron micrograph of monkeypox particles (teal) found within an infected cell (brown), is shown in a handout photo captured at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Integrated Research Facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Last week, Canada's chief public health officer said that the outbreak of the virus can stopped by using strategies that target the most vulnerable groups of people, which could include focusing on gay and bisexual men through community organizations, educational settings and dating apps.

"Learning from the HIV pandemic is very important, which is why engaging with communities who were impacted right at the start to find solutions will be our best weapon against the spread of this virus," Dr. Theresa Tam said at the time.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission has also weighed in, saying there were concerns being raised by the LGBTQ community about homophobia, stigma and discrimination experienced by the community relating to the outbreak.

"The monkeypox virus is not isolated to people of any particular sexual orientation, gender identity, race or place of origin," the statement read.

"Stigmatization, discrimination and harassment do not make the public safer. Instead, they isolate certain groups of people, entrench stereotypes and spread fear." 

Shellhorn says the messaging gives him similar concerns.

"If it's something negative that can be done to a person, I can see someone using monkeypox once again as an excuse to discriminate against queer folk," he said.

Sydney Brouillard-Coyle, a queer, asexual, trans, non-binary activist who is running for Ward 7 councilllor in the upcoming municipal election in Windsor, said any time stereotypes are mentioned, they should be called out.

"To point to the fact that this is not a sexually transmitted infection and thus anyone can be vulnerable to it and that we need to take the protective measures that are advised by health officials so that we're not contributing to that misinformation," Brouillard-Coyle said.

Risk remains low: WECHU

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) says that the risk of contracting the monkeypox virus here in Windsor remains low.

It says it is collaborating with the organizers of this week's Pride Fest to offer education and resources on monkeypox during the festival.

WECHU is considering offering monkeypox vaccinations during the festival to those who are eligible .

People are eligible if they have been exposed but have not shown any symptoms. The health unit adds it is exploring the possibility of offering shots that are effective for those who have not yet been exposed.