Drama on the dance floor: Why 'gay civil war' has been declared over a New Year’s Eve blowout in Mexico

The scene at a 2016 circuit party near Barcelona, Spain. (Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters)
The scene at a 2016 circuit party near Barcelona, Spain. (Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters)

Potential superspreader events in the form of New Year’s Eve parties — Mar-a-Lago’s celeb-studded bash, for example, and not-so-secret nightclub soirées in cities from Los Angeles to New York — have been reported across the nation, stoking anger and resentment across social media.

But only one such event — a weekend-long gay dance blowout held at a beach resort on the West Coast of Mexico — has created enough social-media controversy and in-fighting to be dubbed a “gay civil war.”

The ironically named event — “White Party New Year’s Weekend 2021: Unity” — took place in Nuevo Vallarta in the state of Nayarit, Mexico, creating beaches “jammed wall to wall mostly with mask-less celebrants,” according to NBC Palm Springs, which featured one of the only publicly shared photos so far of the no-photos-allowed event. Originally slated to take place in neighboring Puerto Vallarta, popular producer Jeffrey Sanker moved it at the last minute due to tighter COVID-19 restrictions in the state of Jalisco.

Jeffrey Sanker's 2018 White Party
A White Party scene from 2018 in Palm Springs, Calif. (Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images)

Sanker is best known for producing his White Party in Palm Springs, Calif., the site of an annual rite of passage on what’s known as the gay party circuit — a long-divisive subculture comprised of massive, drug-fueled dance parties drawing (mostly white, well-to-do) gay men to the DJ-driven events all around the globe.

Sanker did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment. However, Mickey Weems, a circuit party historian, professor of English at the University of Hawaii and friend of Sanker, tells Yahoo Life that Sanker told him the following on Monday: that he threw a total of three parties, all with reduced capacity — 500, 250 and 100 people at each, respectively — and that “all protocols were observed according to the law,” including wearing masks to enter and undergoing temperature checks. Three other parties thrown by different promoters also took place in the area, he added.

Though the heyday of circuit parties was the 1990s, there are still plenty going on — including one in Rio de Janeiro that raged with an estimated 2,000 partygoers before being shut down by authorities on Dec. 29. And the current festivities are what inspired an anonymous critic to start the GaysOverCovid Instagram page back in July, with a specific purpose to call out and shame gay partygoers who boldly flout COVID-19 safety precautions. The page, which has had a surge in followers (currently at 109,000) since its recent focus on the Sanker bash, urges: “Wear a mask. Stay home. Save lives. Don’t join the GaysOverCovid.”

The fallout from the bash in Mexico, where cases have been surging in part due to the crush of American tourists, has been the most extreme yet — complete with negative LGBTQ press coverage, leaks about Eventbrite notifications asking attendees to not share the address or photos of the event (Eventbrite has not responded to a Yahoo Life request for comment about safety protocol), local anger from the Puerto Vallarta Daily News and endless social media outcry.

There was also plenty of schadenfreude over a party boat, unrelated but similar to Sanker’s events, that sank “like the Titanic,” leaving nearly 60 men to be rescued by helpful locals and prompting a now viral critique of the situation written by LGBTQ activist and filmmaker Leo Herrera, who says such parties “embody the most tedious, vapid and scary parts of us.”

And now there’s backlash to the backlash, with some of those under fire offering a $500 reward on the Facebook page CircuitBitch.com to anyone who can reveal the identity of the GaysOverCovid creator, noting, “Let it be known we are coming for them.”

On Twitter, one person shared a thread explaining the irony of the situation, writing, “The people who made the divisive decision are now using shame to scapegoat the person outing them.”

Other critics of the critics have accused GaysOverCovid of cyberbullying and public shaming, and have spawned response accounts including GaysOverGaysOverCovid and GaysOverCovid2.0, the latter of which already has 11,000 followers. Similarly, the Facebook page GaysOverKarens is dedicated to defending the circuit crowd and calling critics out for hypocrisy: “I see these bitter shady ass queens blasting event producers, promoters, djs, and even frontline workers when I see you all doing your own kikis, hooking up on Grindr, travelling, and doing your ‘private’ social gatherings.”

