For four days, he eschewed sleep to obsessively scroll through social media and sort through hundreds of tips he’s received as part of his secret mission: use Instagram to name and shame other gay men who are partying during the pandemic.
“No part of it is anger on my end,” said the man behind @TheGayRona, a California tech industry worker, who like others in this story asked not to be identified, fearing he would become a social media target himself. “It’s a sense of acting ethically and having a moral compass. I want accountability.”
@TheGayRona is one of several recent so-called COVID vigilante accounts aimed at self-policing the behavior of the gay community during the coronavirus pandemic. As they social-distance at home, the people behind these anonymous accounts are sharing images to thousands of followers of muscular, mostly white men gathering in Speedos on beaches or dancing shirtless at parties in the US and abroad. The accounts highlight the men’s identities, their usernames, and often their job details, sometimes encouraging users to contact the partygoers’ employers. “Hunker Downers, steer clear,” @TheGayRona wrote in one Instagram post tagging a shirtless influencer. “He has had a recklessly busy few weeks. Was just in Miami last week > Rio > LA the following week.”
“🤮🤮🤮🤮 ” commented one follower. “He's like COVID Santa!”
Most of the drama has been cataloged on the Instagram account @GaysOverCovid, which has amassed more than 115,000 followers and spawned several smaller imitators. “A public forum is better because it sparks change, or at least attempts to,” the gay man in his late twenties running the account told reporters Taylor Lorenz and Alex Hawgood. (He did not respond to requests from BuzzFeed News.) In recent weeks, @GaysOverCovid played detective by checking people’s Facebook location and even Venmo history to place them in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which over the New Year’s Eve period hosted circuit parties — all-night raves with a reputation for drug use and few sexual boundaries — i.e., the opposite of proper social distancing.
“Part of it is the public persona of what they’re doing. They’re going out on Instagram, posting stories, flaunting them flouting guidelines,” said a mid-thirties healthcare industry worker who is one of the four people behind @BostonGaysOverCovid, which has been exposing the behavior of that city’s gay community. “The brashness by which they push against it, by which they flaunt it, versus folks like us who are just sitting at home.”
But the accounts have caused tension in the gay community. One man offered a $500 reward on a circuit party Facebook group for the identity of whoever’s behind @GaysOverCovid, telling Lorenz and Hawgood the account was “like Salem Witch hunting.” Many who have been shamed by the account are now sharing their theories as to who is behind it. There was briefly even a @GaysOverGaysOverCovid account set up to hit back at “public shaming, cyberbullying, and stigma.” (That account naturally prompted a @GaysOverGaysOverGaysOverCovid.)
“We know who the guy is,” insisted Jasson Jerez, a Los Angeles–based influencer with 177,000 Instagram followers who has been called out by the account. Jerez, however, provided no evidence for the claim.
“I let people talk on social media. Honestly, I don’t feed into that. Too much negativity in the world. I don’t need it from social media so I’m staying away,” Jerez wrote in a series of Instagram messages that he later deleted. “The news and the world is already enough. Social media should be an escape from reality for us to just be stupid and silly. This isn’t real life. It’s all facade; it’s not our life.”
Vox reporter Alex Abad-Santos has been the most prominent chronicler of the drama on Twitter where he has shared a series of viral updates about what he jokes has been a “Gay Civil War.” Many of the updates are laced with schadenfreude from those staying home. When a party boat carrying some of the men traveling in Puerto Vallarta sank without passengers being injured, video of the incident was viewed 2 million times and became the subject of memes. When Brazilian police shut down a circuit party, gay men reveled in their counterparts’ wasted money.
Abad-Santos told BuzzFeed News gay men were transfixed by the saga because of the prominent place circuit parties hold in the community — and the horror from some that they might continue in a deadly pandemic.
“The ‘civil war’ stuff is mostly making fun of the way this messiness is being framed,” he said. “I mean, I think there's definitely other issues that this fight is touching on when it comes to the way gay men look at ourselves, what we value, and how we look at other gay men.”
“It's kinda not a surprise that one of the common responses from partygoers is that ‘they're jealous of us,’” he said.
"It's kinda not a surprise that one of the common responses from partygoers is that ‘they're jealous of us.'"
Zack Ford, the press secretary for the Alliance for Justice and a former LGBTQ editor for Think Progress whose own take on the parties went viral, told BuzzFeed News the debate touches on issues of male body image and social media that can cause depression in the gay community.
“In a way these influencers, these people whose bodies are in the foreground, they’re kind of like our royalty,” he said. “But when your royalty, the people who exhibit the glamour and the prestige of your community betray you and betray the respect you give them, it can be really disconcerting.”
“It’s really not about circuit parties,” he added. “It’s about a universal experience we’ve all had: weighing the sacrifices we’re all making and trying to process the people who aren’t making those sacrifices.”
There are real-world concerns, too. Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstege told BuzzFeed News dozens of residents of her California city, long a haven and travel destination for the LGBTQ community, had contacted her office concerned by what they’ve seen posted by @GaysOverCovidPage. “Palm Springs residents are extremely at risk. We have people who lived through the height of the HIV pandemic,” she said. “People are really afraid of others coming back with the virus after partying, and it doesn’t reflect well on the values of Palm Springs.”
The tech industry worker behind @TheGayRona said his account has been particularly focused on exposing medical practitioners who have been preaching safe COVID-19 practices or uploading photos of themselves receiving a coronavirus vaccine, only to then share party pics. (The CDC says vaccinated people should still wear masks and social-distance.) He said he’s concerned they will return to their clinics and hospitals without a proper quarantine period and potentially endanger their patients.
