I’m a 51-year-old cisgender gay man living with HIV. I’ve lived with HIV for 20 years and written about HIV for nearly 30 years. As such, I know a lot about shame. And I’ve long adhered to the prevailing public health–sector belief that shaming and scolding don’t stop risky behavior, such as (in the pre-PrEP days) fucking without a condom or doing hard drugs like heroin or meth. Shaming drives these phenomena underground, making the people doing it double down, often resentfully, on their behavior.
The right approach, public-health experts and most longtime HIV activists will tell you, is to treat people who engage in behavior widely considered risky with compassion and patience, to “meet them where they’re at.” That means providing harm-reduction tools, such as condoms, sex education, counseling, clean needles for drug use, and support groups to help them make safer choices. The “risky” action has to be contextualized; you must consider underlying issues such as depression, anxiety, and the effect of systemic societal factors like racism and homophobia. Nothing good comes from heaping blame and judgment on the behavior, and those who engage in it, alone.
I believe in all this, both as a frequent interviewer of experts and as someone who, earlier in my life, used drugs, which led to my abandoning condoms, which led to my getting HIV. Plus, it’s often quite clear to see what is driving such behavior in other people. It really is depression, anxiety, and trauma—and even if it’s not entirely, isn’t it understandable that people would want to experience the pleasure of, say, sex without a condom in a somewhat elevated state? I certainly think so.
That’s why I’ve been so surprised to find myself having so much judgment, outrage even, at the images I’ve seen of LGBTQ folks, mainly cisgender white gay men, going to packed parties during COVID, often sans masks. Yes, I’m mainly talking huge circuit parties—that’s a “rave” in gay-speak—like the one that occurred in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, over New Year’s Eve that went viral on social media. The parties provoked global gay condemnation, not to mention a fair degree of ha-ha-ha schadenfreude when a gay party boat associated with the revelers capsized. (Thankfully—truly—nobody died or was seriously injured, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching those muscled, life-vested Adonises flounder about as they tried to clamber aboard the rescue boat.)
To a lesser extent, I’ve felt the same judgment at Instagram images of very large groups of well-heeled-looking gays at lavish indoor dinners and parties during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. Sure, yes, perhaps these were particularly big COVID social “bubbles,” perhaps everyone tested COVID negative before congregating, but I still felt judgment that these gays would have the callousness and bad taste to publicize their huge house parties at a time when people were spending the holidays literally alone, apart from even their own parents or grandparents.
And of course, my judginess has been fed by the anonymous Instagram account Gays Over COVID, which has taken to angrily and shadily publishing as many images of such gatherings as it can, even going so far as to identify individual revelers. Often, those they identify work in health care or have previously preached over Instagram the importance of staying safe during COVID. The account has amassed 139,000 followers since it launched in July, particularly gaining traction since the Puerto Vallarta incident.
Its founder is a 20-something gay man. Interviewed anonymously, he said that there is good intent behind his shaming: “I just want people to stay home, and if we can save one life, then I feel good, and we—the community that’s submitting content—have done a good deed. We have to live more empathetic lives. We have to care for our mothers, brothers, sisters, and the people we’re going to come into contact with.”
His words resonate with me. I just haven’t been able to get on the typical no-judgment, no-shaming public health bandwagon this time around. My short answer for why would be that while, yes, something like condomless sex back in the pre-PrEP days was a community health issue, most sex was taking place one-on-one, with the chance of HIV transmission relatively low per a single encounter, whereas we all know that COVID can spread like wildfire in an interior space packed with maskless people, especially those who are crawling all over each other and sharing various drugs, as is the very point of a circuit party. The flouting of well-understood health and safety rules just seems so much more, well, shameless.
The fact that straight people have carried on shamelessly since COVID began doesn’t change my feelings. I know it’s not fair to apply a higher standard to LGBTQ folks, but I guess I do. We’ve long had a special relationship to community health, looking out for one another when nobody else would look out for us. We’re supposed to know, to do, better.
Could I get fellow queer public health types to agree that they shared my indignance, and perhaps my lizard-brain happiness at seeing certain COVID offenders exposed, even just a little bit? Perhaps not so much—at least not for the record.
“The shaming is definitely not productive,” said PrEP4All activist James Krellenstein when I called him. “I understand the anger toward people who don’t use masks or social distance, including gays, but it’s a distraction from what’s actually going on, which is a failed government response. People shouldn’t make themselves feel better at the expense of somebody else. We’ve been through an epidemic once before. We should be pushing the federal government to increase vaccination and testing capacity.”
Krellenstein said he felt that COVID shaming was as bad as shaming someone for not using a condom, for getting HIV, or for potentially spreading one’s HIV. And he was largely echoed by his PrEP4All colleague Christian Urrutia, who posted on Instagram a rant against COVID shamers beginning with: “I think the [@gaysoverCOVID] account is stupid and bad for public health. Anyone in public health ... knows that shame ... erodes trust, undermines conversations about how people can reduce their risk, and makes them less likely to disclose [their health status] ... we’ve learned all of this from the AIDS epidemic ... what do people think they’re accomplishing by doxing [publishing private information such as one’s full name or employer] them? ... Trying to get them ostracized? It’s not gonna work, because it makes them more likely to not follow the guidelines ... and claiming this is about accountability is like saying that people living with HIV are responsible for the AIDS epidemic ... it ignores structural factors ... if you’re furious at Joe Schmo for going to Puerto Vallarta, why not also [be furious at] the Mexican government encouraging travel?”
That last bit, at least, did get at the larger picture of the global implications of the behavior, which was also brought up in an Instagram post by the queer Mexican-American filmmaker and activist Leo Herrera. But his post, which went viral, took a decidedly different take.
