A week ago as of this writing (June 1), I’d never heard of Provincetown, Massachusetts (so much for my self-assumed Jeopardy-level knowledge of history and geography, right?). It turns out that, like most cisgender people, there’s a whole lot I don’t know about the LGBTQ community—not only its history or preferred destinations but also about the people themselves. Even for those of us who have close family members who are gay, love them, and happily accept them for who they are (as I do my brother-in-law and nephews), much of what we straight, cisgender people consider to be knowledge is often mainly assumption and conjecture.
My wife and I are given to spontaneity when it comes to traveling. On Wednesday of last week, we decided to fly to Boston for a few days, just to check things out, and fortunately, the nature of our work allows us to do so on short notice. The next day, we landed, got our bearings, and began to explore the city. Our first impressions were quite positive: it was cleaner than and as modern as Seattle.
As we walked along Boston’s waterfront, we discovered that there was a ferry to the tip of the Cape Cod peninsula. We were eager to check it out, if for no other reason than to traverse the waters the Kennedy family had sailed so often and to see what was so special about Cape Cod itself. So we bought tickets and boarded the passenger-only ferry at 9:00 on Saturday morning. We arrived at the Provincetown Marina about ninety minutes later, and as we walked down the long pier to the waterfront, it didn’t take long to see things were a little different here in what the locals call “P-Town.”
At first, we thought all the rainbow decorations and LGBTQ-support signs were just in recognition of Pride Month. However, it soon became apparent that the signs weren’t recent additions but were more permanent. Then we saw that almost all the other couples walking along were same-sex couples. I know it sounds hyperbolic, but it seemed that my wife and I were one of only two straight couples in sight. I mean, Seattle’s pretty doggone supportive of the LGBTQ community, but our population is nothing like this!
We strolled along with scores of other tourists and browsed the shops and eateries and the numerous art galleries—the Lobster Pot is an absolute must—and eventually signed up for a trolley tour. On the tour we learned how many of the houses were floated across the Cape from Boston, how very old many of the other houses were, and how P-Town transitioned from a Portuguese fishing village to a small mecca for artists with their concomitant tendency towards alternative lifestyles. This sea change in the population was perhaps best illustrated by the Atlantic House, purportedly the oldest gay bar in America, having opened in the early 1900s (the building itself having been built in 1798).
We waited to board the trolley for nearly an hour we watched the people walk by. To me, this was perhaps the most instructive time we spent there, seeing all the different people and the same-sex couples, and feeling some of my long-held assumptions wither and die on their prejudicial vine.
Some were of course dressed to the fabulous nines, enjoying the opportunity to be who they were without judgment or repercussion. There was a group of well-groomed young men in shorts and tank tops that looked to me like nothing more than a bunch of my fellow enlisted sailors heading out for a beer after work; that is, except for the one wearing a pair of black pants with large square cutouts, all covered by a sheer black gauze that billowed as he walked by. Other than my wife and myself (and that other straight couple who was waiting with us), nobody gave the young man a second glance.
And then there was the young Goth couple at the Portuguese bakery. One girl was white, the other Asian; both had short-cropped hair, piercings, and a few tattoos. The pale white girl wore black denim shorts and a black fishnet blouse with nothing underneath. Of course, this retired sailor saw absolutely none of that as my wife was sitting directly across the table from me. That, people, is my story and I’m sticking to it.
But putting aside all the scenery of the local folk, my more direct point is that most people just looked normal. There were gray-bearded septuagenarians, just grandparents out for a walk, and there were testosterone-dripping jocks who looked as if they lived in the gym. There were moms and dads and aunts and uncles, with kids of all ages begging their parents for ice cream and candy. In every way that really matters, it was Main Street America, but with more style and better hair.
I’ll soon be sixty years old, and for most of my life, I’ve paid no heed to two guys or two girls walking with each other. I thought they were obviously just friends or co-workers. But I am learning that one can no longer make such assumptions, not only here in America, but all over the world. If two people are walking together, they may or may not be lovers. Even if they’re holding hands, that’s still no guarantee that they’re lovers—they might just be good friends (for there are cultures where platonic friends do hold hands). And that pretty girl or good-looking guy looking back at you may be transgender or non-binary.
We simply do. not. know. More importantly, it shouldn’t matter! They’re just living life like everyone else.
And that’s the key: as tragically, inexcusably slow as it seems, we are becoming ever more aware of our ignorance. Acceptance of that ignorance (and willingness to work to correct such a lack of knowledge) is crucial to overcoming one’s own prejudices.
And it doesn’t matter whether we cisgenders approve of alternative lifestyles: it’s not ours to approve or disapprove! Societal pressures—and a growing understanding of science—are slowly, inevitably forcing us to stop making rank assumptions, whether positive or negative. One must also remember that in a very real sense, all assumptions about other people are negative. Even if the assumptions prove to be factual, those assumptions were first made despite a lack of evidence or first-hand knowledge.
I am sincerely grateful to P-Town for the experience, for the lessons it taught me and my wife about tolerance and acceptance in just a few short hours. We’ll probably never return – not because we don’t want to, but because as the years grow short, there’s so much more of the world yet to see and so many more cultures yet to learn. But thanks to what we learned in P-Town, even as we visit those other places, we will remember to not be so quick to judge or make rash assumptions. It’s an experience I highly recommend, especially for those who have yet to learn that the LGBTQ community isn’t “them.” Instead, they are “us,” in every sense of the word.