When the world rang in 2021, we thought we would be leaving much of the malaise of the previous pandemic year behind. But alas, there is no vaccine for one of our favorite pursuits: good old-fashioned social media shaming, which has been rampant thanks to an anonymous Instagram account and a party cruise sinking that went down over New Year’s Eve weekend.
Many on Instagram who follow popular models and influencers on the circuit party scene were surprised to see photos and videos being posted of a New Year’s Eve circuit party in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico. The party, organized by gay circuit scene impresario Jeffrey Sanker, received massive criticism on social media, where many pointed out that hospital ICU beds in Jalisco were at 100-percent capacity and that, due to the pandemic raging in the area, local officials were capping event attendance at eight people.
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In fact, the latter regulation is what ultimately prompted Sanker to move at least one of the parties associated with the event to the neighboring state of Nayarit, which has much more lax restrictions, according to reporting from the Los Angeles Blade. “The best party with the hottest sex will be held at an estate in Puerto Vallarta and I’m going. I don’t have Covid. Like, I can’t infect someone with something I don’t have,” one anonymous partygoer told the Blade. “If I get it I’ll let you know, but who cares. I’m 23 years old and a girl’s gotta live.”
The social-media backlash to the event was primarily fueled by @GaysOverCovid, an anonymously run Instagram account with more than 88,000 followers as of press time. Since last summer, the anonymous proprietor behind @GaysOverCovid has been doing aggressive sleuthing work, posting photos of gay parties during the pandemic as well as the personal information of many of the attendees. In one post, @GaysOverCovid outed a health care worker who had received the COVID-19 vaccine and then traveled to Puerto Vallarta for the party. “White privilege at its absolute finest. Privileged enough to be vaccinated two days ago, now this medical professional is on a beach in Puerto Vallarta without a care in the world. Meanwhile the CDC begs people to stay home and not travel,” the caption read, accompanied by an image of tanned, fit men frolicking on the beach. “I will never understand this lack of empathy.”
On New Year’s Eve, a boat carrying about 60 of the attendees of the Puerto Vallarta party sank. Though no one was hurt during the incident, video footage showing the revelers being rescued surfaced on Twitter, leading to an onslaught of schadenfreude and extensive memeification, as well as comparisons to the sinking of the Titanic. “Here were all these people flouting all these precautions and it was sort of like karma to watch them get a little bit of comeuppance,” says Zack Ford, a former LGBTQ editor at ThinkProgress who authored a viral thread about the controversy surrounding the Puerto Vallarta event and @GaysOverCovid. He says that the demographic that the Puerto Vallarta event attracted — primarily, white cisgender male influencers with conventionally attractive physiques — also contributed to much of the schadenfreude, viewing the story through the lens of “who holds power and privilege” within the gay community.
Not everyone, however, was laughing at the memes. Puerto Vallarta attendees, some of whom had been outed by @GaysOverCovid, were enraged by the account, with one post on the Facebook page for CircuitBitch.com offering a $500 bounty for anyone able to reveal the identity of the person behind the account. “For so long they have been hiding the screen, trying to out fellow gays, making our community as divisive as ever,” the post read. “If they believe what they’re doing is right, why be a coward and let us know who they really are.” The post concluded with the hashtag #GaysOverKarens, a reference to a trope of an entitled white woman bullying members of marginalized communities.
Others expressed concern that the shaming tactics used by the @GaysOverCovid account were ineffective and would drive irresponsible behavior further underground, or that it would serve as fuel for the fire of homophobes who viewed the behavior of the Puerto Vallarta attendees as reflective of the gay community at large. (GaysOverCovid did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)
James Greig, a writer who parsed out the controversy for a Huck Magazine piece, does not necessarily agree with the tactics utilized by GaysOverCovid, objecting in particular to previous posts on the account lauding the police for shutting circuit parties down. “I’m not sure that shaming individuals is an effective way of influencing behavior in a public health crisis,” he says. “I think people are more likely to get defensive and double down.” Yet he agrees that openly flouting social-distancing regulations in the face of a pandemic is contemptible behavior, though it shouldn’t be pathologized or viewed through the lens of being a phenomenon exclusively to gay circuit party attendees: “straight people are breaking lockdown to go on holiday all the time and I don’t see this as meaningfully different.”
Ford similarly does not think that the behavior exemplified by the Puerto Vallarta revelers is reflective of anything but a tiny sliver of the gay community, or that this is necessarily a story about gay circuit party culture in general, comparing their behavior to churchgoers who refuse to practice social distancing. “We really just have an issue across the entire society of people who don’t think their actions impact others and don’t think they have to care that their actions impact others,” he says. “I don’t see this story as about circuit party culture. It’s just this emblem of how extremely people can disregard the responsibility they have to others around them and no one is talking about the sacrifices others are making.”
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