Provincetown Pleasures

Gay Mecca isn’t just for queers anymore. Dammit.

By Jocelyn Voo
Curve magazine | December 2005

Tucked away on the tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts is a tight-knit population of 3,500 — a town inhabited by a diverse mix of Portuguese immigrants, eclectic artisans and friendly locals enjoying the prime seaside real estate. Quaint bed-and-breakfasts cluster along the waterfront, white picket fences and artist communes are located mere blocks from each other, and on any given day you’ll see residents biking the miles of trails winding up the coast. The area exudes the boho charm of Santa Cruz, the entrepreneurship of Silicon Valley and the lazy sensibility of a European fishing village. And it’s also arguably gayer than a pair of chintz ass chaps.

Yes, Provincetown couldn’t get any gayer if it tried. Or, at least, that’s the notion that’s been increasingly accepted over the years. More than a third of P-town residents are gay couples — the highest percentage in the nation — and the town isn’t revered as a gay Mecca for nothing. Long known as a hot spot in the LGBT community, countless queers have packed their sunscreen and headed over to one of the few places that regularly hosts drag queen bingo, weeklong transgender events and all-women flag football tournaments. Over 1,000 same-sex couples have gotten hitched at Town Hall since gay marriages were legalized in Massachusetts in 2004. And not surprisingly, the tiny population surges to nearly 10 times its size during the summer season, somehow cramming 30,000 pulsing bodies into little more than 17.5 miles of land.

Historically, Provincetown has always thrived off tourism. Once primarily buoyed by its whaling and fishing industries, the town’s economy is now principally—if not wholly—dependent on tourism, says Karen Krahulik, author of Provincetown: From Pilgrim Landing to Gay Resort and one-time director of Duke University’s Center for LGBT Life. Over the last half century the community has built its livelihood around its seasonal visitors, evidenced by the fact that accommodation and food service establishments tally the highest number of employees of any industry in town. This isn’t even to mention the famed hyperkinetic reality of Commercial Street, P-town’s aptly named main consumer drag. With the dozens of art galleries, mile-long shopping bazaar and an endless line of restaurants hawking everything from vegan gazpacho to homemade sorbet, it isn’t difficult to understand why weekend visitors repeatedly dip into their purses.

Yet despite Provincetown’s reputation as a gay resort, a good number of straight people both live and vacation there. Open your eyes, Dorothy — you’re not in West Hollywood anymore. Widely known for its incredible beaches and unique atmosphere, Provincetown understandably attracts anyone looking for a getaway from her mundane routine, regardless of which team she bats for. The result is a big melting pot of tastes — gay, straight, bi, trans and everything in between — that gives the town the one-in-a-million-gay-destinations charm it’s known for.

“I don’t think there’s a division between gays and lesbians vis-à-vis straight folks,” says Bill Schneider, Provincetown’s director of tourism, who cites a general aura of acceptance as a hallmark of the community. “One of the things that has always made me feel so comfortable is that [sexuality is] not really relevant.”

But some locals suggest that the influx of heterosexual tourists is more problematic than it seems.

“Back in the ‘90s and maybe up till the early part of the 2000s, you could walk down the street in P-town in the summer and it would be six to eight people abreast… [who] were all gay,” says Esther Lastique, owner of Passions Gallery and a 13-year resident of what she calls “a microcosm of what the world should be.”

“[But] they’re not all gay anymore,” she adds. “They’re not even half gay anymore. Now you’re fighting with baby strollers and straight people coming to go whale watching, and it’s very weird. It’s like we’re losing our identity.”

Though Lastique’s sentiment doesn’t warrant panic (“Hide your children! It’s a heterosexual!”), it does prove that not everybody in P-town is holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” Provincetown is undeniably a queer community; just one look around at the countless outposts selling “I’m not a lesbian, but my girlfriend is” T-shirts confirms it. But along with the tourists who just want to go kayaking inevitably come the Tourists: gawking visitors identifiable by the large-lensed Pentaxes draped about their necks and the jaws hanging around their knees. Sure, P-town loves weekenders as much as the next resort town, but to what point should community atmosphere be compromised in the name of economic gain? How does a town preserve its queer roots short of patrolling the community borders and mandating round-the-clock Melissa Etheridge anthems?

It’s the obvious answer: Just live how you want to live.

Rather than trying to combat the tide of open-mouthed finger wagers, lesbian locals are channeling their efforts into what they can control: creating a women-friendly atmosphere to entice queers back to the Cape. The Women Innkeepers are particularly active in this arena, maintaining a directory of female-owned local accommodations as well as sponsoring Women’s Week, an annual festival that, in short, promotes anything having to do with boobs and vaginas. (Wet T-shirt contest, The Vagina Monologues, and New England clambakes all fall into this category.)

Other “only in P-town” traditions include daily tea dances, where revelers gather on the docks in the early evening to get down to disco beats. It’s the alcoholic alternative to British teatime and, to many a girl’s delight, far more scantily clad. Carnival is also a choice favorite, granting an explicit reason (as if anyone here really needed such a thing) for costumed revelers and drag queens to parade up and down the crowded promenade. And Fantasia Fair — known locally as Fan Fair — is the world’s longest-running continuous event in the transgender world, providing a weeklong “full immersion experience” during which trans folks can drink, shop and philosophize about their post-/pre-/non-op experiences to their heart’s content.

Additionally, local businesses are doing their part to woo the ladies. Passions Gallery hosts an annual Goddess Show, exhibiting artwork of the female form created primarily by female artists. Womencrafts, a lesbian-owned and operated shop, supports the work of more than 50 female artisans from around the country. And Pied Bar is the longest-running women-owned club in the nation, with loyal devotees returning night after night for booty shaking and frozen margaritas.

Provincetown is not homogenizing; it’s just evolving. Maybe now there are baby carriages to compete with in the street, but that’s not to say Provincetown has lost its place as one of the best lesbian destinations for lobster bisque and a hot summer fling. Fifty years ago, weren’t gays the ones considered to be “infringing” on Portuguese fisherman territory? And how did that turn out? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

“[Provincetown is] so wonderful because there’s no hiding,” Lastique says. “There’s no apologizing whether you’re the lipstick lesbian or the bulldyke. No one apologizes for who they are here.”