FOREVER PEACE IN PROVINCETOWN

Caring community for lesbians and gay men

lepa mladjenovic

When I was chosen for a two month fellowship offered by the Sea Change Residencies in Provincetown, I did not even know how to pronounce the town’s name, much less where I would end up.  I arrived in September 2012 to write about my experiences and those of other feminist lesbians during wartime in the states of the former Yugoslavia.  I live in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and for many years I have been an activist for the rights of lesbians and a feminist counselor for women who survive male violence.  As an activist, I usually have fragmented time and can only write short articles or reports, because there is always something else to do.  That’s why I felt it was a feast for me to have the opportunity to come to Provincetown and devote my entire time to writing for the first time in my life.

I was born in the state named Yugoslavia that had 22 million citizens.  The war in the Nineties  divided this one country into seven states: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia.  I was raised in a family where both parents were idealists.  As young Communists, they believed in Marx’s philosophy of workers’ rights and a classless society, in a self-managed state with limited private property.  As a young girl, I had a good childhood in the socialist country, and, like many others, I thought there would never be wars in Europe any more.

Just before the war my lesbian partner left me and I was desolate for a long time. During that period, a friend of ours brought old cassettes of Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, Lavender Jane and we listened to them in my kitchen.  There was a dozen of us lesbians, the only ones we knew of, and we would gather in my flat and call ourselves The Free Lesbian Republic, as we did not yet have a lesbian organization. But we had a feminist group, so in those days we planned feminist activities, talked, danced, and dreamed of a lesbian island with lesbian music that we played over and over again.  For that reason, all the poetry lines cited here are from Cris Williamson.

 

In 1991, the war began.  It was powered by the Serbian regime in Belgrade where I lived.  All the neighboring states of former Yugoslavia experienced armed aggression.  My life changed completely.  Some of us feminists founded the Autonomous Women’s Center Against Sexual Violence for direct support services to women war survivors of rape in war, exile, and sexual violence and  I worked there as a feminist counselor full time.  We also started a feminist, anti-war, anti-fascist group Women in Black Against War and came out every Wednesday to stand on the streets protesting against the Serbian regime that had started the war.   We dressed in black and stood in silence, as there were already too many victims and too many words.  The wars on the territory of the former Yugoslavia lasted from 1991 to 1999.  By the end of the war, about 120,000 citizens had been killed.  I feel a need to repeat this number once again, to stop the sentence I am writing and say it again………  120,000 people.  It would have been the population size of forty Provincetowns.

Throughout the wartime, I kept trying to make my activist life be in synchrony with my lesbian identity but most of the time I did not succeed. I was often filled with shame and guilt, as well as uneasiness and ignorance over how to handle the war together with my lesbian desire.  How to bring  together pleasure and love in the middle of horrendous war news. Nationalism was reducing our identities to ‘ours’ and ‘enemies’ and nothing else. Nevertheless, feminist activism and care-full women’s solidarity in daily little acts healed me. Lean on me, I am your sister / I am your friend

Here I am by the blue ocean, surrounded by sunny sandy beaches and living among lesbians and gay men who chose to move to Provincetown, Massachusetts, the first state in the USA that legalized same sex marriage in 2004.  Before I arrived here, I thought I would be in a small, sunny place and just write, as I did not know anything about the town with this name. But when I realized where I have found myself, in a paradise for lesbians and gay men, I moved my work to a café in order to feel the people.  I dived into books on Provincetown in order to understand the history of the region of New England and to get some idea – why is this place so special for me as a feminist lesbian from the Balkans?  I learned that for centuries before me, many nature-loving artists and writers were fascinated by this place for its unique geography, nature and quality of sunlight.  I learned about painters and fishermen, about the first Portuguese women’s associations, the first theaters, gay night-clubs, whales and much more. But I was most surprised by how many lesbians and gay men in the past fifty years had moved to permanently live here. Throughout these two months, I have asked some of them why they chose this town to live in.  Their answers reveal incredible hope-inspiring visions and I will now write about it.

