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Has the Pandemic Put Gay Men's Sex Lives Under Attack Once Again?

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This ongoing pandemic seems to have brought out the worst impulses in the gay community. The shaming of gay men participating in party culture during COVID has turned into a real-life version of Mean Girls. It’s petty; it’s childish; it’s occasionally humorous but don’t be fooled — it’s also dangerous. Stigma is counterproductive. Using shame as a weapon does not achieve the attended public health goal and we all get hurt in the process. We must put an end to stigma around gay men and COVID. 

We have a 40-year history that demonstrates how detrimental shame and stigma are to our communities. These tactics did not work to curb the HIV epidemic, in fact they exacerbated it. And public shaming won’t work against COVID. It all comes down to the simple question: “What is the intended goal?” If it is to change people’s behavior, then stigma won’t work.

As Julia Marcus, epidemiologist and Harvard professor astutely points out in a piece for The Atlantic, “Calling out seemingly dangerous behavior can also provide an illusion of control at a time when it’s particularly hard to come by. But, as years of research on HIV prevention have shown, shaming doesn’t eliminate risky behavior — it just drives it underground. Even today, many gay men hesitate to disclose their sexual history to health-care providers because of the stigma that they anticipate. Shaming people for their behavior can backfire.”

Stigmatizing gay men’s sex is a setback to public health efforts and harms the community that is in need. We should have learned from our own experiences.

So, what is the goal? Is it to create memes and gain IG followers? If that’s the case then Gays Over COVID can claim mission accomplished. But cowardly hiding behind an anonymous Instagram account is not helping to end the COVID pandemic. Those who create these posts are not intrepid investigative journalists. Their efforts are more akin to those of Jerry Springer. In one post Gays Over COVID rail against white privilege; in the next post they are trying to get a gay nurse of color fired from his job.

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…”

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.

To be clear. I am not defending the actions of people who organize or attend these parties. I am calling out the strategy of shame and stigma as a response to the ongoing COVID pandemic. You can be angry and annoyed but stigmatizing gay men is not helpful; in fact, it is a distraction. The largest issues are structural — lack of health equity, racial injustice, poverty, and government incompetence and corruption. We need to devote our time and energy to these urgent issues if we really want to make a positive impact on the COVID pandemic. It’s easy to hide behind an IG account but it takes hard work to tackle structural racism, a botched vaccine rollout, and a broken health care system.

Gay men are best positioned to tackle the spread of COVID in our community, as this is not our first pandemic. Let’s take this moment as an opportunity to step back for a moment, gain perspective on the real issues, and devise a strategy that is going to benefit us all. We can critique our community without creating stigma and we can work together to effectively tackle this pandemic while working to improve the health and wellness of gay men.

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