Students and a ‘Culture of Resistance’ in Provincetown’s Schools

Bridgewater State College

Provincetown, Massachusetts is a popular multi-gendered tourist destination where openness to diversity is part of the school and wider community ethos.  Youth encounter their hometown as a place whose cultural ethos they do not always embrace.  This article, based on participant observation fieldwork from 1995-2002, explores how students have developed a “culture of resistance” to dominant discourses of tolerance and acceptance.   By deconstructing how schools are sites of inter-group conflicts  over gender tolerance and public school ownership, students resistance conduct is shown to be a response to perceived alienation from mainstream social norms and discourses.


Schools serve as agents of child socialization and enculturation, where children assimilate a culture’s core values, traditions, and authority structures.  In Provincetown, Massachusetts, a rural tourist destination at the tip of Cape Cod, with a year-round population of approximately 3,500, public schools also represent a diminishing population of young families, many descendants of early Portuguese settlers.  Provincetown’s public schools today have increasingly become arenas of social conflict as the town has attracted more gay, lesbian, and other “gender bending” tourists and year round residents.  School children must reconcile sometimes contradictory perceptions of their own, Provincetown’s, and the wider U.S. society’s value schemes, while they defend their loyalty to a place with which they do not always identify, and whose cultural ethos they do not always embrace.  Child socialization occurs in a social setting defined by its gender diversity and where openness to difference has been woven into the school and wider cultural ethos.  Provincetown’s school children, however, assimilate sometimes contradictory messages about gender tolerance and diversity, gleaned from the many layers of their social environment: home and family, community, school, and the wider society.   In response, some Provincetown students have developed what Henry A. Giroux calls a “culture of resistance” to dominant school and community discourses stressing tolerance, acceptance, and openness to diversity, a by-product of perceived contradictions and ambiguities of growing up in a gender diverse community (1983a:257-293). 

In this article I investigate how school and community interface to produce a student “culture of resistance,” which is a by-product of the complex intersections of local identity groups.  This research is based on participant observation fieldwork conducted between 1995 and 2002, during which, as a resident of another Cape Cod town, I visited, participated in, and observed local community events using standard participant observation fieldwork methods, including interviews with more than fifty local residents and extensive use of archival and newspaper accounts.

Social encounters at the borderlands

Provincetown since the early 1990s has become a mecca for gay men, lesbians and diverse categories of gendered “others,” who now constitute a formidable local constituency, with a near numerical majority.  Gays[1] and straights live, work, and play, side by side, across the spectrum of daily life, socially, economically, and politically.  “Out” gay men and lesbians participate with straights in virtually every local political and social institution.  Gays serve as town clerk and (former) school superintendent; sit on the local school committee and other town boards; are active in local religious and social organizations; and own many of the town’s tourist-oriented businesses.  The town’s annual calendar boasts events that attract a wide spectrum of citizens, including a popular late June Portuguese Blessing of the Fleet celebration; August Carnival that features drag queens; October Women’s Week catering to lesbians; and Fantasia Fair that draws cross-dressers. 

Provincetown, unlike many communities characterized by racial or ethnic diversity, is not gender segregated or geographically ghettoized.[2]   Provincetown’s schools, too, contain gay and lesbian teachers, students, parents, and administrators.  In Provincetown, as elsewhere, however, social encounters are often “sites of social friction,” notes Sherry B. Ortner, occurring at what she calls the borderlands of social groups, in a highly charged atmosphere that is politically, economically, and socially contested (1996:181-82).  Ortner says that, “…[T]he terrain of cultural encounters, of border crossings, is never neutral and never level…..because borderlands are spaces that some people call ‘home’ and define those entering it as Other, alien….Similarly the space of border crossings is never ‘level,’ that is, it is almost always a space of unequal power” (1996:182).  Provincetown, and its public schools in particular, are just such borderland sites where social encounters bring into sharp relief the multiple and sometimes divergent realities of local citizens.           

