LGBTQ healthcare

LGBTQ+ History Month: 40 Years of Lessons from HIV/AIDS to Monkeypox

By Jewel Jones and J. Maurice McCants-Pearsall

About two years from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, whispers of yet another viral outbreak began to swirl and in May 2022, the CDC officially declared Monkeypox a public health emergency. Disproportionately affecting men who have sex with other men, early media’s fixation on transmission information created an unfortunately all-too-familiar challenge for public health officials: educating the public without repeating the history of fear-based and stigma causing communications from the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Despite early warnings and urgency from public health officials and communicators who rightly wanted to apply lessons learned from mistakes made 40 years ago, the real-time response to course correct felt slow. We witnessed members of the community not getting vaccinated because of confusing paperwork, invasive questionnaires, long lines, and the ever-present misinformation struggles of our modern society. But unlike what we had witnessed during the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the more recent COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a much swifter response rooted in accountability and action by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

For both the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic, big-name influencers were enlisted to help facilitate public health conversations. For Monkeypox, however, we saw more people getting tested and vaccinated (or diagnosed) after leaning into public health conversations with local influencers – advocates, executive directors of community-based organizations, and members of their own community who could share real-world experiences and perspectives.

Seeking to avoid completely repeating prior mistakes, HHS and CDC worked diligently to empower these community-based organizations to convene authentic conversations and create spaces to connect with the LGBTQ+ community. These conversations had the added benefit of resurfacing the importance of addressing social and structural determinants of health like access to healthcare, affordable and safe housing, equitable education and employment opportunities, and social and behavioral support.

While specifically important to the LGBTQ+ community, all these factors provided a powerful reminder that we need to be more mindful when thinking about the health of our communities. What are the barriers that exist? How, specifically, is health information relayed? Stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus so it is important for healthcare professionals and other sectors, including life sciences companies, to go beyond just a commitment to listening. We offer the following five critical points to making this a reality.

  1. Avoid sensationalizing public health information. Emphasize the importance of all community members’ health and to share accurate and relevant health information and services without sensationalizing.
  2. Embrace the vital role of inclusive data and insights around messaging. This is critical when thinking about creating messages that resonate with your audience. Having access to data and insights, and employing them thoughtfully, will also help you pivot quickly if messaging needs to shift.
  3. Build relationships with trusted community-based organizations. Bring community-based influencers to the table early to help shape your messaging and overall strategy. Whether your company engages them or not – they are doing the frontline work that drives true health equity.
  4. Make cultural humility an intrinsic part of communications efforts, not an afterthought or add-on. By helping connect more authentically with historically marginalized and underserved communities, you have an opportunity to innovate, close health gaps, and improve outcomes through serving and authentically committing to communities.
  5. Remember, words matter more now than ever – but only when reinforced by ACTION. You must not be complacent in achieving real progress. That means taking a step back and looking at your strategic approach, identifying the holes in leadership and hiring, and committing to being intersectional, inclusive, and equitable. The public is watching who makes good on their promises and if you are not, you will lose credibility and trust.

So, as we reflect on LGBTQ+ History Month and beyond, it is important to honor our communities by learning from the lessons of the past, and the not-so-immediate past. By continuing our commitment for progress in creating access and education for the LGBTQ+ community we can continue to make formidable progress for the health of all our communities.

Jewel Jones, Real Chemistry Jewel Jones is practice leader, global inclusion and health equity, Real Chemistry.
J. Maurice McCants-Pearsall, Real Chemistry Maurice McCants-Pearsall is vice president, health equity and special initiatives, Real Chemistry.