“We unfortunately have the advantage of having the experience of HIV to guide us in this epidemic.” Journalist at StubbornNicolas Scheffer summarizes the unique atmosphere that reigns within the LGBT+ magazine since the emergence of the monkeypox epidemic in Europe (the health authorities and associations interviewed in this article prefer the English term monkeypox). According to the latest figures communicated on 27 July by Public Health France, 1 837 cases have been confirmed in the country, the overwhelming majority (96%) in men who have sex with men (MSM), most of whom have multiple partners. Preventive vaccination is offered to them, as well as to other people most at risk, in particular “trans people who have multiple partners” and sex workers (TDS), details the High Authority for Health.
>> “We risk paying dearly for this ignition delay”: the slowness and opacity of the vaccination campaign against monkey pox worry the target public
Faced with the many unknowns surrounding this disease, which often manifests itself in mild forms but can sometimes cause terrible suffering, the LGBT+ community quickly mobilized.
In the battle against the monkeypox, the first strategy is to collect as much information about the enemy as possible. Relay of scientific publications, information on vaccines and on ways to find a vaccination niche… In recent weeks, Stubborn task to be “as reliable and responsive as possible to help contain this epidemic”, explains Nicolas Scheffer. For the journalist, the magazine has the advantage of knowing “talking to people at risk of developing this monkeypox, with a better knowledge of their sexualities, as well as a non-judgmental and non-stigmatizing approach to these subjects”.
“We know that stigma can be a breeding ground for the disease: some infected people will not dare to talk about their practices with an emergency doctor or a doctor…”Nicolas Scheffer, journalist at “Têtu”
Social networks are also used. “In addition to the information that we relay on our website or on Twitter, we also share posts on Instagram, which allows us to reach a younger audience”, explains Marc-Antoine Bartoli, prevention coordinator of the Act Up-Paris association. Activist in the fight against AIDS committed within Aides, Vincent Leclercq for his part created an information channel on Telegram messaging in which he notably updates a frequently asked questions on the subject.
Away from the screens, awareness is also done orally. Every day, in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, the premises of Acceptess-T, an association for the defense of the rights of transgender people, receives several people wondering about the virus. “We explain to them how to protect themselves, how to spot the symptoms and who to contact”, lists Simon Jutant, advocacy manager of the association. With an additional difficulty: “Many have problems accessing the internet or digital.” So the association accompanies them in making appointments. “A partnership with the vaccination center of the 13th arrondissement will soon be launched”he announces.
For its part, the Sex Work Union (Strass) relies on its social networks and its newsletter to inform the 10,000 or so people who follow it online. It is estimated at 40,000 the number of TDS in France. “Among them, people who prostitute themselves and those who work in porn are the most at risk” to contract the disease, underlines Cybèle Lespérance, spokesperson for Strass and sex worker in Savoie. She herself did not find a vaccination site near her home before her vacation.
Once informed, TDS relay the word to their customers. This is the case of Angela*, a 21-year-old escort girl in Occitania. Thanks to a group on a non-mixed social network, that is to say reserved for TDS, she discovered the Telegram loop set up by Aides and accessible to all. “Media didn’t show pictures, now I see what it looks like”, relates the one who estimated the potential shortfall at 2,700 euros if she had to isolate herself for three weeks in the event of contamination. She does it for herself, but also for her clients. “They don’t care too much about the subject, when it concerns their health and safety”she remarks.
On Telegram, Vincent Leclercq also had the initiative to create, at the beginning of July, a group on which many MSM affected or indirectly affected by monkey pox share their feelings. An idea that came to him in the waiting room of a Parisian hospital, where he was waiting with other men to receive his first dose of vaccine against monkeypox. “There was an atmosphere of tension, shame and very strong fear in the room. Everyone was hidden behind their masks, their eyes plunged into their phones, and no one dared to look at each other”remembers the Aid activist.
“I thought I was witnessing a bad remake of the beginning of the HIV epidemic in France, in the 1980s. I said to myself that there was a need to lower the tension by creating a tool for self- support.”Vincent Leclercq, Aid activist
More than 350 people, mostly gay men with multiple partners, are registered on this Telegram group. Members describe the evolution of their symptoms, treatments, or discuss vaccination slots. “This operation allows freer speech: we share the same codes, we know the practices of people, we use the same vocabulary, it creates a form of trust”says Vincent Leclercq.
Mickael is also convinced. Contaminated after a stay in Madrid in early July, this 40-year-old wrote a detailed diary of the evolution of his symptoms on the Telegram group for ten days. “It included quite intimate details, but I was able to share it with confidence because I knew that I was addressing the people concerned. Thanks to this, speech is freer, there are fewer taboos”explains the Parisian.
LGBT+ associations also want to bring their full weight to bear during meetings with public authorities. Each week, Aides and Act Up-Paris take part in an information point organized by the Directorate General for Health (DGS). “The last two weeks have been quite tense, in particular because we had no information on the destocking of doses of the smallpox vaccine used against monkeypox. On this subject, as on the territorial coverage of the vaccination campaign or on the social aspect of the pandemic, we said things frankly”recalls Marc-Antoine Bartoli.
However, the prevention coordinator of Act Up-Paris welcomes the holding of these meetings: “The New York branch of our association has all the trouble in the world to meet the American health authorities. Fortunately, this is not the case for us.”
“In France, the authorities have now understood that we no longer do public or community health without inviting the associations concerned to reflect.”Marc-Antoine Bartoli, prevention coordinator of Act Up-Paris
Are the recommendations of the associations followed? For Acceptess-T, there is “a lot of frustration to see the Covid management situation repeat itself. We alert, for example, to the lack of a solution for the management of isolation for 21 days, and nothing is done. We have to manage”regrets Simon Jutant.
Same bitter observation for Strass: “It feels like we are reliving the situation with HIV in the 1980s. National authorities do not care as long as the disease affects marginalized groups or groups deemed morally deviant”judge Cybèle Lespérance.
In order to go further, two activists from Act Up-Paris were tasked with contacting parliamentarians known for their commitment to LGBT+ issues. They ask them to challenge the executive, especially during question sessions with the government in the National Assembly and the Senate. A new way to keep up the pressure to fight the epidemic.
* The first name has been changed at the request of the person concerned