A Home at the End of the World: Provincetown and the AIDS Crisis

When everyone else turned them away, gay men dying from AIDS found solace and compassion in the tiny town at the tip of Cape Cod.

In 1982, a man dying from AIDS-related complications loaded his life into his car and drove from Colorado to Massachusetts. This was one year after The New York Times had reported a “rare cancer seen among 41 homosexuals.” The man knew he wouldn’t be able to get the kind of care he needed in his home state so he sought treatment at Boston’s Mass General Hospital. From there, he drove onto Provincetown—the remote, idyllic hamlet at the very tip of Cape Cod that had long been a refuge for queer men and women—that December to die. Preston Babbitt, owner of Ptown’s Rose and Crown guest house, heard about the man’s arrival in town and found him a place to stay, bought him a bag of groceries, and because it was Christmastime, a tree. The man died the following spring.

Like many gay men ravaged by AIDS, he came to Provincetown seeking care and compassion in a world that denied him even a modicum of dignity in life or death.

“I have been treated with nothing but respect and concern,” Philippe D’Auteuil, a former president of Ptown’s gay business guild, said in a 1990 Philadelphia Inquirer article about the town’s “embrace” of people living with AIDS. “None of the negative things—not pity or feeling sorry for me. Positive reinforcement is all I have received from this community. I know it would be different somewhere else.”

Joe Runci/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Provincetown, June 1978

Provincetown’s location as one of the easternmost points in America, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, made it the perfect first stop for the Pilgrims on their arrival to the New World, having escaped religious persecution in England. They signed the Mayflower Compact while docked in Provincetown Harbor on November 11, 1620. So for 400 years, Ptown has been a place for those seeking a home where they were safe from persecution.

Babbitt, along with town nurse Alice Foley, and with the help of a number of other Provincetown residents, formed the Provincetown AIDS Support Group in 1983, now known as the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod. Throughout the decade, Foley and Babbitt operated mainly out of the latter’s Ford Escort—delivering meals to people living with AIDS as well as providing them rides to medical facilities on and off the Cape, or often just sitting with them. All the while, they were educating themselves and the local community about the disease.

Ernest Martin
Alfred Famiglietti, survivor, as interviewed by filmmaker Ernest Martin:

“I, unfortunately, was diagnosed with HIV AIDS my senior year of medical school. At the clinic I confessed I was gay. And they suggested I enter this study in Boston at Mass General. It was the first of its kind in Boston. Every month, there were 400 in the original cohort; we had to give semen samples, feces, and blood, because they didn’t know how it was spreading. Out of 400 men there are only two of us still alive today. I’m one of the early people, luckily, I never became ill. I was waiting for my shoe to drop like everyone else was.”

With donations from the community and grants from local government, the Support Group put their resources to whatever use they saw fit. Once, they even flew one man to Washington, D.C. and then out to California to say goodbye to friends and family; when he grew very ill, they flew his parents to Ptown.

“We’re a very caring group,” Foley said of the Provincetown AIDS Support Group in 1989. “We’ve developed plans to take care of a PWA’s [Person with AIDS] dog or plants or cat, whatever it in the patient’s life, so they’re in a position to focus on their health.”

Foley was originally from Cambridge, Mass., where she worked for years at the city hospital before getting “burnt out” on nursing. She came to Ptown in 1971 to tend bar and drive a cab, but she soon found use for her medical expertise in the town’s former drop-in center. In the early days of the epidemic, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would visit Foley in Ptown to try and identify this mysterious “gay cancer”—the CDC didn’t start referring to it as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome until August 1982.

Babbitt died as a result of AIDS in 1990 and Foley continued her work with the Provincetown AIDS Support Group, becoming the town’s director of public health. Foley was among the lesbian caretakers Ernest Martin, a filmmaker and photographer, heard about during a town storytelling event in the summer of 2017. Martin, 32, enraptured with Ptown, had been going there for almost a decade—living both in the vibrant on and the tranquil off season. However, he had never heard about this chapter in Provincetown’s history. Intrigued, he started to dig and the more people he talked to, the more he realized that everyone had a story or knew someone who did.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite
Ernest Martin

“People were coming here from around the country, from other countries, to die,” Martin says. He decided to film the interviews he was doing and is in the process of creating a documentary about Provincetown’s response to the AIDS crisis. Through that process, Martin learned that it wasn’t just a cadre of benevolent lesbians that helped the sick and dying during those trying times, but rather, the entire town. The local episcopal church held healing services; the Roman Catholic church (of all bodies) sponsored an AIDS awareness conference; Catholic churchgoers visited the homes of AIDS patients to pray with them.

