The Invisible Provincetown

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 12.06% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Every summer, my grandparents took the family to Provincetown for a week’s vacation. And I wonder:
How the hell did that happen?
If you’re not familiar with Provincetown, Massachusetts, it is one of the brightest gay hot-spots in the nation. In the early 1980s, when gays were so downtrodden as to be nearly invisible, you could see happy gay couples holding hands as they walked down Provincetown’s streets.  There were all sorts of gay pride paraphernalia for sale tucked in among the T-shirt shops and ice-cream stores, if you knew where to look – to my cousins, they were pretty rainbow flags.
And, in fact, being the eldest of a large number of cousins, I could tell when each of them hit puberty.  Before puberty, they viewed Provincetown as a happy beach resort with fudge stores and glass statues of lighthouses – and then they noticed the women cuddling on benches, and the men hugging in groups, and you could watch the lightbulbs going off.
But my grandparents, man, I can’t understand how they found the place.  They were simple people, allergic to politics in all but the most general of terms – people should work hard and be rewarded, God was generically good although we didn’t discuss what kind of God He might be – and while they loved beaches and lighthouses with an almost fetishistic quality, I keep oscillating back and forth between whether my sainted Grammy and Grampop were progressive or oblivious.
Which led to an interesting discussion with my eldest daughter last night, who in her late twenties has grown up in a world where Will and Grace had put gay people on prime-time television before she hit puberty.  For her, gay people have always been a part of the national discussion, and maybe some folks hated gays, but certainly they were aware of them.  People were fighting for gays in the military!  There were gay rights movements in her high school!
Whereas the truth is, for long years gays were kind of a hidden Easter Egg, stashed in movies discreetly where those who had the knowledge could pump the fist and congratulate themselves at having picked up on the subtext.  But it was entirely possible to watch whole films as a kid and not understand that those were gay people, that that masculine woman who didn’t want a boyfriend didn’t want a boyfriend for entirely different reasons.
Gays weren’t talked about in mainstream culture for the longest time.  The whole point of a gay person was to blend in – maybe you did a couple of gay things, but you made damn sure to provide plausible deniability: No, no, those overly-tight pants and Queen-style mustache were just a fashion statement, not a hidden signal to those with the eyes to see.
These days, thankfully, “Coming out” has become a ritual to demonstrate to recalcitrant family members that Hey, I’m gay, and all those shitty things you’re saying about gay people apply to me.  But back in the day, “Coming out” may have been your family’s first real exposure to gays in any significant form. There was a good chance that they’d never had an actual conversation with anyone they’d identified as gay – which is very different from never talking to a gay person, but by God American culture did their best to make gays something you didn’t have to notice.
Gayness was an opt-in culture.  You had to educate yourself to spot the gay things.  And if not, you cruised past it blissfully, quietly painting the entire world as straight, with maybe a couple of creepy queers hanging out in bathrooms, but those people had no lives aside from perversions.  They existed, like spiders or cockroaches, merely to creep you out.  They certainly didn’t play frisbee or drink milkshakes or do anything that wasn’t related to carrying on their secret gay agenda.
And yes, I do realize there are conservative places in Western culture where there’s a similar vibe – but that was the whole world back then, except for a couple of embattled enclaves like Provincetown and Fire Island and San Francisco.  It was as though the entire world had decided to just pretend gays didn’t exist, and maybe you’d have an occasional gay person appear on television – watching Billy Crystal on Soap caused headlines – and they’d make magazine covers for a bit and then we’d all go back to forgetting that gay people existed again.
It was a chronic amnesia, a kind of Quiltbag Memento, where we kept looking at an individual gay person but could never connect that into a collective understanding that if that gay person existed, maybe some people we knew were also gay.  That knowledge never transmitted.  Somehow, every time a gay person appeared it was a total surprise to American culture, some unfathomable outbreak, like a pimple popping up and how did that happen?
Which was fucking terrifying, really.  I remember meeting my Uncle Tommy’s gay friends in New York (during what I realize now was the height of the AIDS crisis, and I wonder how many of those vibrant, happy people I have inadvertently outlived), and thinking how horrible it must be to have to encode your life so that other people could purposely overlook you.
So it’s a weird thing.  I’m sure my grandparents must have known later in life that Provincetown was a gay capital, and decided that was okay with them.  Which was progressive, and laudable, as it set the tone for much of my LGBT politics.
But looking back with the weight of history, I can easily see my Grammy and Grampop going  to Provincetown and seeing the beaches and the lighthouses and the seagulls and deciding, What a great family vacation spot.  We have to bring the kids. And I can see them walking obliviously past the hundreds of gays who lived and loved and died there, not even recognizing the culture because they didn’t have the education to attune themselves to these homosexual-friendly signals, and they were walking through a Provincetown that was a little more muted to ensure that straight people could put their blinders on.
I don’t know. Maybe they did see.  But the terrifying thing is that when I was growing up, it was equally plausible that an entire lifestyle had blended into their view of the world, like a chameleon altering its color so as to not be spotted except if you were hunting for it, and frankly the idea that this wasn’t so long ago makes me both happy at how far we’ve come, and sad at how many people died before we got here.

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