The entire over-the-top drama has captivated gay Twitter, declaring it’s “OBSESSED” and calling for a three-part Netflix documentary “right now!!!!” Plus, there are memes.

So, what, exactly, is going on? Here’s just a bit of what you need to know:

Issues within gay male culture can be layered and complex

On Twitter, a long and eloquent tweet thread attempted to get at the nuances, noting, “This really is a conversation about (mostly white) gay male culture, in-group/out-group dynamics, superficiality and body image issues, and what it means to celebrate sexual freedom as gay men.”

And while many can appreciate the point of the hedonism, he says, the conversation has shifted due to the pandemic, and the split between those who are determined to continue partying and those who are not.

That’s further complicated by how sensitive many in the LGBTQ community are about outsiders’ perception of queer culture. These parties, notes a Boston-based psychologist and former circuit-party attendee who requested that his name not be used, “fuel a lot of the negative stereotypes and perceptions of gay men. And on some level, there’s a felt need to have all gays and lesbians represent the better part of ourselves, not the worst parts of ourselves… and not show badly on our community.”

Shame is a trigger for many gay people

Shaming is a historically well-known vehicle that all societies have used to try to regulate behavior, adds the psychologist. “What shame is about is ‘you’re different,’ ‘there’s something defective about you’… so, yes, gay people have long histories of feeling ashamed, and therefore have strong, angry reactions to being shamed,” which may explain some of the GaysOverCovid triggering.

“And yet,” he says, “if you stop for a moment, the person [traveling down to a party amid the pandemic] should be ashamed of what they’re doing. Just because you’re gay or lesbian doesn’t mean you get a free pass for engaging in shameful behavior.”

Circuit parties have long been divisive and controversial

Since their beginning, circuit parties have been criticized by prominent gay cultural critics — including activist Larry Kramer and journalists Andrew Sullivan, Gabriel Rotello and Michelangelo Signorile, who blamed them “for an assortment of evils, including HIV transmission, drug addiction, and phony friendships,” wrote Weems in his 2008 book The Fierce Tribe: Masculine Identity and Performance in the Circuit.

Weems told Vice that, “By the mid-80s, dancing began to rise as form of resistance, as a way to bring the community together collectively and to raise money,” particularly in response to the trauma of AIDS — and that Sanker, who started the Palm Springs White Party in 1989, was among the first to commercialize the circuit.

But, Weems tells Yahoo Life, “to say it’s completely bad is to miss its place in history. … When a DJ takes you on a journey and you all unite for transcendent solidarity, something really beautiful occurs. Yes, body fascism is there, but it’s not the only thing.”

That body fascism, though, is one of the most obvious criticisms of the scene, explains Russell Westhaver, associate professor of sociology at St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, whose early- and mid-2000s research focused on gay men and circuit parties. “The circuit party scene privileges … a certain kind of aesthetic and body, at least with the ephemera that’s used to advertise and promote it, and that’s the buff gay man who’s in his 30s,” he tells Yahoo Life.

“There’s the body-shaming piece,” adds the Boston psychologist, “that has to do with people who are not there being angry at the folks who are there, and how they all have their shirts off and look a bit like some Greek god.”

Also seen as problems, Westhaver says, are that parties are organized “in some fashion” around drug use [including MDMA and GHB], which leads to “disinhibition” and potentially unsafe sex. Further, because traveling around to these events requires a certain level of privilege, issues of class inevitably come up.

On the positive side, he notes that his research found circuit parties to be “affirming festivals” for attendees, explaining that, “in the same way that gay pride events are affirming sites for gay men to confirm who they are, circuit parties fundamentally operate in the same way, for a slightly smaller subset of gay men.”

Much has progressed as far as gay acceptance within the societal mainstream during the nearly two decades since Westhaver conducted much of his research. And then, he recalls, “certainly the men I interviewed articulated a really strong need and desire for that kind of affirmational experience, so it may be that it is still that strong, even now.” But when it comes to emphasizing that need now, in the midst of the pandemic, as a reason to head down to a circuit party, he says, “I wonder about that desire holding as much water as it may have 10 or 15 years ago — and maybe it is just a banal expression of desire to have fun? Those, to me, are open questions.”

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