How the Covid Shutdowns Launched a New Wave of Queer Community

Social isolation, pandemic threats, and the last year of Trump put a new emphasis on being authentically yourself

Photo illustration; sources: Jack Taylor, Amy Sussman, Sabrina Bracher, Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images

For the past five years, the members of the pop synth band MUNA, who toured with Harry Styles on his first solo run, identified as queer. They’ve deliberately avoided being more specific about their identities, going so far as to omit pronouns from their lyrics and insist on the most inclusive of terms in interviews. As recently as March, MUNA’s Twitter bio solely promoted the band’s newest album; then several months into the Covid-19 pandemic, it was updated to read, “we are gay and a band.”

With the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage in 2015 and, more recently, ruling that transgender people are federally protected from discrimination, coming out as not straight or not identifying with one’s gender at birth comes with less risk than it used to. Many have taken advantage of newfound security to live openly outside of the handful of urban centers that once served as havens for gay people across the country. Such a mainstreaming of queerness in American life rearranged people’s personal lives, to a point where solely queer spaces could be more supplemental than essential. But as the world went into lockdown and such spaces were suddenly taken away entirely, people were reminded of the vital role they still played.

During the pandemic, clubs and community centers and arts venues shuttered, cutting off folks from what queer connectivity remained. And yet the part of people’s identities defined by their relationships with others clawed at the surface. Tending to it felt both familiar and productive, as many queer people were reminded of how bad it felt to be alone. It was time to get creative.

Demonstrating the power of connection, queerness has reemerged as a balm for quarantine.

As a means of surviving both social isolation and the final year of the Trump administration, art projects, virtual event debuts, and music releases proliferated, taking cues from times throughout history when sexuality has come under attack. Demonstrating the power of connection — this time in the digital age — queerness has reemerged as a balm for quarantine.

“This level of global trauma just clarifies things for people,” said Katie Gavin, MUNA’s lead singer and lyricist. “This is clarifying the importance of our connections, and if you’re gay, you can just be gay — now is the time to be.”

She’s not alone in turning the Covid era from one of quarantine to one of queerantine. Earlier in his career, Boston-based musician Manny Camargo says he was “in the same boat as MUNA”: His queerness was important to him on a personal level, but he chose to not explicitly gender his work, shying away from imposing his identification on his listeners. But this year, with its forced social separation and the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, among other things, changed the stakes. So he changed his approach.

“With the political climate and everything that’s been barraging us for the past four years, people feel the need to be radical in their self-expression,” said Camargo, who performs under the name Yavin and whose song “Hot” celebrates queer beauty and attraction. It debuted on October 12, smack in the middle of the pandemic’s second wave in Massachusetts. This wasn’t an accident. “I do feel a certain strong desire to be a lot more blatant in my queerness with my art,” he said. “It’s important that we remain very visible.”

The pandemic kicked off the final year of an administration characterized by the rollback of protections for LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized groups, and it further undermined queer well-being by disrupting the ability to gather together.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community have historically sought connection outside their given families, because they had to. Before the digital age, community centers, bath houses, and bars were physical fixtures of queer life; parks and restrooms provided an additional layer to the scene for queer men in particular. The latter were sites of sexual exploration, but they were also a “safe space,” said Joe Kort, a queer sex and relationship therapist in Detroit who has written about how the pandemic has rocked the structures queer people have spent years building.

In contrast to the home or family unit, where someone’s sexuality could lead to them being ignored or disowned, community spaces acknowledged and fostered shared identity. Though queerness might’ve meant invisibility or isolation in other arenas, a gay bar “was a place where people could finally not feel that way,” said Kort.

The introduction of the internet expanded the geographic possibilities of refuge, while also lowering the barrier to entry. By expediting and, at times, anonymizing interactions, apps like Grindr made queer connection more accessible for all, “especially for those who may be questioning, or are from cultures that would never allow it,” Kort explained.

The boom in queer identification and expression in 2020 hails back to past survival strategies from a community well versed in finding alternative ways to connect. “If anything, the pandemic has shown the resilience of the queer community,” said Camargo.

He pointed to a friend who was putting on monthly visual-arts shows at a movie theater and has since moved on to live-streaming video performances, as well as experimenting with virtual reality. Queer folks have also been in more frequent contact with each other during the pandemic, crowdsourcing donations for queer people in hard-hit industries like nightlife.

Wedding photographer Ally Schmaling pivoted to document these connections through a “Queerantine” photo series on Instagram, which strung together images and voices of queer relationships and households, illustrating the larger network of which they’re a part. A group of Toronto-based friends took a more interactive approach with Club Quarantine, allowing isolated queer folks to connect directly through a dance party on Zoom; earlier in the pandemic, the virtual event took place every night.

Around the same time, London-based singer-songwriter Delilah Montagu arranged, on a whim, for her girlfriend to shelter in place with her and her mom in the countryside. The two had only recently gotten back together after a year of being broken up. Ultimately, said Montagu, the female- and queer-centric arrangement served both their dynamic and her work. She was able to approach one particular track, “Version of Me,” with fresh eyes, finally releasing it from a place of acceptance of her identity, including the parts of it defined by love.

“It felt like a new relationship,” she said. “It was kind of perfect timing to release that song,” the cover of which features her girlfriend’s artwork.

