Paradise Waning —or— How Straight People Ruined Ptown
The brown leather straps wrapped my chest a little too tightly as I tilted my head to the side, analyzing my outfit in the mirror, my nose scrunched up in uncertainty. Having opted for a non-traditional Steampunk-inspired harness, I was having trouble matching cuffs to its auburn shade. It looked as if it was made from an old armchair from Downton Abbey, with brass fixtures and buckles. I began to imagine the pompous British aristocrat that rested his posterior on the soft leather before it was crafted into the strange fetish it has become, which now cuts a little too deep into the soft part under my arm.
This certainly wasn’t my first Tea Dance, and I made an effort to wear a different outfit to every one. My boyfriend was shouting from downstairs to hurry up, because it was already five o’clock and Tea was over in two hours. I grabbed my Tigers Eye beaded bracelet, because I figured its translucent, honeyed tones matched the leather, and ran downstairs, tripping on a couple of them, and giggling. For some reason, I always covered my mouth when I giggle, as if it were a rude, or worse, an emasculating act that I was somehow hiding from onlookers.
“If the Puritans who landed there in 1620 knew what their first contact with the New World would become, they probably would have turned around and never signed the Mayflower Compact in Provincetown Harbor.
For the tenth year in a row now, I’ve spent one week a year in my favorite place on Earth, besides Diagon Alley, of course. In a small strip of land just Southeast of Boston, named Cape Cod (for its prevalence of Codfish), is a quaint, but exciting, city named Provincetown. It has come to represent to me a sort of liberty, itself being a golden enclave of self-expression and freedom from judgment of muggles and other heterosexuals and non-sexual minorities. If the Puritans who landed there in 1620 knew what their first contact with the New World would become, they probably would have turned around and never signed the Mayflower Compact in Provincetown Harbor.
Provincetown’s gay history started early on, in the 1890’s, when groups of writers and artists migrated there, seeing it as a refuge of sorts. Eventually, these same artists began taking over abandoned buildings and renovating them. Provincetown’s reputation bled into the Atlantic and spread around the world in the earlier part of the 20th Century. Many of the artists lived in Greenwich Village in New York and a creative interaction between the two cities was quickly established. Drag queens were performing in P-town in the 1940’s before it was even legal to serve openly gay men alcohol in New York City. By the 1970’s, a flourishing gay community was underway and the Provincetown Business Guild was formed to promote gay tourism. According to the US Census Bureau, Provincetown has the highest rate of same sex couples in America.
This year, I went with my current boyfriend. I call him Moose. He’s 6’3” and 230 lbs. I always preferred bigger men and it was rare to find one that preferred a more slender man. Moose calls himself lucky, but really I’m the lucky one. He is the fourth boyfriend I have taken to P-town over the last decade, and while the men have changed, my favorite place in the world has not. It never judges, and no matter on whose arm I show up, it always welcomes me back home.
McMillan Pier splits the town into the East and West end (as best as we can use cardinal directions in a town built on a hooked strip of land.) This is also where the Boston Fast Ferries dock to unleash onto the locals a flurry of Yess queen’s and Werk bitch’s during Independence Day and Grrr’s during Bear Week. While all people, gay and straight, are welcome on both sides, everyone knows that the East End– and a few blocks in the West End that framed McMillan pier, where the touristy t-shirt shirt shops are – were where straight families loved to go. Moms yelled at tantrum-riddled children and husbands secretly checked out the boys who were scantily clad after a day at the pool, wondering how different their lives could have been had they had been born just ten years later. Lunkheads and straight boys went to JD’s, an outdoor lunch/dinner place with an excellent oyster happy hour, which once poisoned my friend with a bad oyster, but I survived, having built up an immunity to rotten shellfish over the years
The Boatslip is the heart of gay activities, and the host of the daily Tea Dances. It is the landmark people use when discussing the apartment or hotel they rented. “How far are you from the Boatslip?” The rental rates were indirectly proportionate to the distance from the Boatslip and the goal is always to stay within an acceptable radius.
Every year, straight tourists venture closer and closer to the Boatslip. Already, the finger pointing and laughing started. The symptoms seemed quiet, but to anyone who’s been coming to Provincetown for at least ten years, they broke the silence like a Bon Jovi album would a quiet evening at home.
“Look at that. You see anything?” The straight dad joked to his friend. He was pointing to a mannequin torso in a window wearing a jock, showing off its plastic butt crack. He didn’t intend to be negative or homophobic, maybe showing off how progressive he was coming to a gay town – “Look how cool I am coming to a town where they sell jocks right in the window!” – but painfully blind to the fact that he wandered into our midst, pointing and laughing, like small children in a 1920’s freak show pointing at the Bearded Lady.
