WORDS BY LANDON PEOPLES
Gay intersectionista Alex Carr Johnson talks to The Frontline about the latest zoonotic disease and how queer ecological imagination can help us prepare for future viruses.
It wasn’t long into the COVID-19 pandemic that we learned how the virus disproportionately impacts LGBTQIA+ and Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. Only a few months went by before higher rates of job loss, financial problems, and vaccine and healthcare access hit historically othered groups. And now, with monkeypox—the latest virus making headlines—the link between zoonotic diseases and queer people is even clearer.
There are over 13,000 cases of monkeypox in the U.S.—and about 95% of those cases are men who have sex with other men. Earlier this month, President Joe Biden declared monkeypox a public health emergency, but access to vaccines is still abysmal. And the government’s failed response to monkeypox—seemingly ignorant of scientific fact—has perpetuated the stigmatization that has plagued LGBTQIA+ people since the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the ’80s.
But, as evolution requires, nature—specifically queer ecology, which objects to heterosexist notions of biology and sexuality—holds even more answers to monkeypox, what researchers insist is not yet a pandemic (and most likely won’t be). Queer ecology paints an even clearer picture that nature, like zoonotic diseases, lives in a continuous state as opposed to binary perceptions on the natural and unnatural, alive and non-living, human and non-human.
As we examine the links between viruses like HIV/AIDs, COVID-19, and monkeypox, we can only unpack the unknown as far as our knowledge of climate change and its consequences allow. In other words, the deeper ecological understanding that anyone has of their place in the world, the more they understand they’re interconnected with every other part of the living world. For the past few years, queer intersectionalist Alex Carr Johnson, whose written and spoken work often incorporates art as a means of communicating ecological complexities, has thought a lot about a lack of imagination and curiosity (which inevitability leads to discrimination and a lack of empathy).
“People can say they’re not bigoted or prejudiced and that the federal government response isn’t meant to be perpetuating violence against queer people, but how do governments fail in their imagination, curiosity, and empathy?” Johnson asks. “For anyone armed with a queer ecological imagination, it’s not as surprising to see how we can be affected. Perhaps we are more vulnerable to these particular viruses initially, but that doesn’t make anyone else within society ultimately any less interconnected or impacted down the road.”
The HIV/AIDs crisis, for instance, turned into a cultural epidemic of sorts due to the highly homophobic social context in which news first began to emerge about the outbreak. Like HIV/AIDS, monkeypox can be passed to anyone regardless of gender or sexual preference. Yet due to similar introductory studies that show monkeypox is largely driven by men who have sex with men, it’s assumed to be another “gay disease.” But as numbers surge and researchers survey larger focus groups, that false perception of how the virus is spreading within humanity will shift to a more democratic outcome.
Civilians, like the government, have long struggled to reckon with viruses and their origins. HIV/AIDs was discovered in chimpanzees and, then, passed on to humans, primarily found in men who have sex with men, which bred serophobia across the globe. COVID-19 has been suggested to have originated with bats in Wuhan, China, which then led to an uptick in racist violence and anti-Asian hate crimes.
“How do governments fail in their imagination, curiosity, and empathy?”
But these viruses—more accurately, zoonotic diseases—are very common, and they don’t discriminate. Scientists estimate that more than six out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people can be spread from animals, and three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals. None of this changes the fact that public and private entities that tore away at wilderness are the catalyst for their spread, bringing humans and wildlife into closer proximity.
Part of the reason why queer people are more vulnerable to viruses is due to the way the medical system understands how people behave (a factitious understanding based on heteronormativity and the gender binary). Though our medical systems pledge to protect the public, they are inherently based in a world that’s artificial. Heteronormativity is an impediment to universal healthcare and our equal access to it. Not only have studies shown that LGBTQIA+ people face discrimination in healthcare settings (from refusal of service to assault) but that those denials and delays have discouraged LGBTQIA+ people from seeking healthcare at all.
In reality, the spectrum of human behavior—sexuality, gender, the physiological, and our interrelations with other creatures—is more complex than traditional medical systems and scientific journals allow us to even contemplate. And Johnson finds the parallels between sexuality and scientific prejudice to be uncanny.
“Heterosexual people who are living within the binary can say, This isn’t my fault. This wasn’t my problem to begin with,” he said. “If they don’t understand that our fate is tied up with theirs, then they’re living in a fantasy world.” Still, that shouldn’t make queer people targets for social biases. Just last week, a gay couple in Washington, D.C., was violently attacked and called a monkeypox slur. Johnson adds: “Like any other contagious illness, we each have the bodily autonomy and personal responsibility to manage our own risks. But that’s still our own decision, and the policing of that is really scary.”
Monkeypox is one of over 250 known zoonotic viruses with another approximately 1.6 million viruses that remain undescribed (up to half of which can make their way to humans). Though monkeypox and COVID-19 are not connected by how they physically or mentally affect us, they do share a root cause: climate change, environmental disregard, and our inability to live in harmony with the planet.
A recent study in Nature Climate Change found that the climate crisis is worsening over half of the infectious diseases we know about. As climate change increases temperatures, degrades habitats, and threatens waste mismanagement, queer people and marginalized communities will continue to stand on the frontlines. And if we don’t view climate justice as an LGTBQIA+ issue, then we’ve already counted queer people out of a livable future.
If our mindset toward future pandemics has to shift from fear to resilience, then Johnson has one piece of advice: “Living as though the house is on fire, that the house will always be on fire, and that there’s no getting out of that burning house, is not a way to live sustainably—let alone leave a world for the people that come after us.”
And it’s true: we are living in a time where our systems are failing us, but it’s not the end of the world. We can use that resilience to create the inclusive, queer ecological future that we need.