First of all, most of them said they feel safe here.  Safe in their lesbian and gay bodies to move in public and to be accepted as they are.  Safety in this town means there are practically no hate crimes (although there was one three years ago), and a very low incidence of public crimes according to the daily police record that can be found on the internet. Trust is a value shared among neighbors, that manifests in the wide open yards, or the fact that many people do not lock their home. Trust is the little market in the main street: a small table on which the flowers and vegetables are freely displayed and we are asked to leave money for our purchases in a yellow box.  How many times have I gotten tomatoes and cucumbers in this way, felt so special and took photos of my favorite trust-infusing green market.  Trust is also the fellowship I got from Gaea Foundation which allowed me to live and write for two months in a charming and beautifull house all on my own.  No one was asking me what am I doing while I am here.  Unconditional trust was given to me in a midst of a caring community.  How incredible this is. Like a light in the darkness / I’ll hold you awhile

An African woman who moved to town 15 years ago, a gay guy who came in 20 years ago seeking refuge with his HIV-related health issue, an artist in an electric wheelchair on a sunny day near the harbor …  they all told me “I feel safe here”.

 

In the concert hall I see two women who are obviously friends, embracing.  All their bodies are embracing with tenderness, warmly, with hands on each other shoulders and backs softly patting each other. I feel years of lesbian sisterhood in their soft touch that warms me to a sweet tremble while I watch them freely.  

 

A man walks the main street in such a way that I would say he’s a gay man living in Provincetown, he is whistling and wearing a t-shirt that reads: ‘Be the person your dog wants you to be’.

 

My white-haired gentle neighbor tells me how she overheard in a shop a woman who said that something was ‘Disgusting!’.  The neighbor said she had not heard this word in such a bad tone in this town for a long time, so she turned to see and realized that the woman was a visitor and  was commenting on what my neighbor saw as ‘the cutest gay couple’, ‘Oh no, you don’t say this about a gay couple in this town. You must be in the wrong place ma’am.’

 

Five gay men are sitting and standing in front of a café for local people.  Talking loud, laughing loud. At one moment the discussion continues and in a silence of Provincetown I overhear behind me one of them saying:  “I have forgiven everybody in town”.   

Many people also said they feel freedom for different life choices as lesbians and gay men, straight people and others.  In this town, everyone has a chance to feel at ease while surrounded by all different kinds of bodies.  We call this a politics of diversity.  It is not so easy to live this politics as it sounds, as we all are imprinted with some restrictions.  But precisely here one can exercise freedom, as the revolutionary socialist, Rosa Luxembourg, explained it a hundred years ago: “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.”  So, if you do not like cross dressers or baby dykes, drag queens or gay leather, drag kings or bears,  large lesbians, gay Alcoholics Anonymous, straight people or same sex brides passing through town in the cabriolet sport cars… this is a place to come in and exercise diversity in a safe place.  They are all here together and no one is threatened.  Therefore, it is here that we have a chance to open our opinions and our often fragmented bodies and start accepting different existential choices that do not violate the Other.  It is a rare place where you will find them all nestled in one long joyous street where they are almost domesticated, and they are so different that you can hardly put them in one sentence.

The third reason people gave me for moving here was because this is a caring community. Many lesbians in Provincetown told me they have very good friends here:  We take care for each other, they told me…  Caring for neighbors, different people in need, caring for animals, for the ocean,  the sand dunes and nature.  I felt all of those things in the past two months here, just walking down the streets.  You would not believe how many times passers-by told me with broad smiles Hi, enjoy your day.  I realized that caring is also a value organized in town through volunteer support, through e-mail lists or different joyful events to raise money for the disabled, the homeless, for women surviving violence, breast cancer, health issues, those affected by HIV/AIDS, abandoned animals and many more.  There are theoretical books written about what should  a caring society look like, about trust and responsibility of citizens and institutions, about feminist ethics of care and similar topics that I research back home and like to talk about. And now I find I have arrived in one of those communities itself!

