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Fear and loathing in Ptown and Hollywood
When did it become fashionable for liberals to bash gays?

TWO OF THE hottest media scandals this summer center around the charge that the love that once dare 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 contention that the formerly small fishing village and arts colony known as Provincetown is being completely destroyed not only by wealthy gay men 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-beflagged queer paradise, making Ptown hell for heterosexuals created a whirlwind controversy. 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 exclusionism. 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. Anita Bryant used it in 1979 to repeal a Miami anti-gay discrimination law, and today Jerry Falwell declaims that the "wealthy and affluent" gay community not only doesn’t face any discrimination, but has the influence to get shows like Will and Grace on the air. Up until now the right-wing myth of enormous and dangerous gay power has been generally dismissed by the mainstream media. 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 with Burroughs. Above all, exposing the queer-run conspiracy "is one of the driving factors in his decision to talk about what happened," claims the interviewer, "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. Beyond that, two intertwined strains of argument — each supporting the other — run through Ovitz’s indictment. 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; 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." (Do all heterosexual power players in Hollywood sacrifice social/business meetings for the sake of their kids’ weekend sports games?) Ovitz’s hysteria is palpable, but he isn’t kidding, or being hyperbolic, when he relates his fears and manias.

In addition to its being completely wrong-headed, 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 belief, for instance, that the Jews ran German banks in the 1930s or that Jewish studio bosses used Hollywood to promote a "Jewish agenda.")

The same is true of Manso’s Ptown. Like Ovitz, Manso poses as an angry messenger-angel bearing bad tidings: 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 vivid, flash/slash journalistic prose, Manso hops around like a journalist who has a clear agenda and can’t wait to get to it. He drags us through Provincetown history, culture, personalities, and infighting like a slightly crazed man 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 throughout the book Manso weaves the utterly ahistorical theme of homosexuality’s corrupting influence. Even when relating local social history in a perfectly reasonable and enjoyable tone, Manso can’t resist dishing up divine decadence in purple prose that even Sally Bowles would have relished. Descriptions of men having sex on the infamous "Dick Dock," the erotic paintings on the wall of the Crown and Anchor’s back room, the garish drag queens and leather people on Commercial Street are scattered throughout the book like sex scenes in a middle-brow bestseller.

While the most insidious attacks on gay people come toward the end of Manso’s book, he doesn’t waste any time spinning his theme: the invasion of wealthy gay men and lesbians who have literally taken over to promote their own rich-and-famous lifestyles and to make the town a "gays only" haven. In chapter one, titled "A House Party," Manso dwells on gay wealth in the same unseemly, 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 $40,0000 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?" Passages like these call to mind Veit Harlan’s infamous 1940 film Jud Suss in which scheming Jews are pictured after a title-card that reads "Jews aren’t more clever ... just more cunning."

For making his viciously anti-Semitic propaganda film, Harlan was tried for war crimes. It would be idiotic and overwrought to suggest that Manso’s book might encourage queer pogroms, but the parallel rhetoric is striking. Manso’s stealth homosexuals take over the sleepy fishing village house by house, restaurant by restaurant, store by store, party by party. "All they want to do is throw lavish dinner parties" a friend of Manso’s notes "and there are a lot of caterers in town nowadays, as well as four interior decorating shops."

This conflation of apparent affluence — signified here by the tell-tale signs of commercial and domestic queerness — resembles traditional attacks on upwardly mobile Jews. Just as Jews have been accused of being vulgar, social-climbing parvenus who mistake wealth for culture 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.

Read more Michael Bronski here.

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Issue Date: July 25 - August 1, 2002
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