“If Provincetown were wiped out — my house and my town gone — I would be as vulnerable as a hermit crab without its shell,” writes Mary Heaton Vorse in Time and the Town. “Wherever I go, I carry Provincetown around with me invisibly. And as I am, so are most of those who live here.”
When Stephen Orr read these words at the first of the Independent’s Time and the Town readings at the Vorse House last month, a hush fell over the otherwise creaky room. The words clearly resonated for many there, but for me, they resonated in a very particular way.
Over the last two years, working at the Independent after the pandemic unexpectedly swept me home, I’ve come to realize that I, too, carry Provincetown around with me invisibly.
My parents moved to Truro from New York City when I was not quite two. When I returned home from preschool one day saying something was “as black as a mussel shell,” my parents were reassured I would fit in just fine.
As a child, I found the winters cold, lonely, and boring. I longed for the summers when, just next door, Provincetown would come alive. Colorful, vibrant, teeming with people. I took art classes at PAAM, got candy from the Penney Patch, shyly said “hello” to George Bryant in front of Angel Foods.
Provincetown is a contradictory place. One of opposites. Extremes. The peaceful and the noisy. The eccentric and the traditional. Though only two streets wide, it feels like a tiny city.
Growing up so close to Provincetown, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know what it meant to be gay. It was so normal, so unremarkable. Even so, I didn’t come out — as bisexual, now I prefer “queer” — until well into college. In high school, I didn’t yet know there were a lot of different ways to be queer — that the fabric of identity was vivid, diverse, and dynamic.
So, when I returned to this town in my 20s, it was with a different perspective. I’d gotten to live in some distant places, which I now realize reminded me a bit of Provincetown: Venice, with its canals and carnival; watery Leith, on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
But being in Provincetown gave me the space to be more proudly out and visibly queer, and the pandemic gave me time to look inward. Roughly a year into working at the Independent, I came out, again, as trans and nonbinary.
When I became the Independent’s arts editor, I decided to be more open about issues close to my chest. My first editorial, “Self-Editing,” was about my pronouns, which were at that time she/they and are now they/them. I wrote about reconciling my desire for consistency with my fundamentally fluid identity.
But most meaningful was interviewing other nonbinary people for the paper. I spoke to musician Mal Blum about, quite literally, finding your true voice. Melissa Ferrick told me how they were grappling with many of the same issues as I was, but at age 50.
When I wrote about attending Fan Fair, the world’s longest-running transgender conference, I witnessed (mostly older) trans people living safely as their authentic selves for the first time. It was beautiful.
I was struck by what director Dee LaValle said: “The town is like training wheels for your life. When I first came here, I remember thinking, ‘Now I know what it felt like when the Pilgrims first saw land.’ ”
I never had that moment because I was raised here. And I realize how lucky and privileged that makes me. The rest of the world can be frightening, unwelcoming, and dangerous.
I know because I read the news. Every day I learn about new anti-trans bills in the South, read studies about suicide risk among queer youth, and hear about violence against trans people, especially trans women of color.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t apprehensive. But wherever I go next, I’ll bring Provincetown with me, like a hermit crab with its shell upon its back. It feels like armor.
Arts Editor Saskia Maxwell Keller is leaving the Independent after the May 5 issue to pursue an artistic project in New York City.