It’s a relatively rare sight these days to see people queuing up around the block in the hope of getting access to a vaccine. But this is exactly what’s happening right now in New York, Chicago, London, Manchester and other major cities around the world. Gay and bisexual men are pleading for access to the monkeypox vaccine in the midst of a growing pandemic and typical government inaction.
Of course, there will be no lockdowns or travel restrictions because of monkeypox. Despite it not being a sexually transmitted infection and being perfectly capable of infecting anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, an initial outbreak among several gay communities has landed us with a stigma that will be hard to break.
Monkeypox can be combated with a smallpox vaccine but there are, of course, not enough to go around. Israel initially expected 2,000 doses of the vaccine. The shot is supposed to be given twice, so health officials were making a similar assessment as in the early days of COVID: fully vaccinate 1,000 people or give 2,000 people a fighting chance.
Nitzan Horowitz saves the day
It was only due to the personal intervention of Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, Israel’s first openly gay party leader and a key cabinet minister in the collapsed government, that Israel secured 10,000 doses, with the promise of more to come. Already in the first few days since the vaccines arrived, health funds have been inundated with requests for vaccines. The eligibility criteria is still relatively narrow given the supply issues and the government has taken the correct approach to focus on the most at-risk populations.
If we have learned anything from COVID, it’s that complacency is the enemy. With the current monkeypox outbreak predominantly affecting gay and bisexual men, a complacent attitude by the next government will make monkeypox far worse, and cause needless pain and suffering among one of Israel’s most marginalized communities. The resignation of Israel’s first openly gay party leader, serving as health minister, couldn’t have come at a worse time in the midst of a health crisis currently concentrated in gay communities.
Horowitz has accomplished dramatic changes for Israel’s LGBTQ+ citizens during his year-long tenure as health minister. In his first days, he overturned the drastically outdated and unnecessary ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood.
He prohibited the psychological torture known as conversion therapy, enabled LGBTQ+ people to provide loving homes for foster children, provided more resources for transgender healthcare, overturned unnecessary barriers on HIV positive medical staff, and, for the first time in Israel’s history, appointed a government team to coordinate LGBTQ+ issues and allocate a budget. Of course, it’s nowhere near enough, but after decades of neglect, Nitzan has made a welcome start.
The knesset has passion
THERE’S A lot to criticize in Israel’s rather chaotic style of government; however, no one can say the Knesset is not full of passionate people advocating for their communities. In Horowitz, the LGBTQ+ community had a champion. He also made vast strides to improve the already world-class Israeli health care system, not to mention easing vital access to reproductive health while other parts of the world unleash all-out assaults on women.
Yet, this is a scary time for LGBTQ+ people in Israel and around the world. The monkeypox outbreak and the mediocre-at-best government response is, unfortunately, typical of issues which are seen to largely affect LGBTQ+ people. Global supply chain difficulties have also led to shortages of some forms of PrEP in Israel, antiretroviral pills that reduce the chances of contracting an HIV infection.
In short, LGBTQ+ people are facing significant challenges that have so often been ignored in government circles. We face being sidelined again, if the next government doesn’t continue with Horowitz’s reforms.
But the state has no problem basking in the glow of Tel Aviv Pride, one of the world’s most celebrated pride events. Even this year, Tel Aviv Pride brought tens of thousands of high-spending tourists to Israel, with or without their luggage. It’s an absolute truth Israel is the best place, the only place, in the Middle East, where LGBTQ+ people can live and thrive. It’s a point of pride for many that Israel has these values, and it shows the country’s rock-solid commitment to inclusivity and liberal democracy.
With Horowitz standing down as Meretz party leader in advance of November’s election, Israel’s LGBTQ+ community will lose one of our most effective champions. However, the progress he has made proves that LGBTQ+ issues are not as simple as progress towards a still elusive legal equality.
The monkeypox outbreak has shown the LGBTQ+ community has specific needs, just like any community, and the next Israeli government must recognize and prioritize the challenges we face. If not for us, then at least for the tourist dollars.
The writer is a former Israeli representative to the European AIDS Treatment Group and a gay men’s health advocate. He lives in Jerusalem.