Sexual politics in the land of the Pilgrim Fathers: Zoe Heller in America

I'VE JUST come back from visiting my brother and sister-in-law and their seven-week-old son on Cape Cod. The Cape is a long quirky curl of peninsula that sticks out like a handwriting flourish from the bottom of Massachusetts. My sister-in-law's family has a house - or rather a collection of converted turkey sheds - at the very tip of the peninsula, in the middle of a forest, on the shore of what is known as Horseleech Pond. (This is misleading: there are no horseleeches and the 'pond' is a bit less than a mile wide.)

This morning I went with my sister, who was visiting from England (yup, this was a real old family gathering), for a pre-breakfast swim. There was still a light mist rolling over the pond. The water was soup-warm and completely still. Dragonflies were motoring over its surface like little electric-blue helicopters, birds were making weird squeaky-toy noises, and somewhere, hidden among the lily pads, frogs were mooing. As my sister and I sploshed about beatifically, a fat grey bass leapt out of the water to perform a cheerful back-flip. All the scene needed was for some big old guy to come sashaying out from behind a tree and start singing 'Zip-a-dee-doo- dah'. For a brief, freaky moment, I found myself thinking wistfully of what it would be like to live in the country.

Now the fact is, I've never been what you'd call a country person. I've never really got the rural thing. The whole English middle-class fetish about schlepping out to a marvellous little country cottage every weekend has always been a mystery. It's like - why would you do that? Why would you spend all that time and energy and petrol getting to somewhere where there are no restaurants or cinemas and animals feel free to shit wherever they please?

If I have ever had fantasies about non-urban living, they have been about having a ranch in the desert somewhere - and these, if I'm honest, are entirely based on the bit in the Barbra Streisand re-make of A Star is Born, where she and Kris Kristofferson go and build their own adobe palace in the middle of

nowhere. (You know - that fabulous part where they've decided they have to get away from the crazy old world and just be, but because they're so hot for each other, they keep throwing off their big Seventies ponchos and leaping from their his 'n' hers cement mixers to roll around together in the sand.) The truth is, the fantasy never really worked for me unless Kris was part of it.

Yet there I was this morning, floating in the pond, dreaming of gingerbread houses, feeling reluctant to return to the city, appreciating nature. Am I getting old or something?

On Saturday night we all went into Provincetown. This represents the easternmost point in the United States, and it's the first place where the Pilgrim Fathers landed. It has an old community of Portuguese fishermen - descendants of the men who came originally to work on the Atlantic whaling boats. More recently, over the past 20 or 30 years, it has become home to a large gay community.

It's not clear why or how this happened. (At the southernmost point of the States, in the Florida Keys, there is another large and flourishing gay community, and one somewhat dodgy theory has it that those of marginalised sexual persuasion are instinctively drawn to points of geographical extremity.) In any case, Provincetown's gay population is now roughly equal to its heterosexual one, and during the summer, when hordes of gay holiday-makers pour in from across America, their cultural domination of the town is indisputable. The resulting ambience is extremely interesting - sort of Southwold meets Boys Town: ice-cream and taffy and men in shiny Spandex all-in-ones; dinky bucket-and-spade stores and leather- girls snogging passionately on the steps of the town hall. My favourite sight, as we strolled along the main drag after dinner, was a man who looked the spit of Abe Lincoln, leaning against a perfect white picket fence, in a T- shirt that said, 'I feel pretty.'

Back in the Seventies, there were apparently some incidents of gay-bashing in town, but that is considered ancient history now. These days, the conflict is more likely to be between gay men and lesbian women over the issue of lesbian separatism. Although the town's gays have been running a discreet gays- only policy in certain condo complexes for a long time, the news that some women are now setting up women-only apartment buildings, from which men of any sexual proclivity are barred, has caused widespread outrage. Even male plumbers are not allowed in to fix broken taps, it is said, and gay men are up in arms about female chauvinism.

In a polemical editorial in a recent issue of the Provincetown Magazine, a gay male writer lamented the bigotry of a woman he had seen wearing a T-shirt printed with the words

'Audrey Scott College: not a girls' school without men, but a women's school without boys.' This garment, the writer claimed, 'had no other reason for being than to hurt men . . . to hurt me.'

Oh please] It's one thing to be humourless and literal-minded, but the hamminess - the pure cant - of that claim to being personally 'hurt'] People seem always to be finding something somebody else said 'offensive', or 'hurtful', these days - or saying they do. The truth is, it is rather a rare thing to feel properly offended or hurt by other people's views - particularly when they are expressed as T- shirt slogans.

But as I write this it occurs to me that I have not always felt this way. As an earnest 15- year-old, I spent a lot of time trying to persuade my mother that Pan's People were not only the devil's work and a dangerous threat to the cause of global sisterhood, but personally insulting to my female dignity. Was this passionate puritanism real or affected? I can no longer recall. I am getting old.

(Photograph omitted)

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