The glee is palpable when you peruse gaysovercovid, as many have in the past few weeks; its follower count has ballooned in the wake of mass partying in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and an ensuing sinking party boat. The delight characterizing the Instagram account, which posts pictures of groups of gay (and mostly white) men convening closely and without masks as the pandemic rages on, comes from within and without. You can see it in the twinkling eyes and gleaming teeth of those pictured, who are having fun as though they don’t care (or know) that the world is aflame. You can also read it in the comments. “I love petty in all forms!” wrote one observer. “I’m just here for the drama,” said another. Visitors regularly and cacklingly point out there’s almost always “one girl” in a sea of shirtless men; they make jokes about the misguided belief in PrEP as a panacea; they attempt clever ways to refute the perceived egotism of the chiseled throngs. Over and over and over.
We’re in the age of mess. People gorge on that which they find deplorable. For months, anti-maskers and Karens have magnetized the attention of left-leaning social media users, who receive bad behavior with the same polarity they might a particularly dramatic reality show: a bemused revulsion. It is logical that gay men who flagrantly flaunt their privilege via their skin, their low body fat percentages, and their refusal to social distance, should enter the crosshairs. In a way, then, gaysovercovid is a logical, maybe even inevitable product of this cultural moment.
Nonetheless, it’s conceptually fascinating. Gaysovercovid works like a thought exercise concocted in a lab. What is this anonymously run account and what is it good for? Why is it so compelling to so many people? How much does intent matter here? A few weeks ago, New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz posted on her Substack an interview she conducted, alongside Alex Hawgood, with the gaysovercovid admin. In it, his identity was revealed as a gay man in his late 20s. This tracks, but his anonymity should make us ponder whether this account would be a different beast entirely if it were run by someone of an identity that differed from its targets. If a homophobe were posting the same content, verbatim, would gaysovercovid still be seen by so many as a force of righteousness? Maybe. During the AIDS crisis and beyond, “bad gays” is where the interests of homophobes and “good” gays meet on a VENN diagram focused on cleaning up the culture.
Instead, gaysovercovid crystallizes the culture. It does so mostly void of nuance, like snapshots tend to do. I’ve read practically every post and comment and I can’t say I liked much of what I saw, nor could I deny its great importance in laying so much out in relatively little space. It is its own sort of inelegant literature.
Mass cultural conditioning only explains part of the effective community that gaysovercovid has fostered. This might read like irony but really isn’t at all: On gaysovercovid people effectively meet at other people’s parties. It’s the rise of the uninvited and the never-would-attends. Participating in this insurgency for the drama of it all makes sense, and given the cultural backdrop, this motivation could be interpreted as amoral and just going with the tumultuous flow. But many who participate—including the admin of gaysovercovid (who did not respond to Jezebel’s DM request for an interview)—are doing so in the supposed name of public service. We’re to believe that they chime in to compensate for the reckless behavior of members of their community, to shine a light on dim behavior.
In a sort of manifesto—as close as the account as gotten to issuing one during its nearly six months of operation—undoubtedly drawn out by the scrutiny gaysovercovid has received, the account’s operator posted on January 4:
We are all GaysOverCovid. We’re ALLLL sick and tired of it. But real people are sick, and tired, and DEAD. That’s what THIS page is about. It’s NOT, about YOU. It’s about US.
OUR actions, directly impact the health of our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends.
The Trump Administration has failed us on so many levels. Health experts have spoken up and out. Now the GaysOverCovid are too. If the community conversation this page has sparked has made one person change their behavior and stay home, we know a life somewhere has been saved.
Based on the accounts attached to the comments, it is largely gay men who are feeding photos to the site, and as a decidedly gay space, gaysovercovid is a case study in division and class strife, a living example of caustic in-group politics. It can be absolutely vicious—so much so that my research for this essay felt soul-salting to me and reminded me why I don’t typically wade into these forums. I can’t officially diagnose the cause of the ferocious judgment gay men inflict on each other and the comfort they have in doing so publicly, but I suspect that it has something to do with how much individual identity within the group is gleaned from external factors. While gay culture has long been criticized for being looks-obsessed, these factors also include behavior that is, if not innate, then otherwise inevitable. “Top,” “bottom,” and in some ways “vers,” describe sexual practices as much as they do the types of people who inhabit them—or least say the oft-repeated stereotypes. (In reality, there’s such variation among those labels’ adoptees that the behavior itself is in fact the only reliable commonality—as long as people are telling the truth, which they don’t always do regarding sex.) As such, conduct has an emphasized importance within a culture that was decimated by AIDS in the wake of growing visibility and sexual liberation. Deprived of so many potential role models, we’re still feeling our way through what it means to be queer men.
This externalized culture is true on a group level, too. The pandemic has been particularly tough on queer culture, which, because it is not typically inherited, is defined in part by congregation. Gaysovercovid is practically a neighborhood intersection, and one with a disturbingly high rate of car crashes.
What raises my hackles more than the vicious judgement is its pretensions. Mean for mean’s sake isn’t particularly noble but at least it’s honest. Mean under the guise of nobility is morally askew. You cede the moral high ground when you go low. It’s just that simple. And yet so many do it anyway.
The in-comments discussion on gaysovercovid sometimes addresses whether collecting pictures and naming those who appear in them (in addition to sometimes tagging their employers) constitutes “shaming.” Were the conversation merely confined to the behavior of partiers, I wouldn’t get behind it, mind you, but I could see where its claimants were coming from. There is, however, a large gray area between round-the-clock quarantine and hedonistic disregard for all social responsibility, and that’s where I suspect most people reside. Yet the gaysovercovid conversation so often promotes a binary: Rules are good, breaking them is bad.