Queer Russian author Masha Gessen recalled Ptown’s appeal in a 2018 article for The New Yorker commemorating the town’s new AIDS memorial:

Provincetown…had no treatment to offer, of course. But it had low rents in the off-season, many queer landlords who weren’t afraid to rent to the sick, an AIDS support group, a gay magazine full of treatment information (I was the editor), and a lesbian town nurse named Alice Foley…she would drive sick men two and a half hours to one of the Boston hospitals when necessary.

Foley died in 2009 at age 76 of apparent heart failure. Though she had been honored and recognized for her pioneering efforts in tending to those sick and dying from AIDS, she and the support group she had helped found split ties in 1995 when she was asked to resign. Foley, while famous for her compassion, was also, according to those who knew her, “abrasive, very opinionated and liked things done a certain way.” Still, on the occasion of her death, what stuck with people was Foley’s dedication to the cause.

“With this disease, we needed someone strong, and we couldn’t have asked for a better person than Alice Foley,” Bill Furdon, the support group’s senior case manager, told the Cape Cod Times. “She was an inspiration, she was one of my heroes.”

Lester Fabian Brathwaite
The Provincetown AIDS Memorial

The example of Foley and others no doubt rubbed off on the rest of Provincetown eventually—not that there wasn’t some resistance.

“You know this place is not 100 percent gay or LGBTQ—there are statistics that say that it was 50 percent gay at the time, but I know it’s hard to measure that kind of thing,” says Martin. “But the town has this recent history of being a Portuguese fishing village where families lived and still live. There is kind of like a live and let live mentality here.”

Martin continues, “But I don’t think it’s that the straight community here in the ’80s was just so accepting of gay people. I do think that it was the Portuguese community being really accepting of Tom because Tom’s your neighbor and Tom’s your buddy and Tom is sick and you love Tom and you don’t want to see Tom suffering. So you’re going to help Tom.”

Ernest Martin
Lorraine Najar, AIDS Support Group volunteer:

“I would make it a mission to do whatever I could—bring them food, clean them, help them. It was our job, I felt. A lot of the women in town, it was our job. They felt the same way I did. There are a great number of women here still that went through our men dying,” Najar tells Martin. “They were dropping like five a day. It was hard here. We just would take them meals, take them for walks in their wheelchairs. I did a lot of that. I got them outdoors to get sun. You know they were so ill in their beds. I’d get them and put them in the sun and let them to look at the beautiful ocean where they are going to pass away. And they were happy. The last days of their lives.”

Many tourists opted to stay away the summer of 1983 for fear of contracting the mysterious disease that only that spring had finally made the front page of The Times. By then, 558 people had died. Provincetown only has a year-round population of about 3500 people but during the first 15 years of the epidemic, before the development of the life-saving cocktail in the mid-90s, 385 people—more than 10 percent of the town’s population—had died. At one point, Provincetown had the second-highest number of people living with AIDS per capita in the United States. It was virtually impossible to not know someone affected by the disease.

Whereas most epicenters of the AIDS outbreak were big cities like New York and San Francisco, Provincetown being such a small town with such a significant gay population, the community—regardless of orientation or background—rallied in support of one another.

“I think that the AIDS thing is a non-issue in Provincetown as far as tourism goes,” Hal Goodstein, then-president of the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce, said in 1990. “I think the kind of people who come to Provincetown like its diversity, are relatively sophisticated, and come because of the mix of lifestyles.”

Whatever initial apprehension the town may have had over its handling of the AIDS crisis, Provincetown remained a haven for gay men looking for a little compassion in their final days.

“Never, as far as I know, has a gay and lesbian community gone anywhere else as refugees and ended up so quickly stitched into the fabric of the community,” Len Stewart, then-director of the Provincetown AIDS Support Group, said in 1998. “Provincetown’s response is a combination of two things. The town was accustomed to taking care of its own, and additionally, the gay and lesbian community discovered somewhere on the planet where they were treated as first-class citizens.”

 

Trailer for Safe Harbor, a 2009 documentary on Provincetown’s response to the AIDS crisis, produced by the Provincetown Library

Provincetown soon became not only a wellspring of compassion but also activism. Founded in 1988, the Provincetown Positive People with AIDS Coalition had a goal to “investigate all current developments in AIDS” treatment and provide information to the local community, reflecting their “belief in and active commitment to the idea of self-empowerment for people with AIDS.”

