PROVINCETOWN — Tens of thousands of people descend on this queer haven at land’s end every summer to eat, drink, and be merry with chosen family. Adam Golub, the creative director and Provincetown leader of the LGBTQ history nonprofit called the Generations Project, wants to give visitors a chance to anchor their experience in the town’s rich past.
“We feel that part of people coming here is this opportunity to know what they’re really walking into — how special and deeply rooted the traditions of queer people are here,” he says.
The Generations Project, founded in New York City in 2015 by Executive Director Wes Enos, uses storytelling for both archival preservation and fostering intergenerational connections for queer people.
The organization is guided by the emotional and political power of history. Enos, who grew up on the Oregon coast, began learning about the AIDS epidemic when he moved to San Francisco for college. When he moved to New York City, he was struck by how little his queer contemporaries knew about their community’s recent past.
From the beginning, the organization held live storytelling gatherings that “create physical space to bring people of different generations in the queer community together,” Golub says. His first role was filming these events. He then started working with Enos on “storytelling coaching,” helping performers hone their narratives and themes, and eventually piloted the group’s first storytelling workshops and curricula, which are offered for free to all storytellers who participate in the live events.
The organization started laying the groundwork for oral histories in Provincetown in 2016. Its first live storytelling show in town took place the following year at the Crown & Anchor and was held annually until Covid hit.
One of the first things that drew Golub into the project here was a story that a local resident told about a friend who had died of AIDS. Among his belongings was a sizable Fiestaware collection. “He had this Fiestaware teapot, and he really wanted his ashes to be in this teapot,” Golub recalls. “And when his biological family came to collect his belongings, his friends and lover hid the teapot.
“I was touched by this story,” he says. “It exemplifies how important this town has been in the tradition of found, chosen family for queer people in the decades when being out and gay was not a possibility.”
The Fiestaware teapot story was also the seed of “Remnants,” a short documentary series that uses material objects as lenses into stories about “people who have lived and died in Provincetown,” Golub says. The team put the series together as half of its installation at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, which also features a series of recorded oral histories with longtime town residents. As they gather more stories, they’ll add them to the video loop.
From fishing boat captain Molly Benjamin to Provincetown legend Beata Cook, the project’s archive of diverse Provincetown histories continues to grow. The organization currently has between 20 and 25 individual stories recorded, Golub says.
The museum exhibit is one way to “platform the material,” as Golub says, but he and Enos dream of making it accessible in other ways — maybe a walking or biking tour, “like a treasure hunt of queer history around town,” he says. They’ve also begun supplementing their oral histories with archives already available in town, from the microfiche of the Provincetown Advocate’s issues dating back to 1869 to the robust print archives at the library and the private collections of local history buffs.
“A lot of what we’re doing is collaborating with people who have particular expertise and have done their own research,” Golub says. “We’re not super interested in making any historical claims, and we don’t position ourselves as historians per se. We’re more anthologizers. We believe that firsthand account and anecdote is the material from which something like the past can be felt and experienced in the present.”
Still, along with canonical accounts like Mary Heaton Vorse’s Time and the Town, the collective archival work that Golub is tapping paints a rich historical backdrop for storytellers to fold into. It proceeds from the rise and collapse of the whaling industry and Portuguese immigration through the growth of the art colony and early signs of the town’s “seething queer underbelly” amidst the “steaming, kind of edgy liminal space where progressive culture is produced,” Golub says.
“It’s a fascinating confluence of historical forces and incredible mythologies,” he says.
The Generations Project wants to continue collecting Provincetown tales and connecting them to these troves of town history — and develop a more robust internal archive system, Golub says. The pandemic threw a wrench in the live events that the project is still working to overcome, but it also may have inspired some new formats. In the Zoom era, the increased isolation of older adults makes “the work that we’re doing feel much more acute,” he says. Golub is thinking about intimate storytelling gatherings — perhaps in conversation with a Seashore Point resident at the Crown & Anchor piano bar. And after relying on private fundraising for many years, they’re starting to work on accessing grants.
As the organization grows and adapts, its doors are open. “We’re always looking for new stories and new materials related to the gay history of Provincetown,” Golub says.