Masc for masc? This July 4 weekend on the legendary gay beach retreat of Fire Island near New York City, the hook-up app phrase indicating masculinity seemed to give way to a new phrase in the COVID-19 era: “no mask for no mask.”
The weekend wasn’t even over before a national—even global—social-media storm erupted over photos and videos showing massive, closely packed parties of lean, lithe gays in Speedos—on the beach, around crowded pools, inside homes, and at a night rave in the dunes—unmasked, almost to a one. For perhaps the first time ever, the #FireIsland hashtag exploded on Twitter. One guy, Corey Hannon, became the new gay “Karen,” pilloried on social media after he posted that he was on the island only days after having symptoms that were likely COVID-19 related. (He said he hadn’t gotten his test back yet before hitting the island.)
In the wake of the highly unfavorable coverage, poohbahs from the island’s gay communities of the Pines and Cherry Grove scrambled to do damage control. The property owners’ group of the Pines issued a statement saying that, going forward, they had invited local police to patrol the island day and night for the rest of the summer season, in order to break up and even videotape beach or house gatherings before they got large and crowded. On a more community-minded note, longtime island club promoter Daniel Nardicio announced that he was starting a paid corps of go-go boys and drag queens to be “COVID Destroyers,” going around the island all the time to hand out masks and encourage distancing in a friendly, non-judgmental manner.
It’s no surprise that, after the dragging Hannon took on social media, those who attended the parties—one at midday on the beach, another at night in the cruise-y dunes area long called the Meat Rack, yet more inside private homes—have not come forward on social themselves. Nobody wants to be lumped in with folks now widely perceived as young-and-dumb, Speedo-rocking Typhoid Marys. Here at TheBody, we reached out through social networks to invite those who were at the parties to talk anonymously about their rationale. It’s no surprise that most folks we reached out to—even those whom others said they were sure were there—not only denied being at the parties but expressed dismay over them.
However, a few—mainly those in the same friend group—spoke out anonymously. (We’ve listed them here as A, B, C, and so on.) And to be clear, we at TheBody insisted on anonymity, because our point here is to look at the events from the inside and continue a conversation about how to balance pleasure and safety—rather than to name, shame, and blame, potentially destroying people’s lives via social media. Decades of HIV prevention efforts have proven that shaming and judgment don’t get people to change behaviors—but reaching out with love, support, and harm-reduction options do. In that spirit, listen to these four guys and one woman about those now-infamous parties…
A, age 41
Tim Murphy: So, you were there?
A: Yeah, I was at the outdoor Meat Rack party that evening. When I showed up around 1 a.m., it was already fairly active. I brought and wore a mask. I think there was minimal risk there compared to the many thousands of bars around the country with people indoors without masks, in states with rising COVID-19 cases. I’d say only 10% of the people at the Meat Rack party were wearing masks, mostly who also tended to gather toward the edges. The mass of people closer to the music speakers definitely weren’t wearing masks.
It makes me sad. I would’ve loved to see a party like this demonstrate how you could in fact have a responsible gathering. I went to all the protests in NYC following George Floyd’s murder. People were shoulder to shoulder, but all wearing masks, and that felt fine to me. So the Meat Rack thing was disappointing to me. But I still think the response has been disproportionate and homophobic. I don’t think it merits much discussion except to say, “Look, guys, wear masks, and then you won’t have this kind of problem.”
TM: Why do you think people didn’t wear masks?
A: I don’t know. I admit I felt strange wearing a mask. I was an odd man out. So I guess peer pressure plays a huge role. And people want to pretend that we’re not in the middle of a pandemic. They party partly to escape that idea. So if I were going to take a proactive lens, I’d say we need to set examples of how to model responsible partying behavior. I’m as anxious about a prohibitionist stance as I am about abstinence-only sex education. People are going to try to have fun and they’re going to fuck up, and how can we guide them in a way that is responsible rather than shaming? How do we create real models for how to have a good time? Nightlife is essential to queer identity.
There are places around the island with dog-poop dispensers. Maybe they should have that for masks.
TM: A lot of the commentary online was like, “privileged white gays,” but the crowds at those parties actually looked pretty diverse, which is interesting given recent conversations on the island about how to make it more welcoming and accessible to Black and Brown queer folks. Were they?
A: The Meat Rack party was actually very Black and Latino.
B, age 34
B: I went to the night rave. Several hundred people were there.
TM: Was it fun?
B: Not really. I think that the corona situation has cast a bit of a pall over everything, a sense of not really fully committing to a party situation. The music was super-faint, and it was very poorly lit, except for Christmas rave lights that some people were wearing, which contributed to people clumping together. I have no idea who threw the party. Who brought the speakers? I’m not sure. I went with some friends. Some wore masks, and some, including me, did not. We were generally not wearing masks within our houses, but [we did] when we were in public spaces. I didn’t even bring my mask to the night party. I might have if I’d known how big it was going to be. We were actually told about the party rather late at night when we were ready to go to bed, so I thought, “If I go, I’m gonna have to get fucked up a bit.”
So we did some ketamine [horse tranquilizer often taken as a party drug] and got there. A lot of people think, “Oh, we can be kind of safe and socially distanced and still be gay and have fun,” but if you’re doing drugs, you’re not going to end up making good choices, and that includes me. It was very tightly packed, and people were making out, and there was not as much breeze as on the beach during the day.
TM: Was anyone talking about the risk or the lack of masks?
