Gay Circuit Parties During COVID Sparked a “Civil War.” Can Anyone Win?

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.