Proof of Gold

by The New Republic | September 23, 2002

The actual dimensions of the thong remain somewhat in dispute. But on a Monday night in July, an aspiring drag queen named Barbie-Q was detained outside the Crown %amp% Anchor Inn in Provincetown. Her thong was apparently too revealing to be worn on the street. One eyewitness told me that the arresting police officer had allegedly complained, "What if my wife or children saw you dressed up like that?" In Provincetown, a small, countercultural enclave at the tip of Cape Cod, them's fightin' words. Arresting drag queens for wearing skimpy clothing in Ptown is not unlike arresting a priest for saying Mass in Saint Patrick's Cathedral. Few would claim that the many drag queens who clomp up and down the town's main street are aesthetically on a par with the searing sunsets, dappled shingles, and golden dunes that you see on postcards from the Cape. But unshaven men in frocks and pumps are a central part of the Ptown flora and fauna, and locals take their civic duty to protect them quite seriously--even when, like Barbie-Q, they had had previous minor run- ins with the law. The arrest wouldn't have seemed such a big deal if it hadn't been part of a trend toward more aggressive police work--i.e., normal for everywhere else--by a new chief recently imported from, yes, Texas. When I first heard that a Texas police captain had been hired in Ptown, I thought it would make a great premise for a situation comedy. But, alas, the reality has been more situation than comedy. An inquiry by the Provincetown Banner revealed that "protective custody" arrests had risen markedly since the previous summer. Rumors spread about people being yanked into jail for walking home drunk after closing time. A patch of rocky sand under the deck of the Boatslip Inn--which in previous years had served as an impromptu sex club for after-hours revelers--was now subject to regular police patrols. During the week of July 4, when thousands of muscle guys descended on this little village for raves to music made palatable only by discreet consumption of illegal substances, the cops went into overdrive. Subsequent dances were canceled to protect the patrons from the increasingly assertive policing. In Ptown this series of events meant one obvious thing: drama. Every summer, it seems, we have some kind of controversy. Last year it was the town's attempt to shut down an all-nude singing review called "Naked Boys Singing." It was one of the worst shows I've ever seen in Ptown--and that's saying something. But the principle of defending tacky pseudo-entertainment is not one Ptowners could or should abandon lightly. So we didn't, and the show simply continued despite mounting fines. This year the fuss about the new law-and-order regime came to a head at a town meeting, where residents presented their impressive list of complaints to the new police chief and town elders. Robert Putnam would be proud of the rampant communitarianism on display. Grievances were aired and, after much hyperventilation, the town selectmen averred that, while they still backed the police chief, he obviously had some cultural adjustments to make. And for the most part, August seemed to pass without any similar trauma. Texas, it turns out, we ain't. Ptown is a place, after all, in which the law has always been enforced more by the spirit than by the letter. It has long been a place of outlaws, outsiders, refugees from somewhere or other. It therefore exists in its own way as a petri dish for what is now described as "diversity." It's not racially diverse, mind you; like much of Cape Cod, it's numbingly white. But it mixes working-class Portuguese fishermen and their families, nesting and entrepreneurial lesbians, old Cape Cod dynasties, imported Jamaican manual workers, aging drag queens, European exchange students, and plenty of wealthy gay men. Add to this mix writers, painters, and druggies, and you begin to see why both John Waters and Norman Mailer call it home. (The ancient joke is that Ptown is a drinking town with a fishing problem.) The comedian Margaret Cho is the latest arrival; one of the more surreal experiences of this summer was finding myself on a makeshift stage at the Governor Bradford bar singing a karaoke version of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" with Cho, Ryan Landry (a local drag genius), Penny Champagne (Landry's boyfriend in drag), my boyfriend (not in drag), and several quite drunk teenage girls who, by their ministrations, had clearly got the wrong idea about my sexual orientation. We had a blast. Ptown, of course, has its puritan aspects as well. It's highly regulated, highly taxed, and passersby will sometimes tell you how to walk your dog. Renovating your home is a little like applying for a driving license in the old Soviet Union. The ongoing culture clash between the more hedonistic gay men and the more serious-minded lesbians is also a reminder of the tension always present in the gay-lesbian "community." Straight-gay relations are equally fraught at times and were made worse by the publication of Peter Manso's new book, Ptown, which bemoans the fact that so many super-wealthy gay men have allegedly taken over the town and forced its older and less affluent (i.e., straight) residents out. Growing income inequality has also made Ptown's cultural balance more precarious. When I first came here, 13 years ago, there were far more drifters, wanderers, freaks, potheads, and other assorted strays who showed up, were made welcome, and then moved on. Increasingly, these types simply can't afford the rents here or they have to spend every waking minute working at menial jobs to keep a roof over their heads. So while most of us who arrived in the late '80s and early '90s are still coming back, the ranks of the younger generations are clearly thinning. No one knows quite what to do about it. We're all terrified of becoming some kind of Nantucket in pumps. But somehow, I feel confident Ptown will escape that fate. It has an ecology of its own, an ecology that quietly sifts through newcomers and selects the ones who get it, who know why they love it and see the same glint in each others' ornery eyes. Ever since I first came here, people have been bemoaning how Ptown was going down the tubes, how it wasn't the same as it used to be, and on and on. But this coiled, exposed sandbar of difference hangs on. Perhaps it's the sheer, gob-smacking natural beauty of the place, its light, its spiral of land at sea, its meandering mischief. Each year I put off leaving longer and longer, as the place wraps itself around me like a vine. It isn't real, I realize. But somehow it is more real. You can come here, as Thoreau wrote, and leave all America behind. And then you realize that this too is America, unkempt, unruly, pied, prickly, tolerant, an emblem of what the future of the whole place could be, if we wanted, if we tried.

By Andrew Sullivan

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