At the Monkeypox Clinic
Psst: Get vaccinated, if you can!
THE FIRST TIME I sit for my monkeypox vaccine here in D.C., it’s August 5. It’s five days before the global daily average of monkeypox cases peaks, on August 10, at roughly 1,021 cases. Daily.
The country was already too late in its response, even though we were supposed to have learned something from the pandemic that slowed our world down to a halt and has now left it moving in fits and starts.
So many queer people around the world have chronicled the deep pain that comes with a case of monkeypox. Joseph Pierce, and queer Cherokee writer and a professor at Stony Brook, posted an eye-opening personal history of his ordeal with monkeypox and trying to find medication for it in New York City.
There is this spot on my left middle finger. I had noticed it a few days earlier, and told my partner that it must have been an insect bite. It was round and looked like an ant bite, but bigger, maybe a spider? I didn’t know. My partner also thought it looked like an insect bite.
That night (day 4) I sweat through my t-shirt, again, and though I felt better the next day, the blister had been there for too long, it seemed to me. Too long to be a regular insect bite. I took a shower.
There is another blister on my groin. Fuck.
Once vaccines were rolled out, the limited supply meant that not everyone who needed it could access it. Gay men were prioritized, but it was a specific kind of gay man. At least in D.C., the eligibility questionnaire seemed to prioritize cis men who had sex with other cis men. While yes, there is some public health basis for this, the prioritization in the name of “equity” may have had an alienating effect on trans men, who, despite being men, didn’t quite count to receive the vaccine the same way as cis men.
I got the link to set up an appointment and immediately clicked on it.
The vaccine clinic I go to, one of three, is in a surprisingly non-descript government building in downtown D.C., near all kinds of law firms and consulting outfits and federal offices. Only a small foldable sign confirms the location. Once I show my confirmation to the security guard—why are there four, five security guards here, I don’t know—I am given a clipboard with a form and number on it, 41. I try to estimate how long I have to wait: there’s three women helping people process patients’ forms, and then they have to get jabbed, then wait fifteen minutes. I’m supposed to be in Baltimore, which is an hour away, to catch a flight in, like, three hours. I hear one of the nurses call out: “Sixteen!”
In Boris Johnson’s famous formulation, “them’s the breaks.” There’s a grid of grey folding chairs, and I pick one of the two empty ones. I wait. For queer people, getting the monkeypox vaccine has been both gratifying and uncomfortable: In some places, we have had to line up outside a vaccine clinic for hours, exposed to passersby who quickly clock that oh, this is where those deviant promiscuous queers are. Then there’s the awkwardness of running into someone you thought you’d only have to see on Grindr, or even worse, the fear of seeing your one-night stand from last week. And if you don’t recognize anyone, there’s at least an undeniable sexual tension thickening the air because some of us dress like we’re going to the gay club, like any instant holds the possibility of an encounter. All of us wear masks. All of us know how to flirt with our eyes.
At the monkeypox clinic, there’s bodies of all kinds and a multitude of gender expressions. Fat Latines, brown mascs, leather gays, skinny Black femmes, old queens. There is an alarming number of white men whose fashion sense (Under Armour athletic t-shirt, Target knee-length khaki shorts, white socks and New Balances) seems at odds with their presence here, based on the prioritization. They cross their right leg over their left but wound them tightly together, as if they need to keep them closed, and stare at their phones or the polished vinyl floors. The pattern on them reminds me of my stretch marks. Every time someone’s number is called by the Black nurses, short Latinas get up and wipe down punctually the chairs that have just been emptied. All but one of the clinicians actually administering the vaccine are Black women. The lone white person is a medical student.
As sardonic as I can be, I try not to take access to the vaccine for granted. So many people here still remember the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80s, when gay men were literally decimated: One in 10 gay men born between 1951 and 1970 died in the United States from this epidemic.I also try to hold on to the one good thing America did during the pandemic: let undocumented immigrants get the vaccine. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which the opposite outcome occurred—it only would have taken clinicians asking for a form of government-issued identification to exclude a population larger than that of the whole state of Michigan. It’s not necessary to imagine it, either. On March 17, 2021, Rite Aid apologized for turning away a family of undocumented immigrants in Southern California when they couldn’t produce government IDs, which its pharmacists had said were required to receive the vaccine.
This doesn’t surprise me. The United States was roundly criticized globally for hoarding shots.
Somewhere along the line, bureaucrats realized that it wouldn’t make sense to prioritize vaccines based on citizenship. The plagues we face these days are borderless, and viruses doesn’t check anyone’s passport before infecting them. As long as they can find viable unvaccinated hosts, they’ll keep mutating and re-infecting those who have been inoculated. It just makes sense to vaccinate everyone. Maybe this is the logic that should guide us when we make decisions about who gets to participate in a democracy. Exclusion is no less grave an ill.
I get the shot, I wait fifteen minutes, I leave, I catch my flight. I have no side effects besides a bruise whose shape resembles a cow’s spots on my triceps. When I tell my father about getting the shot, I’m faced with the sad reality that he doesn’t have the same access to health care in Florida yet.
On Thursday, I got my second dose. Same place, same process. The seats, though, are depressingly empty. Maybe those who most needed the vaccine have gotten it, or maybe they think one dose is enough and they never bothered to get the second one. Perhaps supplies are dwindling and I’m one of the few who was called for a second appointment. What I know is that there’s privilege in this experience, even if the experience is complicated. Latin America in particular has been rocked by monkeypox and gotten a smaller proportion of vaccine supplies.
There are some signs of improvement. Through public advocacy and the force of social media, queer people have been able to slow down the spread of this disease. The latest figures show a daily average of 560 cases, which is still too many, but we’ve managed to cut the number in half in a month and a half. Leo Herrera, a writer and activist who hosts the podcast A Bumpy Ride, sees this as “the heatmap cooling.”
“Our activists and caretakers, a compass, again. A map of lesions and lessons. The topography of us. I see us,” he writes.
This time, the dose went just below my left forearm skin. First a little bubble formed. Then, it flattened. Today it’s a red, itchy, hot welt.
Today we’re not just surviving.
Chile tried to re-write its constitution. For Vox, I wrote about what it can teach us about the political hurdles to updating a country’s social contract.
I’ve been thinking nonstop about the Venezuelans used as pawns in Ron DeSantis’ political stunt and sent to Martha’s Vineyard. I have too many thoughts and not enough words right now. But this summer, I wrote about being undocumented in Nantucket and about the real meaning of “sanctuary.”
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Undocumented immigrants remain one of the populations with the lowest rates of HIV testing given how impossible it is to access health insurance. If you can’t work, your only other option is Medicare, and most undocumented people don’t qualify for federal programs.
What some people also don’t realize is that even newly documented people don’t qualify for federal programs because of old antiquated “public charge” laws. Although the regulation is changing soon (albeit not enough), it’s still very much based on the racist, classist, and outright wrong arguments of “welfare queens” and “people taking advantage the system” that remains highly politicized today.
I shudder to think of the tens of millions of Covid-19 doses that the U.S. wasted -- expired because of stockpiling, mismanagement and a population that resisted it.