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Until The Pandemic Ends, Black Gay Men Must Ensure We Survive

By Justin C. Smith

Back in late August, I received a text message from my friend Keon stating that he was going to be traveling to Atlanta for a weekend trip. I last saw Keon right after New Year’s Day 2020 when he was in Atlanta visiting his friend James. During that visit, Keon invited me to meet him at James’ house for a few libations before his flight back to St. Louis. James was the consummate host, and he welcomed me into his home as if we were old friends. We were a group of Black gay men sharing a bit of what we all hoped that the New Year would bring our way. None of us could have predicted the confluence of crises that would play out in 2020, and James certainly had no way of knowing that this New Year’s celebration would be his last. This time, Keon was coming to Atlanta, not to visit James, but to attend his funeral. James, a healthy man in his mid-40s, was one of the more than 350,000 Americans to die of COVID-19.

A few minutes after my somber text exchange with Keon, I received the first of several text messages announcing one of the many parties that were scheduled to take place during Atlanta’s Black Pride weekend over Labor Day. While all of the “official” events under the Atlanta Black Pride banner were canceled or were moved to virtual platforms in alignment with public health recommendations to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, several “unofficial” parties were organized by promoters under the “Atlanta Black Pride” label. Receiving messages announcing the upcoming death rites for one of our brothers, followed by invitations to parties taking place in crowded, poorly ventilated, indoor venues—the most ideal conditions for spreading the virus that killed him—hurled me into cognitive dissonance and emotional despair. If my own community of Black gay men cannot be counted on to care for the health and well-being of our brothers, then who can?

Since Labor Day weekend, large circuit-style parties in Atlanta have continued to take place with regularity. Tragically, during one of the circuit parties held over Atlanta Pride weekend in October (which, like Black Pride before it, was officially a largely virtual affair that party promoters were able to capitalize upon) a Black gay man died. The image of a Black man dying amid a sea of largely indifferent white men is a black mirror to the broader racial terrain of the pandemic, given the stark racial disparities we have observed in COVID-19 cases and deaths. (However, the man died of a drug overdose and not COVID-19). Much has already been written about “COVID-shaming” and the proliferation of social media call-outs/dragging of gay men who attended large-scale parties during Atlanta Black Pride, Atlanta Pride, and the numerous New Year’s Eve circuit parties held in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Rio de Janeiro, and Puerto Vallarta (including the dragging of several front-line healthcare workers who attended these circuit parties), and it is not my intention to pile on to what in my view is a largely unproductive conversation. Shaming is a less powerful tool to encourage responsible social behavior than coordinated COVID-related public policy. Shaming people online does not necessarily lead people to change their behaviors to comply with COVID restrictions, rather, it just leads them to adopt a stance of defensiveness about their decisions, and maybe post about it less on social media while continuing to “do what they do.”

“Part of the damage that American individualism has done is that it saps our imagination for collective action in the service of one another.” — Justin C. Smith

To be clear, I do not wish to reify notions of Black gay bodies serving as vectors of contagion that should be subject to heightened epidemiologic surveillance and behavioral policing compared to our non-Black counterparts, but rather, I am calling for Black folks, Black gay men, in particular, to center our community’s holistic health and well-being as the lens through which we make decisions about how we gather and hold space with one another during these challenging times.

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