What is inevitably missing from this conversation in each and every post is a discussion of mental health (why people put themselves and others at risk is always just dismissed as selfish and stupid) and the concept of harm reduction. The latter might include easing up on strict quarantine practices after recovering from covid-19. The operator of gaysovercovid has repeated some iteration of, “Just because you’ve had it before, doesn’t mean you can’t get it again,” which is technically true, though documented reinfections are extremely rare. There is growing evidence of long-lasting immunity in the vast majority of those who recover from covid, which would make a handful of guys standing outside together maskless a lot less of a health hazard than its interpretation. Of course, attending a circuit party with hundreds of maskless revelers is a different thing than hanging in a small friend group, though both have been featured on gaysovercovid.
A philosophical or civil conversation that is, above all else nuanced, of course, is expecting too much on social media. Scroll through any given gaysovercovid post and you’ll see comments piling on about the perceived appearance (“A whole bunch of ugly kweens with bad taste 💩💩”); masculinity (“Stupid girls. Count how many tweezed eyebrows - are these considered ‘men’?”); sexual practices (“I don’t understand the selfishness of these toxic people. These are the ones getting raw dogged by ‘Tyler,’ they just met on Grindr, behind a 7-11”); biases (“I always love the hypocrisy of gay men like these. They are all about BLM and defending POC, but they are also the first ones to say that they prefer white men in their Grindr profile”); and other possible infections of those pictured (“COVID and syphilis in the air”).
People air out grievances (“The worst date I ever went on was with someone in this photo. Good riddance.”), and they announce their own discontent with the broader culture (“I mean they all had Grindr to begin with...covid is the least of their worries 🦩”). At least one person suggested that the finger-pointing hasn’t gone far enough: “Seems a little late to the party. We are shaming ppl for partying during Covid but not shaming ppl for being irresponsible prior to this with having sex unprotected and passing along std and sti 🤷🏼♂️.” More shame, says this person! You have to wade through a lot of “ugly,” “gross,” and “trash” to find a clearheaded assessment that is no less withering: “Helping to spread a virus that’s killing Black at brown people at the highest rates makes you an enthusiastic white supremacist.”
The hostility is encouraged by the person who runs gaysovercovid. In his captions and comments, he has devised his own projections (“Now, back in Covid Mykonos! Gonorrhea isn’t the only thing these queens be catching! 🦠🦠🦠 They wont wear condoms, so why would we expect them to wear masks?”); made ageist comments that are in no way scientific (“I thought I heard if you’re older you are more susceptible to catching COVID? Maybe I was wrong? #oldergaysovercovid”); suggested his own body resentment (“ Your body is gonna look real good with a ventilator coming out of it. Hope you post that too! #stayhome”); and, at one point, claimed to have called the feds on a drag queen who performed at a private house party. “People say this is a shaming profile, but they have no shame in what they’re doing,” the admin told Lorenz and Hawgood. So then, it is “a shaming profile,” but a necessary one, at least according to him.
A recent gaysovercovid post features a video from psychologist Greg Carson’s account, in which he describes so-called “covid vigilantes” as “not the problem.”
“Those people are just pissed, they’re hurt, they’re staying inside, they’re giving up everything,” he says. Well, certainly hurt people do hurt people. But Carson’s stance assumes that those in the comments are as virtuous as they imply in their piles on. I’m not nearly as convinced. People are flawed and because of that, quarantine was never going to be perfect. I do not mean to excuse those who have flagrantly partied in large groups, sometimes outside of their countries and in proximity to highly vulnerable populations of color, but I am neither so wowed by backbiting as to excuse the bitchiness and toxicity there, either. I’m on neither team—those I agree with in this debate are the public-health minded skeptics who are questioning methodology. They are the ones who are actually concerned with outcome and not seduced by the moment.
Given the gaysovercovid operator’s deviation from scientific soundness, I have to wonder how well-considered this exercise is. There is much data to suggest that shaming (or whatever you want to call this sort of calling out and tagging) simply does not work, and can actually make people resistant to change. The lessons this account intends to impart are not necessarily those that will be learned. Why, for example, would the pandemic party gays conclude that they should stop convening, when it seems just as possible that what they’ve learned is just stop documenting their parties? All that venom for negligible results.
The gaysovercovid operator has admitted as much, however inadvertently: “These repeat LA offenders just don’t stop,” he wrote in a caption in December. Gee, seems like the message...might not be getting through?
I understand leaning into the chaos of our time, of extracting entertainment from pretty serious social transgressions, like lemonade from lemons. I understand catharsis, though I prefer it to be called what it is. Something that I never would have predicted growing up, something that I still don’t understand, is how “scold” got to be an admirable persona that people would openly aspire to. From an aesthetic perspective, nagging and handwringing is unpleasant, distasteful. Self-righteousness without results or even a reasonably foregone conclusion is effectively just... shittiness.
People pick their poison. Some of the larger community’s “chosen family” members have refused to allow a pandemic to redefine their lives and have brazenly broadcast their gatherings to a now-less-fawning audience. Some have leaned into our new normal, apart together. A space like gaysovercovid is, naturally, another way to congregate. This is, naturally, the culture. I don’t believe that gaysovercovid foments hostility, per se; I think it’s just a novel venue for preexisting acrimony amongst gay men. I don’t buy that either side of this makes “all of us” look bad, either, because I think respectability politics are truth-evading bullshit.
Mostly, gaysovercovid—its clashing words and images, the scolding and the hedonism—makes us look like what we are. Its worth is not necessarily in its behavior-changing goals but its potential as a record of this time in gay history. For the various permutations of vanity it features—aesthetic vanity, moral vanity—gaysovercovid is an equal-opportunity mirror.