The modern understanding of Provincetown as a special place for the LGBTQ community began in 1899. That’s when Charles Hawthorne founded the Cape Cod School of Art, giving birth to the Provincetown art colony.
Hawthorne had been touring New England, looking for the perfect location for his summer art school, when he came upon Provincetown, which had been devastated by the Portland Gale of 1898. Much of the town lay in ruins and a significant portion of the fishing fleet had sunk in the storm, leaving behind the widows of the crew & captains. The town’s economy was in shambles and many of the women offered housing and cooking for the artists Hawthorne promised he’d bring back with him.
The visionary’s school soon opened a pipeline between Provincetown and New York City. The train service that was available at the time between the two points brought many to town from NYC’s Greenwich Village. Over the next two decades, Provincetown welcomed not only thousands of artists, but also writers, actors and left-wing political radicals who brought new ideas on gender and racial equality, artistic expression and sexuality.
These ideas were accepted by a local population that was already pushed to the fringes of American society and a Portuguese community that was facing discrimination on many fronts in the region. So began a symbiotic relationship that bonded together the LGBTQ community with a significant portion of the straight population as friends and allies.
News spread throughout the LGBTQ community nationwide that Provincetown by the 1920s was a place of relative freedom and acceptance. This caused an influx of visitors and vacationers, and saw the town’s gay population grow exponentially. But this growth also sparked a growing backlash from more conservative elements in Provincetown which tried to halt the influx of LGBTQ people. Clearly those efforts failed.
Starting in the 1950s, various businesses and entertainers began to tiptoe out of the closet. By the historic Stonewall Riots of 1969, the town exploded with activism and visible queer expressions of art, culture and politics. Provincetown had finally earned a worldwide reputation as a LGBTQ safe haven.
Queer History Highlights
While far from exhaustive, this list is provided to offer some highlights of our LGBTQ+ experience in Provincetown.