Provincetown: Where the Buoys Are
Fear and self-loathing on the Provincetown ferry, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the gay ghetto.
It’s a rough night out at sea, and the ruggedly handsome fortysomething with piercing blue eyes sharing my shallow wooden bench keeps careening into my rib cage, as the Provincetown ferry lurches and yaws in defiant syncopation with the chaotic rhythm of the chop. It isn’t the potential for bruising that concerns me. It’s his Absolut-soda-splash-of-cranberry—a pale-pink tempest in a Dixie cup—sloshing back and forth and, every now and again, nearly out, over, and onto my unprotected laptop keyboard.
But Blue Eyes is going for gold. He’s in the zone. He’s got an audience of half a dozen male cohorts egging him on with mock applause as he hams it up. Theatrically, he milks the task of keeping the beverage level, limbs flailing about in exaggerated triangulation with the swaying of the ship and the fugitive horizon—a stylized pantomime of a stunt unicyclist. Whose signature move happens to be juggling low-carb cocktails.
“Oh, this one always keeps her booze upright,” one of them warbles, leaning hard into the lisp, as though conjuring a line from some obscure camp classic.
And with that, the spell is broken. A violent buckle of the hull sends a burst of rosy liquid hurtling toward my Mac—so precisely hewed to the curvilinear trajectory I’ve been tracing with my eyes that I snap shut, scoop up, and exile the doomed machine in one clean swoop, as though we’re seasoned cabaret-circuit pros autopiloting through the rote moves of some shticky pas de deux. (For sportier types: Henry Skrimshander quietly plucking a fly ball out of the air in The Art of Fielding.) I muster a weary grin, waving away the apology.
All in all, this trip is irritating the hell out of me, and we’re not even halfway into the 90-minute ride from Boston Harbor. For weeks, I’d been meaning to make it to Provincetown to knock out some reporting for a travel piece I’d taken on. Instead of the leisurely weekend trip I’d envisioned, I’m going it alone, packed into a sweltering cabin atop what is clearly, in nautical parlance, the shittiest surf of the season. I’m annoyed that it’s 7 p.m. on a Thursday and I’m still scrambling for lodging. I’m annoyed with my cellular coverage. And I’m annoyed that I can’t browse hotel websites without some erratically brandished cup of tinted vodka menacing my hard drive.
But if I’m being frank, what’s actually gotten under my skin is the ferry scene itself. Not just the fact that vacationing gay men are this vessel’s primary clientele—okay, sure, the cliché of it is grating—but there’s something I find off-putting about the crowd’s, for lack of a better word, homogeneity. The muscle shirts and the air-kissing, blended till smooth. The ooh snaps and the girlina-fays.
As an urban, assimilated gay 43-year-old living in a progressive coastal city, I’ve long embraced my hard-fought right to sit in the front of the bus, so to speak. To live freely among the straights—sharing their water fountains, their social circles, their terms and tokens of endearment. To choose friends who share my interests and hobbies, not necessarily my bedroom tastes. Sitting on this homo-aquatic Greyhound in the year 2013 seems absurd. Gayness, at least in some parts, has ceased to be a noteworthy aberration. Not to minimize the complexities of the queer struggle, but it’s a little akin to riding ferries and vacationing in spots frequented almost exclusively by left-handed people. Sure, it might help in especially cramped restaurant situations, but otherwise: Who cares? (“Oh, please. He calls himself ambi-, but let’s just say I’ve never seen him use a manual can opener….”).
For that reason, gay vacation enclaves like Provincetown (and, actually, gay bars in general) have lost much of their appeal for me. Don’t get me wrong: I fully comprehend their continued importance as safe havens for queers who hail from places where the fight is further from won. Surveying the ship, in fact, I feel like I can pick out the half-closeted gay couple from outer Worcester County, and the Charlotte lesbians who’ve scrimped and saved all year for one glorious, weeklong fix of uncut queervana—snorting up fiendish quantities of P-town’s singularly deep offerings of gay cocktails, gay movies, gay boutiques, gay dances, gay galleries, and gay displays of public affection through a rough-cut gay straw.
