In many ways, members of West Hollywood’s gay community – who make up 33% of the city’s population — are being forced to embrace the “social distancing” that health experts are advising during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Palm Springs White Party,one of Southern California’s largest gay party events, attracting thousands, was scheduled for April 24 and now has been postponed to Oct. 30. LA Pride, scheduled for June 12-14, is being postponed to a date uncertain. The Mr. Los Angeles Leather Contest, scheduled for March 28, at the Globe Theatre, has been postponed. On Sunset, the annual gathering of leather men and their fans on Sunset Boulevard outside the Eagle, scheduled for March 29, is cancelled (and all previously purchased tickets will be refunded.)
But what about Grindr? And Scruff, and Adam4Adam, and Growlr, and Daddyhunt, and BBRTS? These are websites and apps that gay men use to connect with one another. Some, like Grindr, in recent years have promoted themselves as social networks for gay, bi, trans, and queer people. But in reality, they are tools that gay men (and some transgender people) mostly use to find sexual partners. That Is especially evident in the branding of BBRTS, whose letters stand for “bareback real time sex.”
BBRTS has responded to the COVID-19 epidemic by blocking use of the “Local Parties” section of its site, which BBRTS members and some party promoters use to post notices of sex parties. However, its members can still use the app to notify other users that they are looking for someone to have sex with. At 8:30 p.m. Sunday, 24 men who identified themselves as West Hollywood residents were live on BBRTS looking for sex.
Grindr, which is managed out of the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, now posts a warning online of the dangers of COVID-19. It reminds Grindr users to wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, use hand sanitizer while out and about, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed fingers, and to stay home if you’re not feeling well. However, the Grindr app doesn’t mention the possible risk of engaging in sex with a stranger. As of 1 a.m. on Sunday, 300 men in and around WeHo were on Grindr looking for what likely were sex hookups rather than post-midnight coffee dates. Around noon, a little more than 200 West Hollywood residents were on Scruff, another popular sex app, with the profile of one stating “Takeout Only.” Another user, however, had updated his profile to say he was only looking for a “socially distant” online connection
In this virtual world, there no longer are many brick and mortar venues where gay men can meet up for sex. The closest one to West Hollywood is the Zone, a gay sex club on North Sycamore Avenue just east of La Brea, which responded to the virus on March 16 by announcing it was closing temporarily. However, Oink Night, which bills itself as a “private social club” and operates out of a building on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, said on its website that it would allow no more than 69 men to attend its March 14 orgy because of the COVID-19 epidemic. It said that those attending would have to wash their hands and that it would steam clean the venue and provide hand wipes. For its “Oink Night Quarantine” orgy on Saturday afternoon it announced that it would be more selective in deciding who could attend.
To date there is no information about how the 19 people in West Hollywood who have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus as of Sunday became infected. The virus is easily transmitted by coughs and sneezes that transmit saliva and mucus, and it also can be transferred with a kiss from someone infected with COVID-19 There also is no information as to the sexual orientation of those infected in West Hollywood. However, research has documented that gay men are known to be more sexually active and more likely to have multiple partners than are heterosexual men. Indeed, City Councilmember John Duran, a Grindr user, has described West Hollywood as a “sex-based city” because of its large gay population.
Gay men in a conversation on Reddit about COVID-19 and sex with strangers offered a variety of opinions, with most expressing concern that sex with a stranger was risky, and some saying they were willing to take the risk.
Local gay publications haven’t written about the risk of getting a COVID-19 infection from sex with strangers. However, the New York City Health Department has posted a guide to sex and COVID-19, which is on a PDF document that can be downloaded here. “You should avoid close contact — including sex — with anyone outside your household,” says the guide. “If you do have sex with others, have as few partners as possible. 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.”