When you open up your life to the living / All things come spilling in on you
Here I also learned that New England has a unique history of developing democratic forms of local governance.  I was impressed to hear that Provincetown, with a population of 3,000, is governed on the principle of self-management with open town meetings, which sometimes last late after midnight, and where all citizens can express their opinion and vote on municipal matters.  Those responsible for the coordination and implementation of decisions are five ‘selectmen’ rotating every three years. This is a very unique example where democratic principles are put to practice on a daily basis.

And this is all just to say, that, coming from the ex war zone I am looking for arguments to prove to myself that the structures and values that citizens of Provincetown share and live by give me a belief that war could not start from here.  I had a similar opinion twenty years ago for my town as well, but I learned that I was wrong. And until today the nationalist parties in power in Serbia produce the language of hatred against ‘the enemy’ on a daily basis – which gives me no guarantee that the war is over.

I can’t write enough e-mails to my lesbian and gay friends back home sending them photos of ordinary lesbians and gay men holding hands and walking together on main street in complete leisure.  Many middle-age and senior lesbian and gay men couples live here that we could never ever see in public as a couple back home.  Only theoretically do I know that they might exist in my town.  But, they can be seen at ease in only a few places in the world.  Provincetown is one of them.  I have a feeling that they have made a decision to finally rest from the years of fighting homophobic society, and give themselves daily joy in this wonderful  place where they will be considered normal. How wonderful is that.

And just to remind us that Provincetown was recognized not only as one of the first gay tourist destinations but also one of the top ten dog-friendly places in the USA. My favorite logo is: We spoil cats and dogs here!  I also learned that throughout the year there are many annual events like Women’s Week with hundreds of lesbians in plays, comedies and concerts, sporting events, then Women of Color Weekend, Family Pride Weekend, theater and jazz weeks… and the famous dancing-among-rainbow-flags Carnival Parade in the middle of the most crowded summer month of August.  There is a magical blue boat in the blue lagoon…

The rain started all of a sudden one day while I as walking with a friend, and I was already prepared with my newly-purchased rainbow umbrella.  I opened it for the first time, excited and proud, and guess what? In the course of the next five minutes, I met six more people carrying rainbow umbrellas on the main street!  Ah, this is happiness, I thought.  And this is only one of many similar events that have brought tears of joy to me every day I’ve been here.  Sometimes I walk down the street and think I am the representative of lesbians across other continents – where this simple ordinary life is only a dream.  I sent a photo of the Provincetown Carnival with many rainbow flags waving in the sun above merry people to a gay friend in Belgrade and he responded:  This photo looks to me like one from a Hollywood movie, and even then I would say: They exaggerated a bit.

Political warfare against lesbians, gay men and queers was a constant line of our activist lives in Serbia, and for many it still is.  Just last week in my region, two gay activists were beaten badly on the streets, one in Skopje, Macedonia, the other in Belgrade.  Just two years ago, the most recent Pride Parade in Belgrade was held with 4,000 policemen to protect 600 of us from 4,000 ultra-nationalists young men who came to intimidate us and beat us up.  In the next two years Pride Parades in Serbia were banned by the state Security Council.  I therefore feel a responsibility to not stop talking and inform lesbian, gay and queer communities, who are still controlled by governments of fundamentalists around the world, that another way is possible. This fact is as huge as life itself, and the whole world should know about this.  I am now here in that very place of delight surrounded by good and generous people and I feel love for my lesbian self every minute — healing my body and my soul for all my past years of living in homophobic anxiety. Thanks to the many many unnamed and named women and men who fought governments and institutions in their loving voices over the past one hundred years in the USA and worldwide to open political and social spaces of dignity for a life of love.  Thank  you, thank you, my sisters and brothers, persons and individuals, for each and every one of your courageous acts, kisses in front of the city hall, voicing our cherished lesbian and gay lust in music, poetry, literature, theater, days and nights spent working on organizing and lobbying, screaming out in the street marching… all your efforts have amounted to this grand success for us all.  Women are singing tonight

Provincetown,

29 October 2012

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