Writing to you from back home in Brooklyn after my single dad summer vacation— minus my actual child. (Don’t feel bad for her, she had two upstate trips bookending her first week of summer camp.)
I started my adventures with a years-overdue return to Provincetown with my chosen family of gay men, their dogs, and gaggles of shirtless muscles. Then after an epic day of travel from Massachusetts to Mississippi, I spent the rest of the week in the Deep South visiting with another branch of my chosen family: two moms, their two kids, and their large extended southern family.
The trip made good on a promise I made 20 years ago to visit Tupelo and was timed around a Brandi Carlile show in Nashville. It was hot AF, The Indigo Girls bowed out with COVID, the amphitheater was struck twice with lighting… thankfully the skies eventually cleared and the city waived curfew. Halfway through Brandi’s set Wynonna surprised everyone on stage, and now I can say I went to church in Tennessee.
It’s not geographically bicoastal, but definitely felt culturally bisexual. (At least one friend fired off that it might even be bipolar.)
This is my first piece for the Substack-ified version of this newsletter. As I get back into a writing rhythm I’m sharing an early draft from a much longer piece I’m working on about generational queerness and place-making. Please excuse the uncorrected copy—getting this out before the demands of real life reclaim my time.
Hope you enjoy.
Where the women are strong.
And the men are pretty.
It’s the perfect tee shirt slogan for the place where I became both.
I used to wear this exact shirt in minty green to my suburban Virginia high school. It was one of a handful of soft statements I rotated through to make sure it was clear I wasn’t like the other girls. When I was feeling a little extra I wore another Don’t Panic classic: simple, bright white tee with 2QT2BSTR8 in Helvetica bold, black. The latter I lifted from my father’s dresser; the former I picked out for myself.
Don’t Panic was a small chain of gay gift shops from the mid-90s that capitalized on increased queer visibility with witty tee shirts and rainbow tchotchkes. At their peak there was a shop with bright rainbow stairs on San Francisco’s Castro Street, an iconic Santa Monica Blvd corner in West Hollywood, and a prime location in the middle of Provincetown’s cruisey Commercial Street. I eventually visited all of them.
I first heard tales of Provincetown from my father. He came back from a weekend away with his new lover and described to me an idyllic Cape Cod village that was ‘wrong way’ up. Yes, you could be openly gay there but what stuck with me most was his take on the geographic disorientation. What you expected to be east was actually the West End and vice versa. That the preferred method of arrival was by boat added to the romantic fairy tale. A town for fairies, arriving by ferry, with the sound of their heels and roller bags clicking on the wooden piers.
My father and the new boyfriend came home from their seaside stay with matching souvenir shirts and ready to pick out coordinated furniture. A popular saying back then, frequently worn on buttons, was that “Love Makes a Family”. And you know what families do, with or without love? They go on road trips. An RV was rented, those matching outfits were packed, and we—Dad, now step-Dad, brother, and new step-brother—climbed aboard for an adventure up the East Coast. It was July 1995.
Fabulous road trips were en vogue thanks to the recent breakout drag indie film hit ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’. The film’s campy soundtrack was our blended family’s background score those initial months. My little brother was too young to see the film in the theater but was a dedicated student of the CD packaging. He most definitely would have adorned the top of our vehicle with a giant heel if he had the materials. Instead we rolled into Provincetown’s Coastal Acres Campground with a DIY banner he proudly made spelling out “Priscilla” in Print Shop’s curly (ie most gay) font.
Part of what makes Provincetown such a haven for so many is precisely its geographical size. Only 17.5 sq mi, 44% is water. Just big enough to have culture and nightlife, but small enough to trust that your 15, 14, and 11 year old kids can run around unchaperoned. Feeling out of place most of the time in the suburban South I was intoxicated by what a gay-friendly small town could offer. It was the first time I felt real independence while being surrounded by queer adults (that weren’t my parents).
Back then I was growing into an identity that was, if not neatly lesbian, defiantly feminist and politically queer. I listened to A LOT of the Indigo Girls. I don't know how I discovered them, I like to imagine they found me. I had just spent my freshman year in the back of World Civ drafting a list of invitees to my women-only island. I furtively passed the list up a row to my best friend and encouraged her to add names. I agonized over her commitment to the cause. I covered my US Army surplus backpack with anti-war patches and buttons that proclaimed “Adam was a rough draft” and “Real women drive trucks”.
I kept playing soccer but was feeling increasingly more uncomfortable practicing with teammates who looked relatively indistinguishable from the cheerleaders. I used a dial up modem to explore Prodigy, CompuServe, AOL (anyone remember Apple’s eworld?!)—anything to fill the voids in my high school social life. Bulletin boards and online chat was nice, but nothing brought me more community than a simple email newsletter for Indigo Girls fans. Ostensibly for sharing set lists and guitar tabs, the Lifeblood Listserv lived up to its name giving likeminded, and mostly queer, folks the kind community they weren’t finding closer to home. It was here that I heard about ani difranco before I ever heard one strum of ani’s guitar.
