As the COVID-19 pandemic reaches its worst point nationwide, we’ve come to share a collective responsibility to take precautions that could stop the spread of this deadly virus and save lives. In the face of what has been characterized as an abject failure on behalf of the U.S. government, we each have to negotiate and determine the level of risk we are comfortable taking on an individual level. And LGBTQ Americans are no exception.
From tweet to shining tweet, gays across the internet have been blazing a trail of viral outcries against a subset of gays who brazenly defied COVID-19-related restrictions in pursuit of fleeting moments of happiness. Seriously, there hasn’t been this much drama since the Interior Illusions Lounge. Groups of mostly cisgender, white gay men from all around the country have rapidly become avatars of COVID-19 irresponsibility as they have taken their partying abroad, traveling to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and even Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to attend circuit parties that have for so long brought them joy.
That’s not to say that gay men are the only ones breaking the rules; heterosexuals have been gathering en masse as well. Arguably, they’ve been way more irresponsible. However, it is still odd to see so many gay men — who should presumably have some understanding of the suffering our community endured during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ‘90s — engage so carelessly in the midst of a new one.
While the recklessness of these gays’ actions is disappointing to many, it should be surprising to none. Getting everyone to follow basic guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is an impossible task in a country that has politicized this pandemic into a frenzy over how we should be responding to this threat. The job of public-health officials and the potency of their messaging has been ruined by a president and other elected officials who have consistently rejected science, undermined medical experts, and even punished employees for reporting COVID-19-related information. Many argue the need for total isolation, and others argue for the removal of all restrictions. Let’s be real: An “abstinence only” approach to ending a pandemic isn’t going to work. It’s just not realistic. People are going to gather, and there has to be room for discussion about harm reduction in these scenarios instead of simply writing everyone off as irredeemable, plague-spreading insurgents.
In many ways, a pandemic only underlines years of shame and discouragement that have led to some apathy among gays toward the value of their own lives. Even with growing support of LGBTQ people from mainstream society, queer teens often report feeling unsafe and incredibly stressed by the lack of support in their own lives. For decades, we’ve been told many things by people in power to repress our behavior: that HIV/AIDS will kill us all, or that we’re going to Hell. We are no strangers to shame, and our oppressors have had a centuries-long headstart in applying social and even legislative pressure that has criminalized gays for merely existing.
As a result, we’ve learned a thing or two about being “insubordinate” — and that defiance of the status quo is a useful tool in combating those pressures and feelings of shame or self-doubt. That’s not to reduce the behavior of attending a circuit party during a pandemic to mere pathology. Rather, it’s to acknowledge that many fixtures of our community, including these types of circuit parties, were born out of a rejection of shame. It’s myopic and silly to think that shame alone can be the solution to ending them. What’s more productive is determining whether a specific instance of insubordination is just. The answer ultimately lies in how that defiant behavior affects others. In the entitled pursuit of partying, others will be left to bear the consequences of the misdeeds done by these islands of misfit boys as they travel abroad. If your defiant act can cause untenable harm to people not embroiled in your struggles, then perhaps it is worth considering a different course of action.
Factors like race, class, ability, and the privilege inherent in these identities are at play here, too; it’s impossible not to consider that these wealthy, “healthy,” majority-white gays’ rejection of safety protocols underlies a comforting belief that they’re more likely to survive a bout of COVID-19 than others. Their inability to see beyond the repercussions their actions may have on anyone but themselves is hubris. On the flip side, quite unfortunately, there’s no evidence to suggest that their individual good behavior will be rewarded — or that deciding not to partake is going to materially improve the overall nightmare that is this pandemic for themselves or anyone else. The decision to succumb to desire, pursue joy, and participate in these events appears less harmful than it is.
In the absence of guidance from our government, many LGBTQ people have taken to utilizing public shame and community pressure via social media to help mitigate the damage that will continue to be done by those partaking in large-scale events. Most notably, this phenomenon led to the creation of GaysOverCovid, an anonymously run Instagram account that has garnered tens of thousands of followers by resharing posts of careless gays disregarding social distancing guidelines — and in some cases, even sharing or tagging their workplaces and encouraging police action. Though well-intentioned, the efficacy of these tactics at actually changing such behavior is said to be of little to no success. In fact, it merely drives these dangerous behaviors into secrecy, creating less visibility for transmission, reinforcing stigma, and making the job of public-health officials more difficult.
This shaming is also being marketed as an attempt at providing accountability. But who are these negligent gays being made accountable to? Why do these party goers need to experience a form of punishment, much less one executed by our own community? And, in a community that operates as a social safety net for white gay men to quickly recover from being “canceled” for other wrongdoings simply because of how they look, what lasting effect or change will this “accountability” actually have?
That’s not to say that circuit gays who openly disregard COVID protocols can’t handle a little bit of schadenfreude at their expense. After all, if you’re openly disregarding public-health guidelines while people are dropping dead, you can’t expect that all the attention you receive will be the kind you crave or have become accustomed to. But what originated as a good-hearted attempt at community crowd control has rapidly turned into calling the cops on fellow queers and even praising the police for their swift response — in other words, a new kind of grim, dystopian nightmare.
This infighting allows our government to obfuscate responsibility for its failure while those suffering from its shortcomings cannibalize each other over individual behavior. Gays who are flouting COVID-19 guidelines use their misguided entitlement to a life of judgment-free, harmful decision-making in the midst of a pandemic to position themselves as martyrs or victims of “cancel culture.” Meanwhile, otherwise altruistic members of the community feel compelled to mobilize our very own oppressors against the community itself. The only entity that wins in this battle is the state.
Instead of infighting, there’s a lesson to be learned from our yesterqueers who faced a similar need to take action in the face of an indifferent government during the AIDS crisis. We all need to work as a community to educate each other, show compassion, and provide mutual aid to one another. What that looks like during a pandemic that shows no signs of stopping or slowing down anytime soon — combined with pandemic fatigue, undue politicization, and rampant misinformation — is hard to imagine, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In some ways, we’re going to have to show that we are capable of self-preservation in the face of a state that doesn’t seem to care whether we live or die. Many lives will depend on it.