Despite lockdowns, my queer friend group grew during COVID-19

I needed new queers in my life, and against the odds of the pandemic, I found them in abundance

The first time I saw Bombae, I recognized her from behind her mask. We caught each other’s eye while wandering through a park in Toronto’s east end, looking for a birthday party. We’d never met, but we knew each other from the internet. It was August 2020, six months into the pandemic. 

That party, for our pal Babe, was the first gathering of more than four people that I’d attended since lockdown began. I was nervous the whole time, edging the blanket I brought back from the others, most of whom I didn’t know, and feeling awkward because I’d only brought it for myself—my own cozy six-foot barrier. I was quiet and left early, my social skills severely out of practice. Bom and I didn’t speak much after we found Babe and the others. She was friendly, but I didn’t peg our encounter as the start of a friendship. 

New friendships felt impossible in those early months. So did old ones. After a few weeks, people burned out from Zoom cocktail hours. They retreated to cottages, safer provinces and into their households, relationships and families. Friends with kids were understandably not prioritizing happy hour drinks in a park, the only option left for safe socialization. My birth family was a plane ride away and my partner had moved in with his elderly parents to take care of them. We didn’t see each other for weeks and when we did, we wore masks. It felt foreign and strange and awful. 

The writer with the performer Bombae at Speakeasy Tattoo, winter 2021
The writer with the performer Bombae at Speakeasy Tattoo, winter 2021

Credit: Courtesy Russ Martin

After 13 years in Toronto, I was alone in the city for the first time. Isolation decimated my mental health. I tried everything from yoga and diet changes to an increase in therapy and antidepressants. Some of it worked, to an extent, but I still felt abysmal. I’d lived alone for years, overseas even, but never felt deep loneliness; now, suddenly, it was my entire existence. 

I left Babe’s birthday gathering that night sensing a change in myself. I was a ball of nerves, but also hopeful. I had figured out what my life was missing: queer energy. My closest gay friends were not available to me the way they once were—one moved to Prince Edward Island, another to cottage country outside Toronto and a third was even more anxious about the pandemic than I was. I needed new queers in my life. 

And against the odds, I found them in abundance. As the months rolled on and Toronto’s lockdown became the world’s longest by many measures, my social world expanded and became more diverse, eclectic and queerer than ever. And as new queers moved closer into my orbit, one of the darkest periods in my life transformed into an unlikely queer utopia.


It started with my favourite drag queen, Allysin Chaynes. With the help of Lizzie Renaud, a local tattoo shop owner and digital producer, Allysin and her co-host, Champagna, moved their Drag Race viewing party from the Gladstone Hotel to Speakeasy, a channel on the streaming platform Twitch named after Lizzie’s shop. It was appointment viewing in my household of one. The best part, by far, was the Zoom afterparty, where the audience joined to discuss the episode. Queer folks, it turned out, were not Zoomed out—at least not when it came to Drag Race. Starved for gay gossip, I made notes of things Allysin said and pestered her for details during the afterparty. Soon, Lizzie asked if I’d like to moderate. I said yes. Every week, my brain lit up with endorphins when I saw queer faces. Those parties became about far more than Drag Race. People talked about their transitions, work frustrations, politics. We drank, smoked and laughed together. Queer bars were closed, so we created a new one from the comfort of our own homes.

“One of the darkest periods in my life transformed into an unlikely queer utopia.”

I began to reorganize my life around queer potential. I bubbled with the person I trusted most, my friend Jaime. Like my new queer friends, Jaime and I met online. We both covered tech as reporters in the early 2010s, and I’d decided back then that if there was another queer person in Toronto on my beat we needed to be friends, not competition. A decade later, we’d been through a series of new jobs each and were neither competitors nor friends. We were queer family. 

We lived in separate homes, so at times it was unclear whether we were allowed to see each other; Ontario’s lockdown rules were clearly made for a different type of family. We both anxiously read the news, kept up with scientific studies and tried to be safe while also gaining some normalcy by being maskless together. We went flower shopping and visited botanical gardens. Around Christmas, we baked cookies. In the dead of winter we drove to Niagara Falls and picked up food from Jaime’s favourite restaurant in St. Catharine’s, Dispatch. We ate a delicious meal in a parking lot, sitting on a curb. It was the best day in a streak of bad days. 

Meanwhile, my role at Speakeasy snowballed as the channel grew and launched new shows. Soon I was talking to my livestream pals more than my IRL friends. Eventually I realized the people watching along were my friends. One night, after a stream, I FaceTimed the performer Gay Jesus. Isn’t it so strange, they asked, that we’ve never met in person even though we talk all the time? We both felt like we knew each other. We were part of the same queer community in Toronto, but hadn’t met until the pandemic brought us together.

When my in-person convocation for grad school was canned, Lizzie swept in like a queer fairy godmother and helped me plan a virtual party. Allysin put me in drag for the promo and I hired her, Selena Vyle and Manny Dingo to perform. I ended the night drinking champagne out of the bottle and dancing to my own playlist in a black leopard catsuit in the kitchen of Speakeasy. My parents tuned in from Manitoba; my mom said it was better than if they’d flown out to watch me walk across a stage in a cap and gown.

The writer and his friend Jaime at a botanical garden in Hamilton, Ontario, autumn 2020
The writer and his friend Jaime at a botanical garden in Hamilton, Ontario, autumn 2020.

Credit: Courtesy Russ Martin

In fall 2020, I shadowed Bombae as she hosted her weekly trivia show, Are You Smarter Than? At that point, my partner’s work had taken him to Montreal and his employer quashed our plans for me to join him due to COVID-19 protocols. I was more alone than ever, so when Lizzie invited me to hang out while Bombae did her show, I came every week. Prone to frequent disaster, Bom assumed Lizzie wanted me to keep an eye on her. I didn’t care why she’d asked. At that time, I worked from home and only left to walk my dog and get groceries. I hardly knew Bom, but some weeks she was the only human I spoke to in the flesh. Eventually, Bom gave me a mic, then a tiny video feed in the corner of the screen. The audience called it Russ Cam. They watched as we became friends and comedic adversaries.

A year and a half into the pandemic, Bombae and I have now done 40-some weekly shows together. She’s without a doubt the person I’ve spent the most time with since lockdown began. Audience members often think we’ve known each other for forever. Some of our friends make the same mistake. On her birthday, I got her a cake with a big photo of her printed on it. On mine, she beat me at a game show and shaved my eyebrows off live on air. We are shady toward each other on and off the show, always looking to one up the other with a well-timed insult. She will hate me for writing this and likely post a denial on Instagram saying we’re not friends at all, but she’s an incredibly important part of my life.

In July, Bombae and I went to see Allysin perform at an outdoor show along with two Speakeasy regulars, Purrty and Ari. That night, I met a handful of other audience members. I was nervous that I’d be awkward in that scenario or that people would acknowledge me with a head nod, then act like they don’t know me, as, in my experience, gay men in Toronto often do. But everyone walked up, introduced themselves, announced their double-vax status and asked if I was doing hugs. Double vaxxed and masked, that night I said “yes.” 

The current loosening of restrictions and feeling of relative safety is unlikely to last in the face of new waves and variants. I remain anxious about every interaction; the pandemic has warped the part of my brain that deals with social interaction, physical space and safety. But it has also brought new friendships into my life. I went from feeling like I’d lost my queer world in one fell swoop to having an entire new one invite me in. I discovered both that I’m extremely resilient and that I need queer kinship—and joy—to function, let alone thrive. With no end to the pandemic in sight, I’ve learned to expect the worst while also creating the best I can, both for myself and others. And whatever happens next, I have a queer community to weather it with.

Russ Martin is a writer whose work has been published in Flare, the Toronto Star, The Walrus, and NewNowNext. He lives in Toronto.

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