- Insider’s Joel Marino got monkeypox in July. The bread was so bad he couldn’t lie down at times.
- Marino said the stigma was awful — with monkeypox, people look at you differently.
- This is Marino’s story, as told to Insider reporter Hilary Brueck.
I spent most of June isolating with COVID-19, a disease I’d managed to avoid until this summer. Frustratingly, as an out gay man, the diagnosis meant spending nearly all of Pride Month by myself, pacing my New York City apartment. I canceled plans with friends and stayed in.
This was supposed to be the year that nothing was going to stand in my way. The start of the pandemic in 2020 and the 2021 Delta surge had put a damper on two Pride celebrations; I didn’t want to miss out on a third.
So once my week of fever, fatigue, and chills was behind me, and I tested COVID negative for three days in a row, I made a beeline for a queer dance party in Manhattan on the last Sunday in June.
It was a fantastic night. Finally, after so many months of being careful, getting vaccinated and boosted, and taking necessary pandemic precautions (which, honestly, meant less dating), I was able to touch strangers again and we could enjoy it. I danced, I kissed, I conquered. I met someone and we asked each other coyly, “Your place or mine?”
Monkeypox feels like something that happens to other people. Until it’s not.
There wasn’t much talk about monkeypox going around the club then. People briefly mentioned it, if nothing else to laugh at the bad name, but it still felt like something that was happening to other people, somewhere else.
My mom, who was already worried about me recovering from COVID, had texted me and suggested that maybe I should get vaccinated with Jynneos, but there were barely any monkeypox vaccines available in the city at that time. It was so hard to get an appointment, people often waited hours and hours in the blistering sun, and I just thought, “What are the chances, really, of catching this thing?” I hadn’t heard of anybody who had caught monkeypox yet in my social circle, or even on social media.
I spent a week feeling good after the party, reconnecting with friends after my COVID infection, and soaking up summer.
Then, about nine days after the dance, I started to feel a strange itch in the back of my throat. The tickle progressed into swelling over the next several days. I went to urgent care. No one even mentioned monkeypox. It wasn’t on my mind, or anyone else’s. I was tested for strep, syphilis, and other diseases. Nothing came back positive.
My monkeypox appeared overnight
On Sunday, a full two weeks after the party, I woke up and suddenly realized my throat was so swollen I couldn’t swallow properly. I couldn’t talk. I rushed to the mirror and, to my horror, my body was covered in little pimples and blisters. They had surfaced 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, abdomen, and butt. I instantly knew that I had caught monkeypox. The incubation period lined up neatly with the dance party.
The monkeypox diagnosis was so much harder on me than COVID, not just physically (the lesions were so painful at times that I could not even sit or lie down) — mentally and spiritually, the disease also really took a toll.
COVID didn’t hurt me in the same way emotionally. The disease has been intensely studied for more than two years, there are vaccines, booster shots, and treatments available, plus I knew what to expect. I have so many friends who’ve shared what it feels like to get COVID, so my loss of smell and taste weren’t a surprise, and mercifully the US now has a bountiful supply of free, at-home tests to confirm a diagnosis .
Surviving monkeypox meant dealing with internalized homophobic thoughts I hadn’t acknowledged in years
Monkeypox felt like my punishment for being a proud gay man. Having grown up in a fundamentalist Christian family, the son of a Pentecostal minister, I found thoughts that I’d abandoned long ago racing back into my fever dreams.
As I sweat through my sheets and my temperature climbed to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, I briefly considered going to the hospital, but I worried about putting others at risk, or getting stuck at the hospital for days on end, and eventually I thought, “Well , I just got through COVID by myself. I can get through monkeypox by myself, too.”
Being home alone with monkeypox gave me a lot of time to think, overthink, and dissect my own thoughts about the diagnosis: “Is this a punishment from God? Have my wanton ways caught up to me? Have I been too hedonistic, and this is the universe’s cruel way of telling me so?”
Ideas about being gay that I hadn’t grappled with since my father put me into a single session of “reparative therapy” at age 19 all came swirling back.
I wasn’t the only one having them.
A lot of people have been spewing nasty rhetoric, both clear and coded, about the ways that people are getting monkeypox, suggesting monkeypox spreading to kids is something predatory and pedophilic, or even just that the disease isn’t their concern. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s comments that monkeypox is “not a threat” to “most of the population” were probably some of the most upsetting for me — such a classic othering of gay people, much like what happened during the AIDS crisis when I was a kid . It’s painful to see people still react this way when gay people get sick.
Watching episodes of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Love, Victor” as I recovered really helped me counterbalance the apocalyptic, religious thoughts going on in my head. “Hey, it’s OK being gay, Joel,” I told myself. “Keep remembering that.”
My colleagues sent me pints of ice cream as a get-well gift, and the cold treat really helped with swelling in my throat (so did gargling salt water, although it was too painful at first).
My scars, both the physical and emotional ones, are still healing
As I recover from monkeypox, I’ve been spending time visiting my family, and it’s nice to be together in person with the people I love after spending so long by myself sick and in isolation this summer. But there are things we do not mention.
I haven’t pointed out to them the still-healing monkeypox scars on my body, the pinkish new skin left where lesions have scabbed off. Acknowledging the scars would be acknowledging my gayness in front of them. We don’t do that anymore. I came out to my family as a teenager, and after many contentious years in my 20s, we’ve reached a place now where nobody really wants to talk about my homosexuality. It’s too upsetting for everybody, including me. Seeing the visible scars of my infection as I type on my computer makes me wonder: “Is this something I have to address?”
Once you have monkeypox, people start looking at you differently. A lot of my friends have asked me some version of a raised-eyebrow “How did that happen?” — which is something no one ever wondered about my COVID diagnosis.
Now I tell all my gay friends, “Please get vaccinated as soon as you can.” Some have, others say “I’m careful” or “I’m in a relationship,” suggesting they aren’t worried about getting infected yet.
People need to realize monkeypox is happening to people they know and love. And it isn’t a punishment for any moral misdeeds.