Feeling Space Queerly

If you look at a map of the United States, you might notice how the shape of the states change traveling East to West. The states that grew from the original colonies (established in the sovereign lands of the first nations) tend to follow coast lines, mountain ranges, rivers, and other natural markers. Further west, the plain states follow the occasional river, but their boundaries are decidedly rectilinear. The mountain states become more square like. It’s not until the continent meets the Pacific that borders are forced to follow curvilinear coastlines.

I recently visited Provincetown, MA for the first time. Before I circle back to its queerness/gayness, I want to reflect on its geography. If you are unfamiliar with Provincetown, it is the furthest point on Cape Cod; the flexed arm extending Massachusetts into the Atlantic. It is also the site of the Mayflower’s first landing and it was in Provincetown’s harbor that the eponymous Mayflower Compact was signed.  

 http://www.old-maps.com/ma/ma_CoBDN_ProvincetownMaps.htm

http://www.old-maps.com/ma/ma_CoBDN_ProvincetownMaps.htm

 

I grew up in the square-ish and trapezoidal states of the west. I was fascinated with New England; the smaller scale and peculiar shapes grabbed my attention, and in particular the shape of Cape Cod seemed important. The Cape looks almost fragile, like a wish bone waiting to be snapped away from the continent, or, less violently, a finger beckoning people to ‘come here.’ The entirety of the Cape has been likened to an arm flexing its muscles, which would make Provincetown the fist and fingers of this showy arm of Massachusetts.

The way Provincetown Harbor curves allows you to see back towards southerly sections of the Cape. From town it is easy to see Long Point, that last little curliecue of sandy land. I went to Long Point and walked to its tip. It was a peculiar feeling to sense geography and topography in such a specific way.  It was an easy leap for the imagination to speed through nearly four hundred years of history of European colonization to me standing on a beach. The relatively small group of ‘Separatists’ and their ‘Stranger’ companions could be conjured floating in the harbor trying to decide where to go and how to live. Seeing Eugene O’Neill and then Tennessee Williams working on their plays through fog filled days and humid nights could equally be called to mind. I didn’t have to imagine a topsy-turvy world where gay people outnumbered straight people and where they walked through the streets in swim suits, harnesses, holding hands, or gathered in great outdoor parties where couples kissed, throuples did the same, and some people actually still danced. I didn’t need to imagine it, because this is what Provincetown can be. The hooked finger of Cape Cod protecting this distinctly queer town at the geographic limits of the East Coast, made me think on how we experience space.

LGBTQ people, and many more besides, arguably feel space in ways straight culture may not understand. Spaces charged with sexual and gender hierarchies can turn me into a very quiet, very reticent, and very ‘I-wish-I-could-be-invisible’ kind of person. I can feel vulnerable. To this day, the locker room fills me with dread and anxiety. To be very clear, my anxiety has nothing to do with the prospect of sexual titillation or excitation. It has very much more to do with the fear of someone else’s potential decision to decide that a casual glance gives them cause to attack me, verbally or otherwise. Sporting events are another space that generate similar stress. Again, the curious homosocial slapping, groping, and touching are not what stir up my stress. It is the way in which my desire not to slap, bark, or pound fists may mark me as different and therefore available to attack, and it’s the inevitable misogynistic and homophobic slurs directed at players and each other that makes me want to be very small.

This is not about shame or a generalized fear of being outed. I am, happily, now at a point in my life where that does hold sway over me. This is about how queer individuals feel time and space in straight culture. If you are straight and reading this, perhaps the term ‘straight culture’ strikes you in a new way. Straight culture is not simply the opposite of what we can point to as gay, lesbian, or queer culture. It is the ubiquitous culture in which we all live. It is important to refer to ‘straight’ culture so that we can look at it somewhat objectively and not assume that everyone’s experience in it is or has been equal. It is also important to recognize that straight culture also means white and male.

