Provincetown Before AIDS

In 1989, two years before receiving his own HIV-positive diagnosis, poet and writer Dennis Rhodes wrote a series of candid letters to New York psychotherapist David Bloom. They remain relevant today.

July 10, 1989

Dear Dan,

"I see we have a number of straight people in the audience today. I love straight people; they're so obvious!"

With that line, Tiffany Jones, the wisecracking, lip-synching drag queen from Texas, would open his rollicking cocktail show at the Madeira Room in Provincetown. Summer after summer in the late '70s and early '80s, I'd go to Tiffany's 5:00 show, and even though I'd hear the same jokes and songs, and even though Tiffany would frolic in the same dresses, it was predictable but wonderful.

Whether he was spinning like a top to the strains of Ain't No Mountain High Enough or doing his trademark roller-skating nun, his special blend of silliness, irreverence, and creative gender bending helped make P-Town P-Town.

Even when he was trite, he was memorable. For years, his signature closing was Charles Aznavour's lovely balled, Tell Me if You Can, What Makes a Man a Man, which defiantly confronts hostility and discrimination against gay people. Resplendent in drag, Tiffany would elegantly remove one thing at a time until he was in his bikini briefs. Then he would throw on a pair of old jeans, boots, and a cowboy hat, now the picture of masculinity, and crumple his wig in his hand while looking heavenward. That number elevated a cheap and funny drag show to something approaching art.

Tiffany Jones died. That's what people seem to be doing a lot of these days. And his passing casts a long shadow over my memories and perceptions of a town that is for me both the happiest and saddest place in the world.

The Madeira Room is in the basement of the Pilgrim House Hotel on Commercial Street, P-Town's main drag, so to speak. The hotel is a large clapboard building, never-quite-white, weather-beaten like so many similar buildings.

When I first started coming to Provincetown, the Pilgrim House was owned by a drag queen of my mother's generation, Lynn Carter. Only in his heyday, Lynn and his compatriots were known as "female impersonators." It's just another facet of our ongoing liberation that today's drag queens proudly call themselves what they are -- drag queens.

Lynn Carter was a lovely man. In semiretirement and in declining health, but show biz through and through, he was a gracious host in the Madeira Room, greeting people warmly, full of hilarious asides and jokes. Had he been straight, repressed, and ordinary -- not that those things necessarily go hand in hand -- he might have been a sweet and kindly bank manager somewhere in Kansas.

He struck me as a survivor -- and a beloved relic -- of a time when homosexuality was in the Twilight Zone: the '40s and '50s, when men who liked men lived, laughed, loved, sang, and made merry within the invisible but inviolate boundaries decreed by the heterosexual world. It is no wonder and no accident that Lynn Carter, Tiffany Jones, and I were drawn to Provincetown, along with thousands of fellow travelers. After all, Provincetown was the landing place of the Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution.

And are we not Pilgrims, each of us? Perhaps on a journey not of our own planning or design, but with so much territory frightfully uncharted. But one we wouldn't miss for all the world.

I first came to Provincetown, on a cold November night in 1976, when I was 22. I was with Gary. He was 34. P-Town was a very special place to him, and he was anxious to bring me there. We had met each other just three weeks before.

I am grateful that I first saw and felt and embraced Provincetown in the dead of winter. While I have gloried and frolicked in many of its frenetic summers, winter in Provincetown has come to be a sacred time for me. With each trip over the past thirteen years, I have measured and assessed the power and progress of my healing. It is no coincidence, no mistake, no accident that Gary, and fate, took me to Provincetown. He may not have known it when that little plane took off from Boston and glided bumpily over Cape Cod Bay in the black of night, but Gary was on a mission of mercy. Seated next to him was a very young man with a sunny smile and a tormented soul.

As surely as the maimed and infirm set out for Lourdes, and as resolutely as the Moslems journey to Mecca, I was drawn to Provincetown. I knew I had a terrible, inscrutable task ahead, that once I started there was no turning back and no letting go, no matter what frustrations, blank walls, and searing pain I encountered.

Provincetown was to be my anchor. It was to be the place where, with each visit, my self and my identity, which had fled to recesses deep inside me, were to inch courageously to the surface, while blending with and complementing my fast-maturing sexuality.

Dan, I don't mean to sound too heavy or too deep. It's just that four fundamental things account for my emergence from the abyss of my childhood: Gary, you, my own resolve ... and Provincetown. Gary, assuming the role of my father, gave me a sense of family. You, assuming the role of my confidant, gave me a sense of trust. I gave myself a sense of purpose. And Provincetown gave me a sense of place.

Who says this therapy isn't working?!

I want to write more about Provincetown. But right now I have to go walk Tennessee, the dog.


Back to the February 1999 Issue of Body Positive Magazine