Queer gatherings are a rejection of queer isolation: of hiding in the closet, of believing oneself to be alone in one’s identity, of fearing that embracing one’s truth would result in physical harm. Historically, this defiance has been secretive, via underground drag balls, code-named coffee klatches, or darkened cruising spots. In recent decades, it’s often been more out and proud. Either way, what’s resulted for many participants is a way of life in which physical closeness is sacred. When you’re alienated from the families or communities you grew up with, when society hasn’t given you a road map for what your adult life should look like, or when the fulfillment of your desires has been stigmatized, the pursuit of pleasure and connection often becomes more important. So do the associated activities: dancing, chitchatting, dining, sex.
It’s thus natural to wonder whether the coronavirus will permanently damage or reshape queer life. The virus can move swiftly through crowds, especially indoors. To counter it, a church might space out its pews and an office might strictly regulate its headcount. A dance club, though? A sweaty party? A place that exists in part so strangers can meet strangers, and maybe touch strangers, and maybe touch more than one of them? Such places won’t be safe for a long time.
Social distancing is, of course, a challenge for every demographic. But it feels telling that each phase of the pandemic has seen an early example of queer people—mostly gay men—flouting the rules. In March, as large gatherings around America were being canceled, the Winter Party in Miami drew guys from all over the country for a dance-music bacchanal. Dozens of participants returned home with coronavirus infections, and three died. In May, over one of the first idyllic-weather weekends in New York City, much-circulated photos showed sunbathers in alarmingly tight quarters at Christopher Street Pier, a historical (and present-day) queer gathering spot. That same week, dozens of men held a days-long rave in a Manhattan apartment—and posted videos of the shirtless, strobe-lit violation of social distancing.
Most poignant is the situation in South Korea, where a mild flare-up of infections was traced to Seoul’s tiny gay-nightlife scene, leading to a wave of homophobic backlash in the somewhat socially conservative country. “I feel so trapped and hunted down,” one Korean gay man told The Guardian. “If I get tested, my company will most likely find out I’m gay. I’ll lose my job and face a public humiliation.” He said it’d been a mistake to go out to the gay district, but added that “visiting the area is the only time when I can be myself and hang out with others similar to me.”
The shutdown has clearly only intensified the yearning for connection, but it has also served as a reminder that to be queer is to find clever ways to respond to such yearning. I’ve talked with friends and experts and poked around queer spaces online lately, many of them tied to the scene in New York City, that queer mecca and pandemic epicenter. The pattern that’s emerged is one of creativity in caution rooted in an assurance that, somehow, togetherness will always be possible.