“If I get corona, I get corona,” says one blasé, shirtless American dude in a viral news clip. He’s on spring break in Miami, America’s third most sinful city, against the CDC’s guidelines to avoid large gatherings amid a global pandemic. “At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.”
Over here in Canada, that spirit has been channelled in a much safer, 21st century way. Nightlife across the nation has been indefinitely suspended, as bars and clubs shut down to help stifle the spread of COVID-19. But partying hasn’t been completely annihilated — it’s just gone digital.
“Honestly, it started out as a joke,” Casey MQ, one of many organizers of the Toronto-based virtual party Club Quarantine, told HuffPost Canada. “But then it just seemed so obvious. It’s like, of course you want to connect with people when you’re all alone at home. That’s just part of human nature.”
Club Quarantine arrives as an antidote to our social-distancing loneliness. It’s a dance party geared toward the queer community, hosted every night from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m. EST on the video conferencing platform Zoom. Entry is free, unless you’d like to make a PayPal donation. There’s no dress code, no line to get in. The venue is accessible to anyone in the world with a wifi connection, so long as you have the code posted in the @clubquarantine Instagram bio every day.
There’s even a virtual bouncer — you’ll be “clicked out” of the party for any kind of hate speech.
On the night Club Quarantine made its debut — Monday March 16 — Casey says only 12 people signed on, including organizers Brad Allen, Ceréna and Mingus New. The next day, it was 50. By 10 p.m. on Thursday night, 165 people were partying at Club Q, including me, and the Instagram account had already hit 4,000 followers.
“Club Quarantine is saving our sanity out here,” Jaden Chattargoon, 26, told HuffPost Canada over the phone. “I don’t know where my mood would be if I didn’t have that to look forward to every night.”
In theory, the party sounds like an ill-crafted joke by a condescending elder: scores of mostly young people, dressed to the nines and sporting daring makeup looks, dancing from the comfort of their living rooms at an online club. On Thursday, Vanity Bontemps staged the party’s first drag show; earlier in the week, one attendee stick-and-poke tattooed “CLUB Q” on his arm as partygoers watched.
When you sign on, you are greeted by a gallery of small windows, each framing a different partygoer’s face. There’s a chat room. You choose your alias (ie. “kiss me thru the zoom,” “QuarantinaBawdy,” “iced buns”). In one of those windows is a DJ playing music, but, just like a real club, it’s tough to find them until you’ve waded through the crowded sea of partiers.
“A lot of people need an escape — they need somewhere to be in their body if they aren’t into yoga or meditation, or any of those things,” says Chattargoon. “And this is a little more freeing. You can be cooking, having snacks, have your pet, wear whatever you want, bust out a makeup look you’ve been dying to do, and then sign on and have everyone hype you up. That’s all I’m seeing on there, is people spreading compliments and good energy.”
The Zoom app even has a “spotlight” feature, which occasionally places one participant in the role as the primary active speaker. In other words, they take over the largest share of the screen, and Club Q has repurposed it into a kind of stage to highlight attendees and give them their own shining moment.
“I vogued at Club Q last night, and if I’d had more space, my downstairs neighbours would have gagged,” Nikolaos Théberge-Dritsas, 22, said over the phone. He’s part of Toronto’s ballroom scene, which has also been put on hold in light of the pandemic, and he used Club Q as an opportunity to break a sweat.
“Obviously there’s a person-to-person connection that happens in real life that you just can’t replace online. But I think these online spaces are the closest we can get to that right now. Nightlife is such an important part of queer culture, so it feels good to have that.”
Myst Milano, one of the DJs from Thursday night’s party, is also part of the ballroom community. “I didn’t realize I was missing it so much until I signed onto Club Q,” she says, over the phone. “Since the 519 (a queer community centre in Toronto) is closed except for essential services, we haven’t been able to have practices together anymore. So, I told everyone to come to Club Q, and they took turns vogueing in the spotlight. It was nice to have that sense of togetherness.”
Myst — like many other DJs, artists, event planners and performers — has lost a bunch of money from gigs being cancelled. She still has a show on ISO Radio every third Thursday of the month, but everything else has been halted. “It’s tough, but the essence of creativity is resilience and creation, so artists are going to find a way to convene, no matter what,” she says. “I think Club Q is a reflection of how we adapt to our environment.”
With all those gig cancellations in mind, Marisa Rosa Grant, a queer event producer who organizes Toronto’s renowned Strapped party, decided to make her own ticketed event happen online on Club Q, so as to continue platforming DJs who are losing income.
“I wanted to make sure there was still at least one queer party with a focus on queer women of colour going on,” she said. The party was initially supposed to happen at Glad Day Bookshop, but is now being hosted by Club Quarantine on March 28. “The beautiful thing about the queer community is we always seem to find a way to party. Our lives can be stressful in the things we go through on a daily basis, and this is like a release.”
Casey expects the party might continue even after we’re all allowed to hit the nightclubs again. It seems to work on so many levels: older queer folk tune in sometimes, those who might be introverted and don’t club often have a space to party, and anyone who finds clubs inaccessible get a chance to have some fun, too.
“But there definitely needs to be an IRL party, too, seeing how it’s connected with people in such an amazing way,” he said.
And it has connected with people. For many queer folks, nightlife is a scene where they can go to feel free, where they can find community in an often unforgiving world. Club Q, for those who are stuck in their homes and yearning for connection, provides a temporary fix.
“I think social isolation was a public health concern prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, so to prescribe it as a remedy is a tough pill to swallow — especially for queer people who may rely on chosen family,” said the anonymous publisher of OMG.BLOG, who’s been attending the Club Q events. “Parties can be an important part of feeling well. Right now, we’re taking care of each other by staying apart, and Club Q is softening the impact of that. It’s a much-needed dose of social medicine.”
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