“Because the pandemic forced all of us to really slow down,” said MUNA’s Gavin, “all we can do is what feels good to us on a day-to-day basis, what feels important and is motivating us to keep going. In my experience, that really has to be authentic.”

Naomi McPherson, who plays guitar and produces for MUNA, says that the band has reached more of a conclusion on what their “authentic” identities and relationships look like.

Josette Maskin, guitarist and third member of MUNA, agreed.

Their upcoming album reflects a “different, joyful place that we are in our lives,” said Maskin. “The songs are love songs, and we want to be a gay band for the gays.” And, said McPherson, “people fucking love it.”

Scrolling through the replies to the band’s announcement of more explicitly gay content confirms this. “How do I inject this into my veins,” one user wrote; “Enough with the tiptoeing around,” wrote another, capturing the sense of anticipation that had finally been released.

This was the landscape Camargo entered when he decided to let his own queerness take the front seat. Before the first drop in his song “Hot,” he whispers the line, “God, he’s hot,” and the video, he says, serves to “celebrate the bodies that we’re told are not worthy of praise” — all this from an artist who’d once opted to leave pronouns out of his music because they might reveal the gender of the objects of his attraction.

“We should be moving toward a point where people who aren’t queer should be able to see themselves in work that’s explicitly queer,” he said.

MUNA’s Gavin agrees. “We’re not necessarily considering trying to make anything more palatable, to bring people into the fold,” she said.

That fold, as it were, was already bursting. The trend of cottagecore, which a young person described in an article for i-D as “an ideal where I can be visibly queer in rural spaces,” took hold of the internet amid lockdowns. Fans were also eager to claim queerness in Taylor Swift’s song “Betty,” and in August, the artist FLAVIA released the EP Out Loud, which opens with “Switch,” a risqué song about sex positions. FLAVIA’s record ends with “Gay for a Day,” in which she entertains the possibility that a girl with a boyfriend might give her a chance. So while shameless queerness abounds, so does the section of the pie chart where queer and non-queer circles overlap.

Identifying as queer inevitably involves relating to other people, and relating to other people in the Covid-19 era inevitably involves the internet. While much of past interaction took place privately, it now happens out in the open. And while many queer artists appear to be rejecting safer, “more palatable” work, there’s been no dearth of such content in 2020, with exposure to non-queer audiences available on screens of every size.

Take Lady Gaga’s album Chromatica, which writer Shaad D’Souza imagined in Fader as “booming from the speakers at a packed, trashy gay club.” And yet, D’Souza writes, it’s an album as mainstream and corporatized as they come, noting that its songs scored advertisements for both Amazon and Apple. Similarly, the gay-centric movies Happiest Season and Uncle Frank, which both debuted on November 25, are available to the public, at least the parts willing and able to pay for streaming services.

Camargo also points to the show Schitt’s Creek, part of his “queer fuel” throughout the pandemic, as mainstream content that integrates queerness as much as it celebrates it. The show is set in a rural location that one might not expect to be welcoming to queer people, he said. Yet “queerness was never a topic of conflict,” even with characters depicted as traditionally conservative. The show debuted in 2015, but the consumption of it surged in 2020, with its normalized queerness lauded as a central reason. (Dan Levy, a producer and cast member, also snagged a central role in Happiest Season.)

For similar reasons, Kort applauds TikTok’s role in 2020. “I love TikTok for everything that it does,” he said, from giving a platform to radical transgender activists to normalizing the routineness of queer relationships, particularly for its hetero(genous and sexual) users.

He recalled being particularly happy earlier this year when he started to see self-described straight, male users post videos of themselves being affectionate with other men, also known as being “homoerotic”; a New York Times article about how “Everyone Is Gay on TikTok” gave him the words to describe the phenomenon. These positive, playful brushes with queerness signal shifting attitudes, he said, which he believes to be “super healing to gay men.” This, he said, supplies what could’ve otherwise still been missing from 2020.

“It’s great that we were able to stay online, but it’s not enough,” he said, noting that what hasn’t translated nearly as well as finding and communicating with queer people is the ability to do the same with non-queer people, including family. “It’s an even more important level to be accepted by the non-LGBTQ community, and that’s what’s missing,” he said. “TikTok has been a really good way, because it’s mixed.”

At the same time, many queer people acknowledge how much the needle has already moved and have themselves moved on to celebrating their identities, unabashedly. “Maybe Happiest Season is somebody’s first time of seeing a gay film,” said Gavin, “and our opinion has kind of always been that we need it all — we need people working at every angle.” But at this point, she said, non-queer acceptance isn’t the priority, at least in the careers of the members of MUNA.

“Welcome to 2020. We’re gay, we’re the greatest band in the world, and everyone can eat it,” laughed McPherson.

“We can have explicitly gay songs,” agreed Gavin. “We can have me singing about somebody who uses ‘she/her’ pronouns, and you can translate it to mean whatever you want it to mean for you — lord knows that’s what we’ve been doing for a long time.”

“I don’t think we need to compromise in any way,” she added. “We can just exist exactly as we are.”

I cover people’s creative expressions, whether it’s how they make money or how they make dinner. Published work at ariabracci.com

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