By the way, the Boatslip is notorious for hiring Bulgarian and other Eastern European students during their summer break and provide them with work visas. They are certainly nice to look at, with their natural beefy quality, fed by a lifetime of potatoes, cabbage, and sausages. However, they are all straight and seem quite bitter that they have to spend their summer serving sinners. One lesbian I befriended this past summer, along with her wife, complained of their scowling. Perhaps it’s cultural, and Eastern Europeans are always scowling? Well, as a Jewish refugee myself from the former Soviet Union, I can tell you nothing is farther from the truth. We are usually too drunk too scowl. I assumed maybe these kids have a tough life back home and have nothing to smile about, but then I see them laughing and smiling amongst themselves when their shifts are over, biking in groups along Commercial Street.
“They used to hire cute gay boys so they could earn a little extra cash. Now, they hire these kids who really hate being around gay people,” said the middle-aged lesbian. Why, you may ask? To save money.
Later that week, I was walking down the street shirtless in cutoff denim shorts holding my boyfriend’s hand as a Jeep passed by with a teenage blonde girl hanging halfway out of it.
“ If they were gay, they must’ve been too young to appreciate the openness of P-town. If they were straight, then they wanted to hang out with ‘the gays’ without really appreciating our culture, a large artery of which is our sexual freedom and expression.
“Put a shirt on!” she yelled as soon as the Jeep passed far enough to permit her to screech it safely, worried I would reply in kind. Put a shirt on? Did she have any idea where she was? How privileged do you have to be to drive into a gay community and demand it adapt to your comfort level. Imagine if she had driven through during Bear Week just one week prior or last year when she would have seen me wearing a jock strap and thigh high, patent leather stiletto boots. Having spent the last 17 years of my life in New York City, I would have had a few choice words to throw back. They seemed like tough Boston girls – Were they millennial lesbians, or as I call them, millesbians? – so I would have been running away from a Jeep full of teenage girls had I indeed replied. If they were gay, they must’ve been too young to appreciate the openness of P-town. If they were straight, then they wanted to hang out with ‘the gays’ without really appreciating our culture, a large artery of which is our sexual freedom and expression.
A dear friend of mine who used to bartend at the Boatslip reminded me of the story of a bachelorette party that came to the A-House (a popular bar). When the DJ refused to play their song, they poured their drinks all over his equipment, I imagine causing significant damage. Imagine if a gay man did that at a straight bar that refused to play Like a Prayer or Born this Way. We would have been chased out with pitchforks and Timberland boots. While we are on the topic of bachelorette parties, let’s not forget the painful insensitivity of their decision to throw their parties in gay bars pre-marriage equality. And you know what? We never said a word. Because, in their own distorted way, they just wanted to have fun with us. And far be it from us to ruin a party. It’s just not in our DNA.
The thing about our community is that everyone is welcome and everyone will always be welcome. Republicans? Fine, just enjoy a good drag show and have a sense of humor. Straight people? Of course, just keep in mind, this is our community. Jews? I just assumed we were all gay anyways. Our vacation spots are not merely just another pool and a beach. Our bars are not just a place to drink and inappropriately grope strangers. They are places (some of the few in the world) where we can feel safe and be ourselves. Something tells me they would not appreciate us going to their favorite vacations spots – nearly everywhere on the planet – and pointing and laughing at their cargo shorts, Birkenstocks, and Baby on Board window decals. They would not approve of a gay invasion of Nantucket or Barbados or wherever else it is that straight people go to forget how comfortable the world is for their relationships. I wonder how they would feel if I drove past them in a Jeep and told them to take off their sports jersey or keep their kids quiet.
I always wondered what it would be like to experience that comfort. I felt it in P-town to some extent, but still tend to look over my shoulder near JD’s where drunk frat boys would get wild and forget that they’re supposed to be tolerant and open-minded. I also felt that luxury in Montreal (although acceptance should never be a luxury), a liberal city where everyone is welcome and considered family, but not even in Hell’s Kitchen, where I share a two bedroom with one of my best friends, do I ever feel truly safe or comfortable.
“But the magic of P-town is not found in its geography and attractions. It’s bound up in the freedom to walk down the street in six inch high-heel, thigh-high boots and a three foot tall red wig only to be met with applause as opposed to violence.
