In a possible hate crime, DC police say, assault suspects used anti-gay slur, referenced monkeypox

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WASHINGTON – Police were investigating a possible hate crime after two men said they were attacked by assailants who used a homophobic slur and referenced the monkeypox virus.

The men told police they were were walking down the street in the district's Shaw neighborhood Sunday when the suspects approached them, called them an anti-gay slur and referred to monkeypox, according to an incident report. The suspects then punched the two men "several times" and broke one victim's sunglasses, the report said.

The incident comes after the Biden administration declared monkeypox a public health emergency this month. More than 9,400 cases have been confirmed in the U.S. Monkeypox comes from the same family of viruses as smallpox and is transmitted through person-to-person contact. Though the majority of cases are among men who have sex with men, experts have stressed it is not a sexually transmitted infection.

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Washington police were investigating the attack as "potentially being motivated by hate or bias," according to a news release. The department released photos of two persons of interest Tuesday. No arrests have been made.

Police said the two men were treated at the hospital.

Combating the stigma associated with monkeypox is everyone's responsibility, said Christopher Vasquez, director of communications for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a national LGBTQ legal organization.

"It's incumbent on everybody right now to do the best that they can" to ensure that gay and bisexual men and transgender people aren't singled out as the reason for the outbreak, Vasquez said.

In a statement Tuesday, Mayor Muriel Bowser said she was "extremely disturbed" by the report. The Metropolitan Police Department's LGBT Liaison Unit is assisting in the investigation, she said.

"We must call out the people in our circles if they promote hateful or ignorant ideology, especially right now when people are using public health to stigmatize and discriminate against members of the LGBTQ+ community," Bowser wrote.

Metro Weekly, an LGBTQ magazine, first reported the attack on Monday.

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In Washington, there have been 23 reports of hate crimes related to sexual orientation bias in 2022 as of June 30, compared with 17 by the same time last year, according to crime statistics from the Metropolitan Police Department.

Last month, the city reported the highest monkeypox rate per capita in the U.S. The city has reported 318 cases.

The dangers of stigma are apparent in hate crimes against other marginalized communities, according to Vasquez, and can be just as harmful for the LGBTQ community with monkeypox stigma because violence against the group is already on the rise.

"What we know from stigma around other protected classes like Asian individuals, Muslims, transgender individuals, is these words really have a lot of power to cause harm," Vasquez said. "And when you weaponize them and cause stigma it is going to lead to obvious attacks against those communities by radical individuals that hold these ideas."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DC police investigate hate crime after 2 men use monkeypox, gay slurs