Equality Is Changing Provincetown's LGBTQ Scene

What happened to LGBTQ havens?

E.J. Graff

E.J. Graff

Photos by Matthew Leifheit

This story appears in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

It was our special refuge, a private stretch of gorgeousness that straight people ignored: Provincetown's lesbian beach, and then another few hundred yards to the south, its gay men's beach. You found it only if someone told you about it, or more likely, brought you there. And once you did, you kept going—or at least I did—year after year after a friend first brought me in the 1980s, buying Herring Cove T-shirts as a little wink-wink that signaled when we said we were going to the "Cape" for vacation we really meant P-town. That was back when we had to be subtle, back when we didn't want to incur the wince of "hets" (as we sometimes called straight people) who hadn't yet guessed that our short hair and long stride meant we were… that way.

Out there, we were unwatched by lifeguards, sunning and snogging in glorious privacy right out in public. Young women in swimming trunks and bikini tops swaggered along the water, some tossing footballs back and forth, "doing their community service," as one friend of mine used to quip, so the rest of us could watch their impressive shoulders and forearms in action, invitations for later on, if you had the chutzpah and charm to approach. Comics and musicians wandered along handing out flyers for their performances that evening, chatting up the ladies and gents as they went. There was always one gross man sitting there with a towel on his lap smirking at the kissing girls; Herring Cove must've been in some perv guide to world beaches. We ignored him, or tried to.

Now it's all changed. Like so many resort towns that were once refuges for outcasts, artists, and queers, Provincetown is expensive. It's too expensive for the young people; practically the only ones left on the beach are old folks like me, or lesbian and gay families with their kids, who started to appear somewhere in the late 1990s, putting a lid on the lasciviousness. No longer do the Smith College girls get jobs as servers for the summer, sharing a run-down house for Memorial Day (known as "baby dyke weekend"), roiled with romance and breakup drama. Now, the shops are staffed by Eastern Europeans here on J-1 visas—living God knows where—while the Smith girls take internships in career-track positions since, after all, they can flirt respectably anywhere now.

There are no more dilapidated houses for rent, as Alan Cullinane, who owns and runs the idyllic breakfast place Cafe Heaven, told me regretfully when I visited again on a dreary weekend at the end of April. They've all been glammified by wealthy older men, tastefully palatial inside and out, he said. Cullinane is involved in gay politics from the business owner's perspective. He bought the place in 1998 from two women who were breaking up and has made it an anchor of the town. He reminisced about his scrappier clientele, back in the day—ashtrays on the tables, the local Portuguese fishermen eating breakfast before work alongside the young lesbians and gay men, who couldn't afford his prices today.

The Provincetown Library looms over a local gallery, a testament to the town's history as a haven for artists and writers.

Of course, our temporary heaven had displaced someone else's. Land's end places like P-town and Key West were once pirates' places to stash plunder. When it was still Province Lands—no town yet—its nickname was Helltown, for its criminal carousing. Then, as fishing and whaling became the region's economic mainstay, stern Yankee whalers brought over Portuguese sailors they'd enslaved when stopping in the Azores, displacing Helltown. Other fishermen came of their own accord and eventually built the lovely St. Peter the Apostle Church that still, to this day, holds the annual blessing of the fleet. As whaling waned, the sleepy fishing village was overrun by the artists and writers, early in the 20th century, who moved into the beaten-down houses rented from the fishermen.

The WPA Guide to Massachusetts: The Bay State, published in 1937, offers delicious descriptions of P-town. It details the town's time as a center of rum-running and smuggling, and its early days as a fishery and producer of salt from evaporated seawater—a time when "in lieu of lawns people had patches of seaweed at their front doors and children were cautioned against crossing the roads at high tide." But, as the guide describes, the glory days of fishing were already past, and "many an old skipper now hangs out a sign on his porch—Tourists Accommodated—and sits down to wait for the summer people…. Artists at their easels begin to dot the wayside—and block the traffic; clicking typewriters join the nightly chorus of crickets; and poets chirp from studio attics at all hours."

And with the invasion of the tourists and artists there came, also, the gays. Apparently my youthful cohort of baby boomer and Gen X queers was no more than a sand dune, moving through, a temporary swarm, and leaving the houses behind. The dunes have it right, shifting bit by bit, grain by grain, suddenly in an entirely new place.

