Confessions of a COVID-19 Super-spreader

My Memorial Day at a Gay Campground

We may have participated in a COVID-19 super-spreading event on Memorial Day Weekend 2020.

Or not. I don’t know. And I won’t know for a few weeks. But it had some of the hallmarks: large-ish group of people, no masks, close proximity, small space, long exposure, etc. But it was outdoors with lots of sunlight and a light wind was blowing, so there’s that. We’ll know soon. Sadly.

For Memorial Day weekend we decided to day trip to a nearby gay men’s campground. Earlier this year, we tried to reserve a cabin for a three-night stay but everything was booked. As the weekend drew nearer we decided to let the weather tell us if a day trip was feasible. And the stars (and temps, clouds, and rain) aligned for Sunday.

But, to paraphrase my grandmother, who survived the Great Depression, there’s a pandemic on! And I’m in four different risk groups for hospitalization if infected with COVID-19.

Thus, our trip was preceded by several conversations about if and how we could stay safe and still enjoy the campground. Since we couldn’t control the behavior of others, we strategized about the rules that would guide our own.

We brought masks, hand sanitizer, hand soap, paper towels, and Clorox wipes to disinfect us and any surfaces we touched. We packed camp chairs, so we could sit by ourselves if no socially-distanced options were available. And we’ve spent the spring following the best health advice, so we knew what to watch out for and how to protect ourselves.

Or so we thought.

Sunday came and off we went, armed with knowledge, disinfectant, and camping equipment. And good intentions. Lots and lots of good intentions.

When we arrived, it was pretty clear the campground was busy. The owners told us they’d had 75 members there on Saturday and there were still 50 guys on the property who had over-nighted. The pool deck had lots of chairs and lounges ‘reserved’ with towels and most of the tables were claimed. But we lucked out and grabbed an empty table with an umbrella. I’m a PWB (Pasty White Boy) and need shade so I thought, “A table! With shade! Score!”

That was premature self-congratulation…

Turns out our table was in the ‘traffic pattern’: the route whereby everyone went back and forth to cars, cabins, restrooms, and the shower house. That meant: for the entire afternoon, guys were walking by our table and a lot stopped to say “Hi!” and chew the fat. Because many of the other campground members have become good friends who we see only irregularly.

We arrived around eleven and over the course of the afternoon I saw nary a mask and what little distancing was practiced gradually disappeared (along with the alcohol). Where good friends started the day sitting or standing at a distance, they increasingly hovered over our chairs to talk.

Small groups at the pool started out distancing, but through the day got closer and closer until no distancing was apparent. When we made our rounds to say goodbye, many leaned in with hugs and a small group was playing pool and darts in the enclosed game room.

By the time we left, our well-considered plans for hygiene and distancing had totally collapsed.

We don’t have cell service at the campground (which I like) but we returned home to news reports of holiday crowds at nearby Lake of the Ozarks; Ocean City, Maryland; and the Florida and California beaches.

And lots of shaming and blaming on all our social media newsfeeds. “How could so many people be so selfish and irresponsible?” they asked. “Didn’t they know how many have died?” “How many weeks until we see a spike in cases? 2 or 3?”

Now, my social media circle consists mostly of folks of A Certain Age, who, like me, belong to multiple CDC-defined COVID-19 “vulnerable populations.” And that doesn’t seem to characterize the folks who flocked to the lakes and beaches. But still. The national backlash against so many possible “super-spreader” events was palpable.#Pandumbic was trending on Twitter.

But it was only after seeing the photos that I realized we had participated in something not so very different. Smaller in size, yes, and certainly not so public or visible. Our afternoon wouldn’t make the local or national news, thank god. But I wouldn’t at all be surprised if a COVID-19 cluster is connected to Memorial Day weekend at our campground.

How did this happen? Despite careful planning and good intentions, how did we end up part of an event that contradicted public health advice and risked viral spread?

