Is Covid Crushing Queer Culture?

Published in: September-October 2020 issue.


BEING a relatively inhibited person who needs to be coaxed out of my shell, I didn’t really appreciate my gayness until I was face to face with other likeminded people. What’s more, I generally had to be dragged into that place. While a practically nonverbal student at Columbia in the 1970s, I was brought to a gay social, where I was hoping to fade into the woodwork, when a flamboyant classmate spotted me, pulled me over to a group of other queer students, and boomed: “Hey, everyone! Please welcome the latest member of the Columbia gay community—Michael Musto!” I was horrified—for about two seconds—then realized there was no turning back; and I was now officially part of the LGBT movement.

            Later on, in the pickup bars, I went back to being invisible: I looked like a smoothed-out wire hanger, not exactly what the hot dudes were looking for. But in the larger gay and mixed clubs, I found my place, because these were escapist hangouts full of fabulous freaks who celebrated each other for the very things we used to get made fun of or ignored for. Being up close and personal with my fellow oddballs made me feel part of a family, and we jointly created an alternate universe where we were society’s real stars. (I also eventually assumed the role of the scribe who accorded the “celebutantes” extra validation by giving them boldfaced mentions in my columns. I was the fame dealer who handed them intoxicating “hits” of press, and I got some renown of my own in the process.)

            Another ’70s sexuality breakthrough came when I went to an East Village revival house and caught up with campily outrageous John Waters classics like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble—starring the alternately glamorous and shocking drag queen Divine—guffawing along at the raunchily witty antics with the predominantly queer crowd, who seemed to really need the release. Seeing these movies with my brothers and sisters made us the majority for a change. We shared the laughs, the yelps, and the cheers, and felt like we were breathing as one connected organism while educating each other on what we had in common æsthetically. Like the gay clubs, this was a safe enclave where we made the rules, and any disapproval of the niche humor on display was strictly for the heteros. In fact, it was Cynthia Heimel, my straight editor at the alternative weekly The Soho News, who tried to poison me against Waters by urging me to catch a screening of his Desperate Living, a loopy satire full of comic-book-style genital dismemberment and other gross-out visuals. “The movie’s disgusting!” she told me. “All these gays are squealing with delight at the screenings, but it’s awful. Go and report on how terrible it is!” Well, I went—and loved it.

            At around the same time, I was also transformed by midnight showings of the musical sci-fi spoof The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which had become an interactive experience that attracted young gays who dressed like the characters and threw rice at the screen on cue. The colorful audience of “baby gays” coming into their own was as powerful for me to witness as the movie itself, which featured a lot of queer elements, while trumpeting the subversive theme, “Don’t dream it, be it.” Seeing the kids dressed as the mad transvestite Doctor Frank-N-Furter, the tinny vaudevillian/groupie Nell, or the hunky Rocky Horror, all while flawlessly reciting dialogue and working homemade props along with the movie, was a thrilling adventure that melted my gay heart week after week. The net effect helped catapult me out of the closet like a gay cannon with lip gloss on, and I’ve been shaking my maracas ever since.

Prophetic? Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) with masked assistants in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

            I don’t envy anyone who’s coming of age at a time when these kinds of communal experiences are not happening—not with abandon, anyway. In New York State, we’ve been reopening in phases, a situation that frees you from complete lockdown but hardly makes you want to dance a tango in the street with strangers. From the start, I felt that queer people depend on a connection in person to make life less solitary and to vibe off each other, whereas heterosexuals don’t have to worry about feeling like outcasts because of their sexuality or about being the only straight person in a room.

            Since then, I’ve found that bars and clubs have been the most logical places for me to sync with other queer people, along with events at the LGBT Center, benefits, journalist get-togethers, theater, and of course social networks, which have long chipped away at the drive for face time. And now, all of that—except for the online stuff—has been redefined, since Covid-19 and the accompanying lockdowns (which have been necessary) have taken away the chance for anxiety-free gatherings where you can schmooze, network, and exchange ideas and even phone numbers. By the time a vaccine comes around, we’ll be way more at ease about that kind of thing, but we may never return to the carefree spirit of pre-Covid, and that worries me when it comes to the future of queer culture. In the meantime, group rallies and protests have been vital, but conducted with everyone masked and nervous because deep down they must know that they shouldn’t be standing that close together.

            Of course, even before Covid, some venues were already greatly diminished by the predominance of the Internet, but they were still clinging to life, only to now get a huge kick into oblivion by the pandemic. Nightlife has long been hurt by the Internet because millions of people found a sense of community online and thought, “Why bother leaving the house for it? And this way, I’ll save on the Ubers, cover charge, and drink cost.” The movie studios and cineplexes were damaged by Netflix and other streaming arenas, as people again wondered: “Why leave the comforts of home? I can see a perfectly good film on my computer, and it’s dirt cheap, since I already paid the membership fee.” Stores were being crippled by online shopping, for the same reason: It was easier to click around on your keyboard and find exactly what you wanted than go store to store and floor to floor and keep searching. And print journalism was devastated by the web since any news, interviews, and opinions that you wanted always seemed immediately at your fingertips, so why wait to riffle through the pages of a weekly or monthly that will inevitably be dated by time it comes out? (And you’d have to get a subscription since newsstands barely exist anymore.)

