As the new year dawns, gay male social media is embroiled in a state of self-described “civil war.” The cause? Densely packed “circuit” parties, sometimes with hundreds of attendees, being held in tropical destinations during a deadly pandemic. The conflict between critics and defenders of these events has snowballed into a swirl of Twitter brawls, Instagram vigilantism, influencer doxing, and questions about the limits of shared identity. At its core is a disagreement over the value of intracommunity callouts and criticism, which some call “shaming” and which others view as “accountability.” But if we want a workable means of actually encouraging safer behavior and reducing harm, we’re going to need a different type of conversation.
For the uninitiated, circuit parties are large dance events predominantly thrown by and for gay men, typically associated with muscled and shirtless bodies, pounding music, drugs, and sex. These parties grew from the disco culture of the 1970s and ’80s, as those who loved them would travel the “circuit” of fabulous global destinations to participate. Stereotypes abound about the predominantly white and affluent men known to frequent circuit parties (often referred to as “circuit queens”), as well as the arguably shallow and exclusionary culture they bolster. But, as many scholars and activists have countered, these events hold an important place in gay history by providing a unique space for joy, community, sexual liberation, and even fundraising for causes like HIV/AIDS or LGBTQ youth homelessness. As such, circuit parties exemplify some of the best and worst dimensions of gay culture, all under the same disco ball.
The management of pleasure and risk during COVID has been an ongoing point of tension within the gay community. (See: the Fourth of July, when videos of crowded beaches on New York’s Fire Island began to circulate.) But the conflict between gay men who continue to socialize in large groups and those who judge them reached a fever pitch this past December, when social media posts showed bars and parties in Miami and Fort Lauderdale full of unmasked patrons. Responses begged people to stay home on New Year’s—or at the very least not travel—fearing a euphoric night out might help fuel a new wave of infections in the weeks to come, much like a wedding in Maine did this past August. Then, earlier this month, many reacted in horror as word of circuit-style parties in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and neighboring regions trickled onto social media, showing hundreds of gay men dancing together, as though COVID would be kept out by the bouncers.
The gay internet has been ablaze ever since. Many online commentators rejoiced when footage was released showing Brazilian authorities shutting down a party of “thousands of maskless men” in Rio de Janeiro. The schadenfreude only intensified when a party boat carrying 60 people capsized in Mexico. (Fortunately, only egos were hurt.) Social media accounts dedicated to exposing gay partiers have been sprouting up daily, the most notorious of which, @GaysOverCOVID, recently surpassed 100,000 followers and was included in a Good Morning America segment on “COVID vigilantes.” These accounts and their allies have dedicated themselves to outing partygoers, often revealing their personal names and workplaces or using smartphone location data to sleuth out their attendance. The fact that some of the partiers appear to be physicians, nurses, or other essential workers has only encouraged this sort of online activism. Asked to explain his motivations, the anonymous curator of @GaysOverCOVID told the journalists Alex Hawgood and Taylor Lorenz, “I just want people to stay home and if we can save one life then I feel good. … We have to live more empathetic lives.” Pointing out that the account only shares content already posted publicly to social media, he added, “People say this is a shaming profile, but [the partiers] have no shame in what they’re doing.”
While some partiers simply don’t care about the criticism and surveillance, others have pushed back, arguing that this public shaming is unjustified and does nothing to reduce harm. One group, organized under the hashtag #GaysOverKarens, even offered a $500 bounty for any information on the identity of the owner of @GaysOverCOVID, claiming the account is making the community “as divisive as ever.” “Seeing how they like to put everybody under pressure, let’s see how they feel like now that the target is on them,” a member of the group wrote on Facebook. Party defenders invoke a right to consent to participate in these spaces, to act according to the “survival of the fittest,” and, if nothing else, to try to experience a modicum of joy during a year rife with misery and boredom. Some partiers simply call the detractors ugly and jealous.
This conflict, of course, is not unique to the gay community; wealthy people of all stripes are continuing to travel and party. But it hits a nerve among gay folks because of the community’s particular relationship to pleasure and risk, a relationship forged especially through the AIDS crisis. As such, the “circuit party civil war” presents a prime opportunity to consider: How do we strive to have pleasurable lives in a pandemic while still reducing harm?