The Coalition staged a die-in protest in August 1988 which successfully forced the Massachusetts Department of Health to approve a treatment to prevent pneumonia. Earlier that summer, the annual pride parade had rubbed some Ptown residents the wrong way—what was usually a somber, candlelit march through the town was replaced by “a loud demonstration that included a lesbian motorcycle club.” Apparently a sign held by one of the marchers that advocated legalizing anal and oral sex led at least one resident to label the parade a “March of Filth.”

“Gay people are merely tolerated, but certainly not accepted,” Paul de Renzis, a member of the recently organized Ptown chapter of the infamously provocative AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), told The New York Times in 1989. “Gay people live with that delusion and never want to shake things up.”

Catherine McGann/Getty Images
ACT UP protest at the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on October 11, 1988 in Rockville, Maryland

Formed in New York in 1987 out of frustration over the Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ perceived ineffectiveness and the Reagan administration’s persistent inaction—Ronnie never publicly mentioned the epidemic until 1985—ACT UP made a name for itself with high-profile demonstrations against the FDA, the CDC, and the Roman Catholic Church, among others. Provincetown residents, however, found ACT UP’s tactics out of place in the sleepy town.

“It’s a community that works. It works so well you don’t need to fix it,” Leslie McGrath, former administrator of the inclusive Unitarian-Universalist Meeting House, said of the presence of ACT UP. “We don’t need to act up as much, because our rights are given us.”

That may have been a rare, albeit naïve, opinion, borne out of Provincetown’s permissive atmosphere, but there was still some fire in the old town. That same summer of ’88, artist Jay Critchley and dancer Walter McLean decided to test their swimming ability by traversing Provincetown Harbor. Two weeks later they started the Swim for Life, an annual event “to raise funds and awareness of HIV/AIDS, women’s health, and community health.”

“It’s a swim that people do from the very very tip of Cape Cod at Long Point to the Boatslip, which is where they have Tea Dance, every fall,” Martin explains. “Originally they would have ribbons where people could write messages to people that they’ve lost from AIDS or to people that are in their lives now that they want to say something encouraging to or supportive to.”

“The first swim for life was in September 1988,” Critchley recently told Martin. “We put a little notice out in The Advocate. And we raised about $12,000.”

Critchley continued to find new and innovative ways to channel his frustration, launching Old Glory condoms as a form of activist art in 1990, coinciding with World AIDS Conference in San Francisco. Critchley marketed condoms and T-shirts with a logo bearing the American flag—the idea being that an act of patriotism was wearing a condom in order “to protect and save lives”—with part of the proceeds going to AIDS-related services.

Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images
Jay Critchley and his Old Glory condoms, 1993

The U.S. government, however, didn’t see American flag condoms as being very patriotic and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied Critchley’s attempt to trademark the Old Glory logo, ruling that it was “immoral and scandalous to associate the flag with sex.” After a three-year legal battle, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board sided with Critchley, praising his attempt to prevent the spread of AIDS.

“The real scandal is not my trademark, but the fact that the examining attorney was more scandalized by a trademark than by the AIDS crisis to which I sought to respond,” Critchley said in a statement regarding the ruling.

Ernest Martin
Jay Critchley, 2019:

“I had become a massage therapist. And I was going to people’s home who had AIDS. At that time people were quite sick and immobile,” Critchley tells Martin. “So I would go to their homes and I would massage them in their bed or in a chair. That was free service. That was a humbling experience and an honor. It provided some temporary relief. So that was a personal way that I was assisting. Besides behind the scenes fundraising and things like that.”

From running a support group out of the back of a Ford Escort to challenging the federal government—and winning—the people of Provincetown have always, it seems, risen beautifully to one of the most challenging episodes in modern human history. Theirs is an example of love, compassion, and bravery that we desperately need now more than ever.

“It’s an incredible reminder that we all are part of the same community,” Ernest Martin says, reflecting on some of the stories he has heard and the people he has met in producing his documentary. “There was a time when we all really needed each other. Right now, I don’t think the narrative is always what can we accomplish together and how can we better connect and understand each other and help each other. This story is just a really great example of people doing just that.

“Like, it wasn’t even a choice,” Martin adds. “It was just your neighbor who needed you and you were there for them.”

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is a roaming writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat