Provincetown was where you went to die. That was what everyone kept saying when Rob Phelps told them he was moving here in the mid ’90s. And, in fact, gay men dying of AIDS did come to Provincetown in the earlier part of the epidemic — alone, shunned, and resigned to their fate. Phelps, who was diagnosed with AIDS in the late ’80s, was part of a “second wave” of cases — those who lived to see protease inhibitor “cocktails” effectively treat the disease. “I was in the first wave of people who moved to Provincetown to live,” Phelps says.
His reason for coming, he says, was to write a novel. But once here, he found the process isolating. He wanted to write, but he also wanted to be part of the community. So, he joined the staff of the Provincetown Advocate, the legacy local weekly, which was eventually swallowed up by the Provincetown Banner. The newspaper’s office overlooked Commercial Street; during the summer, Phelps could look out the window and see the revelry. From his perch, theme weeks bled into each other “like one long festival.”
Phelps’s partner, Jim Dalglish, joined him in Provincetown. The two had met years before at the gym. Dalglish, a playwright, found work at the Provincetown Theater and Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, where he would become managing director. They got married at Provincetown Town Hall, surrounded by “the justice of the peace and a couple of dear lesbian friends,” Phelps says.
Phelps and Dalglish moved to New York City in 2006 but missed Provincetown and returned soon after. “I was editing fashion and design textbooks,” Phelps says of New York, “and I was the gay guy. Isn’t that funny? In fashion and design, to be the gay guy?”
In 2015, Phelps was arts and entertainment editor of the Banner and the commute from Quincy, where he and Dalglish had moved, was getting to be a burden. He joined Boston Spirit as managing editor; he was named editor in chief in January 2020. The magazine, a glossy bimonthly that covers news, arts, and lifestyles for the New England LGBTQ community, is fully supported by advertising — print copies and subscriptions are free. At the helm, Phelps spends his days working with writers and scouring New England headlines for stories that might be of interest to his readers.
He also writes some of the Spirit’s big stories. For its November/December 2020 issue, for example, he interviewed Mary Trump about her damning best-selling book on her uncle Donald, and talked to Alex Morse, the Holyoke mayor who lost a U.S. Congressional primary after being slimed by false sex charges (and who was just chosen to be Provincetown’s next town manager). As a freelancer back in 2005, Phelps conducted 11 jailhouse interviews with Nathaniel Miksch, who killed his ex-lover, Timothy Maguire, in a Provincetown apartment. Both men were addicted to crystal meth. “What was important to me was revealing how easily these people’s lives had been destroyed by party drugs,” Phelps says.
Before his days as a writer and editor, Phelps was just a closeted kid in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. He came to Massachusetts in 1983 to attend Boston University, where he studied creative writing and journalism. He was not openly gay in college, but he befriended the “coolest woman that I’ve ever known,” he says — the president of B.U.’s gay student organization. “In retrospect, she totally knew that I was gay. She was just giving me my space and time.”
After graduating, Phelps worked for Harvard’s central news office. That’s when he received his AIDS diagnosis. “I always thought that I was careful,” Phelps says, “but apparently something happened. I have my suspicions of when and what, but, really, I have no idea.” Despite worsening health, he stayed at the job. “We would be laying out the newspaper with an X-Acto knife, and I was terrified that people would be worried if I accidentally cut myself,” he says.
His fears were unwarranted, and the office turned out to be an extremely supportive space to be out. But after losing weight, muscle tone, and sight in his right eye, he finally left and went on disability. “I was in this position in my life where I could live wherever I wanted,” Phelps says. “And, slowly, I was becoming well again. So, I moved to Provincetown.”
At Boston Spirit today, the biggest complaint Phelps receives from readers concerns the magazine’s use of the word “queer.” For older generations, it remains a dehumanizing slur, but younger people feel it’s appropriate for a community that pushes boundaries. For Phelps, what matters is bringing all of these readers together. Above all, he hopes that “people can find out what’s going on from the Spirit and learn about each other, from each other.”
Since the Spirit has long operated remotely, the pandemic hasn’t much altered the workplace. And though it’s true that much of queer life is about crowds coming so close together you’re not quite sure which heartbeat is yours, Phelps keeps his focus on more consequential matters.
“One of the first things I thought about when the pandemic hit was LGBTQ youth support services,” he says. “How are they going to reach out to these kids who are coming and need support for any number of reasons?” For Phelps, being LGBTQ is as much about responsibility as the pleasures that the community shares.