The Futility of Inclusion in the Absence of Access
Who belongs in Provincetown, Massachusetts?
This is essay is part of the OOPS course Law and Sexuality.
In Provincetown, Massachusetts, citizens and city officials are currently engaged in a lively (and sometimes contentious) debate about what the town’s new logo should be. I think it is safe to assume that for many cities in the US, most people would consider this a pointless and unproductive debate to have. What distinguishes Provincetown from other places in this country however is its extreme dependence on tourism. For many of its citizens, Provincetown is first and foremost a vacation destination upon which they rely to make a living. In this sense, Provincetown is a commodity to be marketed, and using a logo to do so makes sense. For this reason, as well as others that will be discussed shortly, many people in Provincetown are taking this debate very seriously.
Another, and perhaps more significant, distinguishing feature of Provincetown is its identity as one of the country’s most popular LGBTQA vacation destinations. With the highest rate of same-sex couples in the country, 163 per 1,000 according to the US Census, Provincetown is often referred to as the “gay capital of America.” The city is located at the very tip of Cape Cod, which is a sandy peninsula in eastern Massachusetts that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. By the early 20th century, Provincetown was internationally recognized as being home to an impressive art colony. It is within this context of a free spirited and accepting art colony that the LGBTQA community began to flourish. By the 1970s, many small shops and restaurants had opened and Provincetown had become a popular vacation destination. Not only is Provincetown popular for its arts, culture, and nightlife, but also for its natural beauty, surrounded by water on three sides and part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Because there are so many different things that draw people to Provincetown, it is not just a popular destination for LGBTQA travelers. Provincetown has a seasonal economy in which the year-round population is just under 3,000, while the summer population can be as high as 60,000. Without tourism, most of Provincetown’s businesses and households simply could not survive.
Now that some context has been provided, I would like to return to the contentious logo debate. I would argue that this logo debate is in many ways representative of a larger debate that has been going on for decades. Who does in fact belong in Provincetown? And whom does Provincetown belong to? The proposed new logo takes the shape of a rainbow-colored Provincetown, over which the word “Provincetown” is written in black. Under all of this is the slogan: “You belong here.” From what I have observed, the primary source of controversy appears to be the combination of the rainbow colors and the slogan. The most common criticism is that this logo, which has been created in an attempt to improve Provincetown’s marketability, is only aimed at LGBTQA tourists. That including the rainbow colors does not promote the town’s inclusivity and openness but rather has the opposite effect. Provincetown should be welcoming to all people, including straight, cis people. Others believe that this argument is invalid and unnecessary. Straight, cis people have never been marginalized and their privilege affords them the ability to be automatically welcomed wherever they go (of course depending on other identities as well), so marketing specifically to the LGBTQA community does not exclude them in any way.
The simplest answer to the question of who belongs in Provincetown is of course everyone (provided they are respectful and accepting towards everyone else), and it would be really wonderful if this was also the right answer. Unfortunately, the answer is a lot less clear than I would like it to be. Provincetown is undeniably one of the most LGBTQA friendly communities in the world. When walking down the main street in the middle of the summer it is almost as if you have stepped into a homonormative society. Every year this tiny town that is only a few miles long hosts a pride parade that attracts somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 people. It really is incredible. However, it is extremely important not to equate openness and acceptance with access.
How do other identities, beyond an individual’s gender and sexuality, influence their ability to belong in or have access to Provincetown? Class plays a much larger role than many would like to admit. Just because everyone is welcome in Provincetown, does not mean they will ever be able visit, let alone live there. Unless you are very financially comfortable, it is nearly impossible to spend more than a few days in Provincetown. Because of Provincetown’s popularity, prices have soared in basically every sector in recent years. Not only are hotels, guest houses, and summer rentals outrageously expensive, but finding long term housing is nearly impossible for the many people who keep the town running. Provincetown is facing a severe housing crisis in which the people who work in Provincetown simply cannot afford to live there. Along with housing, food, transportation, and leisure are all far more expensive than they used to be. Yes, Provincetown theoretically might be welcoming to everyone, but in practice this simply is not the case.
Beyond class, how do other identities impact an individual’s access to or belonging in Provincetown, especially within the context of the LGBTQA community? Though I acknowledge that the following is a generalization, white, cis, wealthy, gay men seem to hold the most privilege, not only within Provincetown but also within in the LGBTQA community at large. Just because Provincetown’s LGBTQA community is often presented as a unified group in which everyone is welcome, does not mean that there is not inequality within the group. Even if Provincetown is objectively much more inclusive than many other places in the world, there are most likely still issues of racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, ableism, and ageism that occur on a daily basis.
Some feel as though Provincetown has changed for the worse in recent years. This discontent takes many forms. For example, some people feel that, as Provincetown has become more and more commercialized and popular as a tourist destination for all, the town’s LGBTQA identity and community has begun to erode. On busy weekends, Provincetown is overwhelmed by bachelorette parties from all over New England who often stop in every gay bar and take over a space that simply is not meant for them. Now that many places other than Provincetown and big cities have become more accepting of LGBTQA individuals, some fear that Provincetown’s LGBTQA identity will be threatened because it is no longer necessary, or because the cis, straight community will demand inclusion. I think this is a valid fear because of how often acceptance and assimilation become blended together. Whether it is intentional or not, it is not uncommon that after those who were ostracized become accepted, they are encouraged to assimilate and become less of an “other.”
Others feel that Provincetown’s increasing popularity has actually been detrimental to the town. For example, many families and locals have been pushed out of Provincetown because they can no longer afford to live there. Provincetown High School shut down in 2013, and there were only 9 people in the last graduating class. Old Portuguese fishing families have been pushed out of the town that many of them have called home for over a century. Provincetown has become home to a group of elites, gay and straight alike, who can afford the multi-million dollar houses that have begun to dominate the real estate market. Even in a community where everyone is welcome, tremendous inequalities still exist.
I want to make clear that I am not trying to paint a divisive picture of Provincetown and its citizens. Yes, there are different and distinct communities and cultures within the town, but they are continuously blending together and overlapping. This may well sound far too reductive, but there are gay fishermen, and homosexual couples with children, and artists who go clamming, and no matter their identity, absolutely everyone is drawn to Provincetown for its natural beauty. No matter how popular Provincetown becomes, I think its LGBTQA identity should be preserved and celebrated, just as its art community, Portuguese heritage, and fishing community should be. Criticizing the popularity of Provincetown is complicated for every sub-community that exists within the town. The majority of residents, whether they’re gay, straight, artists, Portuguese, trans, cis, married, single, are dependent on tourism to some degree. Criticizing Provincetown in any way is complicated. Ideals of inclusion and equity are fantastic and should be championed. But any attempt at inclusion needs to be analyzed closely because of how hard it is to achieve. I would like to think that Provincetown personified would look everyone in the face and tell them they belong here, but unfortunately making that promise of belonging a reality is far more complex.