As I contemplated these questions I was reminded of a similar mystery from the height of the AIDS crisis. Even after HIV had been identified as the cause of AIDS and the behavior that spread it was well understood, some gay men still frequented bathhouses, engaged in casual sex, and/or refused to wear condoms. Even after condoms were known to stem the tide of infection and death, few gay men used them correctly and consistently.

Researchers and public health experts were puzzled. How could a population that understood the risks persist in risky sexual behavior? Was this evidence of a need for more public health education? Or confirmation of the inherent self-destructiveness of the homosexual “lifestyle,” as many religious and political bigots argued?

The answer lay in the distinct meaning of sex for gay men. Homosexuals and heterosexuals, alike, engage in sexual behavior as an expression of love and affection, a sign of emotional intimacy with partners, and for reproduction (yes, even gay men), and physical pleasure. But sex for gay men can also represent a validation of same-sex attraction and desire, a source of affection and cure for loneliness, and a balm for low self-esteem that fills a need for attention and recognition. For others it is a form of “play,” or a means of self-exploration and personal expression.

In societies where homosexuality is erased or invisible, having same-sex desires reciprocated affirms those desires and, by association, homosexual existence. That’s what Sylvester meant by the title of his smash hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” that played in every gay disco in 1978. When you’re seen, you’re real, and gay sex is one way to ensure you’re being seen for who you really are in a society that systematically denies and erases your existence. Within a heterocentric society, gay sex will always be a political act and an assertion of our right to sexual self-determination.

But perhaps most important is that gay sex is the basis of individual and communal gay male identity. The common feature that connects gay men is same-sex attraction and desire. A lot of us complain about the gay community being “oversexed,” but sex is the foundation of our community. Despite all our differences, it’s our common denominator. Whether we like it or not, everything else is built on that foundation.

The social, cultural, and political meaning of sex for gay men and gay male communal life helps explain why so many gay men were willing to risk HIV infection rather than go without sex and access to sexualized spaces. It also explains why abstinence messaging failed to dissuade gay men from having sex during the AIDS crisis. And why risk-reduction strategies —reflected in safer-sex advice— carried the day.

It also hints at why some gay men would risk coronavirus infection by gathering en masse at a gay campground on Memorial Day weekend.

Social distancing requirements and stay-at-home orders have certainly revealed our need for interaction. Humans are, after all, social animals. But social isolation for gay people has distinct dimensions because of the importance of public life to individual and communal gay identity. Public gay life has a political aspect that’s different than spaces that cater to primarily heterosexuals.

Unlike some other traits and attributes, like eye and hair color, sexual orientation is largely invisible to others until expressly stated. And in a heteronormative society, one is assumed to be heterosexual unless one asserts something different. For sexual minorities, this requires endless ‘publication’ of our sexual orientation lest we become invisible.

At the dawn of the modern gay rights movement, that ‘publication’ took the form of ‘coming out’ — publicly disclosing and living openly as a homosexual. ‘Coming out’ was a profound personal act with larger political implications. It relocated a person from the obscure shadows of the demimonde to the bright lights of public life, accompanied by feelings of both exhilaration and terror.

Homosexuals’ subsequent occupation of public space, from the Stonewall Uprising to Pride parades, circuit parties and marches on Washington, was an exercise in political power and a rejection of the shame and anonymity of ‘the closet.’ By living our lives openly we asserted our personal freedom and collective power; celebrated our identities and gave others the courage to do the same. When gays meet in public, it’s always already political. And those meetings are how we constitute ourselves as a people.

Gay campgrounds are one way gay men constitute themselves as a people.

Though nowhere near as public as a Pride parade, gay campgrounds offer another space where gay men gay be open, at least to each other. After Stonewall, gay campgrounds blossomed across the country as an alternative to urban gay bars and nightclubs. They often attract those with a more rural or rustic sensibility than gay stereotypes might suggest. And gay men of A Certain Age who’ve grown tired of the loud music, cigarette smoke, and drugs and alcohol of gay bars. And, if I’m honest, those who can’t or aren’t open about their same-sex desires and can’t risk the visibility of being in an urban “gay ghetto.”

