Last week, Annals of Internal Medicine published an important paper on drug-resistant MRSA, a bug often spread in hospitals but in this case circulating in the population. Binh An Diep and colleagues report that gay men are 13 times more likely to have this strain of MRSA than other people. MRSA can manifest itself in lots of nasty ways, but in this population, boils and lesions around the genitals or on guys’ bums were particularly common. The paper concludes that it is possible that the bug is being transmitted sexually among gay men, and it sensibly comments on necessary prevention measures.
Perhaps predictably, the report was picked up by the mainstream media as well as in the blogosphere. That stalwart of homophobia, the Traditional Values Coalition, rants on that the flesh-eating bug is reason enough to condemn homosexuality. “Homosexual sex is unnatural and results in a whole range of dangerous sexually transmitted diseases,” fulminates the TVC’s Andrea Lafferty. She’s off the mark — it is anal sex, not homosexual sex, that is “unnatural” (i.e. not naturally lubricated). This lack of lubcrication carries a higher chance of transmission for most STIs, whatever the gender of its practitioners. But let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good bit of gay bashing.
It is not the gay bashing that gives me this sickening feeling of deja vu. It is the reaction to it. Screeches of “homophobia”, “stigmatisation” etc etc have been leveled not just at the self-righteous, tub-thumping homophobes (who richly deserve being screeched at). They’ve been leveled too at the scientists who published the paper. And so has begun the “this can happen to anyone” backlash. The Centers for Disease Control, which financed part of the study, rushed out a statement saying that MRSA “infections occur in men, women, adults, children, and persons of all races and sexual orientations, and are known to be transmitted by close skin-to-skin contact”. They question the suggestion that MRSA may be sexually transmitted between gay men.
We’ve made this mistake before. When a community chooses to engage in behaviours that spread infection, it is not helpful, or pretty, to stigmatise them for it. But AIDS ought also to have taught us that it is not helpful to ignore the facts and pretend that everyone is equally at risk. It’s true that gay men are not the only people to be infected with drug-resistant MRSA, but when members of your community are 13 times more likely to be infected than anyone else, you’d think you’d want to invest time and energy getting cracking on prevention, rather than whining that unpleasant religious zealots are being mean to you.