- Insider’s Joel Marino contracted monkey pox in July. The pain was so bad that sometimes he couldn’t lie down.
- Marino said the stigma was terrible – with monkeypox, people look at you differently.
- This is Marino’s story, told to Insider reporter Hilary Brueck.
I spent most of June in isolation with COVID-19, an illness I had managed to avoid until this summer. Frustratingly, the diagnosis meant that as a gay man, I spent nearly all of Pride Month alone, pacing around my New York City apartment. I canceled plans with friends and stayed inside.
This should have been the year that nothing stood in my way. The onset of the pandemic in 2020 and the Delta surge in 2021 put a damper on two Pride celebrations; I didn’t want to miss a third.
So with my week of fever, fatigue, and chills behind me and I tested COVID negative for three days in a row, I got ready for a queer dance party in Manhattan on the last Sunday of June.
It was a fantastic evening. Finally, after so many months of being careful, getting vaccinated and getting a boost, and taking the necessary pandemic precautions (which, frankly, meant less dating), I was able to touch and enjoy strangers again. I danced, I kissed, I conquered. I met someone and we shyly asked, “Your place or mine?”
Monkeypox feels like something that happens to other people. Until it is no more.
There wasn’t much talk about monkey pox in the club back then. People called it short, if only to laugh at the bad name, but it still felt like something happened to other people, somewhere else.
My mother, already concerned about my recovery from COVID, had texted me and suggested that I might need to get vaccinated with Jynneos, but there were hardly any monkeypox vaccines available in the city at the time. It was so hard to get an appointment, people would often wait hours and hours in the sweltering sun, and I just thought, “What are the odds of actually catching this thing?” I had never heard of anyone who had had monkey pox in my social circle, or even on social media.
I felt good for a week after the party, reconnected with friends after my COVID infection and enjoyed the summer.
Then, about nine days after the dance, I started to feel a strange itch in the back of my throat. The tickle turned into swelling over the next few days. I went to the emergency room. No one even mentioned monkey pox. It wasn’t on my mind, or anyone else’s. I was tested for strep, syphilis and other diseases. Nothing came back positive.
My monkey pox appeared overnight
On Sunday, two full weeks after the party, I woke up and suddenly realized that my throat was so swollen that I couldn’t swallow properly. I couldn’t talk. I ran to the mirror and to my horror my body was covered with small pimples and blisters. They had emerged overnight like a bunch of mosquito bites.
I had little red bumps all over my body – I counted more than two dozen on my face, hands, arms, legs, stomach and butt. I knew immediately that I had contracted monkey pox. The incubation period matched the dance party nicely.
Being diagnosed with monkey pox was so much harder for me than COVID, not just physically (the lesions were sometimes so painful I couldn’t even sit or lie down) – mentally and spiritually, the disease really took its toll.
COVID didn’t hurt me emotionally in the same way. The disease has been intensively studied for over two years, vaccines, booster shots, and treatments are available, and I knew what to expect. I have so many friends who have shared what it feels like to get COVID, so my loss of smell and taste was no surprise, and thankfully the US now has an abundant supply of free home tests to confirm a diagnosis.
Surviving monkey pox meant dealing with internalized homophobic thoughts I hadn’t acknowledged in years
Monkeypox felt like my punishment for being a proud gay man. Raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, the son of a Pentecostal preacher, I found thoughts that I had given up long ago and ran back into my feverish dreams.
As I sweated through my sheets and my temperature climbed to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, I briefly considered going to the hospital, but worried about endangering others, or being stuck in the hospital for days, and finally I thought : “Well, I just got through COVID alone. I can also get monkey pox myself.”
Being home alone with monkey pox gave me a lot of time to reflect, ponder, and dissect my own thoughts about the diagnosis: “Is this a punishment from God? Have my wanton ways caught up with me? Have I been too hedonistic, and this is the cruel way the universe tells me?”
Ideas about being gay that I hadn’t struggled with since my father put me in a single session of “remedial therapy” at age 19 all came back.
I wasn’t the only one who had them.
Many people have uttered vicious rhetoric, both plain and coded, about the ways people get monkeypox, suggesting that the spread of monkeypox to children is something predatory and pedophile, or even that the disease isn’t their concern. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s comments that monkey pox is “no threat” to “most of the population” were probably some of the most disturbing to me—such classically different gay behavior, much like what happened during the AIDS crisis. crisis when I was a child . It’s painful to see people still react this way when gays get sick.
Watching episodes of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Love, Victor” while I was recovering really helped me counteract the apocalyptic, religious thoughts going through my head. “Hey, it’s okay to be gay, Joel,” I said to myself. “Keep that in mind.”
My coworkers sent me a pint of ice cream as a get-well gift, and the cold treat really helped the swelling in my throat (much like gargling with salt water, although it was too painful at first).
My scars, both physical and emotional, are still healing
While I’m recovering from monkey pox, I spend time visiting my family, and it’s nice to be in person with the people I love after spending so long alone, sick and isolated this summer. But there are things we don’t mention.
I didn’t point out the still-healing monkeypox scars on my body, the pinkish new skin left where the lesions have flaked off. To acknowledge the scars would be to acknowledge my homosexuality in front of them. We don’t do that anymore. I came out to my family as a teenager and after many controversial years in my twenties, we have now reached a point where no one really wants to talk about my homosexuality. It’s too shocking for everyone, including me. Seeing the visible scars of my infection as I type on my computer makes me wonder, “Is this something I need to address?”
Once you have monkey pox, people start to look at you differently. Many of my friends have asked me a version of a raised eyebrow, “How did that happen?” – something no one ever wondered about my COVID diagnosis.
Now I say to all my gay friends, “Please get vaccinated ASAP.” Some have, others say “I’m careful” or “I’m in a relationship,” suggesting they’re not yet worried about getting infected.
People need to realize that monkey pox happens to people they know and love. And it is not a punishment for moral wrongdoing.