This New Year’s Eve, thousands of gay men flocked to Mexico to attend a “White Party” hosted by long time party promoter Jeffrey Sanker — the host of the annual white party in Palm Springs. While some of us have been working diligently by taking precautions to avoid large gatherings, forgoing holiday traditions and celebrations at the behest of public health officials, weekend or weeklong circuit parties have been an ongoing occurrence from New York to LA and most recently Puerto Vallarta.
These include celebrities like Toddrick Hall, Ian Frost, and as social media activists have pointed out, several health care workers who just recently received the vaccine. If that wasn’t bad enough those attending these events have used social media as a way to display themselves and garner attention from others. Mexican news reports went so far as to accuse Americans of taking advantage of their economic privilege, which allowed them to subvert authorities, and of acting with severe disregard for the communities that must deal with the impact of these events long after they have left. It is hard to not make analogies to white colonialists given the concerns over the diseases they may bring with them, and the occupation of space and resources giving the name “White Party” a double meaning.
While in the early days of the pandemic there was a degree of innovation in creating a virtual world of social gatherings and parties, other party promoters sought to circumvent rules by traveling to places without rules to restrict them. The beginnings of circuit parties, like gay bars, were born out of necessity to provide gay men with connection against an oppressive world. Contemporary circuit parties, raves, dating apps, and pride parades have become culture industries in which profit becomes a driving motive.
However, rather than solve the problems of old they have merely inserted themselves as a means to profit. Recent studies by PEW and other research groups consistently find that gay men are more reliant on these alternative mechanisms for making connections, but we remain just as isolated as before — perhaps more so. The result, some argue, is an emphasis on the hedonistic carnivalesque elements. Circuit party revelers like the ones I’ve interviewed since 2014 equate success with individualism and a “winner take all attitude,” which are characteristic of the cultural logic that dominates much of contemporary gay and American culture.
The coronavirus has shown us where the cracks in our culture lay, and where we need to put our attention if we are to build back our society better. While the original circuit parties of the ‘70s and ‘80s adhered to the values of P.L.U.R. (Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect), today’s circuit parties have emphasized hierarchies and divisions within gay culture. These differences seek to undermine attempts at political solidarity and fulfillment of the political promise of the 1969 Stonewall Riots 50 years ago.
However, it would also be irresponsible if I didn’t simultaneously point out that such parties are engaged in by “straights.” While I don’t defend either group, I can at least understand and sympathize with the need for human companionship in a world where you are not part of the dominant group.
Christopher T. Conner is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Missouri Columbia. His research focuses on LGBT+ issues, culture, and criminology. He is also editor of “The Gayborhood: From Sexual Liberation to Cosmopolitan Spectacle.”