My straight male coworker, an incredibly liberal guy, called Ptown overrated. I imagine to a straight person who feels safe everywhere (although, he’s black and should know better), it is overrated. It’s full of overpriced food, galleries filled with photos of lighthouses and tugboats, and not many straight bars. But the magic of P-town is not found in its geography and attractions. It’s bound up in the freedom to walk down the street in six inch high-heel, thigh-high boots and a three foot tall red wig only to be met with applause as opposed to violence. So no, it’s not overrated. It’s a community of tolerance, diversity, creativity, and safety.
Part of me sees P-town as a utopia, where everyone can live together, where gay couples walk next to straight couples and no one even notices when two men hold hands. Whether we admit it or not, we are all striving for that utopia, where who we are and whom we love doesn’t erase safety or opportunity. But we are not there yet, and until we get there, some idealistic light in the future, we need that safe space. Today, we have torture prisons in Chechnya, gay and bisexual men being thrown off buildings in the Middle East, and a vast majority of states right here, in our own homeland of America, where men and women can still be fired for being gay, bisexual, or transgender. So no, we are not there yet, but P-town can be a start.
Our last day, I was lounging in the pool, enjoying my last few hours of sun and chlorinated water when I noticed a couple I hadn’t seen before walk towards the pool, a man and a woman (the way religious extremists believe the world should look) except they looked nothing like those religious ideals. They were in their mid to late forties and had beautiful bodies. The man – let’s call him Kyle – strutted past me in six-inch pumps. The woman wore a hat that looked like it should be hanging on the walls of an Outback Steakhouse and a forearm bound up by hippy bracelets, no doubt acquired in exchange for hand-rolled cigarettes at Burning Man. At first I was sure it was a gay man and his friend, however the more I watched them interact, the more I realized they were an item. They kissed, they cuddled in the water, and they didn’t care what anyone thought of them. I think of them often, wishing I had talked to them and learned their story. He wasn’t wearing the heels to make fun of anyone, merely to express his feminine side. His perfect heel-toe formation betrayed someone who had practiced for hours at home, perhaps days.
“When you walk through our communities like you would a freak show and point and laugh, but never engage, you are not an ally.When you move into our neighborhoods and complain about the appropriateness of bars or drag queens to children, you are not an ally.
There is a difference between allies and those that think they are allies. When you walk through our communities like you would a freak show and point and laugh, but never engage, you are not an ally. When you move into our neighborhoods and complain about the appropriateness of bars or drag queens to children, you are not an ally. When you tell me to put on a shirt in a sexually liberated town (especially in a beach town) you are not an ally. When you vote Republican, because you don’t want welfare recipients earning your hard-earned money, even though you don’t agree with ‘all the gay stuff’, you are not an ally.
Always remember, whenever they want, they can come in and take it from us. It happened in the West Village. It happened in Chelsea. And pretty soon, it will happen in Hell’s Kitchen. If you think I’m being overly concerned, it already started. When Boxers was opening its HK location, the community board conducted a meeting to discuss its liquor license. One resident vocalized her concerns about having a gay bar so close to a school. (It doesn’t matter that at least ten gay bars are already in the neighborhood, not to mention countless straight bars.) But something about yet another gay bar bothered her. Other people complained about the drag queens in the West Village being appropriate for children. The same drag queens that made the neighborhood safe to move into in the first place are now somehow a threat to children. Pretty soon, what safe space will we have left?
We are not a novelty, we are a community. A community of activists and artists, grandmothers and children, doctors and teachers. We are not a sideshow to be gawked at. Were you there holding our hands when our families were dying from AIDS? Were you marching for marriage equality? Were you demanding a stronger police presence when self-hating monsters that don’t even live in our communities gay-bashed us? (I can only imagine the hell you would raise if they attacked one of your own in the cul-de-sacs and mini-mansions of Bergen County and Westchester). Or are we just accessories to make you feel glamorous and cosmopolitan? A status symbol as much as any pair of Jimmy Choo’s or a leather Birkin?
I, for one, am not an accessory. I am the main event. If you don’t like being relegated to the backseat (like we are everywhere outside of our communities and safe spaces), then stay in the comfort of your straight bars and pristine suburbs. Freak shows are not meant to make you comfortable. That’s why you go to them, pay the five cent admission, ogle Lobster Boy and the Strong Man, and then go back to the safety of your Honda Sedan, patting yourself on the shoulder for your open-mindedness. Well, we don’t have that option. We have our freak show. And you know what? I am the Bearded Lady and proud of it.