A buxom waitress tells me she loves the gay crowd - polite, not aggressive and oh, such big, big tippers

In Provincetown, Massachusetts, the trees bear leaves in 14 seductive shades of red, whales sometimes voyage all the way into the bay, the soup of the day is eternally clam chowder, and someone like me can kiss, cuddle and comfort his boyfriend in broad daylight without fearing a sudden hard hand on the shoulder, a fist in the face or a litany of insults assaulting his ears: "Filthy queers! Aids carriers! Bum boys!"

I know because for a couple of days out of life - as Madonna would say - I got to wander hand in hand with my heart's desire, pay him lip service as the mood struck (often) and hug him when he was distressed (once). And after decades of having to play it safe, of holding back, of crushing almost every spontaneous surge of affection as it occurred or, at the very least, choking it back until I and the love object retreated into the privacy of our own homes, away from a hostile world, it was so ...

The language has yet to coin a word. Let's settle for weird. All right: it was so weird to be able to do these small, sweet everyday things others do not even consider a right because they take them so much for granted. They do not have to consider evil eyes, ridicule, giving offence to the bigoted and, maybe, just maybe, being charged with "causing a public disorder". Go to jail, do not collect pounds 200. That is, if you can violate your training in the first place, the training that (temporarily) turns you into a "filthy queer" the instant one hears the words.

Provincetown is actually Oz; it is no place like home - home is where the hate is. But then Provincetown (an hour's drive from Hyannis, last resting place of the late Rose Kennedy, the woman who did so much for Catholic matriarchy and basic black) has been for about 30 years one of "our" rare enclaves, both a well-cut pocket of resistance and a traditional gay resort, like Florida's Key West, New York's Fire Island, Miami's South Beach, Michigan's Saugatuck. How do gay resorts become gay resorts? Nobody seems to know. Birds of a feather just seem to flock together.

How to spot you are on a homo holiday: the toilet paper in your motel bathroom is called "Fluffy" and a walk around town leads you to a church led by the Rev Ed Frock (Ed's Sunday morning special: "Is God gay?"). Further clues: the front of City Hall is openly and affectionately known as "The Meatrack" and the main road through the cluster of clapperboard homes and darling guest houses, adorned with rainbow flags and too much gingerbread, is all too aptly known as Commercial Street. Amid the rustic glories and the icy wind whipping in from the sea, there are clothes shops (Klein, BodyBody), sex shops (The Marquis de Sade), jewellery stores, Army and Navy outlets and joints peddling Pride products galore: tacky T-shirts, worse key rings, red ribbons in silk and gold plate and imitation ruby. All this and an Aids support drop-in centre, too, complete with wishing well, although the native populace numbers about 3,000 and wishes simply don't cut it this dying weekend of the off-season, this Men's Singles Weekend.

The men are everywhere - to be this visible usually needs a cause. Down from Boston, up from NY, over from Washington, they are groomed to within an inch of their lives, one step ahead of the fashion police. Leather men, muscle Marys, dancing queens, activists, preppies, clones, bikers and bohemians, on the beach, in the cafes, night-clubs, discos, as if they owned the place, which they do, even cruising the public library, next to the Proust, fighting shy of the Barbara Carlands but cruising, for a change, for fun, so you have someone to talk with, not cling to. Nothing heavy. They number in their hundreds and everyone is relaxed, secure - happy, I guess.

That's it. These diverse, different gay men are shiny, happy people. It is not merely unexpected, it is practically unheard of without the use of recreational drugs, loud music and nipple clamps ("ve haf vays of making you enjoy yourself"). Which is why it has taken me till this minute, writing it down, to figure it out: happy.

The sun rises, falls. Straight couples with hyperactive children and crazy dogs wish me "Good morning". A fiftyish lady in a gift shop wraps my metal plaque for a certain soap (advertising tag line: "Is there a little fairy in your home?") with an eye rolling: "This is one of our best sellers, I wonder why?" A cop waves greetings as I pass by. A buxom waitress tells me she loves the gay crowd. Polite, unaggressive, free with a compliment, and oh, such big, big tippers. And if Provincetown is partly a purchasing phenomenon - why let a pink dollar vacation elsewhere? - I know as I pack my bags to depart for what passes as the real world that it is also Utopia on a budget, a break in Boys' Town, a room of one's own, far from the madding crowd. Something I think I dreamt of, and lost sight of, once upon a time, which is how all fairy tales begin.

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