During the early days of the AIDS crisis, LGBTQ bars across the country became centers of activism and support for the community at large. Drag queens have held shows to raise funds for those living with HIV and AIDS. People cried together in bars and clubs. And when public health information became available, the bars offered sex education materials and classes. These efforts paved the way for what are now considered common bar practices, such as being able to walk into a drag bar in New York and hear a hosted speech on the benefits of pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a drug that reduces the transmission of HIV. Many bars across the country include a cork board with test information or an aquarium filled with condoms.
In recent months, Multnomah County health officials have once again partnered with LGBTQ bars in the area, this time addressing a different disease: MPV, sometimes called monkeypox. At bars like CC Slaughters and Scandals, Portlanders will find information on how to prevent the spread of MPV, symptoms, get tested and more.
“From the very beginning in terms of responding to the HIV epidemic, queer companies and queer establishments have been valuable partners,” says Jaxon Mitchell, HIV / STI prevention and intervention manager for the county. “That never stopped.”
MPV is a disease caused by a virus that involves a commonly painful or itchy rash that looks like pimples or blisters. Some people who contract MPV also experience flu-like symptoms including fever and swollen lymph nodes. It spreads primarily through prolonged physical contact, although it can spread through body fluids or through exposure to contaminated bedding or clothing. The most recent outbreak of MPV in the United States has spread rapidly through communities of men who have sex with men, although classifying MPV as a sexually transmitted infection would be inaccurate. This is the kind of information Multnomah County is trying to disclose to the general public, particularly the LGBTQ community, which has been disproportionately affected during this outbreak.
“We are not worried [MPV] be an STI, “says Christopher Hamel, a programs specialist on the HIV / STI prevention team and community testing coordinator.” There is a lot of talk about a ‘gay disease’, but there is no such thing as a gay disease. We want to talk about it. where to look for information and make sure that the information comes from a source that is as close and reliable as possible “.
To do so, Multnomah County officials leaned on those longstanding relationships with Portland’s LGBTQ bars and businesses. To start, health officials provided the bars with MPV-related public health materials – think flyers and brochures – and talked about the information contained in those flyers and brochures with the bartenders and owners of these bars. Typically, this explains how to protect customers and staff.
“By walking into these places wearing ID, saying you are from the health department, people know why you are there and are ready to listen,” says Hamel. “It’s really special. It is much more personal than I think the average person can expect.
It’s a start for now, but the health department hopes to go further. They are currently developing a trainer-style program related to public health, creating ambassadors within the queer community to help share information. However, building that curriculum will take time; the longer goal is to create information for a specific community without implying that it is exclusive or endemic to that community.
“It takes a lot of nuance to thread that needle, to make sure that accurate medical information is available to people,” says Mitchell. “Something we’ve learned over the years is that when the messages aren’t accurate enough, it can cause stigma, because stigma comes from fear.”
The emergence of the MPV outbreak during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced health officials to compare and evaluate their public health management strategies during the spread of a virus, although MPV and COVID-19 are not exactly comparable. Beyond the difference in the spread rate, the necessary closure of bars and restaurant dining rooms at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has left the health department without one of the many spaces to disseminate health information. Now that those spaces have reopened, queer bars can claim their role as places where the community can connect and support each other.
“As a gay man, the thrill, the sense of community, still happens when I go to a gay bar – it has been denied to us for so long,” says Hamel. “There are people who come to these spaces, we want to honor him and at the same time honor that community spaces are great places to share information.”
To find out more about MPV, check out the Multnomah County Facts page.