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The Attack of the Wealthy Queers
Two of the hottest media scandals this summer center around the charge that the love that once dared not speak its name is now taking over the world well, at least Provincetown and Hollywood. Bryan Burroughss interview with former Tinseltown mogul and millionaire Michael Ovitz in the August issue of Vanity Fair made immediate headlines when its subject declared that he had lost enormous power and position in the industry because of the gay mafiaa cabal of gay men, led by Barry Diller and David Geffen, who control Hollywood. Just as this uproar was dying down, Peter Mansos book Ptown: Art, Sex, and Money on the Outer Cape (Scribner) hit the bookstores. Mansos controversial contention is that Provincetown is being destroyed not only by wealthy gays and lesbians who have installed themselves as the gatekeepers of the towns real-estate and tourism industry, but also by hordes of gay and lesbian tourists who have taken over the streets in leather and drag and created a rainbow-flagged queer paradise, making Ptown hell for heterosexuals. As one of Mansos interviewees, a long-time Ptown resident, says, I wont patronize businesses that fly rainbow flags. I consider that analogous to flying a Confederate flag, to flying a Nazi flag. Im sorry, thats exclusion- ism. That flag is saying to me, Im not welcome there.
The idea that gay men and lesbians have tremendously disproportionate social, economic, cultural, and political power has been a staple of right-wing propaganda for more than three decades. Until now the mainstream media has generally dismissed the right- wing myth of enormous and dangerous gay power. But these offensive star turns by Manso, an East Coast liberal writer known for his biographies of Norman Mailer and Marlon Brando, and Ovitz, a Hollywood wunderkind noted for his progressive sentiments as well as for his spectacular rise and fall as a Hollywood star-maker, show that some liberals now feel free to dish out what was once considered right-wing lies. The old political rallying cry of gay power has taken on a whole new meaningand it aint good for gay people.
The basic elements of the gay people have too much power charge are laid out in Ovitzs Vanity Fair interview. Above all, exposing the queer-run conspiracy is one of the driving factors in his decision to talk about what happened, claims interviewer Burroughs, a burning need to name names, to throw light on the shadowy Hollywood cabal he believes did him in. This is what Ovitz calls the gay mafia, even though several of its members arent gay, observes Burroughs. Not only did Barry Diller, David Geffen, and others turn everyone in Hollywood against Ovitz by lying about him, applying pressure, and generally plotting against him, but they also hated his role as a dedicated family man: This all started at CAA [Creative Artists Associates], says Ovitz. I didnt want to go to Geffens house for lunch every Sunday. I wouldnt. I wouldnt sacrifice my kids Little League games. I just wouldnt do it. Ultimately, according to Ovitz, the gay mafia was after his very family: It was a goal of these people to eliminate me. They wanted to kill Michael Ovitz. If they could have taken my wife and kids they would have.
In addition to its being completely wrong, one of the creepiest parts of the Ovitz interview is that it parallels, in paranoia and rhetoric, traditional anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish power and influence in Hollywood and elsewhere.
The same is true of Mansos book Ptown. Like Ovitz, Manso poses as an angry messenger bearing bad tidingsthat is, while Provincetown has long been a bastion of decency, diversity, and social democracy, over the past three decades it has become, well, too gay. Adept at flash/slash journalism, Manso drags us through Provincetown history, culture, personalities, and infighting like a slightly crazed person itching to show us the light. Much of what he relates is rather interesting given the towns bohemian history, which encouraged everything from the work of Robert Motherwell to the business of drug smuggling.
But Manso weaves an ahis- torical theme of homosexualitys corrupting influence. Even when relating local social history, Manso cant resist dishing up divine decadence with descriptions of men having sex on the infamous Dick Dock, the erotic paintings on the wall of the Crown and Anchors back room, and the garish drag queens and leather people on Commercial Street scattered throughout the book like sex scenes in a middle-brow bestseller.
Mansos homosexuals are, by and large, ignorant of good breeding and taste. One couple plowed upward of 2 million into a one- thousand-square-foot fish shack, he reports, and when they were through, only the original roof boards remained. Yet another couplethey of the Lalique sink had never given art a thought and let their decorators use their knowledge, or perhaps more appropriately, their color sense to choose art; they are insulted when a knowledgeable local artist calls their Goya etching schlock. Their crime, along with being gay and wealthy, is being vulgar.
