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Identity concealment in sexual minority men may have impeded mpox care – study

Openly gay, bisexual and other sexual minority men were more likely than those who conceal their sexual orientation to seek care for mpox during a global outbreak of the disease last year that disproportionately affected their community.

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Openly gay, bisexual and other sexual minority men were more likely than those who conceal their sexual orientation to seek care for mpox during a global outbreak of the disease last year that disproportionately affected their community, researchers from Cornell University and the University of Toronto found.

It wasn’t necessarily concern over being “outed” that kept some sexual minority men from seeking care for the disease, formerly known as monkeypox. According to the researchers, it was an information gap, partially attributable to separation from community due to identity concealment.

“The resource knowledge and community-connected piece seems to be implicated in that process, not outing concerns, and that was a surprise to me,” said Joel Le Forestier, a postdoctoral researcher in communication at Cornell.

Le Forestier is first author of “Identity Concealment May Discourage Health-Seeking Behaviors: Evidence from Sexual Minority Men During the 2022 Global Mpox Outbreak,” published in Psychological Science.

For their study, Le Forestier and the team recruited hundreds of sexual minority men from Australia, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. at two points in the mpox outbreak: during its peak, in August of 2022 and as the outbreak waned, approximately two months later. Participants filled out an online questionnaire testing the researchers’ hypothesis that sexual orientation concealment would be associated with reduced mpox-related health behavior.

Some participants’ responses indicated that the dangers of mpox trumped concerns over identity revelations. “What that suggests,” Le Forestier said, “is that people who are in the closet and afraid of being outed are nonetheless saying, ‘This is important enough to me that I’m going to do it anyway.’”

Le Forestier said a friend’s perspective on the awareness factor sparked the research. During his doctoral work, Le Forestier was living in Toronto next to a facility that had begun offering mpox vaccinations. Le Forestier noticed that the mpox line overwhelmingly featured men who presented as sexual minority. “I’m thinking, if you’re in this long line of identifiably sexual minority men, and your friend walks by, you’ve just been outed to your friend.”

But then in talking to his friend, Le Forestier’s perspective shifted. “He said, ‘It might not just be that they would be too afraid to get in that line because they worry about being outed; it might be that they don’t know that line even exists,’” Le Forestier said. “The only places that my friend had seen ads for mpox vaccine clinics were in gay bars, and in the local gay village community center. So if you’re not engaging in the community in these sort of public ways, then these resources just aren’t getting to you.”

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So how does the public health community make sure people from marginalized groups get the kind of health-related information they need? It’s the “million-dollar question,” Le Forestier said.

“I think the lesson here is that there are things to be gained by enmeshing yourself in your community, if you can,” he said. “Affiliating with that community and becoming a part of that community can confer some real benefits to you. Knowing about public health resources is not the only thing but it’s definitely one of them.”

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