Today straight people don't mind coming down here, not just to gawk but to vacation. Our beach has been invaded by oblivious tourists who seem not even to notice that we're there, who spread out vast towels on our beach with their equally clueless kids, trailing those Styrofoam-like beach noodles and blow-up toys, unafraid, ignoring us as if we were normal.

Which we finally are. My friend Arline Isaacson and I jokingly bemoan the fact that we helped; she's the state's pioneering gay lobbyist, and I wrote a book and endless articles arguing that marriage equality was just a follow-up to feminist changes in marriage law over the past 150 years. "What were we thinking?" we say to each other, only half kidding.

We're not alone. Last summer, I could start a conversation with just about any lesbian or gay man by fulminating (in an amused tone) about the heterosexual invasion, saying that the straight people just aren't scared of us any longer. "We were just talking about that!" was always the response. "It's the price of acceptance."

The beloved Cafe Heaven on Commercial Street has seen its clientele shift since 1998, says owner Alan Cullinane.

In April, I headed out on Route 6, driving the full length of Cape Cod off the coast of Massachusetts, past the multitudinous hamlets and towns along the way where the hets always went. In the past, my partner and I would grumble to each other about how much farther gay people had to go to get away from all the rest. But we never really minded, because eventually we'd crest a small hill and heaven would open up in front of us.

This time, decades of happiness rushed back at me as the famous Provincetown light—the rich, prismatic light that has drawn generations of painters—suddenly made every color deeper, imbued somehow with a broader pallet of nuanced shades inside them.

Provincetown is laid out like a ladder: two side-by-side streets about two and a half miles long, Commercial Street and Bradford Street, latticed together with one-way streets. "The village is 'only two streets wide,'" the WPA Guide described it in 1937, "but for nearly four miles it skirts the inner shore of the Cape; and from there out, Long Point extends like a sandy finger crooked around the harbor."

Driving into town recalled the glorious memories of, as a young woman, being able to bike or walk through Provincetown without drawing a glance from men, able to let my guard down and belong. Back then, we all knew people who had been beaten or killed or wrenched from their partners' sides when they got sick. States were running referenda banning us from teaching or equal rights, and the Republican Party was calling us perverts and degenerates on national television. It was ugly, uglier than I can convey.

I pulled my bike out of my SUV and peddled leisurely down Commercial Street in the spotty April rain. Everything was there but the hordes. Gardeners were out planting. Business owners were out in front of their shops chatting with one another.

Herring Cove Beach, an out-of-the-way destination for Provincetown's gay and lesbian community, was deserted in April before the tourist season began.

At Century, the mid-century modern store with sleek, pricey clocks, watches, jewelry, and high-end bags, I chatted with Brenda LeBlanc, a dark-haired, butch year-rounder of my generation whose brother owns the store. She told me that retail business is down because the bed-and-breakfast and rental prices have gone up, so that now there are vacancy signs almost every week, except for the popular times like July 4th, Carnival, Family Week, and Bear Week.

From there, I crossed the street to Spiritus Pizza, an iconic shop and cruising central, where in the summer everyone mingles, and then I rode my bike down to the art galleries. First, I stopped at the much-beloved Julie Heller Gallery, where you can riffle through the masters sitting on the floor—Milton Avery, Blanche Lazzell, early Robert Motherwell—but it was open only by appointment, so I headed farther down into the East End. Later, I came back to end my day at the newest mouthwatering restaurant—Joon Bar & Kitchen, in the West End, almost the last stop before the jog at the Coast Guard Station. Even in late April, I had to wait.

On Monday morning, before I left town, I sat at Joe's for a coffee and pastry, eavesdropping on a group of gray-haired gay men next to me complaining about—what else?—how the place has changed.

But is that all bad? Those idyllic visits back in the 1990s had some cruel goodbyes—getting in the car, wrenched and ready to cry, putting on our armor again. My partner particularly hated the stop at the gas station in Truro, where we'd get the stares: two shorthaired women in long shorts and modest T-shirts, confident in their bodies, bikes on the back of their car. It was obvious what we were, and those locals didn't like it.

We may have lost our haven, but now, everywhere else, it's OK to be gay. Maybe that's a decent trade.