Just as Ovitz blames gay men in Hollywood for all of the evil that has befallen him, Manso condemns the changes in Ptown as the handiwork of a uniform phalanx of gays. This presents something of a logistical problem because (as Manso notes) Province- town has a long history of knitting gays and lesbians into its culture from the 1920s onward. What arts colony and bohemian enclave hasnt? He acknowledges that some gay residents are not at fault. However, he describes them as gay but totally uncomplicated about it, like so many other longtime Ptown year-rounders. He is unmerciful about the other, apparently complicated, homosexuals.
Even after distinguishing between good and bad homosexuals, Manso characterizes all gay men and lesbians as a monolithic group. Terms such as they and these people, cast as walking clichés, are peppered throughout the book to remind readers of the common enemy. They have a tremendous amount of talent [for fixing up and reselling homes] notes one of Mansos local informants. I mean they can take a shithole and make it beautiful. Its like they just say, well go in and sprinkle some fairy dust and make it look fantastic.
According to Manso, gay home ownership has translated into institutional power: gays and lesbians have taken over building, zoning, and permit committees. The gays, another person tells Manso, are by now the richest, most powerful people in Provincetown, he says, adding, A lot of these people love being on these committees. Along with this love of power comes arrogance, bullying, and intimidation. Who the fuck do you think you are, screams a drunken lesbian at two straight men in a local bar, this is my town. So there it is, what Manso calls the gay trump card.
There is no question that Provincetown has changed dramatically over the past 20 or 30 yearsas has Marthas Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Hamptons. It is also true that once-depressed neighborhoods in many cities have been gentrified, including Bostons South End and parts of Cambridge. High-rolling changes in the U.S. economy over the past two decades created new wealth. But what Manso doesnt acknowledge is that the resulting cultural shifts are due to changing patterns in wealth and spending, not homosexuality. Does anyone go on about how WASPs from Connecticut have ruined the Hamptons?
In Mansos world it doesnt matter how many wealthy gay people have moved into Provincetown, how many straight wealthy people, how many drag queens or men and women in leather are on the streets, or how many families with children come to town. Mansos proof of the gay takeover of Provincetown is almost entirely anecdotal. There is no hard data and no demographic analysis. For in the end, the hard work of research might have punctured his self-enclosed, simple-minded explanation of why Provincetown has changed: it attracts affluent, obnoxious gays because there are too many gays.
So why are these liberals attacking the gay mafia and the gay power elite at this moment in time? One reason is that the gay movement has been successful. Gay people are more accepted now, more integrated into society, less likely to be viewed as pariahs and social outcasts. But with this acceptance comes a confusion of endlessly changing social, political, and cultural boundaries. Much of the new gay and lesbian visibility that has come from this acceptance is enjoyed and encouraged by heterosexual culture. How else can you explain the overwhelming popularity of drag in films like La Cage aux Folles, Tootsie, and To Wong Fu, Love Julie Newmar, or the prevalence of gay-inspired leather and S/M fantasies in Madonnas music videos and even on mainstream sit-coms? But the minute less-than- firmly-established boundaries are crossed cultural panic sets in.
When gay people become too visible and too comfortable walking down the street, as has been the case in Provincetown, latent anxiety about queerness kicks in. Suddenly, as Manso so vividly captures in page after page of his book, there are more of them than us and all the traditional worries about sexual difference and corruption begin roiling up.
Lesbians and gays have made some changes in Provincetown, not because they were homosexual, but because they had money. The lie at the center of Mansos book is that gay people have taken over Ptown, they want to get rid of straight people, they use rainbow flags to intimidate and exclude heterosexuals, and they have all the power.
Social acceptance or tolerance of gay people has taken place and it has been a slow and often painful process for both homosexuals and heterosexuals. The attacks on gay money and power in Ovitss Vanity Fair interview and Mansos Ptown: Art, Sex, and Money on the Outer Cape are one more indication that this new level of social acceptance is a thin veneer that can be easily scratched to reveal the fear, often expressed with loathing and disdain, that still lies underneath. Z
Michael Bronski is a journalist, cultural critic, and political commentator whose writings have appeared in The Boston Globe, Utne Reader, The Los Angeles Times, The Advocate, and Z Magazine. He is the author of Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility (South End Press; 1984) and The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash and the Struggle for Gay Freedom (St. Martin's; 1998). He has edited Flashpoint: Gay Male Sexual Writing and Taking Liberties: Gay Men's Essays on Politics, Culture and Sex.