Among San Francisco queers, a lot of us are thinking post-Roe and about Thomas’s promise to take back the rights we’d really just gotten used to. It’s put us on edge, falling back on uncertainties and well-worn distrust, wondering if our government has our back or if they’ll turn against us again.
In mid-July, I spent a sunny Berkeley day in line outside a sex club called Steamworks, waiting to get a shot of the monkeypox vaccine.
We got there from San Francisco 30 minutes before the scheduled start time, but double lines already stretched around the block. It was first come, first serve. So there were no guarantees. And we arrived in a rush, responding to multiple news reports, talking about an upswing in cases and, most urgently, limited amounts of vaccine.
We made a plan, then another one. No private health provider had the vaccine available, so public health agencies were the only game. We first planned to try the line at Zuckerberg General back in the city, and keep Steamworks in Berkeley as our back up. But then we saw Zuckerberg changed their posted hours to the afternoon, so we switched course to do Steamworks first. Maybe scramble back to SF if we needed to.
The crowd was friendly but nervous and also notably sexy. It was a warmish day and maybe given where we were gathered, short-shorts and tank tops and knee socks were standard issue. A few harnesses. Artful neck tattoos and on one calf ahead of us, the outline of a girthy dick flanked by a devil and an angel.
All ages, many strata, mostly white, Latino, and Asian. Some people were in couples, some were in groups, but plenty were standing alone, too. Early in the day, it felt cruisy, amicable, full of like-minded men showing up on a Wednesday to do the responsible thing. Doing your duty can be sexy. Today’s ethical man dresses a little slutty.
But then the double lines became a headline, because no one understood them. It turned out, in a separate line, you could buy a day pass to the club, get in the door before everyone else, and be assured of a shot. Two hundred out of five hundred shot-tickets had been reserved for that line. But we were in the other line, we were only hearing rumors, and we were wary of giving up our place, given how ours was already stretched for blocks.
It took close to an hour for our tickets to come, an anxious hour when no one even knew how many doses were getting doled out. 300? 500? How many are ahead of us? And what exactly is the deal with that other line? Already we were dubious about decisions getting made. Standing blindly in a line—was that a lesson learned from Covid? And why should we be standing there worrying—how could supplies really be as limited as everyone thinks?
Among those around us, once we all shared what we knew and what we were guessing, there was nothing to do but wait. No one talked much. No one felt like clowning or making a party of it. Earlier that morning we read reports of city council members “literally pleading the federal government for more vaccine.” And within the first hour of standing there, San Francisco announced it was closing its vaccine sites at the end of the day “until more is available.” It felt like now or never.
Then we learned our own site would be delayed because the contracted health workers needed to be trained how to administer the shots, in addition to getting up to speed on recording names and addresses. This, too, didn’t make sense. Where were the lessons from Covid? Why is this happening in the most clunky way?
How was the rest of the day supposed to go? What should we expect here? Was this a waste of time? Should we rush back to San Francisco and try Zuckerberg there? Or should we stick to where we are and bank on, say, four hours in the sun with no real assurance of getting a shot?
We’d read reports about long lines in New York but also about Los Angeles taking an invitation-only approach, a kind of curated contact tracing. Call a public health number, describe your contact with an infected person, and then they’d decide about setting up an appointment to give you the shot. Later a friend reported a LA health care worker saying they were prioritizing “people in their twenties because they can’t help themselves having sex.”
When a man finally made our way with a big roll of tickets from Office Depot, we were second and third to last. The quiet man directly behind us got the last. Golden tickets for Wonka’s factory. A Hunger Games’ reaping. Now it was just a matter of waiting—and dealing with the distrust. Who knew if they really had enough shots, given our last places in line? Did we still have time to make it elsewhere? How long will this line take?
Should this even be happening? Is this a gay thing? Would they have opened the doors at the Oakland Coliseum and flooded the place with vaccine if we were straight? How will this go when monkeypox spreads more widely, when more and more folks outside gay communities start posting pics of open lesions and weeping pox, with stories of unbearable pain, selfies of facial and private parts disfigured, while transmission factors are still an open question, sketchy at best?
Our line remained orderly, because a lot of us are used to health care lines like this. Many of us don’t wait for private healthcare—none of them had this vaccine yet and many often have seriously lagged on treatment and testing in the past. We know well this is what it takes to protect yourself and to protect others.
But how would anti-vaxxers respond to this, the early days of a pox? Monkeypox can be minor, with just a fever and fatigue, but how will deniers respond when painful boils appear on their foreheads and cheeks? It’s not hard to imagine the Biblical panic, the fire and brimstone, and lots of fingerpointing back at us, the people standing in line for hours today.
A few of us peeled off, either because of work or simmering distrust, especially as the day dragged on. Four hours, then five. Between the couple ahead of us, the woman stepped off to do a job interview in her car. Later, after she came back, she talked about aging out of anarchism. The man she was with broke from the line to talk to his therapist, telling us how he’d complained that the day was another sign of the country’s slide into fascism.
Some people stuck behind us, with even more uncertainty, banking on people giving up and passing their shot-tickets back to them. One man called his young boyfriend for support, bringing him a phone charger, a chicken panini, a small bag of edibles, and a sporty folding chair. Two queer men behind us had met at Steamworks the weekend before. One of them lived a couple hours away but had stuck around when he learned about the outbreak, convinced it could take months to get a vaccine back home. So he’d shacked up with his club buddy for a few days. Love in the time of monkeypox.
People passed us bragging about sneaking in, line-jumping without tickets, getting in through a back door. That was especially frustrating, both because of the selfishness but also adding to the uncertainty about available doses. Health care workers passed too, frequently surveilling us, counting heads and multiplying our doubts. By hour eight, with the sun lower and the shadows starting to cool things, we heard our site had run out of forms, so there’d be more delays.
It took nine hours to get shots in our arms, while news copters buzzed overhead and local TV reporters set up cameras to capture the spectacle of us. I heard from friends in San Francisco who’d failed to get shots, because those clinics had run out. I heard from my family, including a sister happy to have Paxlovid for her first Covid infection. I heard Steamworks planned to do it again the next week with the “lessons learned.” Although doubts about the supply remain—especially around how or if we’d get the second dose in just four weeks.
I read a headline about 1.5 million monkeypox doses stuck in freezers in Denmark, ready-to-go vaccines the FDA failed to certify in their regular rounds earlier this year. Where were the military planes flying them to US cities? Where was the urgency? Where are the shots?