Why Provincetown?: May Water

Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA

Holding hands while strolling along the surf, salty kisses in the waves, tanned faces sporting smiles, matching outfits. Some couples nervously new and cute in their partnership, others more comfortable and secure. They look like couples in any summer tourist town right? Nuh uh, look again. A huge number of the couples I spy are same-sex couples. Eye liner and bedazzled clothes are seen equally on men and women. I’m told that the banner for Bear Week does not mean teddy bear picnics. I’m also told that if I visit in October I would see a lot more than Mickey Mouse at the Fantasia Festival. The atmosphere here is light and fun. It has a good vibe. I’ve been smiling since I got here. Where am I, you ask? I’m in P-town!

I found myself gazing upon the hordes roaming the streets and beaches of Provincetown, a small town on the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, one fine July day and asking myself many questions: When did all of this open gay love start? Was there some kind of mass invasion of rainbows or did it happen slowly over time? Were the year-round inhabitants of Provincetown always so accepting? How did this small coastal town, which was not easily accessible, become one of the most popular gay vacation spots in the United States? And my biggest question—why aren’t there more places like this?

These questions (and more) triggered my Seaside Surrender series, a tale focusing on a polyamorous foursome at the turn of the last century in Provincetown. You’d think growing up in Boston would give me some info to work with but no. I needed to do quite a bit of research, and talk to quite a few people to get the information I was seeking.

For the history buffs, here’s this: Provincetown (now comprising 17.5 square miles) was originally a settlement called Meeshawn, inhabited by the Nauset tribe. Fast forward to the pilgrims where the Chief sold the land for two brass kettles, six coats, twelve hoes, twelve axes, twelve knives, and a box. That was easy. Is that where the future inhabitants got their easygoing attitude?

Plymouth colony then leased the land/fishing area to fishermen. Now forward again through the 1600s when Massachusetts colonies were combining, separating, renaming, and going about their settling business until the early 1700s when the land was finally called Provincetown (an optional name was Herringtown but that was nixed). The sole (pun intended) purpose of the land was a place for the “making of fish.” Okay, all of that is historically important, but where are the gay people?

“That devastating hurricane caused an abrupt screeching of brakes on the fishing industry. It also opened a window of opportunity.”

Well, let’s keep going. After the Revolution, Provincetown attracted a large population of Portuguese sailors (many from the Azores) and was a well-known fishing and whaling center. By the 1890s writers and artists, as well as summer tourists, started flocking to P-town. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere because we all know what a free-spirited, loose lot those writers, entertainers, and artists can be. <insert grin>

Provincetown was evolving similarly to many other New England fishing towns. Churches and schools were built, ships were launched (some were tragically lost in storms), roads were etched through town, government entities went through their own changes, until the 1898 Portland Gale slammed Provincetown. That devastating hurricane caused an abrupt screeching of brakes on the fishing industry.  It also opened a window of opportunity.

Artists, writers, poets, and the eclectic population really dug their heels into the town by buying most of the abandoned fishing buildings (smaht!). The early 20th century saw the formation of art schools and theaters and formation of The Provincetown Players.  Provincetown quickly gained a reputation for excellence in art. In 1916 the Boston Globe (a well read newspaper) called Provincetown the biggest art colony in the world. Talk about good press to attract even more open-minded individuals!

All right, so now that there are quite a few colorful people walking the streets of Provincetown, I’m thinking this is when the gay citizens start making their presence known, right? Er, maybe if homosexual activity weren’t seen as criminal behavior. Mmhm, as we all know, the sad reality is that homosexuality was for the most part hidden no matter where you lived until recently. But, there were drag queen shows and other such gay-related artistic behavior as early as the 1940s in Provincetown. So through the expression of art, Provincetown’s gayness was becoming known.

“Like almost everywhere in the U.S. they have endured inner conflicts, friction with neighboring communities, issues with tolerance, anti-gay protests, hate crimes…Yet through it all the predominantly gay population remains.”

Then thanks to the arrival of hippies in the mid ‘60s, the gay population strutted into town full force. The rents and property costs in P-town were fairly low at that time making it affordable. Boom! In with head shops, leather shops, groovy boutiques and cafes, and psychedelic proprietors. By the 1970s there was a large established gay population. In 1978 the Provincetown Business Guild (PBG) began promoting the gay tourism industry. Again, good press to attract even more open-minded individuals.

So there it is. Basically, a classic New England seaport town was transformed into a gay vacation mecca by the art community, a fishing industry misfortune, and the ‘60s free love and peace movement. Like almost everywhere in the U.S. they have endured inner conflicts, friction with neighboring communities, issues with tolerance, anti-gay protests, hate crimes…Yet through it all the predominantly gay population remains.

The year-round population in Provincetown has always been small, rarely topping 3,000. The summer population however zooms to 30,000–60,000 at times. That’s a lot of stress on any community, never mind one that boasts a controversial lifestyle. I for one applaud Provincetown for retaining the inner core of open mindedness, tolerance, and acceptance over the years. I can’t imagine that has been easy. The inhabitants should take pride in that, not only Gay Pride, but Human Pride.

Love and warmth, May Water


Provincetown facts from The 2010 US Census and other sources:

  • Provincetown has the highest rate of same-sex couples in the country
  • Top four cultural demographics were Irish 26.7%, English 17.4%, Portuguese 14.6%, Italian 13.5%
  • Less than 25% of households had children
  • Provincetown’s zip code has the highest concentration of same-sex couple households of any zip code in the United States
  • The Atlantic House in Provincetown is one of the oldest gay bars in the US
  • Provincetown hosts year-round activities and festivals. Some of the most popular festivals during the year are:
    • Provincetown Rocks, Holly Folly (Christmas), Men’s Weekend, Provincetown International Film Festival (Independent & Avant Garde), Bear Week, Carnival Week, Mate’s Leather Weekend, Women’s Week, Family Week, Provincetown Jazz Festival, the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, Portuguese Festival, and my favorite The Fantasia Fair in October (transvestite, transgender, and transsexual)


For more information on Provincetown:





http://www.wgbh.org   (Provincetown)


photo credit: HBarrison via photopin cc


  1. This was a fascinating read – thank you! Good luck with your Seaside Surrender series.

  2. A K Kinley /

    Great article! With so much hate directed towards the LGBTQ community, it is always nice to read about acceptance and love.

  3. Thanks for the love! I believe in spreading good, love, peace & all that….It’s the ONLY way to balance the ugliness out there. There ARE places & people that are pro survival for our spirits. That’s where I hang out :) Peace !