We have suddenly moved from space and location to identity. I don’t want to tip too far into identity politics, but suffice to say, that for queer and minority populations, the two are often entwined. I would argue that they are for straight people too, but in a way that helps you make sense of the world and who you are. The term heteronormativity has found its way into popular usage, and this is what I am talking about with straight space and culture. José Muñoz offers this explanation of how heteronormativity works:

[It] speaks not just to a bias related to sexual object choice but to that dominant and overarching temporal and spatial organization of the world that I have been calling straight time.[1]

Muñoz’s observation supports the claim that space and location are bound to culture and identity. His notion of time goes further to suggest that time also pulls and pushes on space. In straight time, time is metered and sustained. It can be clock time; the measured increments of seconds, minutes, and hours. It can be business hours; the set eight-hour day when we get things done, do work. If this is straight time, then the way in which I felt and experienced time in Provincetown could be queer time. History folded with the present, if only in my imagination, and allowed for co-temporal experiences. Allowing for different historical moments to coexist in the present lessens the pull of a deterministic future. I am not talking about moments where time romantically, or tragically, seems to stand still.

There are places where choice and agency can feel like viable options for queer people, and maybe when we are in these places time does seem to stand still where we can make decisions based on ‘and’ instead of ‘or.’ The spaces and places that are marked as gay or queer are few. Towns like Provincetown are rare. Writing this, I’m drawing a blank on other gay towns (not districts or areas) but towns. The number of gay neighborhoods or districts raises the number; adding bars/clubs to the lists ups the total even further, but the total number is still low. All of these spaces and places do something for us (LGBTQ people). Muñoz helps us sort through this. Talking about images of gay culture curated as art objects, he says:

For those of us whose relationship to popular culture is always marked by aesthetic and sexual antagonism, these stages are our actual utopian rehearsal rooms, where we work on a self that does not conform to the mandates of cultural logics such as capitalism, heteronormativity, and in some cases, white supremacy.[2]

The stages Muñoz refers to are the literal stages of gay bars and clubs where sometimes go-go dancers dance, queens and kings lip sync, and patrons cruise, celebrate, and sweat. These are places away from straight time and space where the queer kids (and adults) can do exactly what Muñoz says; we are rehearsing and trying on different ways of being. He is not writing in metaphors.

Meanwhile back in Provincetown…

 http://ptownevents.com/tea-dance-provincetown/

http://ptownevents.com/tea-dance-provincetown/

The curved hook of the cape nestles the town and its small cabarets and clubs where drag queens and other entertainers perform throughout the summer. The streets hold thousands of tourists walking proudly from one end of Commercial Street to the other. Hotels host pool parties and Tea Dances. Galleries line the street with everything from seascapes to Tom of Finland illustrations. I don’t want this to become an ad for Ptown. My point is, this roughly 18 square mile (and most of that is protected National Sea Shore) town has a lot. More importantly you have to want to go there. It is not possible to discover Provincetown on your way to something. You don’t pass through it. Perhaps this contributed to my sense of space when I was there. I chose to travel to an endpoint, to be removed and away from straight time and space. Maybe this is also why Provincetown has become a gay/queer town. Nothing much can come for you at the end of the Cape; we’re out of the way.

The squarest state I lived in was Colorado. I have felt the scale of the earth standing on a 14,000+ foot peak and the rawness of the earth’s tectonic power. It can be awesome and humbling, but I cannot say that I ever felt located. Maybe the very squareness of Colorado kept my imagination from following more creative boundaries or borders.  I wonder if we can extrapolate Muñoz’s idea of stages to larger scale geography. Can we make towns, cities, counties, states, and possibly countries spaces where queer people can continually rehearse without having to stop at any one thing?

As I try to bring this to a close, I’m realizing that maybe what Provincetown can do is to make us feel community in geographical isolation, temporarily letting us see ourselves and each other for life affirming and celebrating beings instead of feeling social and cultural isolation in the comparative geographic abundance of major metropolises.

 

[1] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 154.

[2] Ibid. 111.

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Todd Coulter