The Monkeypox Vaccine Hunger Games Are On

Everybody’s angry, some are in denial, and … it’s hot out here.

Photo: Matías Alvial
Photo: Matías Alvial

Monkeypox, monkeypox, monkeypox!

For many men who have sex with men, it’s been the entire topic of conversation for over a month. That and how to get vaccinated against it. The question of how serious it is — despite the somewhat cute-sounding name — was soon answered as more and more people got it and shared their vivid genital experiences online. (Short answer: It really, really sucks.)

Last night, a group of mostly queer men gathered in Bushwick to celebrate a Tom of Finland book launch and the room quickly divided into the few who (a little smugly) had managed to finagle their first vaxx dose and the many who had earlier in the day gotten a text alert from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that on Friday, July 22, at 6 p.m., a new batch of appointments would be made available. Meanwhile, there were the horror stories. Matthew Cancel, a Manhattan-based publicist, took to Instagram to raise awareness by describing his symptoms in explicit detail. “The sores are painful and itchy and I had to wear baggy sweats that covered everything,” he told me. “It’s sad, but I feel like the only way to get people to care is to poke at their vanity and have them understand this is an ugly illness that leaves physical marks.” Seeking relief wasn’t any easier. “I was hung up on multiple times by emergency rooms who simply would not listen to me and was told by others that unless my symptoms became ‘severe’ there was nothing they could do.” Here’s an anecdote going around the Tom of Finland party: One friend of a friend apparently developed the pox’s trademark lesions inside his penis, requiring him to be catheterized. At this point, everybody went to the bar for another rosé.

Currently, there are more than 2,400 cases in the U.S., a number that has tripled in three weeks, post-Pride, which is probably low, considering the fact that there is very little testing and apparently significant variation in how awful the symptoms are. Meanwhile, there is politicized infighting: According to the New York Times, the city’s health department is bickering over whether it would be stigmatizing to advise gay men to change their sexual practices. WHO is considering declaring a global emergency, and yes, there are some vaccine doses (scrappy work-arounds are helpful to get them), and some antviral medications (if you can navigate the paperwork) to combat the symptoms.

On Thursday night, one block away from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in New York, a hundred or so activists organized by a number of organizations, including ACT UP New York, PrEP4All, and VOCAL-NY, got together (some went to the Tom of Finland party later) in Foley Square to stand up to the local and federal governments. The gathering was preempted by a list of demands released by the groups, the majority having to do with the need for tests, treatment, and vaccines (New York State is currently awaiting 760,000 vaccines from Denmark; HHS has ordered 2.5 million doses, which will not arrive until next year).

“We’ve been trying to play nice with the administration, but they haven’t listened and they haven’t mobilized. That’s why we’ve gathered here today and are trying to really ramp up pressure,” Christian Urrutia, the co-founder of PrEP4All, tells me. He’s spent the past three weeks studying up on all the information available online. I ask what those conversations with officials have been like. Someone who identifies himself as a representative from the public advocate’s office — “I’m Jumaane Williams, but shorter” — interrupts. “I’m just going to jump in at this moment as a government staffer. I’m going to ask you, pointedly, Do you know when this is going to start?” Will the real Williams be here today? No.

Around him were handmade signs that read things like “POX VAX NOW” and “You Did This to Us in the ’80s When AIDS Patients Needed Emergency Treatment. #NeverAgain.” There were also some trying to make light of the situation, such as “I Only Like My Sugar Daddy to Fuck Me, Not the Government” and “Whores 4 Public Health.” The men in the crowd greeted each other with handshakes and hugs.

And so begins a lineup of speakers, many of whom recognize the number of “Silence=Death” T-shirts in the crowd and hark back to 1980s New York and the “Reagan Republican homophobic shit administration” at the time. “How am I 13 again? What is going on?” I overhear a bear with a ’stache ask his friend. State Senator Brad Hoylman quotes Larry Kramer, “Watch the numbers, use the numbers to understand — and with that understanding, go big, and go big soon.” Then: “The pandemic is on fire.” The crowd sweats silently.

There’s much talk, through the whole rally, about queer people caring for queer people. The crowd chants, over and over and over again, “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe.” Another one: “Who protects us? We protect us.” Though, of course, there’s not much anyone here can do for one another besides offer up a spare bottle of water. Jennifer Balenciaga, a fabulously tall woman from the ballroom scene, reminds the crowd there is one way, and it’s the way most people seem to be finding out about monkeypox right now, and that’s by posting about their symptoms online. “The thing about queers is that queers everywhere care about queers anywhere,” someone else says, reminding the crowd to think of their friends in far off places like Alabama and Ohio. That would be more powerful if there were vaccines in New York.

