Studying Online Queer Spaces During COVID-19 – Rachel Elson

In quarantine, the Internet has become the conduit for the vast majority of our social interactions. Along with work and school, staying connected to our communities has required us to get creative. This project grew out of questions I started asking this spring about how quarantine affected socializing for queer communities. I was in the middle of my thesis research when I had to grapple with how quarantine fundamentally transformed my topic, which was (in-person) pop-up events organized by and for queer communities. When New York City declared the lockdown in the middle of March, every party and gathering I knew of canceled their future events and bars and clubs closed down, effectively cutting off the revenue streams that keep these spaces viable. Soon enough, though, I also saw that these same organizations were beginning to host events online, some of them featuring the same DJs and performers they would have booked anyways and others doing entirely new programming, like movie screenings and community check-ins. 

Over the summer, I documented this strange and constantly-evolving situation by interviewing friends, acquaintances, and event organizers. I wanted to know why people organize and attend events like this and how they feel while there. More broadly, though, I wanted to understand how people stay connected to one another during this time, whether or not that involves engaging in virtual communities and events.

I really enjoyed doing this project. In addition to learning so much about people’s quarantine experiences, I developed my technical skills around crafting research projects: I gathered preliminary information from my friends and family about their online activities to guide my initial questions and hypotheses; I laid out stages for my work and established goals for myself; and I let my observations, not assumptions, guide me. I was also glad to have something to work on over the summer – this project gave me a platform from which I could look at and understand the world around me during a tumultuous time.

Some online events that I studied sought to address or alleviate on an individual or community level the impact of the many crises we are experiencing right now. We are in a state of extreme economic precarity and the poor and racially and sexually marginalized are under constant threat of state surveillance and violence; COVID-19 has exacerbated these crises and made clear their interconnectedness. In addition to virtual concerts and dance parties that doubled as fundraisers for mutual aid projects, I also saw remote events like panels, lectures, and teach-ins that were broadcast free of charge to raise awareness around the concepts of prison and police abolition, as well virtual communal spaces bringing together physical and mental healing practices to benefit marginalized communities. One of my biggest realizations during this project was that while these events and their virtual medium may be new and unforeseen, they fall into a lineage of things created out of necessity in times of crisis to help and support one another. This context helped me visualize how the things that are happening now around online community organizing and gathering might continue on into the future, past the pandemic and quarantine.

I was also interested in the particulars of how events are organized, run, and experienced, and to what degree they fulfill participants’ need for belonging and community. In my conversations and personal observations, I learned about a variety of unexpected successes and curious adaptations to virtual mediums. One example that I was surprised to learn about is the usefulness of the chat box that is included on most video conferencing platforms. Many people bemoan the difficulty and unpleasantness of participating in group video calls, whether it’s for a college class, a party among friends, or a big rave; for some, it’s because conversations are forced to center on just one person at a time, removing any possibility of side conversations or organic, spontaneous connections. For others, speaking up can cause anxiety. The chat box, however, provides a platform for real-time conversation that exists both separately from and in tandem with whatever is happening on video. It takes the pressure off of people who are anxious about having to speak out loud and it provides an additional medium of communication that enriches social experiences on the call. 

I saw this in action at large dance parties, where it’s standard that all participants are muted. People used the chat box to flirt, compliment each other, and hype one another or performers up. While it was strange to not hear the loud ambient noises of a regular, pre-COVID club, the running commentary of the chat box became its own form of ambiance and entertainment. Another example of the chat box’s usefulness is a book club that one person I spoke to helps organize. There, the chat box added another dimension to out-loud verbal discussion by giving participants an additional place to carry on discussion and voice their thoughts and questions without fear of interrupting. The chat box is just one example of the unique way of connecting to one another in our virtual social world.

I think the adaptations we’ve developed – and how they affect people – are important to understand. They are developing out of a very particular set of circumstances, but I don’t think our socializing will simply go back to what it once was as soon as these circumstances change and the pandemic ends. While the shift to remote events was formed out of necessity, it has also been beneficial, providing a level of accessibility that benefits people with disabilities, as well as people who don’t have regular access to certain events, like those for the LGBT community.

Logging into virtual events never quite replicates the feeling of pre-COVID socializing. While I long for the thrill of a big party or the communal intimacy of a dinner potluck among friends, after almost six months of quarantine, I have stopped expecting these feelings from the virtual spaces I engage in. Now, I log in so that I can forge new (and sometimes strange) ways of being in community  that will sustain me during this difficult time. Virtual events are not lifeless rip-offs of the real thing, but gatherings each with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. By taking a critical look at these events and speaking to the people who participate in them, this project brought me a much-needed sense of community, clarity, and gratitude.

Thank you to my advisor Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani, who encouraged me to apply for this award and provided thoughtful and creative support throughout the process.

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