What Shaming Gays Partying During the Pandemic Is Really About

One of the most popular pastimes on social media since the advent of the COVID-19 has been shaming the circuit party gays who have continued to carry on despite restrictions and warnings and possibly prolonging the duration of the disease.

Above: Revellers party in a swimming pool during the Circuit Festival’s Water Park Day, an open air gay party in Vilassar de Mar, near Barcelona, on August 9, 2016. / AFP / JOSEP LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images)

There are two distinct camps: the folks who see these major events on social media sites like Instagram and the ones who post those stories. Many of them major influencers (i.e. tons of followers). There is something that feels inherently silly about even discussing something that sounds so frivolous during these dark days but it persists because it’s raised issues that have splintered the gay community for many years: rampant drug use (especially meth amphetamine and GHB), racism (the party goers are embarrassingly almost 100% white appearing), and money. 

Above: Men gather at Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema beach in Brazil on Dec. 31, 2020. Pilar Olivares / Reuters

Many of the same issues that have contributed to trauma among members of the gay community.

 

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Buzzfeed spoke to some of these folks to find out who they are and why they feel its incumbent on them to stand sentry. “For four days, he eschewed sleep to obsessively scroll through social media and sort through hundreds of tips he’s received as part of his secret mission: use Instagram to name and shame other gay men who are partying during the pandemic.”

“No part of it is anger on my end,” said the man behind @TheGayRona, a California tech industry worker, who like others in this story asked not to be identified, fearing he would become a social media target himself. “It’s a sense of acting ethically and having a moral compass. I want accountability.”

 

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@TheGayRona is one of several recent so-called COVID vigilante accounts aimed at self-policing the behavior of the gay community during the coronavirus pandemic. As they social-distance at home, the people behind these anonymous accounts are sharing images to thousands of followers of muscular, mostly white men gathering in Speedos on beaches or dancing shirtless at parties in the US and abroad. The accounts highlight the men’s identities, their usernames, and often their job details, sometimes encouraging users to contact the partygoers’ employers. “Hunker Downers, steer clear,” @TheGayRona wrote in one Instagram post tagging a shirtless influencer. “He has had a recklessly busy few weeks. Was just in Miami last week > Rio > LA the following week.”

“🤮🤮🤮🤮 ” commented one follower. “He’s like COVID Santa!”

 

Most of the drama has been cataloged on the Instagram account @GaysOverCovid, which has amassed more than 115,000 followers and spawned several smaller imitators. “A public forum is better because it sparks change, or at least attempts to,” the gay man in his late twenties running the account told reporters Taylor Lorenz and Alex Hawgood. (He did not respond to requests from BuzzFeed News.) In recent weeks, @GaysOverCovid played detective by checking people’s Facebook location and even Venmo history to place them in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which over the New Year’s Eve period hosted circuit parties — all-night raves with a reputation for drug use and few sexual boundaries — i.e., the opposite of proper social distancing.

Zach Ford, the former Editor-in-Chief of The Advocate, and now  the press secretary for the Alliance for Justice said, “In a way these influencers, these people whose bodies are in the foreground, they’re kind of like our royalty,” he said. “But when your royalty, the people who exhibit the glamour and the prestige of your community betray you and betray the respect you give them, it can be really disconcerting. It’s really not about circuit parties,” he added. “It’s about a universal experience we’ve all had: weighing the sacrifices we’re all making and trying to process the people who aren’t making those sacrifices.”

Ford added that the fact that many of these people are major social media influencers underscores the necessity to use that same medium against them.  “Certainly when the target group is a group that relies on popularity — that is what fuels influencers and people who capitalize on their bodies and their appearance — we have a duty to hold them accountable and hold them to a higher standard. Just because you’re hot, doesn’t give you permission to be an asshole.”

“Just because you’re hot, doesn’t give you permission to be an asshole.”

Queer and HIV activist Leo Herrera’s Instagram post on the subject seemed to capture the what people were feeling and went viral.

Herrera said he’s been troubled by the images of people partying in his native Mexico, where hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. But Herrera, who has produced a multimedia project on the AIDS crisis, said he’s been most upset by members of his community seemingly forgetting their own history. “A lot of this younger generation don’t understand what it was like to live through HIV before PREP. They don’t see what a lot of our own went through. This is about a group of people and a culture that has already lived through a pandemic, so in very real, tangible ways we should know better.”

Herrera added that the vigilante accounts are also a reflection of the government’s failed response to the pandemic, forcing the gay community to police their own, “which is a really dangerous and ethically vague position, but it’s the only one we have.”

Hornet’s Alex Garner wrote in  The Advocate, “There are very clear parallels between this recent COVID stigma and HIV stigma.  In fact, if you replace “circuit party” with “bareback sex” in many of these online posts, then we are right back to where we were 25 years ago.”

Garner continues: These “party gays” make for an easy target. They appear to be self-involved snobs as they post endless selfies of their muscled bodies and gleaming smiles from a beach, pool, or party. It doesn’t take much to feel morally superior to a group that has been regarded as vapid and selfish. But is that the goal? A few fleeting moments of moral superiority? The posts making the rounds on social media are extremely troubling. One post by Ben Cuevas read “Scrolling through Scruff with location set to Puerto Vallarta, I’m happy to see that the only folks I recognize in the grid are guys I hit up who then proceeded to never give me the time of day. I just wanted say thank you to all of you NYE PV super-spreader party queens for self-selecting yourselves out of my life.” Are these the depths we’ve sunk to? Wishing illness or death on those guys on social media who don’t give us the attention we think we deserve? What have we turned into, or what are we revealing about our true selves?

This isn’t the first time we’ve had to contend with stigma around gay party culture. It was a cultural inflection point in the late ’90s in the midst of the other global pandemic. Party culture and its participants were labeled as deadly and dangerous. The backlash against bareback sex culture turned even more ugly as HIV-positive men were called reckless, stupid, and sometimes murderous. When I tested HIV-positive 25 years ago, I was called irresponsible and told I had betrayed all those that came before me. These attacks on gay culture did not help bring down the HIV epidemic but served to reinforce stigma around gay men’s sex lives. This is our history and that makes it all the more troubling when Leo Herrera, a gay historian, advocates using shame as a weapon in a widely circulated social media post. “These are nervous giggles because you embody the most tedious, vapid and scary parts of us, forcing us to use shame as a weapon…”

But this is an analogy that many AIDS activists find problematic. Alex Bad-Santos, the Vox writer, said public health experts he has spoken with feel the diseases are too dissimilar. It’s also an incredibly delicate issue. The @BostonGaysOverCovid account was suspended Tuesday night after one of the administrators posted a story alleging a man had been lying about his HIV status to sexual partners.

Shaming people about HIV is one step too far. “This is about a group of people and a culture that has already lived through a pandemic, so in very real, tangible ways we should know better.”

Ultimately after the outrage is over many believe this speaks to the strength, not the schisms in the gay community. Whether it be men partying on Fire Island for the 4th of July or vacationing on a private island with friends, the gay community has been policing their own throughout the pandemic. “I do think we hold our community to a higher standard,” said @TheGayRona. “We’re a tight-knit community.”

Or maybe, the story’s still circulating because, as writer/actor Brenden Shucart wrote on Facebook Thursday, “Real talk: We’re still debating circuit parties because armed MAGA-ist insurrection at the Capitol is TOO 👏🏻 F*CKING 👏🏻 HEAVY.”

Time to change the channel.