This year’s global monkeypox outbreak has brought back harsh memories of the early days of the HIV epidemic, especially for LGBTQ health activists who lived through that ugly time and its prejudices.
Sean Cahill, director of health policy research for the Fenway Institute, an organization aimed at creating healthier lives for people in the LGBTQ community, still remembers the time before life-saving HIV treatments became available. .
“We certainly saw that as a death sentence,” Cahill said in a recent interview with The Hill. “If you tested positive for HIV, there was a very good chance that you would get sick and die. And I remember that happened to a lot of people.
Cahill, 59, has worked on behalf of organizations advancing LGBTQ equality and HIV prevention for more than two decades. He first started out as a volunteer while getting his doctorate. in political science from the University of Michigan.
Although the monkeypox epidemic reminds Cahill of the HIV epidemic, he is quick to point out all the differences, such as the active involvement of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
“You know, it’s different in the sense that federal leaders have really tried to communicate with community leaders, with leaders of the LGBT community,” Cahill said. “And so I’ve had many Zoom calls with people from administration, people from different agencies within HHS, and so I think the communication has been good.”
Cahill is no stranger to working with governments on civil rights and health issues. He serves on the Massachusetts Special Legislative Commission on LGBT Aging and also teaches health policy as an adjunct professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.
The first few months of the monkeypox outbreak were “very, very frustrating,” Cahill said, due to high demand for treatments that went unmet.
The Boston native lamented what he called the ‘artificial shortage’ that occurred when a large amount of smallpox vaccine was left in a Danish facility awaiting inspection by the Food and Drug Administration .
Many suffered “a lot” unnecessarily early in the outbreak, according to Cahill, because patients were unable to access treatment from providers who reserved drugs and tests for cases where symptoms were evident.
Cahill says seeing the news become “weaponized” against the affected community has been one of the lowest points of the ordeal.
“I’ve seen comments in response to some of the news articles that just, you know, blame gay people for this. ‘Gay men brought, like, monkeypox to the United States’ Saying things like That…that’s unfortunate.
“It’s really important, when there’s a public health crisis like this, to stick to the science, to stick to the facts, not to scapegoat a whole group of people. and not to increase the stigma, because there are anti-gay stigma already in our society and around the world,” Cahill said. “So if you say things that increase the stigma, you’re actually interfering with public health efforts.”
Cahill says her career has witnessed great strides in the political and social advancements of the LGBTQ community.
He worries, however, about the rise of hatred in the United States. In his own state of Massachusetts, he noted that there was a recent incident where a group of masked individuals held a sign above a highway overpass that read “Jews did 9/11. ”
“It’s sickening and it’s disgusting and it’s cowardly to wear masks and hold such a hateful sign. But where do these people come from, you know, and why is this happening now? So I am very concerned about the direction our society is taking with this kind of hate speech,” he said.
Cahill is also concerned about the future of LGBTQ health in light of U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor’s recent ruling that struck down a provision of the Affordable Care Act requiring insurers and employers to cover HIV prevention drugs. O’Connor argued that this violated the employers’ religious freedom.
“I think people have a very misunderstanding of what the free exercise of religion means,” Cahill said. “The free exercise of religion means that you have the right to go to your place of worship and worship God as you worship God. … It’s religious freedom.
“I don’t understand how the free exercise of religion translates to ‘I will deny my employees the health care they need to stay healthy and not contract a life-threatening disease,'” he said. -he adds. “Judge Reed O’Connor thinks the free exercise of religion means an employer can deny vital health care to an employee, and I just think that’s wrong.”
Going forward, Cahill, whose organization is nonpartisan, says he would like to see lawmakers on both sides of the aisle become more supportive of LGBTQ equality.
The Senate recently postponed until after the midterm elections a vote on a bill passed by the House to codify same-sex marriage. The vote on the measure, which was introduced following the Supreme Court’s overturning of the nation’s abortion rights, was postponed in an effort to garner higher GOP support after Election Day.
“I really hope there are Republican senators who support marriage equality and vote to protect marriage equality, given the concerns we have about the Supreme Court and some of the recent language rulings and the Supreme Court regarding marriage equality,” Cahill said.