By Steve Young with Elsa Heidorn

According to the last census estimate, about 50% of Provincetown's year-round population is gay. But P-town'ss reputation as the "gayest zip code in America, " as some call it, goes beyond the census numbers. Every summer thousands of gay and lesbian tourists flock to this tiny seacoast town at the end of Cape Cod to celebrate its gay-friendly atmosphere. But once the tourists depart, Provincetown must deal with a dwindling year-round population and what some say is a growing rift between the gay and straight communities.

For the most part, Provincetown appears to be what Kathy Henrique, a P-town native and longtime resident and parent says it is: a model of tolerance and cooperation:

Henrique: " When you grow up in Provincetown there's an acceptance you're around it all your life so there's no difference between the gay community and the straight community. It's just, we all live together, we're all accepting people and non-judgmental of each other. That's how we live and that's how we raise our children. "

The makeup of the town's government bears this rosy assessment out. Four of the town's five selectmen are gay. The town has had a gay school superintendent and gay school committee members. But tensions do exist between gays and straights, mostly over issues of explicit gay sexuality.

Each summer P-town hosts a variety of gay-oriented extravaganzas, such as this recent Couples Weekend and Carnival week, famous for revealing costumes, drag queens and public sex. The excesses at these events get on some straight people's nerves, but the town relies on the millions of tourist dollars that the festivals generate. But Barbara Rushmore, who's lived in Provincetown for forty years, says the atmosphere has gone too far.

Rushmore: "Provincetown has that reputation of being wild and we can make money on it. And around those occupations where people are pandering to the lowest you have people who hang around who are touts or pimps or prostitutes. You don't need it. Especially when you have young people here in town, they work in all the stores, they see what's going on."

The last straw for Rushmore was a so-called "video peep show" for gay men, which a businessman proposed in 1998. Rushmore pushed for and eventually won a town bylaw that says adult entertainment stores and nude performances can't be located within 500 feet of a school or playground, among other things.

The off-Broadway musical "Naked Boys Singing" featuring several men singing completely nude came to town in 2001 and began a whole new round of complaints by straight people. Some residents tried to stop the show, citing the adult-entertainment zoning bylaw. Howard Burchman, a gay man and the President of Provincetown Theater Company, says the battle over the musical crystallized the debate over gay entertainment.

Burchman: "I mean it was over naked boys singing that drove folks crazy and it was an adult establishment that was clearly targeted toward gay people that forced a whole ordinance to come into being."

But at a contentious town meeting this past April, the community voted to loosen the adult-nudity zoning bylaw.

Terese Nelson: "I want to be able to sit on my deck and not to be, no pun intended, exposed to nudity with my family."

Terese Nelson is the current chair of the school committee. She has two school-age children and worries that the revised law would allow outdoor nude performances that her children might see.

Terese Nelson: "I don't know if you've looked at Provincetown's definition of adult entertainment but it's for stimulation purposes. So you're getting sexually stimulated in a residential neighborhood and you're watching adult entertainment and you're drinking. And you're coming and going by people's residences."

Nelson and her husband John are leading a petition drive to restore some of the zoning restrictions. John Nelson insists that having an adult entertainment zoning bylaw doesn't make he and his wife anti-gay.

John Nelson: "There's a new phrase now that's recently been coined: Heterophobia. That's the fear in the gay and lesbian community that every issue that impacts this is homophobic. They're afraid of anything that heterosexuals do and are very defensive about it."

But gays do see bias in the petition drive and other efforts to limit gay activities. Larry Mahan is a fifty-five year old gay man who has lived in Provincetown for nine years. He points to the opposition by many straights over having a nude beach in Provincetown.

Mahan: "But there's a nude beach in Truro, with nude straight people. When we decide to do a nude strip, it becomes different. I see it as a way of seeing gay people as sexual people and not as just people. There's so many things about being gay than just your sexuality."

