A shaggy man, who must be the size of a sequoia even without his tottering heels, pats down his polkadot dress against another stochastic New England gust. He struggles gamely for a moment before gladly relinquishing his hem as the wind abates and gulps savagely from a plastic cup full of neon punch. Behind him, two fellows blithely continue to shoot the breeze with the huddled muster of office politics – neither seeming to acknowledge that one has the other on a heavy chain leash.
We are all standing on decking – the slatted kind you would find on any suburban patio. The composite brown of the figure of a US State Trooper looks me over. Except that his outfit is stitched entirely from leather and bared in a vital area. Swinging on his words, he asks me about the prospect of the United Kingdom (or ‘Great Britain’ as he calls it) leaving the European Union while his exposure apricates gently in the last of the day’s heat.
We are at a ‘tea dance’: a four p.m.-to-sunset affair that was common with genteel seaside tourists in the 19th Century but has been repurposed here to denote an absolute fucking riot. Formless EDM pulses as men howl at themselves and each other. Half the group look like cabaret acts, the other half look like patent lawyers at a networking event. At the margins, pet play enthusiasts nuzzle their masters, and fetch balls. The crush of people sways nautically.
A travel-size man named Nick from Philadelphia tells me with the wicked delight of a rumourmonger that below this decking is where it ‘all happens’; that at dusk the assignations take place below our very feet – a dark room under the boardwalk. ‘This is just the beginning’ he says.
I am in Provincetown, MA. P-Town to the regulars. For the sake of those who are not as transatlantic as me, P-Town is a small coastal town on the extreme tip of Cape Cod. It sits at the top of the tusk that protrudes from the Massachusetts maw. It is isomorphic to most of the other fifteen summer towns that speckle the peninsula except in one substantial regard. Provincetown has the highest concentration of same-sex couple households of any ZIP code in the United States – it is, quite simply, the gayest place in America.
This queer Hamptons is accessible by a 90-minute ferry that runs from Boston three times a day. As you disembark and make your way down the pier, local entertainers seek to flyer you. As I walked towards the centre of town a man dancing that night as “Shadoe” hands out postcards with the details of his upcoming nude revue. It should be noted that as he distributed his advertisement he was wearing one item of clothing – blatant zebra Speedos that were at best an imperfect disguise.
There had been a gay presence in Provincetown as early as the start of the 20th century as the town’s reputation as an artists’ colony fermented and those deemed alternative in their own towns cleaved to each other. Drag queens could be seen in performance as early as the 1940s in Provincetown. Now they can be seen as early as 18:30 for a pre-dinner showing. They wade up and down Commercial Street like unstable flamingos – posing for photos and drumming up trade. John Waters summers here.
To walk through the grid-less streetscape is to walkthrough an inverted reality, for the couples that you see linking hands are almost entirely same-sex; straight couples are in a minority. Leather shops, head shops, parlours that moonlight as sexual screening outposts have attached themselves like molluscs to the main street. “Strangers” are pronounced “welcome.” Rainbow flags adorn nearly every door as if Zippy had just executed a coup in a banana republic.
What is not well known is that Provincetown Harbour is the place where the Pilgrim Fathers first set anchor in 1620. They signed the Mayflower Compact here before moving west to Plymouth. Forty-one of the pilgrims who had fled fatal Jacobean persecution signed that founding document aboard the ship. These men styled themselves ‘saints’ and ‘strangers’. Their crossing and settlement in the unchartered scrub of a ‘New England’, have become part of America’s narrative myth.
My visit was only one week on from Orlando and the fallout is everywhere. Forty-nine of people fired upon in the Pulse nightclub died immediately or of their injuries. This fishing village is not insulated – some have lost friends, most feel as it they have lost something they cannot quite describe. It is still such a shock there is little cohesion to the defiance – just hazy well-meaning solidarity. Tourist shops flogging coastal detritus are sending all their profits to a fund for the survivors. It is still a time of grief.
Back at the tea dance, a spry man of at least seventy adjusts his leather flat top cap and stares out to the Atlantic. “It has always felt like home here” I hear him say aloud to himself. The sun drifts below the margin of the sea and the party above deck is over.