I know. I’ve been there myself. But I can’t handle my gay the way I did in my twenties. Maybe a little snifter during the holidays (in recent years, my husband and I hired Manhattan-based drag queens to deliver hourlong performances at our ambitious South End Christmas parties); a nip or two at someone’s wedding reception (okay, ours, in 2008). Beyond that, I’ve become a lightweight.
Which is why I’m now lumbering my way past this year’s bumper crop of aggressively pruned facial hair and peak-season triceps in search of a drink. I make it to the staircase, descending to the main cabin and, at long last, the bar. Tequila-rocks-splash-of-nothing, please. I let my conspicuously undersculpted body collapse into the empty half of a two-seater, across from a joyless short-haired gal and her woolly dog.
I dial the last remaining inn showing a vacancy online. “Chez Blah-Blah Guest-house,” trills the desk clerk, in a chipper coloratura that soon sours into scoldy schoolmarm. “Oh, I’m very sorry, we have a very strict two-night-minimum policy,” he begins. That’s when my cell phone cuts out—powerless for the remainder of the trip. I have no idea what I’m going to do.
The beleaguered ship pulls into Provincetown Harbor. I disembark, stagger to the ticket counter, and swap out tomorrow’s return trip for the one headed back to Boston in 20 minutes.
“MAYBE YOU’RE JUST a self-loathing gay,” my friend James jokes as I recount the previous night’s miserable trip. I have to confess that charges of homophobia, even in jest, make me just a little uncomfortable. Because as content as I am with my lack of interest in living a gay-centered life, I feel a twinge of ambivalence—even guilt—about renouncing a community I once embraced.
I grew up in South Carolina in the ’80s, then spent my college years in northern Florida. By the time I came out (in 1990), the gay bar had become for me, as for most who have traveled this path, a veritable lifeline. In the ’90s, even more than today, coming out wasn’t the same thing as assimilating. Sharing your “special secret” with a straight confidant over tears and beers was an important hurdle, but that didn’t mean you’d be escorting a lover to their sports bar—or country club—anytime soon.
For queer travelers, the local gay bar was the embassy, the safe haven in an unfamiliar land. Visiting a new city meant packing the latest edition of the Spartacus guide to map out those lifelines. Gay vacation hot spots like Fire Island, Key West, San Francisco’s Castro district, and, yes, Provincetown were mind-blowing extensions of that safety net, opening the doors of the embassy out onto the streets.
By 1994, when I moved to Manhattan for grad school, I had embraced the plurality and abundance of the New York scene. I partied it up on Fire Island. I met my eventual husband, Collin, at the scene-iest lounge in Chelsea, during the neighborhood’s queer-ghetto heyday. I was an enthusiast, a company man. But as the ’90s wore on, the gay-bar scene in that huge, assimilating city started to feel strictly social, its importance as a safe haven waning. The gay ghetto was becoming, in New York, a relic from another, sadder era, and I felt that transformation implicitly.
As it happened, so did Out, one of the two premier national gay magazines at the time. (The Advocate was its competitor.) In 1998, I joined the staff at its hip SoHo offices as managing editor, just after the glossy monthly decided to rebrand itself as “post-gay,” a snazzy term that we bandied about a lot but struggled to define. The company hired a cheeky editor from a U.K. gay mag to lead us through this uncharted terrain. Things we liked: luxury fashion, upscale beauty products, queer-friendly TV and movie stars (“I love my gay fans!”). Things we didn’t as much: grungy activism.
Now, a funny thing happens when you remove gay-rights activism from the topical mix of a gay magazine. As editors, we were stuck figuring out what else our readers had in common beyond our shared struggle. Haute couture and downtown-Manhattan hangouts? No. Stylish home design? Not really. Even Judy Garland cut only a limited swath through the readership. In the end, it felt like a bunch of proto-assimilated New York editors hawking $1,000 Dolce & Gabbana tees and Debbie Harry comeback tours to a national subscriber base, most of whom were still finessing the closet door. I found myself wondering just how different our programming would have been for a magazine devoted to the “straight lifestyle.” (Breeder’s Digest, anyone? Better yet: People.)
