LGBTQI RIGHTS: Othering the Other: Vaccine Discrimination In One LA Subculture
One late summer night in West Hollywood, a downpour blankets the electric
sky as headlights trickle through a seemingly quiet parking lot known as Vaseline Alley.
I’m glad I found refuge inside my car alongside my friend Andy, a good-looking young
man and a friendly fixture in the neighborhood. We are sharing a bag of McDonald’s and
gossiping as flashes of lightning punctuate our laughter. Andy spots some familiar faces
in the shadows of our local cruising spot. The social networks that make up the “party”
scene in West Hollywood are sweeping, yet isolated. Sex and drugs are profound
equalizers where the street scene and the ultra-rich and famous can mix. The
boundaries of class, race and status are obscured in these liminal spaces.
These days there’s a new division in Boystown— vaccination status. West
Hollywood recently implemented some of the toughest vaccination laws in the country,
barring unvaccinated people from most businesses and all public buildings. Andy rarely
loses his cool under pressure, but I can see his resentment when the subject of vaccine
passports comes up.
“Now everyone knows what it’s like to be a second class citizen”,
he says. Even though Andy has finally found permanent housing, he seems
demoralized. Without a plan or resources, he feels like a refugee forced from the
community where he feels most at home. It’s getting harder to take steps towards a
brighter future under the shadow of vaccine passports.
Andy is a survivor of convicted serial predator Ed Buck, but won’t call himself a victim. Buck preyed on meth-addicted homeless black men involved in sex work or
other criminalized economies. Rumors about Buck’s exploitative conduct had been an open secret among the local Democratic political class for decades. Many times Andy saw Buck as a “client”, including during the two-year investigation into the deaths of Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean inside Bucks hellish, disheveled apartment. Andy only discovered Buck’s identity when he saw a #Justice4Gemmel Coalition sticker near
Buck’s apartment. Around that time, I could tell Andy was trepidatious about being
discredited if he exposed his personal life. I was impressed when he disclosed his story
at WeHo’s Town Hall on Sex Workers’ Rights organized by Sex Workers Outreach
Project LA (SWOPLA). Later, The New York Times Magazine published an article with
his story that was among the most mainstream coverage of the case to date.
Ed Buck was finally convicted this summer. Soon after, West Hollywood’s local
Democratic Club, The Stonewall Democrats threw a fundraiser benefiting Buck’s victims.
Although the event was held outside on a park lawn, unvaccinated people were banned
from attending. Andy and I had each other to soothe the pain of our exclusion that day,
and we couldn’t help but to laugh at the photos of then-Mayor of West Hollywood Lindsey Horvath at the event cluelessly posing for the press. All the trappings of
progressive politics cannot disguise the ugliness of a medically segregated society.
A wealthy white enclave, West Hollywood is a would-be “City on a hill”, visibly
uncomfortable with itself. Tourism and real estate industries make the local politics
vulnerable to cronyism and personal ambition, while hyper-partisanship is rampant
within local civil society. City staff that worked on the vaccine ordinance admitted they
wanted to send a message. In other words, vaccine passports were designed to punish
the unvaccinated, contrary to harm reduction principles . People in Los Angeles who are
unvaccinated are mostly working poor, Black, Latino, and young people. New York
leaders of Black Lives Matter have denounced vaccine passports for compounding
racism and discrimination— a concern shared by many African American people like my
friend Andy. For sex workers who are already targets for othering and victimization,
vaccine discrimination is an additional violation of our human dignity.
Vaccinations are required for all elected officials, city officials, interns, and even
volunteers. Unvaccinated people are barred from entering all public buildings and most
businesses, and public facilities used by community groups. There is one exception:
attending City Council and other Brown Act meetings does not require proof of
vaccination, including the City’s confusing web of Boards & Commissions. The first time
I attended one of these sleepy neighborhood councils was in solidarity with friends of
Gemmel Moore, demanding the City do something to protect other young black men
engaged in sex work from predators like Ed Buck. My heart was ignited by their
righteous anger channeled into a stale community center room. I applied to serve on
various commissions in the years since, but was quickly discouraged by realpolitik.
Now, unvaccinated people— and conscientious objectors like myself— are barred from
serving. Independent voices that dare speak truth to power are choked by medical
segregation. Are the entitled, self-absorbed political class even aware we’re gone?
Meanwhile, people like Andy and I discover each other. In the eye of the storm,
our friendship is a lightning rod of humanity. We help each other navigate the daily
indignities of being “the other”. We build peer-support networks to uplift each other–outside of the snobbish status quo. We laugh at local personalities who proclaim their
morality while erecting a two-tiered society. At least for a moment, I forget my growing
anxiety about securing a legal livelihood under this humiliating system. I am worried
about millions of people whose health status is now a barrier to upward social mobility.
Andy is my most gifted and resilient friend, but sometimes I worry about him, too.
Photo credit: West Seegmiller
Photo credit: West Seegmiller