Citizens in their social encounters, entrenched in their own subjective spaces—physically, historically, and affectively—articulate their positions respective to perceived “others,” framing the discourse in familiar categories of sameness and difference or “self and “other.”  Vered Amit-Talai calls these inter-group encounters the “politics of identity,” a kind of “positioned discourse” (1996:108). “Identity politics” concerns “how groups construct themselves” (see Lewin 1996:7), how others construct them, and the dynamics of these inter-group interactions and intersections.  In the politics of identity groups, then, social groups as interest groups serve as “…a resource for group mobilization in pursuit of members’ common political interests,” say Amit-Talal and Caroline Knowles (eds. 1996:85; see also Eller 1999; Romanucci-Ross and De Vos 1995; Patchen 1999). 

Social encounters may at times promote boundary maintenance strategies, while at others they foster inter-group cooperation (see Barth, ed. 1998[1969]; Giroux 1983a:259ff).  Martin Patchen argues that social interaction outcomes are affected by two factors (1999:21).  First is the nature of group dominance/subordinance hierarchies.  For example, in Provincetown social hierarchies are established based upon residential status as long-timer or new-comer (called “washashore”); middle- or working-class; and gay or straight.  A second factor that affects group interaction outcomes is the social, economic, geographic, or cultural distance between groups.  Provincetown—where year round residents live in compact neighborhoods situated around Commercial Street, the town’s major business thoroughfare—is not ghettoized residentially (but see Gleason 1999:88ff).  Community life as noted above, fosters many opportunities for on-going intensive face-to-face encounters across the gender divide. Schools, too, are gender integrated, containing children of straight and gay parents, and gay and straight teachers and other school personnel.  Although not geographically separated, however, Provincetowners are ethnically and economically divided, as reported elsewhere (see Faiman-Silva 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998), divisions which may give rise to animosities and social cleavages across a spectrum from what Patchen describes as paternalistic or oppressive to contentious or cooperative (see Patchen 1999:209).

Locally social interactions occur in three stages.  First, what I term flashpoints of conflict arise, sometimes over seemingly mundane and routine events of daily life. Second, disputants stake out boundaries of discourse, symbols, political domains, or even social space.  Third, negotiations proceed; group boundaries are eased; and accommodations made, to promote what I call Provincetown’s multi-gendered community culture.  In Provincetown social encounters ebb and flow like a pendulum, sometimes erupting into public conflicts which shatter the veneer of tolerance and reveal intense animosities rooted in fundamental social and sub-cultural differences.  At such times, homophobic sentiments may surface, scarring the community’s sense of mutual trust and acceptance.  In other situations Provincetowners overcome gut animosities and display a true courage to connect across the gender divide.  

As citizens, entrenched in their own inter-subjective realities, contest space, resources, and symbols, they express three dominant discursive themes which are woven into native perceptions locally.  These themes, rooted in historic and contemporary perceptions of “self” and ‘other,” are expressed in on-going inter-group encounters.  First, are commentaries on racial, ethnic, and gender categories of sameness and difference.  Second, are conflicts over coveted local resources resulting from economic divisions between working class Portuguese long-timers and gentrified gay and lesbian newcomers (see Faiman-Silva 1998).  Third, is a kind of local base metaphor (see Farrer 1996:70; see also Faiman-Silva 1999) that crystallizes around themes of harmony, mutual acceptance, tolerance, and “getting along.”  Verbal texts and social encounters reveal the durability of these discursive themes, by-products of personal and group experiences, both imagined and real, which form individual and collective memories and justify on-going attitudes and actions. 

Provincetown, then, offers a complex social configuration in the language of majority/minority or muted group discourse, since social categories designated as majority or minority, dominant or subordinate, are not neat and bounded, but intersect and cross-cut.  “Majority group” status itself is flexible and fluid, as social group members exert hegemonic privileges and dominant discourses to claim or reclaim their majority or hegemonic status.  Local citizens, through active participation in local society and polity, are integrated into local social life, both as individuals and as members of their multiple and sometimes shifting self- and externally-defined identity groups.  It is here that “positioned discourse” or “identity politics” takes place. 