Eventually, I left Out for an editorial job at a non-gay magazine. In 2003 Collin and I moved to Boston—and never looked back. Crucially, perhaps, we arrived with no ties to the Boston gay community. If the “post-gay” concept never made sense as an editorial mission at Out, it made perfect sense as a lifestyle. I took a post-gay job at Cook’s Illustrated, the home-cooking magazine based in Brookline Village. We built a post-gay friendship circle from the ground up—mostly the foodies, former chefs, and journalists who populated the staff. We became students of the restaurant scene; we cooked for one another at home. We took day trips to cute New England towns with the sole purpose of reveling in eating, drinking, and merriment—our post-gay shared interest. It never occurred to any of our friends that Collin and I were the only gays at the dinner table. It simply never came up.
Well, almost never. Our new companions would eventually express surprise that we had few gay friends to speak of, and would inevitably instigate a couples’ blind date. “Oh! You’ve got to meet our friend Christopher! You’ll love him! His partner is a neurophysicist!” As anyone who has transferred here from another city understands, Boston is a hard nut to crack from a new-friends perspective. Was it insulting that our straight pals thought we needed to bond with fellow gays? They meant well, and besides, in this insular town, we were happy to take every friend we could get. “Totally! Set it up!” I’d say. “Do you think they’d be into Ethiopian?”
No. They never were. In fact, rarely did these double dates go well. We’d quickly exhaust the meager Venn-diagram intersection of shared interests, then inevitably call it an early night. The rare second date would often go south when we failed to feign interest in some queer-themed flick at the Kendall. They were busy playing in the gay softball league. We were taking beginner bridge classes with a writer I knew and her husband. We wanted to hang out at Toro and Gaslight and Myers + Chang. They wanted Club Café and Sister Sorel.
Perhaps the surest sign of my Lapsed Homo status was our 2008 wedding, a weeklong, 41-person celebration at an oceanfront villa near Puerto Vallarta. It was a blast! It was also unofficial. To make it legal, we arranged a solemnization ceremony several weeks later at our Leather District condo with a gentle, earnest lesbian justice of the peace from Newton. After all the readings and signatures were finished, the JP asked to flip through our photo albums of the beachside event. I’ll always remember her bewildered expression as she counted four gay men total, two of whom were the groom and groom.
Whether by design or by happenstance, I had closed the door on the gay ghetto. I simply had zero interest in segregating myself by such an arbitrary index as sexual orientation, in my social circle, in the bars I frequented, in the vacation spots I chose—or in the modes of transportation I used to get there. But wouldn’t you know it: Every now and again I’d find myself in the middle of a situation—a birthday party, say, or a travel assignment—that would get me ruminating on it all over again.
I’M CUTTING IT razor-close to departure time on Saturday morning, as the taxi drops me off at the ferry pier just in time to bring up the rear of the long boarding line. The overcast sky plumps with grayish rain clouds. Does this thing ever sail in nice weather?
Here we go again, I think, taking inventory of today’s cast. Looks like the gang’s all here. Makeup-free women in cargo shorts and golf shirts? Check. Tattooed biceps, denim cutoffs, and crew cut, with GNC tote bag? Present. Just then, a male couple with matching Nautica rolling suitcases glide-step by, in perfect sync, like a two-man marching band. There are so many bags tagged “CLT” that I pull out my phone to snap a picture to send to James (that’s my gay friend James) with some sort of snarky caption, then think better of it. You know what? Charlotte lesbians deserve vacations, too.
On the top deck, five women in their late forties and fifties have commandeered a prime swath of real estate with a circle of lawn chairs. The sun breaks through the clouds—a Weather Channel–worthy miracle! On the middle deck, a straight couple is sprawled on a wooden bench, fast asleep, his thigh repurposed as her makeshift pillow. A male-male duo nap on their backs along the length of the facing bench, joined at the interlocked legs. Truthfully, I’m a little skeeved out by the entire scene—I’ve never been one for PDA of any flavor—but it’s an assimilationist’s dream.
