“Whatcha got in here, a dead body?!”
The valet lifted a large purple suitcase into the trunk of the Uber, followed by a smaller one. I’d flown Southwest. I always fly Southwest for their two-bag policy, and I’d need no less than two bags to do what I’d come to do.
“Better be careful with that one,” I said, pointing to the largest suitcase. “If you aren’t careful, it’ll start vibrating.” He stumbled back and licked his lips. Before he could respond, I was on the way to the Airbnb.
Once I arrived, I hung up and set aside my outfits: one-piece teddies with a cutout crotch; iridescent thongs; sequined nipple pasties; short, silk babydoll dresses; a purple leather harness; a black collar with an O-ring; a pink feathered robe.
Toys went in a smaller go-bag: my favorite purple flogger, a wartenberg wheel, nipple clamps with rhinestones and pink tassels, a Womanizer clit stimulator, my favorite rumbly Doxy vibrator, a black riding crop, and a wooden paddle. Next to the toys? Particle respirator masks, KN95s (enough to double mask for seven to ten days), wet wipes, hand sanitizer, and a bevy of rapid COVID tests. I had a feeling that none of these things would be provided by the dungeon, not even during a pandemic. But I wanted to be wrong.
“Here’s your goodie bag,” the person at the event registration said. My own bag fell awkwardly and heavily across my shoulders. I shifted my cane to the other hand and grabbed the bag of condoms and lube. Okay, so I’d have to add a few masks of my own in there, but not to worry — I’d bought a pack of 50. Plenty for me and any potential play partners.
“Then you’ll take one of these purple stickers to put on your name tag if you’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19.”
“And what about folks who haven’t been vaccinated?”
“No worries! It’s a self-selection process. Some folks don’t even use the purple sticker!”
At that point, I ran into the bathroom and took a Klonopin.
I had, in fact, been vaccinated and boosted, and prior to that trip, I’d basically become a hermit. I’d spent the last three years abstaining from travel of any sort. Pre-pandemic, I’d drag my Blackqueerdisabled personhood onto a plane every other month — doing keynote speeches, workshops, panels, and performances. I started masking on planes in 2019 after I noticed I’d get sick after each flight. I had a process and a regimen — one bag for clothing, toiletries, and shoes; another bag for Vitamin C tablets, prescription medications, back braces, a heating pad, and a thermometer — things to make traveling with fibromyalgia (and then some) a bit more manageable.
That’s the thing they don’t tell you about being immunocompromised. You don’t go to the doctor for a physical and then they lean in close and say, “My dear, you are immunocompromised.” They talk about the diagnosis — if you’re lucky enough to get one in the first place — and give you the prescription. They don’t tell you about the sheer exhaustion you’ll face every time your immune system has to fight hard in order to keep you well. A lot of this shit you find out for yourself.
If I was getting sick before a global pandemic hit, then I certainly wasn’t taking any chances with one in play. In 2020, it seemed possible that societal norms were shifting — health and wellness services went online, folks began working from home, gatherings got smaller, and masks were normalized. Yet as the years passed, as airline companies demanded that flights stay full, as real estate companies and employers across fields insisted folks come back into the offices they’d left, as the CDC shifted its guidelines (if you’re sick, stay home for two weeks; no, five days, no, three days…), as government stipends dried up, as mask mandates were dropped, as COVID strains mutated, as RSV and monkeypox entered the picture, as flu season rolled back around, as US governmental bodies held televised proceedings with unmasked officials, the message became clear: COVID safety is no longer a priority.
The People’s CDC reports that in the week of January 4th, 2023, week of January 4, at least 2,731 people died of COVID nationally. The US saw more than a quarter million deaths from COVID in 2022.
Yet there I was…in a bathroom, in another city, holding an optional purple sticker for an event that had about 400 RSVPs. I would have to throw myself on the mercy of double-masking, personal daily risk assessments, and prescription anxiety pills.
“Fuck! I should’ve known better!”
I’d been so consistent about checking the (mostly non-existent) COVID safety policies for every event I was invited to attend. Then the policies rolled back. Then the invites stopped coming.
Prior to that, I lived out my fantasies largely at home, finding refuge in the few remaining online play parties. Prior to that, I argued with my therapist. “HOW can this moment be called ‘POST-pandemic’ if the shit literally still going on?” She’d smile sadly and say, “I know…I know. I just want you to find ways to reconnect with the things that bring you joy!”
Heaux shit brings me joy.
Negotiating scenes, talking about limits, exploring new possibilities for our bodies, feeling my eroticism, and sharing it with others brings me joy. And I was at a dungeon led by sexual wellness experts. I knew they felt that STI and STD screening was important. I knew they taught about safety and risk awareness in BDSM culture. And I made an assumption. I assumed that this wellness ethic would carry through in their COVID safety. I wanted to believe that, even though I knew it wasn’t likely. I was wrong.
Every confirmation that immonocompromised, disabled, and/or chronically ill kinksters aren’t a priority is painful for me. I’m rightfully sensitive that way. So, I went back to my hotel room to breathe (hyperventilate), meditate (pace the floors), and text the disabled/chronically ill babes who’d been keeping my spirits lifted all pandemic. “You’re there now, mamas. And once again, the ableds are doing what the ableds do. So, what can we do to adjust? You’ve got your rapids, your masks, and your good sense. You know how to assess risk and set a protocol. Lean into that and know you can always stay in if it’s too much,” they said.
The dungeon was sprawling and alive with players. In a corner, I saw one other masked person. Besides that, they wore nothing but form-fitting boy shorts and nipple piercings. We moved toward each other, communicating the complexity of our experiences through touch and wax — six feet away from everyone else.
Afterwards, I knew I wouldn’t see them again. I’d decided to stay in the hotel room for most of the day’s remaining activities to reduce my COVID risk. On the other days, I prioritized 8am workshops, which were always lightly attended. I masked everywhere and tested every day. Other than that, I wished for sheer luck.
A few months after that event, I got a DM from another immunocompromised lifestyler. “How can you say that you want folks to get a clue about COVID safety if you’re out here at events?!” I’d chosen three events to attend that year in order to learn skills, compare and contrast safety protocols, and begin brainstorming ways that I could network with folks to encourage kink-friendly events for immunocompromised lifestylers. None of those events required masks. None of those events were outdoors. None of them required COVID-testing. One of them required vaccination. Each time, I bought my own safety kit and sat near the door for easeful exits. This is the case for most kink events right now.
Previously, I’d worried about my small “sample size” of three events — but I also wasn’t trying to get COVID while reviewing what the COVID landscape was like for immunocompromised kinksters. I’d noticed a sharp, ongoing decline in online lifestyle events while folks (mostly socialized as able-bodied) declared, “Well, we’re just all Zoom-ed out.” And in that DM, I felt a familiar pang of the sheer isolation that immunocompromised kinksters are expected to swallow down and make peace with. I knew that space intimately. It takes a huge toll on our mental, emotional, and sexual health. YES, I’m saying that a lack of COVID safety protocols takes a negative toll on our sexual health and wellness. If kinksters say they’re concerned about safety in general, why wouldn’t that include the safety Disabled, Chronically Ill, or Immunocompromised kinksters? That safety work is work that we’d all be wise to do, particularly given the fact that these are identities any of us can enter at any time.
How are we really dealing with issues of consent if we balk at and ignore the needs of immunocompromised kinksters who have not — cannot — give us consent to see them without a mask on? Imani Barbarin, Disability Justice activist and speaker writes, “If disabled people want to do fuckshit, they should be able to do it accessibly.” And should we just want to fuck? We should be able to do that accessibly, too.