The Uninhibited Joy of Queer Vacation Destinations

Festive dressed people walk downtown during the Pride Festival in Provincetown, Mass. on June 3, 2023. Credit - Joseph Prezioso—AFP/Getty Images

In an increasingly stressful world, summer vacations don’t only provide a blissful break from Zoom meetings, status reports, and all the other soul-smothering demands of the 9-to-5; they’re also downright restorative. In the next few months, Americans will journey to nature reserves and theme parks, beach resorts and camp sites, family gatherings and roommate reunions in search of much-needed rest and relaxation. For LGBTQIA+ people, though, a few days at an out-of-the-way location are especially important.

There’s no place on Earth where LGBTQ people are a “natural” majority. We’re distributed at random throughout the population, and while we might refer to certain ZIP codes as “gayborhoods,” that generally signifies that for a handful of blocks in an enormous city, recognizably queer people make up 20, 30, or maybe 40% of the community. We are everywhere, but we’re rarely there in large numbers. That’s why the joy of queer vacation destinations like Provincetown, Mass., Fire Island, N.Y., home to Cherry Grove and The Pines; Rehoboth Beach, Del.; Ogunquit, Maine; Palm Springs, Calif.; or other LGBTQ enclaves is so necessary: Because for however long we can afford to be there, we get to experience the pleasure of being part of the majority, for our cultures and aesthetics to be the default.

A quick primer for anyone who has never had the good fortune to visit such a place. Queer vacation destinations have a few things in common: a remote location that deters casual visitors and permits a degree of anonymity, relative proximity to cities with a strong queer community, gorgeous vistas around every corner, and performance spaces aplenty. Still, there’s no guarantee that a gay resort will spring from such geography. There’s no set route to enclave status, but once a critical mass of LGBTQ visitors is reached, the network effect applies. Arty lesbians go to Provincetown and party gays to Fire Island Pines for the same reason football fans go to sports bars and parents log on to Facebook: that’s where their people are.

I write about lesbians for a living, so I already know with absolute certainty how strong, vital, and creative queer women are. Still, I sometimes crave the reassurance and comfort of visible community. When I want to experience awe, I think back to the 1987 and 1993 national LGBTQ marches in Washington, DC, and how life-changing it felt to see hundreds of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people filling every inch of the National Mall—and packing subway trains, cafés, and supermarkets in the days before and after. Every Pride festival reminds us of the beauty, vitality, and diversity of our community, if only for one glorious day. But being in a gay resort allows me to access that power whenever I step off the ferry.

Of course, beach and mountain resorts have historically served other minority communities. To name but one example, the “Borscht Belt” retreats of the Catskills were popular destinations for Jewish New Yorkers in the middle of the 20th century. As much joy as those havens surely provided, they weren’t the only place where American Jews could publicly congregate, whereas deep into the 1970s, queer vacation destinations provided a unique freedom to LGBTQ people. Even in big cities like New York, bars and public gathering spots were regularly subject to police surveillance and raids.

Then as now, in the age of marriage equality and gay rights, the biggest draw of LGBTQ vacation destinations isn’t stunning beaches or attractive buildings, even if they possess such things; it’s the beautiful people who dance, eat, and shop there. The most relaxing thing about vacationing in a queer resort is the knowledge that legibly gay people will be welcomed, respected, and catered to there. We breathe easier knowing that there’ll be other lesbian couples in cafés and that it’s OK—heck, expected even!—to ask someone of the same sex to dance. In truth, it’s hard to say if queer people constitute a majority even in these resorts, but their stores, inns, entertainment venues, and outdoor gathering spaces are designed to prioritize our relationships, tastes, and cultures.

Although this isn’t true for every visitor, a few days by the sea aren’t my only chance to creep out of the closet. Still, I don’t want to take a step back from my comfortably queer life when I’m on vacation. I have no desire to tense up—to straighten up, as it were—during the precious weeks when relaxing is job one.

Are these places a perfect utopia? No. Lesbians are a minority in most, though comparative gains in women’s earning power have increased their presence in recent decades. (Tragically, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of gay and bisexual men during the AIDS crisis also contributed to this demographic rebalancing.) These resorts also tend to be overwhelmingly white, a legacy of their origins as havens for the affluent. As the 2022 movie Fire Island so artfully demonstrated, places like The Pines of Fire Island have long been less than welcoming to non-rich, non-white visitors.

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In recent years, Provincetown has made an explicit appeal to visitors of color using the same strategy that boosted women’s presence in the town. In 1984, inspired by Fantasia Fair, a transgender gathering first held nine years earlier, a group of women innkeepers dreamed up Women’s Weekend (now Women’s Week), in an effort to attract more lesbian visitors and to expand the summer season into October. Since that success, Ptown has enthusiastically embraced festivals targeting segments of the queer community, with events for single women, parents, bears (chunky chaps who proudly flaunt their body hair), and cabaret lovers. (If nothing else, the transitional periods between events make for some interesting sights at the Boston ferry terminal, as in July, when a pack of bearded men disembarks and a spray of women takes their place, as Bear Week fades into Girl Splash.) More recently, Provincetown has also hosted weekends for women and men of color, and as siloed as such events might seem, they allow visitors of color to experience the feeling of being in the majority that white gay men and lesbians have enjoyed in Provincetown for decades.

Gay resorts aren’t only for out and proud community members like me, of course. They’re especially powerful for young and newly out LGBTQ people. With so many powerful voices amplifying homophobic and transphobic rhetoric, and without family members to model queer life stages, it’s especially important that there be places other than bars and marches where people can see and perhaps even study gay life in all its glorious variety. Queer resorts make that possible.

Adapted from A Place of Our Own: Six Spaces That Shaped Queer Women’s Culture by June Thomas. Copyright © 2024. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc

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