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LGBT leaders urge no hook-ups amid virus outbreak

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Hookup apps like Grindr are urging people not to meet in person during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Courtesy Grindr
Hookup apps like Grindr are urging people not to meet in person during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Courtesy Grindr  

LGBT community leaders call upon people to change their sexual habits amid a deadly viral pandemic. A recalcitrant few refuse, while many more are wracked with fear. Government orders shutter queer spaces.

A news flash from the 1980s? No. This is queer life in the time of the novel coronavirus.

The analogy isn't perfect, but if history isn't repeating itself in 2020 San Francisco, it is certainly rhyming.

Public health guidelines
The physical distancing guidelines now accepted in the Bay Area and much of the country are clear, as public officials have ordered people to stay home as much as possible and, when going in public for outings such as walks, essential business or necessary errands, to stay at least six feet away from other people.

A man who asked to be identified as Frank said he is using Grindr for sexting.

"I lived through the AIDS epidemic and saw the impact of not listening to health advice," Frank wrote. "There were many in our culture who continue to have unsafe sex and were exposed to HIV and subsequently exposed others because they wanted to get off. Some even justified it by saying that it wasn't their obligation to tell other people they were HIV-positive or if someone didn't want to use a condom it was up to them and only them to ask for one."

Some cities, like New York, are actively warning about sexual health.

The public health department in New York City — which has more cases of, and deaths attributable to, COVID-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus) than any other city — issued a two-page document of sexual health guidelines last week.

The document states that the virus has been found in saliva, mucus, and feces, but has not yet been found in seminal or vaginal fluids.

People are advised, in no uncertain terms, to "avoid close contact — including sex — with anyone outside your household."

"If you usually meet your sex partners online or make a living by having sex, consider taking a break from in-person dates. Video dates, sexting, or chat rooms may be options for you," the document states.

The document states that abstaining from sex is the best practice, but that only having sex with people in your household is the next best option, assuming they are not symptomatic or in a particular risk group for death due to a coronavirus infection.

"You are your safest sex partner. Masturbation will not spread COVID-19, especially if you wash your hands (and any sex toys) with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after sex," the guidelines state. "The next safest partner is someone you live with. Having close contact — including sex — with only a small circle of people helps prevent spreading COVID-19."

When reached by email March 31, the San Francisco Department of Public Health referred the Bay Area Reporter to its previously published guidelines, which do not explicitly address sexual health.

But in both the City That Never Sleeps and in the Bay Area, the physical distancing imposed to halt the spread of the virus has already closed many spaces where LGBT people specifically meet potential sexual partners.

California bars have been shuttered since March 15 just before several Bay Area counties issued shelter-in-place orders that went into effect March 17. California Governor Gavin Newsom followed up with his own statewide directive a few days later. Bathhouses and sex clubs, such as Steamworks in Berkeley, the Watergarden in San Jose, and Eros in San Francisco closed around that time or days earlier as non-essential gatherings were restricted in each municipality. (All bathhouses in San Francisco were permanently closed in 1984 during the AIDS epidemic, though sex clubs are allowed to operate within city limits.)

Phone apps such as Grindr and Scruff, which grew in ubiquity in the 2010s, are still up and running.

A pause on promiscuity
Christopher Vasquez, a gay man who is communications director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, posted on Facebook March 25 that he was communicating on the social media platform with people excusing "prioritizing their own sexual exploits over the public health of the entire community, and arguing that we shouldn't shame them for their actions."

"I'm going to say this flatly: if you are more worried about getting laid than the MANY more people who could die from COVID-19 because of your actions, shame on you," Vasquez wrote. "Should you die from COVID-19? No, but nor should the exponentially compounding number of people who could because of your selfish actions. This isn't sexual business as usual."

In a follow up email interview with the B.A.R., Vasquez wrote that most LGBT people are taking the physical distancing guidelines seriously but he was frustrated by the few who are not.

"It seems like many of the queer people that I know are taking the health orders seriously and have disengaged from risky sexual practices — like hooking up with individuals that they don't know. However, I know that a small number of my friends and acquaintances are continuing to have at least limited forms for sexual interactions during the shelter-in-place orders," Vasquez wrote in an email to the B.A.R. March 27. "It seems like with all the information we have gotten from both state and local public health professionals, having contact with people you aren't living with is not safe at the moment, even if both individuals aren't showing symptoms of the coronavirus."

Cleve Jones, a gay man who was one of the founders of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, also co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in 1982. He too took to Facebook to urge people to use restraint.