“I get it — they’re frustrated. They’re overworked. It’s been a difficult year for them. I empathize,” he said. “But I think there needs to be ethical behavior from this group.”
Jerez, the Los Angeles influencer, said he’s a medical worker in a clinic and wanted to vacation and party because the pandemic had been so stressful. “Honestly, I don’t mind [being featured by the account]. I know we aren’t doing things we are supposed to do … [But] it’s been almost a year of going insane with the pandemic, and clearly it’s not controllable in my clinic with staff and patients,” he said. “I’m going insane, and if I didn’t get away for some sort of break, I swear I would probably have punched somebody in the face and gotten fired.”
As for why these men would go on vacation and flaunt themselves defying coronavirus safety measures, @TheGayRona believes some users simply can’t help themselves. “There’s so much currency in posting nowadays, it’s inevitable,” he said. “I feel like people are addicted to getting that validation.”
But that status and prominence make it more important to scrutinize those who have influence via their large following, argued Ford, the former LGBTQ editor.
“Certainly when the target group is a group that relies on popularity — that is what fuels influencers and people who capitalize on their bodies and their appearance — we have a duty to hold them accountable and hold them to a higher standard,” he said. “Just because you’re hot, doesn’t give you permission to be an asshole.”
"Just because you’re hot, doesn’t give you permission to be an asshole."
Mike Schultz, a 43-year-old San Francisco nurse who contracted the COVID-19 at a circuit party in Miami in March, knows firsthand what that extra level of scrutiny can bring. At least 38 people became ill after attending the party, with three men dying. BuzzFeed News interviewed Schultz in May after he spent six weeks intubated in a Boston hospital and had shared a shocking before-and-after photo of how his muscular frame had shriveled. “I wanted to show it can happen to anyone,” he said at the time. “It doesn't matter if you're young or old, have preexisting conditions or not. It can affect you."
But in December, screenshots began circulating from Schultz’s social media accounts in which he said he was excited to go to Puerto Vallarta. He also applauded another post by a man who complained of “fucking bitter queens” and who described COVID-19 as “survival of the fittest.”
Schultz was blasted for his behavior, especially since had received more than $20,000 via a GoFundMe established to cover his medical expenses. But Schultz, who declined to be interviewed over the phone, told BuzzFeed News in a series of text messages he did not ultimately visit Mexico and that the GoFundMe had been established by a friend while he was in a coma. “I never once asked for a penny,” he wrote.
Schultz also said he had been targeted by online “monsters” who had called his employer and tried to get him fired. He said he wanted to take legal action against @GaysOverCovid and other sites “posting false defamatory information,” but later said he could not afford a lawyer.
“These monsters believe what they want to believe no matter what I say. I didn’t go to PV and it honestly is no one's business,” he wrote. “I’m sick of getting death threats and hate mail from these people that think they’re doing good.”
He denied ever endangering his patients or coworkers as a result of his social activities during the pandemic. But asked if he could understand why people were angry when they assumed he would be traveling, Schultz wrote, “I can tell you that I do understand why they’re upset.”
"I’m sick of getting death threats and hate mail from these people that think they’re doing good."
Leo Herrera, an activist, writer, and artist based in San Francisco and New Orleans, said he’s been troubled by the images of people partying in his native Mexico, where hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.
But Herrera, who has produced a multimedia project on the AIDS crisis, said he’s been most upset by members of his community seemingly forgetting their own history. “A lot of this younger generation don’t understand what it was like to live through HIV before PREP. They don’t see what a lot of our own went through,” he said. “This is about a group of people and a culture that has already lived through a pandemic, so in very real, tangible ways we should know better.”
Not everyone agrees with the AIDS comparisons, though. Abad-Santos, the Vox writer, said public health experts he has spoken with feel the diseases are too dissimilar. It’s also an incredibly delicate issue. The @BostonGaysOverCovid account was suspended Tuesday night after one of the administrators posted a story alleging a man had been lying about his HIV status to sexual partners.
“We (minus that person) are trying to see if we can get it up and running again without them obviously,” one of the men running it told BuzzFeed News. “Shaming people about HIV is one step too far.”
"This is about a group of people and a culture that has already lived through a pandemic, so in very real, tangible ways we should know better."
Detractors of the COVID vigilante accounts contend they’re also unfairly magnifying the behavior of the LGBTQ community in a manner that is not applied to straight people. But Abad-Santos said there are plenty of critical videos of straight people ignoring health guidelines at political rallies or churches. “I feel like circuit parties are, by their nature, ridiculous,” he said, “and so there's an edge of that when you compare, like, a bunch of shirtless sweaty men rubbing pecs to devout churchgoers.”
But whether it be men partying on Fire Island for the 4th of July or vacationing on a private island with friends, the gay community has been policing their own throughout the pandemic. “I do think we hold our community to a higher standard,” said @TheGayRona. “We’re a tight-knit community.”
Herrera added that the vigilante accounts are also a reflection of the government’s failed response to the pandemic, forcing the gay community to police their own, “which is a really dangerous and ethically vague position, but it’s the only one we have.”
“I think we have sort of developed this knee-jerk reaction that all shaming is bad. A lot of people confuse public accountability with shaming,” he added. “We have to remind our people that you need to read the room.” ●