I helped at a shelter last week. Amongst the clients who turned up, were three men we’d not seen before. They appeared to speak Mandarin and certainly had a Chinese appearance. Someone, near the counter made an off colour remark. There was a rather pregnant pause and the nearest of the three men turned and in as broad a Brummie accent as could be imagined suggested the speaker might like to shove it. This was done with a smile on his face since the maker of the inappropriate remark also had a Brummie accent. There ensued a beat or two of tension before the inevitable ‘where you from?’ ‘Solihull’ ‘me too’ followed. It turned out that one of the group was indeed Chinese so they were talking in Mandarin; and they were visiting the shelter because they had some meeting with the people who run the organisation to glean some lessons learnt. In no time the two Brummies were swapping mutual acquaintances.
As we watched the byplay, my fellow helper sighed and made a comment about the need to embrace differences and not leap to judgement. Which in turn took me back a few years, to 2005 when we enjoyed a family holiday on the East Coast of the States. The Lawyer was 15 and the Vet 12. We had just seen National Treasure, a movie with Nicholas Cage romping through some US history in Washington, Philadelphia and New York. It felt sort of inevitable we should follow suit but I knew, it being August, the weather might well be rather overpowering so we planned to end up touring Cape Cod for a few days.
We started in Sandwich and Hyannis Port and worked our way east. When I was booking I recall an ‘are you sure, it’s carnival’ when I said we wanted to spend a couple of nights in Provincetown. To me it was the place where the Pilgrim fathers landed, where the monument was erected and a well known artists colony from the early part of the 20th century. We didn’t have Wikipedia, at least not to the extent today and the British guide books mentioned it was ‘liberal’ without much more.
By the time I’d booked and paid I began to realise there was more to Provincetown or P’town as it’s known, than my feeble researching had uncovered. As regular readers will know I make a habit of mucking up vacations (my father memorably described one experience as ‘like joining Dickhead Tours’). I shrugged; it was too late, the money was spent and it was just a parade, a bit of fun with a few floats. Wasn’t it?
Some people did ask if I knew what the carnival was about. ‘Sure,’ I said. And one queried whether it was ‘right’ to take the children there. That convinced me. We were going. A few nice gay people waving at the crowd. It would be fine.
It was interesting, in the conservative (or is that republican) parts of Cape Cod, notably Sandwich, that there was no mention of P’town and carnival. Maybe that might have told me something. As a family we were intrigued and excited. What would it be like?
Well, we arrived late at night so did no more than check-in. It was that first morning that our eyes were opened. Ripped apart really. The first diner we stopped at for breakfast was hosting ‘drag queen bingo’ which appeared to be comprise a series of 250 pound tight ends dressed as Little Bo Peep comparing depilation strategies while singing Kylie songs. We moved on and found a delightful place, serving fantastic waffles. The place was full of these geeky men bearing sleek Macs and with a penchant for personalised leather lederhosen.
We were patently out of place, the only or maybe one of three of four family groups where the parents were of the opposite sex and certainly the only family from abroad (and not just out of state). The other 60,000 were very much enjoying an alternative life choice.
You know what? We had a Fabulous Time, darling. The Vet could see for herself that sometimes less is more when applying makeup (a useful lesson her mother had failed to communicate upto that point). The Lawyer was treated like royalty (though possibly that had something to do with the blond foppish hair) which suited his expanding ego and we, the Textiliste and I, were looked on as eccentric but rather wonderful for embracing all that was happening.
The parade itself – we were given both purple and green beads to show our hetero roots – was both outrageous and perfectly appropriate. It being pretty soon after 9/11, the New York Fire and Police Combined LBGT group, dressed in service hats, leather thongs and skimpy tops, received a huge cheer. They camped it up and the whole thing was as relaxed and easy going as anyone could imagine. Not tasteful as my parents might have understood it but brilliant.
At times the kids wondered, out loud, what they were seeing but everyone who was there oozed good humour and tolerance. There was a certain grace about it all which rubbed off on all of us.
As a lesson in accepting differences, taking people at face value and being non judgemental, it couldn’t be bettered. It’s good to remember that feeling when one fears that levels of intolerance are building and no one seems to be able to stop them. Labelling someone dehumanises them. Truly we are all different, all a curious mix of contradictions and common faults. If we are all different then either we must tolerate everyone or no one. I know which way I intend to go and I thank the good people of P’Town and their 55,000 that hot summer visitors for reminding me and showing my kids this very vital lesson.