B: Yeah. Ish. But why are people so focused on this? Look at straight people partying in Florida. OK, I admit that straight people don’t get as close to each other as gay people do. I think we all thought that it was a bad idea and that we would not want to do it again. On the other hand, if new cases are not traced to this, people might learn the wrong lesson. I think in a few weeks there will be a consensus about whether or not the parties caused cases to spread.
TM: And the party was very racially mixed?
B: Yes. The racial politics get complicated, because the true Fire Island gays—the homeowners who ultimately control the island and are typically much richer and older and whiter than the general population on the island—don’t want parties. They were very nervous about a July 4 surge. But this was also the most diverse the island has been all summer. Privilege is being able to stay in your own house all summer.
C, late 20s
C: We walked over to the Meat Rack party in a group of seven, wearing masks. People were packed around the speakers, with others on the edges engaging in different sexual experiments. I then took my mask off, because the rate of outdoor transmission is low. I thought, “What is the point of my being here, my first year on Fire Island?” I’ve been more lenient than usual because of my age and because I’ve already been around a lot of people who’ve already had COVID.
During the day, we stopped at one indoor party, but we left after two or three minutes because everyone was unmasked and on top of each other. People wanted release, more from drugs than sex I think—some people were G’ing out [high on the drug GHB].
The day after the Meat Rack party, people in the medical profession dropped by our house. They seemed really flustered and concerned. Doctors can be quite quick to be punitive. There’s a lack of language about how to move forward productively. I’m young and healthy, and my friends have already had COVID. I now feel more comfortable being around more people, taking off my mask and having a normal conversation.
Social media is all about FOMO [fear of missing out]. I think a lot of the queer or gay people [who criticized the parties on social] had FOMO. It’s not very nuanced. When I was younger, in college, and more into Marxist theory, I would’ve agreed that a “Fire Island gay” is the epitome of whiteness, or a muscled, G’d-out disco queen, but now I know that not to be true at all. A lot of the locals are older or artists in residence, and in my community there’s a lot of racially diverse artists.
TM: What do you think will happen going forward this summer?
C: The property owners put out a warning. But calling the police is not the answer to this situation. There were so many out-of-towners this past weekend who were looking for something [exciting] to happen.
D, (a cisgender woman), 34
D: As for the daytime party on the beach, it didn’t look as bad as it did in photos. It was still noticeable, though. My girlfriend said, “Oh my God, those young, dumb guys.” But it didn’t look like this sweaty melee that’s been disturbing people’s imaginations online. It was outside, with a lot of wind. I’m all for shaming for the right reasons. But shaming groups for not wearing masks? I feel like underneath what sounds reasonable is a layer of very intense judgment from people who are not having fun, so they feel that no one should be having fun. I don’t get the scale of the anger around that one beach party with 100 people max when there are currently malls open in Arizona.
I went to the night party with some friends. I wasn’t scared. You can always choose where you want to be in a crowd. I’ve been going to protests in NYC for almost a month—marches, rallies, City Hall. I was volunteering in a mutual aid space, talking to homeless people every day. And I didn’t get coronavirus. And I think it’s because all those activities were outdoors and people were good about wearing masks.
I get why people are so annoyed at a certain kind of white gay, but some of the criticism is very conservative moral judgment. Someone wrote, “I see no difference between this beach party and going to a Trump hate rally.” Well, I sure see a difference!
So at the rave, I wore a mask and observed from the edge. It was very racially mixed. Who is actually on Fire Island is very different from whom you see in those Tom Bianchi coffee table books. That stereotype is not serving the community very well at this point. I will say that it was an intimidatingly good-looking crowd, even if, as a woman, nobody was coming up to me asking me to make out. I know why many people wrote on social, “These are the kind of gays who would never give me the time of day.” There’s an undercurrent of envy and judgment that has made this story so big.
At the rave, one guy walked by me and was like, “Good luck with that mask.” I think he was making fun of me for being square. I thought it was kind of funny.
E, age 40
E: I was at the beach when that whole thing went down. It was 11 a.m. and I was parked on the beach with my housemates. You’re hanging out there, and people haven’t seen each other in a long time, so as you walk the beach, you’re like, “Hey girl, you’re here!” You hug and socialize. So that group grew by people walking up and down the beach. It wasn’t a planned gathering, to my knowledge. There were three or four different speakers going. If you look at where the towels were placed, they were socially distanced. I’d say the whole thing spanned the width of two houses. The cops came by multiple times. “Hey guys, put your masks on.” They had clipboards to write up those who were potentially going to resist, so we’d pull up our hankies around our faces, then the cops would leave and come back around a half-hour later to tell us again.
I wasn’t wearing a mask. Everyone in our house had antibodies, which was something we ensured before taking a house for a week. But as the crowd grew, we were like, “Oh God, here we go, someone’s gonna post this and put it on social.” And once it made it on social, with guys tagging Governor Cuomo and the Suffolk County Police, I was disappointed. Yes, we should have done better. But how do you tell other adults to put on a mask without being singled out as the Karen of the beach? At the end of the day, you can’t control other people’s actions. You put gay boys together in this situation, and they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do, and deal with the consequences later. It’s kind of sad.
I think the idea of the “COVID Destroyers” to interact with people in a nonjudgmental way is brilliant. Why didn’t they do it sooner? It might have helped if they’d had large signs when you come off the ferry, saying, “Please respect the island and put on a mask.” It’s like ACT UP, doing whatever we can to be socially responsible, going back to our roots of what we stand for as a community.
TM: Do you wish you’d put on a mask when you were mingling on the beach?
E: I wish I’d been in a position to have said, “Hey guys, let’s put a mask on.” If only because you don’t want to be on social without a mask. There are eyes all over the island.