I settle for a seat on the interior lower deck, one banquette away from a clean-cut male couple, early forties, in blazers and khakis, laptop open, headphones in, Wall Street Journal unfurled, actively ignoring the crowd. I’m thinking Manhattan, Deloitte & Touche. This is transit for them, pure and simple—might as well be the LIRR to East Hampton. No chance they’ll be strolling down Commercial Street, unless it’s popping into the Red Inn for dinner. Otherwise, they’ll be grilling bluefish and native corn, and sipping Old Raj tonics from heavy glassware at their coworkers’ Truro home…. Hey, I’d be friends with them!
I survey the cabin and wonder, Why are they all going here? To P-town, in particular. Is it really that scary out in the rest of the world? Maybe North Carolina’s Outer Banks aren’t ready for this trumped-up Noah’s ark. Maybe the Blue Ridge Mountains are still just a little too red. But why not Nantucket, or the Berkshires, or…the British Virgin Islands? I shake my head at the gay ghetto and its mysterious, unshakable hold.
Twenty minutes before arrival, I head upstairs to enjoy the views. Two guys, roughly my age, tend to a young kid sporting a Batman backpack. Minus a mom, it’s a scene straight out of a Fairfield Porter canvas. They’re taking pictures of their son, who’s on his tiptoes, leaning his head out the window to get a better view of the encroaching shoreline. “Careful—your dads are watching you!” calls the one in the college T-shirt that reads KALE (instead of YALE). Like any parent, they just want a safe place for their offspring. This kid seems well adjusted. Maybe trips like this are why.
My eyes moisten as I fiddle in vain with the position of my sunglasses. I hadn’t given much thought to the children of gays. Sure, it’s easy to talk a big game about assimilating into straight society when you’re a childless couple braving the South End, or some Caribbean isle. But would I be so cavalier if we had a young son or daughter in tow?
It dawns on me that if I’ve been guilty of homophobia, it’s not due to my lack of interest in queer cinema, or questioning the editorial mission of a magazine that purports to serve the interests of our community. Nor is it homophobic to realize that you no longer need the gay ghetto—that it has served its purpose for you, that you’ve moved on.
But once you’ve made your exit, standing so far back from the view of what you’ve left that the details reduce to daubs of color or blurry brush strokes or overarching stereotypes is just as pointless as refusing to flip through old photo albums because you’re happier with the person you’ve become. Cowering from reminders of a more vulnerable, or unformed, me: That may be the homophobia I’ve been guilty of.
Sizing up my fellow travelers, I realize that packed into this catamaran for a 90-minute ride is a variegated representation of the gay world in all its permutations: moneyed married fortysomethings, Stonewall seniors, party bois, exurban gays, suburban lesbians, urban A-gays. It’s a floating, temporary gay bar in an era when that institution’s days may be numbered.
This diaspora is, surely, a good thing. But with all we’ve gained, is there the slightest chance we’ve also lost something? Solidarity, surely, and perhaps even the rich heterogeneity of a community forged by the closet—a heterogeneity that’s all too easy to pink-wash until it blurs into an unparsed cliché.
I think of Blue Eyes from last week’s trip, a jester on the Ship of Misery. Where does he fit in here, I wonder? Likely, he’s doing the same thing every one of us is doing: seeking love, acceptance, and security (what the enemy likes to call the “gay agenda”). I don’t know, and I’d never bothered to ask.
You see, all along I’d been thinking I was merely bidding a fond farewell to the gay ghetto. But now I’m beginning to see that I’ve actually been repudiating it. And how sad. I’ve gotten off at the port of call I wanted; I’m more sure of that than ever now. But that doesn’t mean I can’t wish my fellow travelers, the ones continuing on, a journey that’s joyful and fulfilling and—most important of all—safe from any sort of harm. Bon voyage.