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Dispatches from the present


Monkeypox and Gay Peripeteia


The line was contiguous with the perimeter of a large courtyard outside the Bronx High School of Science: 48 men who slept with men. I was the 49th. The sticky summer air had occasioned a near-uniform regalia of tank tops and short shorts. Or maybe the air was only the jus ad bellum for skin to be bared. Either way, we were all in view of West 205th Street. Passersby could have easily deduced our sexual habits and susceptibility to an ugly new disease. Exchanged between the men themselves were a welter of awkward glances—looks of fraternity, flirtation, faultfinding, foreboding. The atmosphere hovered between bread line and gay bar.

In another year, another country, a queue of queers at a public vaccination site would’ve been ripe for all kinds of exploitation and abuse. But on that day, an army of merry health workers, about one for every four patients, choreographed an atmosphere of—and I choose these words in spite of their patriotic intimations—civic tenderness. Arrayed in fluorescent yellow vests, the health workers steered the line, sang songs and doled out masks, bottles of water, pamphlets and “god bless you’s.” Most were nurses at schools around the city, conscripting their summer holidays into ten-hour shifts for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. One team captain in her late sixties treated us to a pep talk: “Thank you for waiting in this heat. I just wanted to say that you’ve all been so courteous. You’re doing the right thing.”

Neither bread line nor gay bar, then, but a dogged epidemiological bricolage—a homosexual’s “United We Stand.” That afternoon, July 30th, happened to be the same day New York City declared the outbreak to be a public-health emergency, just ten weeks after the city’s first recorded case. Yet, if national coverage of the monkeypox vaccine was a representative index, my first dose was some freakily fortuitous sliver of Eden. Last month, Democratic Senator Patty Murray chided the Biden administration for its early “missteps” and “unacceptable” overall response to the outbreak. In the New York Review of Books, esteemed AIDS historian and activist Sarah Schulman wrote that the outbreak has revealed “the inability of the public health system as a whole to recognize the specific needs of men who have sex with men.” Gay men and their sex parties are still blighted by stigma and homophobia, she argued, and in the end: “Asking people to stand on line, publicly, in the streets of their own neighborhoods to get vaccines for a virus widely associated with homosexuality is not good public health policy.”

The critics, of course, have a point. In the first weeks of monkeypox, bureaucracy and inertia hampered widespread testing and the swift utilization of our extant vaccine stockpile—consequently botching the chance to preliminarily contain the outbreak. In New York City, there are lingering disparities between demographics that are infected and those that are vaccinated. The same is true across the country, where there is differing, sometimes starkly differing, access to information, treatment, vaccines and workplace accommodation. But here’s how proclamations about nationwide political conditions can become unhelpful, if not unfeasible. On the one hand, a federal response needs to be met at its universalist aspirations. On the other, a country as large as ours will unavoidably entail fragmentary realities—what’s evident in New York City isn’t so in Jackson, Mississippi—and I am thereby emboldened to declare a golden age for gay disease in my small, populous and populously gay corner of the country.

Maybe even beyond it. Officials on both local and federal levels have displayed striking finesse in their statements about the outbreak. While President Reagan’s press secretary amused reporters with his sneering indifference to AIDS (“I don’t have it. Do you?”), President Biden’s press secretary has taken great pains to affirm our shared duty to not “stigmatize any community.” Yes, appraising a government’s policies in relative terms is irritatingly sanguine, but surely here we can find some case for exultation. In fact, the prudent efforts to avoid stigmatizing queer people went one step too far. The vestigial miasma of the AIDS crisis seems to have dragooned officials (and many journalists) into sparing gay men the slightest bit of bad publicity, hence their months-long tiptoeing around what is not only obvious to most of us but also epidemiologically fundamental to the spread of any  primarily sexually transmissible disease: sexually active gay men can be raucously promiscuous, many times more so than straight men. This politesse—eventually disbanded by writers at the likes of Slate, the Atlantic and Buzzfeed—was surely not due to some prissy, homophobic horror of promiscuity. Rather, it was in the service, the destigmatizing and exculpating service, of my “community.”

Any characterization of our body politic’s agendas and animuses will fall short if it doesn’t distinguish between specifically discriminatory policies and the general proletarian desolation that is ever more typical of what ranks among the industrialized world’s most ruthless economies. After all, wouldn’t any new disease have glaringly evidenced the grotesquely corporatocratic politics of health care in our country? Didn’t the epidemic virus preceding monkeypox, which was indifferent to sexual orientations, do just that? Our public-health infrastructure looks more like Estonia’s than Canada’s. So yes, it’s not surprising that local sexual-health clinics aren’t being even marginally compensated for having shouldered much of the ground warfare with monkeypox. Or that Congress refused to approve the $4.5 billion set aside by the Biden administration to tackle the virus. Or that funding for the treatment of all STIs is falling. To go fishing for homophobic agendas in our official monkeypox response is to relapse into an all-too-fashionable misdirection. If nowhere else than in my compact little city (where, by the way, sex parties are widely and grandly advertised), promiscuous gays appear to be not just less objectionable than ever but also en route to a sort of protected class, enfranchised in our desires, even our imprudences.

I received my second dose of the vaccine last Friday. I was ushered to my table at Gouverneur Health on the Lower East Side by an ostensibly straight security guard, who’d buoyantly found me a mask (“I got you brotha!”) and helped me fill out an intake form I’d overlooked (“We’ll do this in thirty seconds!”). There was no line this time. On my way out, the guard handed me a complimentary drawstring backpack with the city’s “I’m an NYC Vax Champ!” insignia. First, he drew the bag open, revealing a hat, t-shirt and masks.

“Let me add some more goodies,” he said, stuffing in a water bottle and some COVID tests before wishing me a blessed day.