Domenico Passignano, Bathers at San Niccolò (1600). Image credit: Public Domain
It’s late July when I line up at 10:00 am at a monkeypox vaccine clinic run by Steamworks, a gay bathhouse in Berkeley. By now, we are two months into a failed public health response to a health crisis most visibly impacting queer communities, especially men and trans people who have sex with men.
Though the clinic doesn’t open for two more hours, the line stretches around the block. This scene repeats across the country, as cities and counties, especially New York, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area, struggle with inadequate Federal support.
We all know why we’re here, so when more people line up beside me, our conversation starts light. After dissecting RuPaul’s recent All Stars season, a couple turns to The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I confess that I’ve only watched the Salt Lake City franchise. Rumor circulates that Lady Camden, a contestant on the most recent season of RuPaul’s All Stars, is at the front of the line.
Next to me, a man glances up, gesturing to a jock across the street. “Looks like he’s holding in loads” he comments to our group. “I used to work the door at Steamworks,” he offers by way of explanation.
Like queer people around the country, we’re angry and concerned—for our own health, for the health of our community. Vaccine access remains scarce and inequitably distributed. Clinics often have to close early once the paltry allotment is depleted.
As Joseph Osmundson and other queer activists explain, in the face of conflicting CDC and County guidance, many in the queer community have turned to our own networks—word of mouth, twitter threads by queer health professionals, Instagram, local LGBT activists—to fill in an information vacuum about the virus and its treatments.
In contrast, Federal and local health agencies seem remarkably blasé. We know that the virus is circulating and that the most vulnerable, especially trans people and communities of color, are at risk. Infected people are in pain, yet public agencies downplay the virus’s severity. (Some officials say they fear stigmatizing a community already on the cusp of being stigmatized for having sex.)
If you’ve been following reporting and activist outcry about this outbreak and the remarkably delayed public health response, this isn’t news. But while frustration and confusion are part of what I felt in line at Steamworks, there’s another dynamic—a queer resilience to crisis—that has been uncaptured in much reporting.
The vibe I felt all morning was the ebullient discourse of queer camp: the fire-forged sensibility with which queer communities channel a fabulous ridicule to heal from the hurt we experience at public indifference to our lives. Some of us are out here looking glamorous in this line. Or we’re just comfortable in sweats, but our conversation has flourish and style to it.
Our joking establishes a rapport allowing us to face the reality at hand: a spectacle of hundreds of primarily gay men, winding around two blocks in industrial Berkeley, waiting for one of 300 shots being distributed once a week on Wednesdays from a bathhouse because city and county public health departments apparently lack better resources.
Our idle chatter didn’t obfuscate this scene; instead, it connected us so that we could turn to the more brutal reality we face. Once I reach the limit of my knowledge of Real Housewives, I confess to my group my simmering rage at this vaccine rollout, its radical inequality, and the minimal concern by public officials for queers.
Sharing my rage, a line mate feels lucky he can call in sick to spend the day in line. “This feels like HIV all over again,” laments another. “Steamworks fucked up with the first week,” says someone else: the bathhouse had offered paying members walk-up access while non-members waited in line for hours. “But girl, if they do that today, I’d pay.”
Another health crisis, another failed government response, another way in which a private company prioritized its profit stream over equitable access.
In our second hour of waiting, a car pauses and the driver asks what the line is for. “For the monkeypox vaccine, baby!” shouts my neighbor, and with a pitying look somewhere between a smile and a grimace, the driver wishes us luck, and rolls on.
We exchange glances: what did he think the line was for, a new iPhone? The camp of it all: our shared laughter offered a site of solidarity and protection against a script of self-blame and community shame.
Queer endurance exists on this tightrope. We critique public health missteps and combat the pathology with which the public treats our sex practices. But camp also allows us to go on living without succumbing to shame and fear.
Many, including myself, wonder if government response would have been different if initial transmission hadn’t been traced to queer sex clubs. Compounding the problem, as Kai Kupferschmidt observes, was the inability of public health agencies and media outlets to speak clearly about the facts: right now the virus is impacting queers, trans people, and men who have sex with men in places like bathhouses or sex parties. A wish not to stigmatize becomes an unnecessary obfuscation that, alongside lethargic resource mobilization, amplifies the likelihood of community transmission.
At the same time, queers are being asked to refrain from sex. Only now, in our third month, are a few news outlets beginning to discuss the risk mitigation factors queer people having sex might practice. These old scripts, as Steven Thrasher writes, contribute to a sense that outbreaks like these are the problem of some stigmatized community or individual behavior. The aura of uncertainty intensifies queer marginalization but also hinders the mobilization of resources to diminish an outbreak.
The day drew on and the fog lifted; the street got hot, and workers from the SF LGBT Center passed out water, cum rags, and condoms; City of Berkeley Public Health Division employees walked by, detailing symptoms, transmission facts, and vaccine effects. While waiting, my group shared resources for our safety, compared various Bay Area bathhouses, and laughed.
The day in line I had been dreading turned into something more light hearted. Three hours after arriving, we danced when we turned the corner to see the tents where nurses administered shots. After my shot, I said goodbye to my line mates, hoping that if we met again at any club, bar, or party across the Bay, it would be under better conditions—conditions we know might remain distant.
If we’re going to face this outbreak nationally, we need to recognize that fury at public attitudes and our government is the start of our response.
But there’s much more for public health officials and reporters to learn from the vivaciousness we have beside our rage. It’s a time to listen to community knowledge. Gay people are still going to have sex regardless of stigma. But queer communities know our risks. With the three-month testing regime required for queers on PrEP, there are few groups as conditioned to communicate about our sexual health to medical professionals and sexual partners alike. Our keen awareness of sexual risk is a resource against stigma—it builds pathways of communication that public officials need to learn from.
Sometimes the best way to communicate is through playfulness, a joke, a performance. What outsiders might see as frivolity, we call camp. In these times, it’s a necessary resource: a reality check, but also a means for the communication and care our government is failing to offer.
What I saw in the monkeypox line outside of a bathhouse in Berkeley was a testimony to the way queer communities across the country survive, thrive, and build networks of care when under threat. A community tied together by our way of learning, advocating, and being unabashedly ourselves.
Nearly 40 years of advocacy prepare us for this moment, and, whatever negative feelings arise, we can remember the strangest sites of living that our community makes possible, especially in crisis.
Will Clark is an assistant professor of English at San Francisco State University.