“I have a friend who works in the Biden administration,” says one especially angry speaker, supposedly quoting what the president asked regarding the activists: “Why are they fighting us?” Another talks about his “lived experience” with monkeypox, describing it as “one of the lowest points of my life” with “excruciating pain.” Another says his friend who’d had it felt like he was “shitting glass.”

Few things lighten up the crowd, where the mood isn’t so much angry or sad as it is general hopelessness. One speaker in an ACT UP crop top tries to spark a call and repeat of, “More testing, more vaccines, more treatment, Miss Thing,” but it’s as cringey as it is unfunny. Only Cecilia Gentili of Trans Equity Consulting, in cat’s-eye glasses, can make anyone giggle by admitting what perhaps everyone’s thinking: “I finally got my air conditioner. I wanna be home having sex with somebody … Instead, I go on a website waiting all day for an update.” Pointing to a hunky epidemiologist in the crowd who just spoke, she says, “I’m not trying to fetishize you, but you can reach out, doctor.”

By 7:30 or so, it’s still 92 degrees, and the organizers decide it’s probably too hot to continue with the march (to where? Who knows). “In a few months from now, on the front of every magazine will be children with monkeypox on their face. And they’ll blame us for this. It is only our anger that will protect us,” says the final speaker, before telling everyone to remember the 6 p.m. vaccine drop tomorrow and not forget the “McDonald’s workers” and “Broadway actors with a 6 p.m. call time” who might not be able to access it. “Fight for us or we’ll fight you,” he concludes, talking to the omnipresent government, which is nice, but we can’t even march in the heat.

Total number of times finding a vaccine appointment was compared to The Hunger Games: Three.

For a few minutes, protesters stick around to gab, including a group of gay boys with crew cuts who told me they all met each other on Grindr; one couple met because they were both posting a lot about monkeypox. All of them are vaccinated — “I kind of felt like I won the lottery,” says one — which is fortunate, because they made the decision to abstain from sex after Pride Week. (Also, you should wait until after your second dose to be safest.) “The slutty ones are taking it the most seriously,” one jokes. They’re here because a mutual friend ended up in the hospital today after several weeks of pain. Another has been bleeding out of his rectum for 12 days straight. “I expected more people to be honest. I wonder what it was like being a gay in the ’80s,” wonders their ringleader. “My straight friends and co-workers are oblivious to what is going on. They’re like, ‘Oh, I heard about that.’”

Across the square I meet two self-identified “queer disabled sex workers,” both of whom haven’t been able to get the vaccine and have, for now, quit working. One, in a wheelchair, is eager for people to begin discussing their status: “They’re not discussing status or any possible contact tracing. With the way queer communities are, who knows if contact tracing would even be viable? You have huge queer clubs! If one person has it, who knows how many people they swap sweat with?” Of course, you can’t talk status without testing. Her roommate just tells me, “I barely feel fucking here anymore.”

Nearby, a man whom I recognize as the organizer of a popular gay sex party tells me he’s decided to cancel next month’s. “You have to be realistic. I don’t want people to feel ashamed that they have monkeypox or they did something that could’ve given them monkeypox. At the same time, I do think that party promoters should hold off and shut down if you can.” Does he have any feelings about those who don’t? “What’s unfortunate about it is that you can’t blame them even for that stance. It’s not their fault.” I note that this weekend’s annual Pines Party (theme this year: bacchanalia) on Fire Island is set to go on, having just advised its guests: “To ensure the safety and health of all guests and members of the community, we recommend if you are ill, have been recently exposed or tested positive to Monkeypox or Covid, PLEASE STAY HOME!” His friend has an idea: “They should vaccinate people on the docks!” If only there were vaccines …

When the new batch of appointments were released on Friday at 6, the website was quickly swamped, timing out for many users. And the vaccine games were over in 15 minutes. There were 17,000 doses.

Update, July 23: According to the NYC Department of Health, while all available online appointments were filled on the 22nd, some are still available by calling 877-VAX-4NYC. Meanwhile, the W.H.O. declared monkeypox a global health emergency.

The Monkeypox Vaccine Hunger Games Are On