While health care providers combat the monkeypox virus, LGBTQ+ activists fight the stigma that has arisen from this public health crisis—and Catholics are trying to heal the sick and lessen the stigma, too.
Given queer men are disproportionately impacted by monkeypox, the LGBTQ+ community is now navigating the stigma that comes with the virus. Eder Díaz Santillan, who identifies as both LGBTQ+ and Catholic, said that there is a lack of safe spaces to talk about the health crisis, especially when it comes to religious spaces. He told the National Catholic Reporter:
“‘I would never feel comfortable telling my spiritual adviser I think I got monkeypox on a trip to New York, and I don’t know where to find support. It’s still a conversation that would be really hard for me.’
Many LGBTQ+ Catholics report having similar experiences to Díaz. Although his parish did provide information on monkeypox and the vaccine, Jason Steidl Jack said he would still be skeptical to tell his priest or religious community if he had monkeypox because “there is so much stigma around it.”
Díaz and Steidl Jack both agreed that initiating conversations on sexuality is difficult in religious spaces. For Steidl Jack, “it is impossible to speak openly and honestly about the sexual lives of gay men, of queer folks more broadly, in the Catholic church.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), monkeypox is a virus that spreads through skin-to-skin contact, infected surfaces, and respiratory secretions. Although usually not fatal, the virus may cause a painful rash and flu-like symptoms. So far, there have been 21,985 confirmed cases of monkeypox in the United States. 94% of those who had monkeypox “reported recent male-to-male sexual or close intimate contact.” However, anyone is at risk of developing the disease.
Yunuen Trujillo, a religious formation coordinator with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Catholic Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Persons, further argued that LGBTQ+ struggles are often invisible to Catholic institutions. She noted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ opposition of the Equality Act of 2019, which would have prohibited discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity, because the conference does not recognize the systemic discrimination this community experiences.
In addition to feelings of invisibility, shame is also prominent for some in the LGBTQ+ community. Nicholas Hayes-Mota, a teaching fellow at Boston College, understands this feeling. He stated:
“[Shame] is a fundamental challenge for a lot of members of the LGBTQ community. It often comes from continuous external messages, how we’re told to think about ourselves by the rest of the world. But then we internalize it too, and it becomes kind of our own worst enemy. That’s been a big part of my life.’
“‘To the extent that particular interpretations of Catholic teaching, voices in the institutional Catholic church have contributed to that (shame). . .I think the church not only has the responsibility to reach out to us pastorally as socially marginalized groups, but it has a particular responsibility because of its own role in that marginalization.'”
Catholic institutions should strive to be safe spaces for LGBTQ+ individuals, especially in a time of increased stigma and discrimination. Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, stated that at the heart of the Christian message is “the human dignity of all people, and the way to respond to that human dignity is through love.”
With this in mind, it is vital that the church remembers its mission to serve marginalized communities. Education is one way to adhere to this mission, and Catholic spaces should have truthful conversations on the monkeypox virus. Doing so would help eradicate the viral disease—and the disease of homophobia.
—Sarah Cassidy (she/her), New Ways Ministry, October 5, 2022