Line for monkeypox vaccine at Steamworks in Berkeley, July 27, 2022. (Photo/Saul Sugarman)
Line for monkeypox vaccine at Steamworks in Berkeley, July 27, 2022. (Photo/Saul Sugarman)

LGBTQ Jewish leaders step up to combat monkeypox, stigmatization

With San Francisco having emerged as the epicenter of California’s monkeypox outbreak — with nearly 400 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, the day after the city’s state of emergency went into effect — local LGBTQ Jewish leaders are stepping to the forefront.

One prominent gay San Franciscan, state Sen. Scott Wiener, began urging city leaders early on to declare the state of emergency, saying it would “create significant flexibility around testing, contracting for services and administration of vaccinations.”

Wiener’s quick call to action was applauded by Martin Rawlings-Fein, the head of the trans and nonbinary committee at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco’s historic gay and lesbian synagogue. Rawlings-Fein, 44, a trans man who lives in San Francisco, is working with his committee to develop resources and education concerning the virus, and to offer information and support for congregants seeking a monkeypox vaccine.

Martin Rawlings-Fein
Martin Rawlings-Fein

“We’re kind of the canaries in the coal mine,” Rawlings-Fein said. “We’re the people, [40] years ago, people didn’t want to touch us,” he added, recalling the stigma that the gay community faced during the AIDS crisis.

“Our synagogue has this tradition of linking arms and singing ‘Hinei ma tov,’ because we’re all together,” he continued. That tradition began in the ’80s “in response to [stigmatization]. People needed to be touched, they needed to be held on to, to let us know we matter.”

Now it’s the monkeypox virus, which is transmitted through “prolonged” skin-to-skin contact, that’s putting the tradition on hold and keeping people apart. “Having a public health crisis on top of a public health crisis, it’s a big deal,” Rawlings-Fein said.

We can’t and won’t leave the LGBTQ community out to dry.

Saul Sugarman, 35, a gay Jewish writer and fashion designer in San Francisco, waited in line for four hours on a recent morning to get the monkeypox vaccine. He knew San Francisco General Hospital had run out of vaccines the previous day, so he made his way to Steamworks, a gay bath house and sex venue in Berkeley that he’d heard would be administering a few hundred doses.

Saul Sugarman(Photo/Courtesy Sugarman)
Saul Sugarman
(Photo/Courtesy Sugarman)

“I do feel grateful to have gotten it,” Sugarman said of the vaccine.

One of Sugarman’s colleagues in the fashion world contracted monkeypox last month and has been quarantining for weeks. He texted Sugarman a photo of a lesion on his finger.

“All of that made me very nervous,” Sugarman said. It also made him want to get vaccinated right off. The people waiting in line for vaccines at Steamworks were all men, said Sugarman, who is worried about the public discourse around the virus stigmatizing gay men.

“I worry about creating any stigma associated with the gay community, especially when, to my eyes, we are doing everything we can to remain safe and vaccinated,” Sugarman said.

Rawlings-Fein has been helping his friends and neighbors get the vaccine, though he himself is still on a waitlist. After being closed for several days due to a lack of vaccines, the vaccine clinic at San Francisco General Hospital reopened Monday, and the city’s health department received 4,220 additional monkeypox vaccines, according to a tweet from the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Rawlings-Fein said it’s up to the entire San Francisco community to “break down the stigma” and to understand monkeypox is not exclusive to the LGBTQ community. “But it does affect the LGBTQ community first.”

Wiener, a member of California’s Legislative Jewish Caucus and its Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, noted that “San Francisco was at the forefront of the public health responses to HIV and Covid-19, and we will be at the forefront when it comes to monkeypox. We can’t and won’t leave the LGBTQ community out to dry.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.