“Dear Gays Partying in Mexico,” it read. “I want you to know we aren’t dragging you or cackling at that sinking party boat because we’re jealous. ... It’s not just the colonizer vibes of locals selling their health with a smile for your margarita. These giggles are because we understand all too well why you’re on that boat to begin with. The dark impulses our community suffers so much to control: the pursuit of pleasure at the expense of spirit, of meth binges and steroid heart attacks, of clubs asking for two forms of ID to Black folx, of casual, deadly transphobia, of gentrification. ... These are nervous giggles because you embody the most tedious, vapid, and scary parts of us, forcing us to use shame as a weapon. ... Thanks for giving us homework when we have so much else on our plate ...”
I called Herrera. “It was one of the meanest things I’ve ever written for sure,” he admitted. “I worked in nightlife and porn for a long time, and circuit parties are part of my bread and butter, so it’s not [coming from a place of superiority or sour grapes]. But we’re in another pandemic, and we should know better. We call a lot of things shaming when they’re not, because we don’t have a wide enough vocabulary. People cry, ‘Don’t shame me!’ but how are we going to talk about the fact that you’re [potentially] killing brown grandmothers if we can’t talk about this?” He added that he’d lost his own grandmother to COVID and was not able to go back to Mexico for her funeral. “A lot of the pushback I’ve gotten [on the essay] has been from people coming from a deep place of privilege and insulated living.”
He said he thought there was a difference between shaming people and calling them out for behavior that endangers others. “Shaming is about stuff people can’t change, like their sexuality or their body. This is holding people accountable in a very public way. HIV is passed between two people. But COVID also involves the Uber driver and the cashier.”
He then said the uneasy thing I’d been feeling, despite my many years writing on public health: “I don’t agree that shaming never works. I think we often use shame as a [moral] compass.”
He’s echoed by Logan Slaughter, also known as the New York drag queen Logan Hardcore, who took the lead in calling out people who were hosting large, unmasked parties on the gay New York beach getaway of Fire Island last summer.
“When people are shamed ... maybe they’ll get the hint that everyone hates them and not go to that next circuit party,” Slaughter told me. “Follow the rules. If you’re so lonely, go sit outside with your friends and talk. You don’t need to get on a plane and go to a circuit party. Get a hobby. Do something productive with your life.”
Not to sound too Carrie Bradshaw, but after talking to Herrera and Slaughter, I couldn’t help but wonder: Were there experts out there who would agree that shame has its uses?
Some quick Googling of that very question led me to Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool, a 2016 book by Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University who, according to her NYU faculty webpage, “is particularly interested in the role of social approval in encouraging cooperation” to fix global problems like climate change and wildlife exploitation. She seemed like the perfect person to talk to, especially because she had done studies finding that people tend to both do the honorable thing and avoid the dishonorable thing when they know that their actions will be made public.
So I got her on the phone and asked: Does shaming—and its hoped-for effect, shame—sometimes serve a purpose? “Absolutely, yes,” she said. “The efficacy of punishment”—in this case the online scolding of gay individuals or groups for partaking of mass COVID-unsafe behaviors—“is also about deterring that behavior in others. Shaming is a very useful tool for society and helping us all get along. There is a way to use shaming that is effective and fair.”
But she adds: “That’s not to say I don’t sometimes agree with public health experts who proclaim that shaming is bad.” It can go too far, she said, such as the late conservative William F. Buckley Jr.’s proposal in 1986 that all people with AIDS be tattooed. “That’s crazy, because once you get into anything physical, you’re getting into humiliation.”
What she thinks is acceptable, she says, is “shaming collective behavior,” such as when people post images of large crowds at parties without identifying or giving details about individuals. Yet even there, she makes an exception, saying that it is not crossing a line to call out individuals who wield exceptional influence or power in such situations. “Why aren’t we shaming the organizers and hosts of these circuit parties? Or the venues who are allowing them?”
When it comes to individuals, she says, we’d be far better off reaching out to them privately before shaming them publicly. But with social media, “That’s something we aren’t doing as much anymore.” Our first instinct has become to call someone out publicly, “because that’s going to get a lot of clicks, reposts, and likes. You’re weirdly incentivized to take [your outrage] to the public instead of to someone directly. And we have to overcome that.”
But what about health care workers who were at the circuit parties? “I’m still more in favor of the back channel,” she said. “Why not reach out to the hospital? Or tag the hospital on social media and black out the person’s face and ask, ‘Do you wanna deal with this?’” We should think twice, she said, before we do things to people that may jeopardize their current or future livelihood, regardless of how outraged we are.
That’s a distinction I can live with. I thought of Herrera’s open letter. It squarely called out a generalized group of people, the Puerto Vallarta gays, for behavior that was not only generally flouting current social safety norms but that was also putting at risk poorer and more vulnerable people—Mexican workers who were serving them at various points. That seemed fair.
Yet going so far as to pluck individuals out of that crowd, posting their name and job online, even reaching out to their employer—that involves a level of interfering with someone’s individual life I am not comfortable with. How would I feel if I’d learned that that person had recently lost their grandmother to COVID, or that they were traumatized from the past year of working on a COVID ward, and hitting that circuit party was their (ill-advised) way of dealing with their own grief and stress?
I don’t wanna play God. By the same turn, I think there are reasonable ways of expressing our anger at the flouting of social safety norms in this very fraught and dangerous time. It’s not like I’m interested in singling out any of those gays floundering in the water after their party boat capsized. But if I felt they all got what they deserved? I guess I’m only human.