“This post has been updated to include additional information about how PrEP limits the spread of HIV.”
The rollback of mask restrictions promised some degree of normalcy. If the vaccine was in your arm you could go to bars, gyms, restaurants, music venues et al. without much worry. That all changed as the delta variant spread. The uptick in cases, particularly in vaccinated individuals, led Mayor Muriel Bowser to reinstate D.C.’s mask mandate on July 31 (the same day she allegedly broke it).
She stopped short of instituting a full vaccine mandate like that of New York City. She said Aug. 10 she’s “not sure how effective” it would be but that she supported businesses that require vaccination.
Shortly after this announcement, a wave of businesses announced strict vaccine requirements, and at the front of that crest were D.C.’s LGBTQ businesses.
“You want to make this personal decision? Then you can’t come into any of these places,” says ANC commissioner and co-owner of Logan Circle LGBTQ bars Number Nine and Trade John Guggenmos. Both bars began requiring proof of vaccination the day the mask mandate returned. JR’s Bar, Uproar Lounge & Restaurant, Nellie’s Sports Bar, and The Dirty Goose also joined Guggenmos’ bars. Two other bars, Pitchers and A League of Her Own, also said the vaccine will be required with “no exceptions, no arguing, no talking to the manager.”
VIDA, whose U Street NW location the LGBTQ community unofficially refers to as the “gay gym,” set a strict vaccination requirement as well, telling patrons in an email: “Our stance is simple…Require vaccinations. It is absolutely the right decision, and it should be a citywide mandate.”
Guggenmos says he stood outside Number Nine to deal with any pushback for the mandate—but it never came.
“They were all cool about it. There were people that were tweeting pictures of the sign,” he says. “It’s just nice to see that our community can still think about the larger good.”
That larger good comes from a history of dealing with public health crises, says Meghan Davies, the chief program officer at Whitman-Walker Health—a community health organization specializing in LGBTQ care.
“With COVID, they’re saying: ‘We’re going to be on the forefront if you’re not going to say there’s a vaccine mandate … we are going to step forward and make sure that our community is safe,’” she says. “I think that’s based on past experience.”
The HIV/AIDS epidemic has killed over 700,000 people in the U.S. The first cases in the U.S. were diagnosed in June of 1981 and hit gay, trans, and communities of color disproportionately. While she stresses it isn’t an “apples to apples” comparison, Davies says that disparity of marginalized communities is reflected in the COVID-19 pandemic as well.
“At the national level … Latinos, Indigenous, and Black Americans, they all have a COVID-19 death rate double or more of that of White folks,” she says. “Locally in D.C. 87 percent of residents who’ve died of COVID are Black or Latinx.”
Because the Reagan administration stigmatized and ignored the outbreak for years, the LGBTQ community had to protest to not only get the government to respond, but protect each other. “HIV now has treatment options that help those infected have an “undetectable” viral load, which makes the virus untransmittable. Medications like PrEP can help prevent the virus from spreading. However, the activism of past generations also helped prevent the spread of the virus.”
“It was ACT UP who were saying: ‘No. This is real. It’s a problem. And … they’re doing that, I think, with COVID,” she says. “Mandating vaccines is just another tool that’s akin to having condoms in the bars at clubs. That’s akin to people coming to bars and signing folks up for PrEP.”
“It’s really just making sure that they’re protecting the community and that we’re protecting the community as much as we can,” she adds.
But the legacy of the AIDS epidemic lives on. Guggenmos described a large subset of an LGBTQ generation as “just missing” and he says that resulted in LGBTQ people “clamoring” for the vaccine. Data supports this. The Human Rights Campaign found 92 percent of LGBTQ+ surveyed people have gotten at least one shot of the vaccine. That’s quite an accomplishment when compared to 73.2 percent of all adult Americans and about 77.3 percent of D.C. residents.
“There’s still a few of us around who can, you know, have a little bit of hopefully guiding influence in imparting gay 101,” Guggenmos says.
While going into crowded LGBTQ bars may add to the risk of infection, Davies says there shouldn’t be stigma against those gathering in spaces that allow it.
“You want to be close. You want to experience that touch. That love,” she says. “While you know, maybe not, quote, ‘the right thing’ would be to not do things like that there is no right or wrong thing right now. It’s your mental health. It’s your physical health, it’s your social well being.”
And that’s what these vaccine mandates are meant to do. Protect community. Guggenmos says messaging to the unvaccinated needs to become priority—and part of that solution is punishment for not doing so.
“If the message is put out to the unvaccinated: … ‘You want to participate in society?’ You’ve got to do the right thing for society,” he says. “It’s about messaging. It’s about reaching those people and saying: ‘We’re serious. You have to step up and do it.’”
—Bailey Vogt (tips? firstname.lastname@example.org)
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