If we can’t see each other IRL, we’ll go URL.
At 9:35 PM EST I was sitting on my bed feeling just the right amount of high with only a thin black mesh top separating my bare chest from the beady eye of my webcam. I typed in the Zoom code and after community guidelines popped up (“no hate speech, no xxx, no hard drugs on screen”—noted!) I was let into Club Quarantine. As Caroline Polachek danced on the Jumbotron, I wandered through the grid catching glimpses of people dancing in heels, shaving each other’s heads, sitting on couches with eyes glued to phones, and bobbing in and out of glitchy virtual backgrounds.
In mid-March, just a couple days into self-isolation, Club Quarantine’s founders, Andrés Sierra, Casey MQ, Brad Allen, and Mingus New, were gifted with the Instagram handle @clubquarantine. Originally starting out with a few dozen regulars from the Toronto queer party scene, Club Quarantine has grown to welcome thousands of visitors each night. In the months since this digital space emerged, stars like 100 Gecs, Tinashe, Jojo, and Rico Nasty have graced the screen.
Inspired by Charli XCX’s virtual DJ set the previous week, Toronto-based performing artist R. Flex took to the screen on March 30th, 2020, in a construction vest covered in glow sticks, their mom’s black wig, and sparklers. “I took off the wig, sucked off a glow stick, and waved a sparkler until I started taking a shower mid-performance,” they wrote. “By the end of it, I only had on a yellow thong and a construction vest because…gay rights.”
Performance can be not only a powerful expression of freedom and celebration, but resistance and reclamation in queer spaces. As a Black, queer, nonbinary, mad-identifed performer, R. Flex says their performance is an expression of Black queer and trans liberation. “I need everyone to see how fucked things are for Black folks in public space by seeing how free I am when performing.” For R. Flex, being able to dress however they’d like and party with friends is a nightly opportunity to see and be seen as their true self while holed up in the bathroom of their religious parents’ house.
Queer people have always used nightlife to express gender and sexuality, Allan mentioned in a conversation with Vice Canada. Spaces where queer and trans people feel safe enough to be ourselves help us to bond as a community, whether it be to mourn, organize, or celebrate. Though we’ve chosen to forgo our physical spaces in an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19, a virus medical researchers say may disproportionately impact queer and trans people, we still need those spaces in order to thrive.
Michael Zoffranieri, a Toronto-based designer, found out about Club Quarantine on March 17th and logged on that night. “I remember there was a three-day period that I could see the same 20 or 30 people at Club Q each night,” he wrote. Though Club Quarantine eventually grew past the handful of familiar faces, both Zoffranieri and R. Flex agreed moments of connection and joy amidst isolation kept them coming back.
While everyone, regardless of sexuality or gender, is mourning the loss of shared spaces, Allan points out it’s especially difficult for queer and trans people. “If you can’t be with your family and you can’t see your chosen family, isolation [can be] extremely hard.” Living alone or isolating with unsupportive people leaves some queer people searching for connection and an outlet for expression now more than ever.
Leave it to queer people to find some way to connect, hold space, and celebrate each other in spite of collective trauma. The energy Club Quarantine has tapped into is nothing new; histories of queer and trans resistance often involve creativity and performance. From the ingenuity of the Harlem ball scene to the resourcefulness of activists across the decades, queer and trans people have always found avenues for expression, resistance, and togetherness regardless of barriers.
In a study rethinking citizenship through queer acts of relating, The Open University theorized that grassroots strategies queer communities turn to in order to deal with crises can actually make us more resilient. In some cases, resilience is a trait developed to cope with violence and exploitation—it’s not inherent; it’s a choice, a survival mechanism for very real dangers. But the ability to create vibrant movements in alternative spaces just might bolster queer communities during the lockdown, especially since theatres, clubs, and events are likely to be closed or canceled for the rest of the year.
Virtual queer spaces centered on expression and performance give us an opportunity to share our stories with each other, especially in a time when we’re searching for new ways to show up for each other. “We need to see each other. We need to know we are alive. Most importantly, we need to know what’s possible,” wrote R. Flex. “[It] lets us know we belong and our experiences are valid.”
There are many things to be gleaned from this pandemic—our governments’ neglect of our social programs and infrastructure, the true value of low-wage workers, and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor and how it cuts across racial lines. One of the most exciting threads I’ve seen throughout pandemic discourse is that, on all accounts, our humanity is undeniable. We’re not consumers or corporate resources—we’re people, and when faced with uncertainty, we turn to each other. Club Quarantine is a virtual rave, but it’s also more than that. The space they’ve created allows queer people in isolation to truly see and support each other, and finding pleasure and freedom as queer people in communion is a beautiful act of resistance.
By Tamara Jones
Illustration by Yoo Young Chun