Maybe the local import shop didn’t stock ani, or maybe I was inspired by real life lesbians walking down the street holding hands, but I marched into Provincetown’s indie record store and purchased my first ani difranco album. Bright yellow cover, distressed grunge type, punk hairstyle and a smile a mile wide: Puddle Dive.
I made my way back to the RV; I was ready to get wet. I climbed up to my assigned sleeping spot above the driver’s cabin and dropped the disc into my Sony portable boombox. I scoured the liner notes while I listened. Willing to Fight. Blood in the Boardroom! This was not my mother’s folk music. This was dyke music and I wanted to be a Righteous Babe. But first I had to survive three more years of high school. I listened to ani on repeat and schemed how to arrange my life around summers in Provincetown.
Around the same time, another set of gay dads not too different from my own were also plotting. Early 90s Provincetown was trying keep the peace between two distinct types of vacationers: childless gays attending 4p ‘tea’ at the Boatslip and heterosexual parents buying ice cream for their children. But what if you wanted to blur that boundary and be both? Family Week was born.
A collaborative effort between parents (fka GLPCI—Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition International) and their plucky children (COLAGE—Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere); Family Week grew into the largest annual gathering of queer families. For the families with younger children there were playgroups and drop-off babysitting so parents could catch drag shows. Meanwhile the older (‘COLAGE-age’) kids signed up for workshops to talk about their feelings and learn how to start Gay-Straight Alliances in their schools. Once a year these groups would converge at the Provincetown Town Hall for the popular “Teen Panel”. A row of us older COLAGErs would line up on stage and take questions from nervous parents of younger kids. At least one person every year said their quiet existential fear out loud: what if my gayness makes me kid gay?.
I became a regular at Family Week through my late teens and early 20s as an organizer with COLAGE. I learned how to talk progressive politics, facilitate workshops, and arrange group travel. I really didn’t know how to manage my own feelings of queer desire and body dysmorphia, but I would happily teach your children how to unpack intersectional discrimination.
One particularly memorable Family Week we booked a large house in town for the staff. I shared a room with another Second Gen. “Second Generation” was what we queer kids of queer parents called ourselves. Our tribe within a tribe within a tribe was cleverly coined by one of us—who also happened to be a librarian. Dan was good with both words and taxonomy. By now the Montclair dads and Cambridge moms had succeeded in making inroads for strollers, but Provincetown’s lodging was never going to resemble a summer camp with single bunks. It was, and is, a town full of queens. I wasn’t sharing a room, we were sharing a bed.
Was this an accident? Or was I also managing room assignments that summer? I was 19. We had known each other for a few years already and she was exactly the type I thought I wasn’t into. I usually fell smitten for high femmes in a bright lip, she was the Righteous Babe Records logo come to life. Tall, shaved head, sparkly eyes, all swagger—she turned everyone’s head. She carried her female masculinity the way I longed to wear my own. Did I want her? Or want to be her? We found each other in the dark of our room one night. The heavy makeout session left me a little scandalized and marked up with a hickey I couldn’t hide in the summer heat.
Another summer I returned not as a staffer but with my college girlfriend in tow. She was newly out, still cutting her identity out from the small town midwestern Catholic backdrop of her upbringing. I was eager to expose her to our queer family values. Walking hand-in-hand down Commercial Street we saw ourselves in the other butch-femme moms; it was impossible not to project into the future children of our own, growing up attending COLAGE events. We didn’t stay together much longer and I decamped to San Francisco. I didn’t need to spend my summers in Provincetown, the Bay Area provided every kind of queer community imaginable all year round. My calendar was now free to visit new places, but every August I felt a little FOMO. I told myself I’d go back to Family Week when I had a kid of my own.
Life kept on moving and picked up pace. This is the montage moment where we’re going to breeze quickly past 13 years of career building, love, heartbreak, more love, top surgery, grad school, testosterone, name and pronoun changes...slow for a beat, just long enough to linger on a gorgeous Northern California not-wedding we affectionally called The Union…then speed back up again for a career crisis, attempts to get pregnant, a cross country road trip to move back east, and a miscarriage that gutted us all. Oh, also, this whole time my Dad was one health crisis after another.
It’s a fucked up way to find humor in the grieving, but I often joke to myself: “My gay dad didn’t die of AIDS.” It only makes any kind of sense if you, like me, were 7 when your Dad came out and Reagan was still in office. I have way too many friends who lost their own dads to AIDS. I’m not making light of their pain and the specificity of their losses, rather I’m acknowledging that part of what bonded us kids of gay dads so tightly was how we managed our collective fear. I learned about safe sex from teenagers begging their dads to wear condoms. My gay Dad ultimately died from cancer. He was 65.
Everything was blurry after he died. I ached all over. I was also sleepless with a newborn at home. It seemed uniquely unjust to lose my father right when I was becoming one. As summer approached I felt the pull back to Provincetown. The queer family of my dreams was ready for its Family Week debut. Except my wife didn’t share my connection to the place and prefers any woods over wandering a shop-lined street, even if there are rainbows involved. We compromised and rented a place a few towns over with her parents. Kettle ponds won over kettle corn. Swimming with my 1-year old in clear waters was a dream. Taking her in a stroller down Commercial was not. My wife and I argued a bunch that week. Somehow the queer family I was building felt out of place at Family Week. I remember kissing my daughter’s feet while I sheltered her from the sun and knew in my heart that something was not aligned.