            But as all of these industries lost urgency and teetered on the precipice, it was Covid and the resulting lockdowns that came along and threatened to push them off the edge. Suddenly, you couldn’t leave the house except for essential business, so you got into the habit of doing everything—not just most things—online. You worked from home, ordered food deliveries, cooked, read websites, shopped on Amazon, partied on Facebook, and streamed repeat viewings of Tiger King. And you found that, while this lifestyle was wildly constricting, it was certainly doable and even seductive in the way that it catered to the nesting, resting ideal that we’d all abandoned in favor of breathless success. Quibi, a new service that featured short films aimed at people on the go, was reportedly not doing well, since no one was on the go anymore (except, it seemed, for medical workers and Purell manufacturers). Many people suddenly had time to sit home and stream season after season of full-length shows rather than soak up a couple of quickies and move on with their lives. They needed to fill lots of time indoors, so desperation started mixing with ingenuity, and by necessity we adapted to a closed-door policy that ruled out up-close interactions. Some gay guys even had to learn to masturbate again!

            What’s lost, of course, is a personal touch, whether from a salesperson, a nightclub doorperson, a DJ, a bartender, or an entertainer. When Covid hit and the bars shut down, drag performers started streaming shows that you couldn’t interact with in the old way. In fact, drag queens’ most familiar phrase, “Make some noise!” was now followed by the sound of people typing a comment. Spontaneity was in a challenged state, and the chance to actually meet people and converse had also become a nostalgic act that sensible people could only fantasize about. Online, you always have to add punctuations like “LOL” or a sad face emoji to your comment to make your intentions known, whereas in person you can generally just tell what a person means when they speak. But actual conversation became a faded art—and it wasn’t quite the same on Zoom, or screaming through your masks from separate benches while spraying your hands and swatting away imaginary hornets.

            Bravo to the LGBT people who have done streaming “parties,” but what was once a fun disco night at a club has now morphed into a brave DJ spinning music while lip-synching along in scary closeup. You used to be able to dance effervescently with the crowd while working the room, but now the DJ was the whole show and had you as a captive audience, as you gamely moved around in your office chair to the rhythm of the music.

            In June, I was part of a Zoom reading of Terrence McNally’s 1997 play Corpus Christi—a gay, modern retelling of the Jesus story, starting as a rim-shot satire and growing into more heady theatrics. Throughout the two-hour Zoomcast, there were noise issues; I kept lurching out of the frame; and my keyboard mouse stopped working at one point. But god must have been on our side because we got through it just fine. During another gay show on Zoom, I was belting out a satirical song medley with updated gender pronouns—my revised classics included “Stand By Your Them” and “It’s Raining Them”—only to hear RuPaul’s very identifiable speaking voice loudly drowning me out. It turned out one of the other performers, while unmuted, was sitting there and watching Drag Race! Yikes! Bring back live performance!

            Another Covid casualty is that we’re forced to watch a movie alone, while movies were invented for mass consumption, and the group reaction to a movie has always been a huge part of the experience. Seeing a comedy in solitude is especially weird because you’re laughing to yourself and sometimes even missing other laughs sans the sound of an audience tipping you off as to what’s funny by their response. On the plus side, there are no more annoying people looking at their brightly lit phones or making dumb comments to distract you (unless your wife or husband does so). But that was part of moviegoing, and being human always involved dealing with other humans, for better or for worse. Queer people watching a queer film—like Call Me By Your Name, for example—in a group setting was always extra valuable. The mass intimacy could prompt either an uplifting act of awakening or an eyebrow-raising razzing session. But either way, it wasn’t lonely; it was bonding. Having some straight people in the audience was healthy too. The thought of revisiting Rocky Horror all by myself is so sad that I’ve stored it deep inside my DVD closet.

            For these reasons, I think movie theaters will be greatly lessened on the landscape, but not completely gone. And at least when Broadway eventually comes back, it’ll be with a vengeance. Digital revues of Broadway stars being “real” with minimal makeup as they sing Sondheim standards have been valiant, but we crave a revival of glitz and artifice, and I’m certain that will all return (and tickets will no doubt be cheaper, so it’s not all bad).

            And for all my doomsday proclamations, gays will be far from be hopeless. The Internet hasn’t just been a wrecking ball that demolishes old-style communication; it has also provided an effortless way to connect, to access information, and to be way savvier than when I grew up in a world where gay was underground, shamed, or just hinted at. Future generations will be more and more knowledgeable, and after Covid they might even crawl through the wreckage and learn to dance and applaud again, within the new limits. A lot of them already have, because the human urge to be face to face can never be fully quelled.


Michael Musto is a longtime columnist and commentator who has written four books, including Downtown(1986) and Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back(2014).



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