Another area of conflict is the school system. Straight parents were upset in 1997 when gay parents proposed that teachers discuss the topic of gay families with elementary school kids as part of an anti-bias curriculum. The anti-bias curriculum was shot down and the president of the PTA, a lesbian, resigned. Larry Mahan attended the meetings and says many straight parents angrily objected to even the use of the words "gay" and "lesbian" in school. Mahan says he drew an important lesson from the arguments.

Mahan: "The illusion of straight and gay people living together and happy and everyone's understanding, was an illusion."

Provincetown's high-profile gay identity may also make life harder for gay teens who attend the high school. Scott Fitzmaurice is the Executive Director of the Cape and Islands Gay and Straight Youth Alliance, an organization that holds tolerance seminars at high schools and social events for questioning teens. Fitzmaurice believes that Provincetown High School is unfriendly to gay kids.

Fitzmaurice: "Provincetown is actually a very hard place to come out if you are in school. It's probably one of the most homophobic schools on the Cape. I'm going out on a limb saying that, but I think it's true."

Fitzmaurice says he bases this view on comments he's heard from gay students in the area but the Principal of Provincetown High School, Ed Boxer, strongly denies the charge.

Boxer: "I believe this gentleman doesn't have a knowledge of what goes on inside the walls of Provincetown High School or in the minds of the students. They have gay teachers, they have gay employers, they have gay parents, they have gay uncles. We do work hard at teaching tolerance, asking for tolerance or demanding it, very often."

There's no question that other Cape and Islands schools stigmatize Provincetown teens. In one well-publicized incident last year, Nantucket students taunted Provincetown High School athletes with anti-gay slurs. P-town teachers and students say such incidents are relatively common. Some in the straight community believe that the town's gay-friendly atmosphere is driving families away. Father Henry Dahl is the Pastor at the Saint. Peter the Apostle Parish in Provincetown.

Dahl: "One of the biggest concerns not only for moral reasons, this is a shrinking town. This town has lost year-round population, it's lost year-round housing. It's got a shrinking school systems and it closes down in the winter and we can't afford to lose any more of our families. "

P-town's population did decrease by 3% from 1990 to 2000. It lost 14% of its year- round housing. John Nelson says that straight people are largely silent about their objections:

John Nelson: "I know a lot of people in this community who, in their heart of hearts, are old-school, don't understand it, are maybe against it, but they don't say anything, and they don't do anything. And they work with the tolerance. I don't think those people really get enough credit for working with things. There isn't any tide going in the opposite direction, anywhere in Provincetown. And I'd like to know who thinks that there is."

So far Nelson has collected 600 signatures on his anti-nudity zoning petition. Howard Burchman says the petition is a direct assault on the gay community:

Burchman: "What they are really trying to accomplish is to try to get some sort of a code of decency established in town that will roll back the permissiveness, this gayness that exists here. It's not the nudity, it's not about all these other things. I think they are offended by the lifestyles of the people who have come to this town. And I think that it's time for the gay people of this town to say get over it. We're here, we're the lifeblood of this community. We want everybody here to be welcomed. We're not campaigning against what you're doing. Leave us alone. Let's live together in this town."

For the most part, gays and straights are in fact living together in Provincetown. Despite the tensions, gays and straights here are pretty thoroughly integrated. Both camps have a financial stake in getting along. But if the nation as a whole continues to grant gays and lesbians full legal status as citizens - including gay marriage - Provincetown's on-going social experiment may be a portent of what America may experience in the future.

Broadcast July 1, 2004

Steve Young is the Broadcast Director of the Cape and Islands' NPR stations.

Listen to Provincetown.

A Well-Lighted Place: Gay Lives on the Cape and Islands
Other programs in the series:
Part One: Four Couples
Part Two: Coming Out
Part Four: Radio Diary

This series is funded in part by the Gay and Lesbian Equity (GALE) Fund, which is administered by the Cape Cod Foundation.