As 2020 came to a close, the popular Instagram account @gaysovercovid was hard at work exposing nationally known LGBTQ influencers such as Sam Cushing and Jake Grez for traveling across the country to attend New Year’s Eve circuit parties. The page has garnered over 129,000 followers, with many calling for those featured to be “canceled” and dropped from their product endorsements for flouting COVID-19 safety guidelines.
Following suit, one anonymous local Instagrammer, @htxgaysovercovid, is bringing the accountability train to Houston. The owner of the account, which popped up in mid-January, identifies as a lesbian whose intentions are to promote public health and safety. In a private message to OutSmart, @htxgaysovercovid explains that “I wanted to create this to specifically bring attention to the dangerous activities occurring in Houston. If you look, my first post [calls on Harris County Judge] Lina Hidalgo and Mayor [Sylvester] Turner to address the venues hosting these super-spreader events. Until those venues can be held accountable, the goal is to discourage [people from] going to these venues, acting recklessly, and posting these pictures which create a sense of shared permissibility.”
Relying on anonymous tips from Houstonians, @htxgaysovercovid explains that the content shared to the account is attributed solely to members of the community. “I have not sourced a single image. I play no part in ‘targeting’ individuals.”
While @htxgaysovercovid stands by her mission to encourage our community to “do better,” some see her actions, and the actions of the citizen sleuths reporting these unsafe local gatherings, as a shame campaign destined to divide the LGBTQ community. The comments on @htxgaysovercovid’s posts show a clear divide in ideology, with some praising her work and others condemning her for remaining anonymous while outing closeted LGBTQ people.
Joseph Naimi, whose Instagram settings are set to private, called out @htxgaysovercovid for being “hateful, unethical, and [a] danger to the community” via the comments section under a group photo showing him celebrating New Year’s Eve at a local bar. In addition to expressing his frustrations with the account, Naimi speaks to the notion that by remaining anonymous, @htxgaysovercovid loses any respect or legitimacy she would have if she stepped out of the shadows. “You shouldn’t be stealing pictures without permission. Your opinion would [be] respected and heard if you were real and on your own platform.”
Naimi, in a private exchange with @htxgaysovercovid, further explained that the New Year’s Eve photo poses a real threat to those featured. “This picture can go in the wrong direction, because it’s all Middle Eastern men that are in the closet, and that picture is not public. It’s only for people who I accept to follow me.” Without acknowledging the dangers of publicly outing men who feel they must remain closeted, @htxgaysovercovid assured him that if the post’s comments turn racist, she would “handle that issue.”
On January 12, the anonymous Instagram account @htxgaysoverhtxgaysovercovid was created to denounce @htxgaysovercovid for “bullying, shaming, and perpetuating disease, and general lack of knowledge.” So far, the account has nine posts that duplicate the original account’s posts while criticizing the use of call-out culture to shame LGBTQ folks for ignoring pandemic safety protocols.
“The community is so small and fragile already, and our name is already so tainted in the public eye. Dragging it through the mud will never do any good for us as a whole,” the creator of @htxgaysoverhtxgaysovercovid, who identifies as a gay man, said in a private message to OutSmart. “The person running the [@htxgaysovercovid] account absolutely does not care about any of this, though. The community hurt them at some point, and they are looking to get back with revenge.”
While the debate on the effectiveness and morality of these accounts (and others like it) seems to rage on, there is little to no room for debate on what is scientifically effective at mitigating the spread of COVID-19 (i.e. masks, hand-washing, social distance).
“Critics are claiming that this is counterproductive, but I disagree. At worst, this is just ineffective,” @htxgaysovercovid says. “I am obviously aware that the structures and systems controlled by [the] local government are more effective at controlling the risk-associated activities in our city, but [our leaders] don’t seem to care enough to shut down venues that openly violate local ordinances. Until they wake up and take action, this is all we have. If I have to be the lonely lesbian waving a yellow flag at the edge of a cliff to keep people from jumping off, so be it.”