Schools and Communities: Sites of Compliance and Resistance

            Research into the culture of schooling has shown a close but ambiguous link between schools and society (See Giroux 1983a:257-293, 1983b, 1996; Varenne and McDermott 1998; Cousins 1999).  Schools, embedded in the dominant majority U.S. culture and ideology, reinforce the wider society’s social norms and values as they inculcate new information and ways of seeing the world to their youthful charges.  Schools, as agents of socialization, argues Giroux, “…often exist in a contradictory relation to the dominant society, alternately supporting and challenging its basic assumptions” (1983a:260).  Schools strive to conform to the wider society’s hetero-normative social values and codes of conduct, while they impart the tools for students to become “liberally” educated citizens.  Furthermore, children may be socialized at home to one set of cultural norms, values, and principles; while the schools inculcate quite different lessons and messages.

            Three areas of interface between school and society are particularly crucial in the child socialization process.  First, schools are sites where the dominant society’s economic and power structures, and value systems, are replicated.  Schools, for example, are typically structured hierarchically; school capital, i.e., cultural knowledge--the content of the educational enterprise--is doled out differentially and selectively; and students are socialized to specific and appropriate social positions in the educational arena as well as in the wider society.  This is, what Giroux, borrowing from Bowles and Gintis, calls the “hidden curriculum of schools.”  The “hidden curriculum of schools,”

,,,provide[s] ideological and material weight to questions regarding what counts as high versus low status forms of knowledge (intellectual or manual), high versus low status forms of social organization (hierarchical or democratic), and, of course, what counts as high versus low status forms of personal interaction (interaction based on individual competitiveness or interaction based on collective sharing). [1983a:263; see also Nicholson 1994:73-83]

Second, and related to this covert social effect, is that schools differentially reward performance depending on one’s racial, social class, or gender membership status.  For example, schools reward competitive learning styles typical of boys; rank manual labor below intellectual skills; and often socialize girls and ethnic minorities to strive for lower academic expectations than white males (see also Zambrana 1994:135-145; Varenne and McDermott 1998). 

            Third, as alluded above, although we assume that schools serve as “…sites that smoothly socialize…students into the dominant ideology,” schools in fact are sites where students are confronted with divergent, sometimes contradictory, and perhaps irreconcilable, social ideologies.  Giroux  said, “The sources of these conflicting ideologies—which fuel student resistance—are to be found not only inside but outside the school as well….primarily formed in the family, the neighborhood, and in the mass- and class-mediated youth cultures” (1983a:265).  Students, then, must reconcile values, conduct codes, and norms assimilated in their on-going socialization at home and in their community, with those of the schools they attend.  Children learn to be prejudiced or tolerant, misogynist or respectful of women, homophobic or egalitarian, modeling behavior learned from parents and primary caregivers.  Such values and behaviors, however, may clash with those learned in the school culture.  Schools may strive to inculcate liberal values emphasizing inclusion, gender equality, and anti-racism, to students whose core or latent values may be at odds with those of the more liberal school. 

The coming together of these “oppositional ideologies” may, and indeed often does, “fuel school resistance” rather than compliance (see also Varenne and McDermott 1998; Cousins 1999).  Students, particularly minorities and working class students, may refuse to comply with or blatantly resist accommodating to the school “culture’s” dominant ideology,  just as they resist conforming to society’s rules and regulations.  Through acting out behavior, anti-intellectualism, alternative styles of dress and demeanor, or risky behavior, students reject both the school’s authority structure and the school’s (and dominant society’s) efforts to socialize them to its values, norms, and conduct codes. 

            This conduct, characteristic of working class and ethnic minority students elsewhere, argue Giroux (1983a:257-293, 1983b, 1996) and others (see MacLeod 1995, Willis 1983:107-138; Varenne and McDermott 1998; see also Bourdieu and St. Martin 1974:32-46), is not simply a symptom of individual rule-breaking or personal psychological dysfunction.  These are active forms of resistance to the dominant society’s ideology, which many students do not share, and with which many do not identify.