Gay campgrounds seem to be increasing in number even as gay bars and nightclubs are in decline. Like a gay bar, gay campgrounds provide a space apart where gay men can socialize mostly without fear of stigma, ostracism, and homophobic violence. But it’s a gay campground, so that means plenty of dance music, good-natured ‘shade,’ and alcohol, the last of which can translate into lowered inhibitions and impaired judgment.

Yes, closing gay bars, nightclubs, resorts, and bathhouses was a justified response to the COVID pandemic. But gay social spaces are where our people meet and become visible to each other, as individuals and as a community; where we can feel free to openly express our sexual orientation and sexuality. Stay-at-home orders didn’t just deprive us of contact with other people. They deprived us of a form of individual expression, communal production and political activity necessary to our existence.

In an important way, because of the invisibility of homosexuality in a majority-heterosexual culture, without gay public spaces gay community ceases to exist.

Not all of us are willing to give that up without a fight.

I suspect this helps explain why our fellow campers had so much difficulty maintaining social distancing last weekend. Yes, others craved social interaction with friends and family. But we craved being publicly gay, even if it was at a private campground. Because, for us, that ‘publication’ is how we create and re-create our community. Any fears of infection entailed by satisfying that need were likely tempered by our experience with HIV/AIDS and concepts like safer-sex and risk reduction.

We’ve spent years weighing the relative risk of oral v. anal sex; insertive v. receptive roles; condoms v. PrEP; spitting v. swallowing. Should we believe the guy whose profile claims he’s “clean” (*shudder*) but can’t tell you when he was last tested? Or trust the ‘hook-up’ who says he’ll “pull out” before finishing? Or that he won’t ‘go stealth’ and remove the condom mid-fuck without you knowing?

Mask are just condoms for your face. The gays understand the concept of prophylaxis!

For years gay men been forced to navigate a physical and emotional minefield where every sexual act could result in an incurable infection, and a lifetime of stigma, pills, and expensive healthcare. Or worse.

Though ‘Miss Rona’ was on all our minds, HIV/AIDS was the subtext (and sometimes super-text) of many conversations last weekend. Some even described how the COVID-19 crisis had triggered PTSD-like flashbacks (with physical symptoms) to the worst years of the AIDS crisis. They’re not alone. Thought pieces comparing the two pandemics abounded online in March and April.

COVID-19 might be caused by a novel coronavirus, but there’s nothing ‘new’ about risk management for gay men. (Masks are just condoms for your face. We understand the concept of prophylaxis!) The desire forming the basis of our community has too often come with a risk of illness and death. And, though things aren’t as dire today as they were in the 80s and 90s, we’ve had no choice but to develop a tolerance for risk.

Pandemics, like all of life, don’t trade in absolutes. So, we’ve learned to operate in the gray areas in between safety and risk.

It’s how we’ve survived.

At a few days remove, I’m ambivalent. On some level I’m ashamed that our careful plans and commitment to public health collapsed; that we made ourselves and our community vulnerable by failing to distance ourselves or ask others to do the same. Especially since we’re well informed and knew better. It wasn’t out of ignorance that we failed to act.

On the other hand, any insistence on social distancing or ostentatious performances of “hygiene theater” would have felt insensitive, if not rude or socially inept. To have asked other gay campers to step back would have implied they were infectious or willfully doing us harm. It would have threatened the fragile new sense of communal bonds we were rebuilding after months in isolation.

But I’m glad we reconnected with other members of our tribe, to know we weren’t going through this crisis alone and aren’t the only ones struggling. No one knows the proper etiquette of risk management in a COVID-19 world. Or what the spectrum of “risk tolerance” looks like. How much risk of infection are we willing to bear in order to make contact with our people? As with HIV/AIDS, the answer will likely be a moving target and highly individual. For now, we’re all fumbling our way through this thing, making it up (and making mistakes) as we go along.

Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.

Prof. of Gender & Sexuality Studies, U. Ill. Springfield

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