As a public health and HIV researcher, and as a gay man who loves nightlife, I have been preoccupied with these tensions. I’ll grant that it’s extremely difficult to find any sort of redeeming dimension to the pandemic partying. We have all made sacrifices; we are all bored and lonely; we all miss our lives. Predominantly white, wealthy gay men traveling to Mexico—one of the countries most burdened by COVID—to party during the height of the pandemic is callous disregard at best and colonialism at worst. (As many activists have pointed out, the white, wealthy partygoers have the resources and privilege to be insulated from harm, while poor individuals and people of color bear the disproportionate burden of the pandemic.) From this perspective, drawing attention to dangerous behavior isn’t pious “shaming.” It’s holding people rightfully accountable for the consequences of their actions.
But that’s not the end of the story. The current dialogue is depicting two different and yet similarly caricatured camps: On one side, we have irredeemably selfish partiers who are supposedly motivated by nothing more than their toxic, trauma-induced attachments to sex and drugs. On the other, we have the Good Gays, who have nothing better to do but sit in their apartments all day and attack complete strangers online under the delusion that this will make an impact.
I believe the conversation can, and must, be deepened. Binaries are seldom helpful, and the one that is emerging here is obfuscating the reality that we all live complex lives. We are at a critical moment in establishing what a sustainable approach to pleasure looks like, as pandemic fatigue intensifies and COVID deaths soar higher than ever. Although many like to imagine that the vaccines will be a panacea, the more likely reality is that inequitable access will increase disparities between those with more privilege and those with less. Dialogue that pushes us to sort people into one of two polarized camps is not going to help us reduce harm or lead pleasurable lives—both of which are important as the second wave stretches on and we each find ourselves in our own unique set of circumstances.
So what can we do instead? First, we need to reckon with the uncomfortable reality that, even with a raging pandemic, there will be people who want to dance and socialize. I am not saying this is ideal or aligned with public health guidelines. I am not saying this is good. I am merely saying this has been empirically demonstrated. If we take as a starting place that there will be people who do this, we can begin to seriously consider how to reduce the harm of their actions, both to themselves and the others they put at risk.
Perhaps we can engage promoters to collaborate for on-site testing or have an anonymous notification system where attendees can inform an event coordinator if they later test positive for COVID, much like many departments of health have for STIs. Perhaps organizers can exclusively host events outdoors or set the expectation of communal one-week “party breaks,” where attendees isolate afterward and rely on one another for social support while on the bench. Approaches like these are, of course, not the same as just not throwing a dance party. But, as harm-reductionist approaches to HIV and substance use have shown, interventions that are collaboratively generated with a community are more likely to generate buy-in and real results.
Second, we need to continue questioning the difference between community accountability and shaming. Public health and behavioral science research—much of it grounded in working with communities affected by HIV, substance use, and stigma—has conclusively demonstrated that shaming is an ineffective and unsustainable means of changing behavior on a population level. Indeed, it tends to make people less accessible to intervention by pushing them further into secrecy. Publicly decrying individuals is cathartic—hell, it is even understandable after all the devastation we’ve been through—and it may stop some people from exposing others, but it will not completely solve the problem. The most effective interventions are those that occur upstream, like preventing venues from being allowed to host large events at all. Additionally, behavior surveillance often hits unintended targets: Last week, one of the whistleblower Instagram accounts for a major U.S. city exposed a series of people’s party behavior, followed by a post publicly exposing someone’s HIV status—an unconscionable violation of privacy.
Third, even in the most shocking of circumstances, partiers are not caricatures we can just write off as “dumb” or “bad”; they are motivated, in part, by the universal and human desires to be social and seek pleasure. The more we are able to be in touch with this reality, the more we will be able to devise an approach that also serves the rest of us—those of us who may not be at a circuit party but who have also, at times, chosen to accept some level of risk to do something meaningful to us. While the ardent partiers and those at home may look at each other’s choices with confusion or anger, the resulting dialogue needs to acknowledge that fun and safety are not all-or-nothing propositions.
A world with zero parties is probably not going to happen. (After all, if it didn’t happen now, when would it?) But the more harm-reduction options that are available, accessible, and normalized, the easier it will be for those choosing to partake to make safer choices. Establishing improved, more conscientious social lives during this pandemic is only going to be imaginable if our conversation accounts for this unruly reality. Thus far, the circuit civil war has not.