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Beloved San Francisco fetish festival presses ahead amid anxiety, uncertainty over monkeypox

San Jose Mercury News - 7/30/2022

SAN FRANCISCO — Amid a burgeoning monkeypox outbreak that has so far disproportionately affected gay and bisexual men, Bay Area public health officials and organizers of one of the region’s most beloved LGBTQ events are walking a difficult line between preventing the spread of the virus, while fighting the stigma of the virus as a disease limited to the LGBTQ community.

Despite San Francisco officials’ declaration of a public health emergency over the monkeypox virus, organizers of Dore Alley — a live-out-loud leather and fetish festival that’s been a favorite among LGBTQ communities in the Bay Area since the 1980s — said Friday they intend to hold the festival this weekend.

The San Francisco event, which is expected to draw 5,000 people, comes amid deep anxieties across the LGBTQ community over the outbreak, which has proliferated amid a shortage of vaccines. Confronting a disease that has primarily affected men who have sex with men, many in the LGBTQ community fear a replay of the failures of the AIDS/HIV crisis. The confluence of issues has raised difficult questions for Dore Alley organizers, public health officials and LGBTQ advocates, even as they press ahead with the festival.

“If people are not educated and they don’t know the risk, of course, it’s a very, very high risk possibility to be a spreader,” said Joe Hawkins, director of the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center.

But his organization has also made a point not to dissuade people from attending the party, Hawkins said.

“You can tell people ‘Do not do this,’ and I just think that here in this country, people have a problem with that,” he said.

“We’re really trying to meet people where they are and just educate them about what’s really factual about this monkeypox and its spread.”

Officially called Up Your Alley, this weekend’s festival is the smaller, more Bay Area-centric cousin to the internationally known Folsom Street Fair in September, which attracts upwards of 75,000 people from around the world. Spanning four blocks, Dore Alley includes a fair Sunday that features rope performances, go-go dancing and vendors selling a wide array of sex toys. Many clubs also plan to host side events throughout the weekend.

Yet while LGBTQ sex parties in other parts of the nation – most notably New York – have been cancelled due to the ongoing monkeypox outbreak, public health leaders and event organizers in San Francisco are taking a different approach.

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation has actively encouraged people to attend the event, while also listing safety advice on its website for prospective attendees, including sticking to less crowded areas and attending fewer events that feature skin-to-skin contact.

“There’s never been a better time to dress from top to bottom in latex or leather,” the organization said on its website. “Keeping your skin covered is a sure-fire way to prevent exposures to monkeypox.”

The site also recommended attendees go with a familiar person – and have honest conversations ahead of time about each person’s prior exposures – to help limit the threat of exposure, and suggested that anyone who is symptomatic or had a known exposure to the virus stay home.

In a statement, the San Francisco Department of Public Health said it is aware of the Dore Alley event and is in communication with organizers. The department will have an official booth at the festival to educate attendees about monkeypox.

But some members of the Bay Area’s LGBTQ community voiced uncertainty and anxiety this week over whether to attend – or whether the event should be held at all.

“It’s going to be a super-spreader event, to use a COVID term,” said Michael Davidson, 40, who has attended Dore Alley several times in the past, but decided against it this year, despite recently getting his first shot of the monkeypox vaccine.

Case counts have mushroomed across the nation over the last two months, with San Francisco and Los Angeles among the nation’s leaders in infections. As of Thursday, 257 people had tested positive for the virus in San Francisco, accounting for one-third of the California’s 786 cases. More than 98% of the cases involve men, both locally and across the nation, and health officials say the vast majority of them appear to be among the LBGTQ population. No one has died from the outbreak in the United States, though some patients have had to be hospitalized.

Two vaccines are available to prevent the virus’ spread, but demand has vastly outstripped supply of the newer, more effective vaccine – causing long lines and vaccination sites and fueling fears that the virus will spill over into other populations.

And while the virus has initially spread most widely among men who have sex with men, infectious disease experts stress it can infect anyone, regardless of sexual orientation. The virus primarily spreads through skin-to-skin contact or through the sharing of bedding and clothing. It can cause flu-like symptoms as well as a painful rash that can scab over and cause scarring.

“Monkeypox is already suffering from stigma so I think that’s another reason to be very careful with fully associating gay and bisexual men and monkeypox,” said Dr. Jorge Salinas, a Stanford University hospital epidemiologist. “This is an infectious disease that does not discriminate.”

Organizers of Dore Alley stressed Friday that the festival serves an important purpose for the local LGBTQ and kink communities – especially after two-and-a-half years of living during the coronavirus pandemic. They added that public health officials would be on hand to inform attendees of the risks.

“We are constantly balancing the contrasting needs between physical, public health and mental and emotional public health,” said Angel Adeyoha, executive director of Folsom Street, which is organizing the event. “The effects of isolation have been really brutal on everyone, but definitively so on the LGBTQ+ community.”

Adeyoha added that they have cut back on the activities held for this year’s event, which will allow people to spread out. And in a move that began last year, no alcohol will be served.

Still, whether that proves enough for people to feel safe – and to keep the virus from spreading further – remains unclear.

Justin Lippi, 35 said he plans to wait for vaccinations to become more readily available before partaking in events like Dore Alley.

“It just seems like potentially a lot of unnecessary suffering – and it’s really scary,” he said. “But coming off of COVID and some of the psychological effects of the HIV and AIDS pandemic, I think it’s really hard to understand what the right thing to do is.”

But others see the festival as a must-attend event.

For Stephan Ferris, 34, though, this weekend’s festival couldn’t arrive soon enough. Having recently ended his quarantine from having contracted monkeypox — and been told he’s no longer contagious — Ferris said he sees the fair as a chance to return to a community he loves and again express his sexuality – safely.

“I think our community, especially given our response to HIV, is kind of at the forefront around thoughts, around viruses intervention,” Ferris said. “This event doesn’t necessary have to be a very sexual event, and it doesn’t have to be a touching event.

“It’s really a point of personal risk – what risk are you willing to take? And there’s ways to mitigate the risk.”

Staff reporter Gabriel Greschler contributed to this story. 

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