The Attack of the Wealthy Queers


Michael Bronski 

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
Burroughs’s 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 mafia”—a cabal of gay men, led by Barry
Diller and David Geffen, who control Hollywood. Just as this uproar
was dying down, Peter Manso’s book Ptown: Art, Sex, and
Money on the Outer Cape
(Scribner) hit the bookstores. Manso’s
controversial contention is that Provincetown is being destroyed
not only by wealthy gays and lesbians who have installed themselves
as the gatekeepers of the town’s 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 Manso’s
interviewees, a long-time Ptown resident, says, “I won’t
patronize businesses that fly rainbow flags. I consider that analogous
to flying a Confederate flag, to flying a Nazi flag. I’m sorry,
that’s exclusion- ism. That flag is saying to me, I’m
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 meaning—and it ain’t good for gay people. 

The
basic elements of the “gay people have too much power”
charge are laid out in Ovitz’s 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’ aren’t 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 didn’t want
to go to Geffen’s house for lunch every Sunday. I wouldn’t.
I wouldn’t sacrifice my kids’ Little League games. I just
wouldn’t 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 Manso’s book Ptown.
Like Ovitz, Manso poses as an angry messenger bearing bad tidings—that
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 town’s 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 homosexuality’s corrupting
influence. Even when relating local social history, Manso can’t
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 Anchor’s 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. 

In
chapter one, “A House Party,” Manso dwells on gay wealth
in the same almost lurid way he dwells on gay sex in the streets.
Describing a party thrown by a gay couple in celebration of the
completion of their $2 million home, Manso notes that a “cavernous
closet/dressing room” is filled with “expensive sports
coats and neatly arranged trousers,” a $40,000 Lalique-crystal
sink spills water into the master bedroom’s hot tub, and the
“catering craze of the summer” is “rolled sushi,
flash-fried in delicate batter” that tastes “Fabulous!
Absolutely delicious.” It is an orgy of consumption and real
estate, abuzz with an insider conspiratorial tone: “Do you
know,” whispers one queen to another at an extravagant house
party, “that one of those realtors …told me that ninety-seven
percent of the homes that have been sold in the past year have been
bought by men. It can’t possibly be true, can it?” 

Manso’s
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 couple—they
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 hasn’t?
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 Manso’s local informants.
“I mean they can take a shithole and make it beautiful. It’s
like they just say, ‘we’ll 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 years—as has Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket,
and the Hamptons. It is also true that once-depressed neighborhoods
in many cities have been gentrified, including Boston’s 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 doesn’t
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
Manso’s world it doesn’t 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. Manso’s “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 Madonna’s 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 Manso’s 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 Ovits’s Vanity Fair
interview and Manso’s 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  T
he 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.