"Please refrain from 'hooking up,'" Jones wrote on Facebook March 23. "Chatting on social media dating and hookup sites won't endanger anyone. Continuing to meet up for sex will only put everyone at risk. PrEP won't protect you from COVID-19. Please consider that."

In a March 31 phone call with the B.A.R., Jones recalled his similar message during the early days of AIDS.

"A group of us wrote an editorial for the B.A.R. urging people to change their behavior, and we said 'we're single men, we're part of this culture,' and I was walking down the street and an acquaintance of mine spit on me and said I was a Nazi for encouraging my brothers to protect themselves," Jones said. "Just a few days ago, I saw a friend of mine say he wanted to have a sex party at his apartment. ... I'm afraid this shit is even worse. With HIV/AIDS, it's possible to have a very fulfilling sex life without endangering anyone. We did a good job of making that happen — but even that wasn't enough to stop the spread, so let's not fool ourselves by saying we stopped AIDS by changing our behavior. It was the medications that did that."

Stephen Guy-Bray, a professor at the University of British Columbia, said he lived through the AIDS crisis and brought up some of the parallels and differences in a Twitter thread.

"It's in many ways a bad comparison. COVID-19 is much easier to catch, but the fatality rate is low. In the 1980s the fatality rate for AIDS was 100%. We had no reason to think it would change so we thought we were all going to die. That's different," he wrote. "But I do have experience of living through something like this. I think a lot of people will die from COVID-19. Many of you are saying that 'only' old people will die. In the AIDS crisis there were also many people saying that 'only' people who didn't matter would die. It was ugly then and it's ugly now. Don't be like this."

Hookup apps
In an email to the B.A.R. March 31, an unnamed representative from the hook-up app Grindr wrote that in-app notifications are urging people to "refrain from in-person meetings right now" — though the app has increased the amount of profiles available for users to view for free.

"The Grindr app remains active and available to all of our community members," the representative stated. "Grindr provides users with the ability to connect with others in the LGBTQ community — even if it's only online as we see many people doing through our chat or video functionality. This life-affirming connection is especially important during this time of physical and social isolation.

"In addition, Grindr for Equality is working to match our users all over the world with the most relevant local information about the virus as well as LGBTQ health in this situation," the representative added.

Browsing the Grindr app in the Bay Area within the past week brought up a notification from Grindr urging people to stay at home or have sex with those they already live with.

"Staying safe at home can still be sexy," the notification states. "You are your own best sex partner, so take some time to practice self-care.

"'Right Now' can wait — make plans to meet up in the future instead."

Of 10 people who responded to a B.A.R. request for comment through the Grindr app, seven indicated that they were not hooking up with people because of the COVID-19 epidemic. Two stated they were continuing to hook-up, and one stated he would have sex, but has not found anyone sufficiently attractive.

"I actually hooked up with a friend the night before the mandate took effect and then called it quits," a man who asked to be identified as Daniel wrote. "I'm mostly on to continue talking with people I already was talking with, some friends, and some potential hookups down the road, but not planning anything since the future is so uncertain right now."

Daniel wrote that roughly the same number of people are hitting him up as before.

"I've found some people more willing to chat than previously," Daniel wrote. "Some guys who I had tried to talk to over the years a few times are finally responding."

A man who asked to be identified as Frank said he is using Grindr for sexting.

"I lived through the AIDS epidemic and saw the impact of not listening to health advice," Frank wrote. "There were many in our culture who continue to have unsafe sex and were exposed to HIV and subsequently exposed others because they wanted to get off. Some even justified it by saying that it wasn't their obligation to tell other people they were HIV-positive or if someone didn't want to use a condom it was up to them and only them to ask for one."

A man who identified himself as Jacob wrote that he thinks people on Grindr are more open to discussing things other than sex.

"It's interesting just talking to people on here without the intent of meeting up right away," Jacob wrote. "I like the change. People seem more willing to talk and open up about their lives instead of just sending dick pics. I guess the LGBT community is trying to keep some semblance of normalcy by using Grindr. ... I hope people aren't getting toooo carried away."

A man who identified himself as Danni, who said he is making future arrangements, said he is helping inform people about COVID-19.

"Some people are trying to hook up," Danni wrote. "I am telling them no! Lol. And to stay home and send them a bunch of facts."

But not everyone is planning to shelter in place.

A man who asked to be identified as Adam stated he is continuing to have sex but won't if his sex partner appears symptomatic.

"I am looking to hook up for quickies. I'm a sex addict," he wrote. "I think lust can be an overwhelming influence."

Another, who asked to be identified only as T, asked "what's the point?" of only chatting.

"Chatting won't get me off so there's that," T wrote.

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