It was bound to happen. Guys are now regularly sharing their COVID vaccination status in their app profiles. Every time I see it as a profile name or highlighted in a profile on Scruff or Grindr it makes me wince. It feels eerily similar to the "Clean UB2" trend that we've endured and pushed back against over the years. Vaccinations are a very great thing but what exactly is the motivation for elevating your vaccination to some online status -- and is stigma an unintentional consequence?
Let's be very clear, COVID vaccinations are important for individual and public health. It's great to speak openly about the safety and effectiveness of vaccinations. We want to encourage those in our community to get vaccinated and we must work to create equity around vaccinations. My concern is around the desire to elevate one's vaccination status as a means to make oneself more desirable.
Do guys think that highlighting their vaccination status increases the sexual currency? What other reason in there to makes one's profile name "vaccinated' or "vax'd" or "vax for vax?" This is not health promotion, it is a clear attempt to increase one's status online. If being vaccinated is more desirable then it inadvertently advances the notion that those who are not vaccinated are less desirable and that creates trouble for all of us.
The COVID pandemic has served to further expose the structural inequalities and racism in health care. This is seen not just in the response to the pandemic in the U.S. but in the vaccine rollout. We don't all have equal access to the vaccine and there is very real vaccine hesitancy due to the historical relationships various communities have with public health. We must work to address these inequalities. Using your vaccination as an attempt to make yourself more desirable online only serves to reinforce these inequities.
At the heart of this troubling phenomenon is how gay and bi men choose to communicate in their online profiles. I worked at a gay app for many years and I saw a plethora of profiles. The one thing that always struck me was how bad gay men are at marketing themselves. Aside from your photo, your profile name is the first opportunity for guys to learn more about you. There are a million things you can tell prospective matches in your profile. Of all those options why would one choose "vaccinated" as their profile name? It seems obvious they believe it is a way to present themselves as the preferred option.
Other profiles include content like, "COVID negative" or "COVID antibodies". They, too, are similar to content assuring people that you are "HIV negative" or "STD free." It also reveals a lack of basic scientific understanding as the HIV and STD statuses expire the minute you have sex with someone. Similarly, a COVID negative status expires when you come in contact with others. My favorite are the profiles that say "Half-vaxed." I don't even understand how that is relevant or useful information. It's such an obvious attempt to increase one's status. They might as well say, "vaccine adjacent."
Communicating with your potential sex partners about health status and sexual behaviors is terrific. Sharing useless, limited, or expired health information in your profile does not advance communication and is counterproductive. If you are truly interested in engaging in a chat with your partners about reducing risk there are some great guides out there, such as the one PrePster developed: Covid & Sex. How to Have Sex These Days: Navigating COVID When Horny. Talk about what you want, what your boundaries are, and yes talk about your vaccination status. It's an important piece of information but we can't allow it to be used as a means of elevating our status online.
The response to "Clean UB2" taught us important lessons about communication, reducing stigma, and strengthening our communities. Think about your intention when creating content for your online profile. Are you putting your best foot forward or might you be contributing to creating stigma? If you are not sure about the answer, then it's likely you can come up with better profile content.
If you are fully vaccinated, you are not a better or more desirable person. You were simply lucky. There is much to be done to address vaccine inequities, structural racism, and homophobia and that includes combating stigma. Profiles can an opportunity to promote LGBTQ+ vaccine equity or profiles can simply be a way to get laid. If all else fails when creating a profile name, you can always rely one of the classics, like Hung Top, Power Bottom, or piggy twink. They have served us well in the past.
Alex Garner is Deputy Director, Gay Sexuality and Social Policy Initiative (GSSPI) at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.