I spent years imagining my future child/ren at three–four–fifteen playing in the grass in Bas Relief Park. Instead we never went back. Obviously I didn’t set out to recreate this aspect of my family of origin, but all of a sudden I too was a divorced dad coparenting with an ex-wife.
In many ways my own daughter doesn't need the community that my father and his peers worked so hard to build. He was determined to make sure I never felt alone, always felt community. Meanwhile, my daughter could run an entire COLAGE chapter just with her own cousins. Her family of origin is just so queer already. Dad, mom, aunts, great-aunts, grandfather, uncle… We have all the letters represented. But queerness is so innate the terminology is meaningless to her.
Dead men make for unreliable sources, but by my calculations my father arrived in Provincetown for the first time when he was 42 or 43 years old. He was deep into his post-divorce life and trying to juggle the responsibilities of parenting two young kids with the exuberance that comes with a second adolescence. He was trying to be very much alive right at the very moment when AIDS became the number one cause of death for all men in his age bracket. For years I used to have a break-the-ice joke about how I indeed did have a gay dad but what a bummer he wasn’t one of those drag or leather gay dads. I got conventional, plaid button down shirt, MBA, Chamber of Commerce gay dad. Only now looking back do I fully appreciate how his own queer liberation might have been blunted by the times. My father inadvertently taught me early about harm reduction and risk calculus.
I turned 42 in April. I haven’t dated a woman in years. It wasn’t exactly on purpose, but it wasn’t entirely accidental either that my post-divorce erotic life has centered sex with cis gay men. I was a confident young queer, but a late bloomer to body confidence. It took two decades of deliberate choices, some bigger than others, to finally feel at home in my own skin and happy when I look in the mirror. It's amazing what years of therapy, a little gender-affirming surgery, and some synthetic testosterone can do to one’s sense of self. A frequent side-effect is how all of the above also remaps your relationships to others.
In ways that continue to catch me off guard, I find echoes of my father’s life in my own unfolding. (My dad started his career in radio and then later ran his own creative agency—now I run marketing for a podcast company?!) One time we met up at a half-way point between our Virginia and New York homes wearing the exact same outfit.
Recently my college bestie invited me up to Provincetown for July 4th. Would I like to join him and his two boyfriends for a few days? Unequivocally. Third-wave cold brew and fancy egg sandwich in hand, we piled into their Subaru. Four men, two dogs, and a lot of monochromatic baggage. I took the copilot position and was tasked with keeping the beats going. We cycled through all the divas trying not to repeat. As we crossed the Bourne Bridge a giant topiary welcomed us to Cape Cod; it was time to queue up the Priscilla. Would my friends know the words? Yes. My childhood is now gay cannon. My college bestie reminded me our friend named his drag persona after the line, I moved like Harlow in Monte Carlo.
We unpacked and set off for our first stroll on Commercial. It finally dawned on me. Provincetown was very familiar, but this was an entirely new experience. I was here without any connection to my family of origin or the broader web of queer families. I had arrived into town as my father first had, to vacation as a queer man, amongst the same.
A friend-of-friends took the third bedroom of our rental. On one of our many walks through town he leaned in close and mentioned seeing the testosterone vial in my dopp kit. He confided that he was also taking T. Not sure what he knew or didn’t, but I laughed and said I was certain we were taking it for different reasons. Insecurity and pharmaceuticals! It’s what brings us all together.
When you choose your family, one is advised to keep an eye for complementary skills. I recommend recruiting at least one chef. I first learned this lesson from a COLAGEr/professional chef who got his Family Week housing comped by keeping us all well fed. My bestie and his partners used to run a restaurant in Hong Kong, now I regularly dine at the best Brooklyn eatery not on Resy. After a delicious home-cooked meal in our rental we all went for an evening walk. Bestie and new friend set out for A-House. I joined the other more introverted two for ice cream. They were ready to take the dogs home, but I wasn’t ready for the night to end.
There are gays who delight in too-loud and too-crowded bars. There are gays that happily tuck in early with their dogs. And there is this gay who left alone for an hour will find always gravitate to the showtunes. I heard the keys from a block away. The sign out front said the pianist was celebrating his 59th summer! I showed my ID and climbed up the stairs. I wasn’t the youngest in attendance, but I was definitely in the bottom quartile. I looked around and smiled. Clusters of men in groups of twos, threes,and fours all nodding their heads and singing along.
There’s a place for us
Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us somewhere…
I watched a man in his 50s grab his partner's hand and sing into his eyes.
Hold my hand and I'll take you there
Tears ran down my cheek. On this perfect summer night, with every flavor of gay camaraderie on offer, the Dive Bar at the Crown & Anchor is where my father would have been.
This was stunning. We grew up in the most opposite of ways and yet I felt like I was there with you the entire time and fully understood the experiences. Your way of describing it all was beautiful and poetic. Thank you for sharing this, Kyle.
You capture P-town perfectly, for all the ways it has given all of us—in all the different stages of our lives—a place to see ourselves reflected.