@GaysOverCOVID Founder Speaks Out (Anonymously) as Controversy over Instagram Continues

Monday January 11, 2021

A screenshot of a man being rescued after a party boat sunk in Puerto Vallarta Mexico on New Year's Day
A screenshot of a man being rescued after a party boat sunk in Puerto Vallarta Mexico on New Year's Day  (Source:Instagram)

With social influencers calling it the "Gay Civil War," the debate over the Instagram account @GaysOverCOVID has sparked a divisive debate in LGBTQ culture. EDGE reported last week that the account "has a simple message: 'Wear a mask. Stay home. Save lives. Don't join the GaysOverCovid.' It first appeared last summer to provide a forum to call out COVID protocol violators."

With some 115,000 followers, the account has "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," writes David Mack in a report on BuzzFeed News.

And the reaction has become a social media firestorm. On the Facebook account "CircuitBitch.com (Let's Go)," a posting read: "Lan Vu, 37, of San Francisco, offered a $500 reward to help identify the posters behind the accounts. Calling the accounts "toxic," he has encouraged members of the community to report them to Instagram as harassment and cyberbullying. The posting goes on to describe Vu as having contracted COVID-19 in March after traveling to a party in Miami, and he goes on to compare the account to the Salem Witch Trials, saying that whoever was behind the account "don't think about if people lose their jobs or income" because of its postings.

LGBTQ journalists Alex Hawgood and Taylor Lorenz were able to locate the man behind @GaysOverCOVID and were able to secure an interview with him that they have published on Lorenz's newsletter. Not surprisingly, he asked for anonymity, fearing reprisals. He started the site, Lorenz explained, "after joking with friends about how people could not seem to stay indoors during the pandemic." Largely working from home, he noticed many of his peers seemed to be "ignoring the threat of the virus" by being out and about.

The site was slow to get a following; but when once it did, it became a forum for people to expose others breaking COVID guidelines. "'We would run polls and ask questions about why they would rather have us call them out than confront their own friends," Gays Over Covid said. "Their response was that they don't listen. A public forum is better because it sparks change, or at least attempts to."

"In addition to calling out parties and mask-less gatherings, Gays Over Covid began spotlighting individual gay men, including handsome influencers with perfect bodies and healthcare professionals that flouted social-distancing measures," Hawgood and Lorenz write. One case they cite is Mike Schultz, the 43-year old San Francisco nurse who contracted COVID-19 at a Miami circuit party and chronicled his stay in a Boston hospital with a social media post that showed his dramatic weight loss. "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," BuzzFeed News writes. "He also applauded another post by a man who complained of 'fucking bitter queens' and who described COVID-19 as 'survival of the fittest.' "

He quickly was slammed on social media, especially since a GoFundMe page had been created during his hospitalization that raised $20,000 for his medical expenses. Schultz did not go to Mexico, he told BuzzFeed News in a series of text messages, adding "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."

Others, though, recognized the Instagram's purpose with a caveat. San Francisco-based artist, writer, and activist Leo Herrera told BuzzFeed News that the rise of these accounts are 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.' "

But he justifies @GaysOverCOVID's agenda. "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."

Herrera also sees it as a generational thing: "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."

Last week witnessed a distressing instance in which AIDS and COVID intersected when one of the copycat @GaysOverCOVID accounts disclosed the identity of a HIV-positive man said to be "lying about his HIV status to sexual partners." A spokesperson for the suspended account, @BostonGaysOverCovid, told BuzzFeed News that they are "trying to see if we can get it up and running again" without the person who made the violating post. "Shaming people about HIV is one step too far."

Watch this YouTube feature about @GaysOverCOVID:

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