The morning before my recent vacation, I had brunch with a visiting Parisian. “We’re going to Provincetown,” I told her, then sensing that its fame hadn’t yet reached Europe, I explained, “It’s a gay resort on Cape Cod.” This seemed to shock her. (Relatedly, is there any greater thrill than shocking a French person?) “Can straight people go there?” she asked. I laughed. “Of course! It’s full of straight people.” I left it at that, but now I wish I had added one more thought. “It’s full of straight people, but the default setting is gay.”
There are other places with a similar orientation—Fire Island, New York, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and Asbury Park, New Jersey, to name a few on the East Coast—but in the era of marriage equality and assimilation, do gay people still need seaside refuges?
For Frenchies and others who aren’t familiar, P-town is the community at the very tip of Cape Cod. Long a haven for artists and writers, it has always attracted gay men and lesbians, but thanks to a campaign to encourage LGBTQ tourism over the last 40 years, gay is now the town’s brand.
That isn’t to suggest that Provincetown’s gay-friendliness is a false front. There’s no shortage of heartfelt literary love letters to the place, thanks to the profusion of writers who spend the summer there—in the LGBTQ section of a bookstore, it never takes long to track down a brace of book-jacket bios that contain the phrase, “he divides his time between New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts”—and those residents seem enviably blissed-out. Even a sun-and-sand-hating queer urbanite like me would pawn an organ for the chance to spend the summer there.
Still, while few have the funds or the life circumstances that allow us to relocate for the season, many feel a need for a sort of hyper-gay retreat at least once a year.
Well, need might be too strong a word—at least for those of us who are healthy, financially secure, and live in liberal enclaves—but it’s still shockingly rare to be gay and to feel that you are the norm. Remember, LGBTQ people grow up in straight families. We have to go out and find our people, wherever they may be scattered. It’s still easier to feel like an oddball freak than part of a community.
Even during Provincetown’s Bear Week, when it seems like 7 out of 10 human beings are portly gents in wrestling singlets, there are, technically speaking, probably more straights than gays within the town’s 10 square miles. But when you’re walking down Commercial Street, the main drag, numbers don’t matter, because in a refreshing reversal, everyone is presumed gay until proved otherwise.
The entertainment options, which are plentiful, are heavy on drag acts, lesbian comedians, and those performers often referred to as “gay icons.” (Last week, a banner advertised the upcoming appearance of Carol Channing and Tommy Tune at the Provincetown Town Hall, a double act that rates a 99 on a scale where 1 is totally straight and 100 is Judy Garland fisting Dan Savage.) Every bar in town is a gay bar—unless there are straight bars anywhere else on earth that offer drag karaoke seven nights a week. Souvenir stores give their “I Heart My Gay Aunts” and “Smile If You’re Gay” shirts prime real estate in the front window. When you check into a hotel with your girlfriend, there’s no awkward conversation when the clerk insists you’d surely prefer a room with two beds. And when you want to go dancing, you don’t have to schlep to a remote part of town or studiously avoid physical contact.
We usually visit P-town during Bear Week—because of the calendar rather than a subcultural allegiance; I like to go on holiday the week of my birthday—but this year our trip coincided with Girl Splash. A couple of Slate colleagues asked what that entailed, and I didn’t really know. “It’s a week for women,” I explained. “But not Women’s Week, because that’s in October. And it’s not Single Women’s Weekend. Or Family Week.” Crystal clear, right? (The origins of the name are still shrouded in mystery—one woman I asked in the Girl Splash HQ gave me a not terribly convincing defense of its use of word girl, but she didn’t seem to know the answer, either.)
Judging from the crowd at last Thursday’s tea dance, Girl Splash could more accurately be renamed Retired Gym Teacher Splash or perhaps Senior Center Splash. Provincetown is a relatively expensive vacation destination—being around gay people in a safe environment never comes cheap—and in the current economic climate, it seemed to have turned into Naples, Florida.
And then I remembered that it was 4:30 p.m., and even in Provincetown that’s too early for the cool kids to dance. I hadn’t seen many young gay men and lesbians in my travels around town because I don’t go anywhere near the beach, and I’m now one of the oldsters who eats at the pricier restaurants and goes to bed long before the beautiful people even think about heading to the clubs. Once again, P-town had allowed me to believe I was the norm.
When I first visited, back in the 1980s, straight visitors often seemed a bit defensive—it was common to see heterosexual couples maintaining a white-knuckle grip on each other’s hands as they walked down Commercial Street. Now that stroll is as scary as an episode of Glee, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet, visitors’ whispered questions about mysterious signs and signifiers are easily answered. (Confidential to the women who walked behind me on Thursday morning: That brown emblem with the animal paw print is the bear flag.)
P-town, with its mix of gay and straight visitors, is both a holiday destination and a diversity seminar. For the heterosexuals, rubbing shoulders with drag queens, lesbian couples, and bears does more to humanize “the gay community” than stern lectures ever could. And somehow the presence of so many straight people makes the gay experience more thrilling. Provincetown is a place where we’re understood and celebrated, where our culture and subcultures are affirmed, and where, for a little while at least, we can experience the thrill of feeling like a majority, whether or not we really are. Being there is a temporary respite from the “real world,” but it’s wonderful while it lasts.
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