            Provincetown’s students exhibit some behaviors associated with just such a “culture of resistance” to mainstream rules and social norms.  Students perpetrate hate crimes, engage in hate speech, adopt divergent styles of dress, and engage in risk-taking behaviors, typical of this “fugitive culture” or student “culture of resistance” (see Giroux 1996:8).   This student “culture of resistance” must be carefully deconstructed to recognize how students proactively work to reconcile their own personal values and experiences with social and institutional realities around them.  As they do so they often resist, or sometimes only partially accommodate to the dominant society’s rules and norms. 

The “clash of cultures” in Provincetown’s schools and community

            As Provincetown transitioned in the 1980s from predominantly heterosexual and Portuguese to gay male, lesbian, and transsexual, the school-age population dwindled.  Today Provincetown’s public schools have approximately four hundred students, including a senior class of fewer than fifty; whereas ten years ago the school-age population numbered about seven hundred.  Since the mid 1990s, when school choice options were adopted, many students, particularly in secondary school, have opted to attend high school in the neighboring town of Orleans, approximately forty-five miles away, where a wider array of educational opportunities are available.  Given these demographic declines, community members periodically debate whether the town can even financially support a public school at all, due to rising public education costs and the imperative to provide all students, including those with costly special educational needs, a wide range of educational opportunities (author’s interviews, 1995-2002; Rose 2002; see also Gleason 1999:82).

As Provincetown’s social milieu changed from predominately heterosexual to predominately “queer,” students—and sometimes their parents as well—bring to the table their own versions of their complex and ambiguous lived experiences, which is a kind of “bicultural” experience containing multiple social realities.  On the one hand are dominant U.S. heterosexual and sometimes misogynist social and cultural norms imparted through the media and peers, which may sanction overt or covert racism, classism, or homophoba.  On the other, is the community they inhabit, which manifests a social ethos or core values system that stresses tolerance, acceptance, and openness to diversity.  This bicultural experience requires that Provincetown’s youth mediate among sometimes conflicting personal, social, and institutional ideologies.  Students respond proactively as actors and agents, deciphering their own lived experiences through their own perceptual lenses, striving to operationalize their “stances on life” consistent with their, in significant ways, non-traditional lived experiences. 

As students articulate their stances on life, they express an ideology that may be inconsistent with public ideologies emphasizing openness to diversity and inter-group accommodation.  Their actions, too, such as hate crimes, hate-based graffiti, and other forms of anti-social behavior sometimes targeted at gay men, lesbians, transgenders, and transsexuals, reveal profound inconsistencies with the values held by many of their fellow-citizens. These anti-social forms of resistance, so contrary to the community’s core identity, are strategies used by local youth (and sometimes by adults) to fight back against perceived social class or gender oppression, class injustices, and personal marginalization (see Giroux 1983a:257-293).  In his discussion of the Hallway Hangers, members of the poor white underclass, Jay MacLeod (1995) describes youth resistance conduct as a response to economic and social subordination both in school and in the wider society.  White youth frequently blamed their own personal failures on African American privilege and affirmative action, and often engaged in hate speech and violence directed toward African Americans.  In the dramas of daily life, Provincetown youth also use various strategies to fight back against a seemingly hegemonic “majority” social class—in this case, nouveau riche gays and lesbians, and other ‘gender benders’ who have taken over their town, politically, economically and socially.  

Students and “Gender Bending:” Life As We See It

The late 1980s and early 1990s was a period of intense social discord in Provincetown, and its public schools, largely controlled by straights, including many Portuguese families, at times became stormy sites of conflict over anti-bias curriculum, gay and lesbian personnel, student hate-related conduct, and other gender-related controversies.  As the social scene changed from mostly straight working- and middle-class Portuguese year-rounders to middle- and upper-class “gender bending” artists and entrepreneurs, Portuguese and other local fishermen faced profound assaults on their way of life, with ever-decreasing marine harvests, boat buy-outs, and persistent economic deterioration.  During the same era AIDS was taking several lives a week in Provincetown alone; and the community faced a rise in hate-related incidents. 

Straights were offended by inappropriate sexual conduct and rowdy gay tourists.  Many locals complained about a double standard of police enforcement of petty crimes, such as loitering, disturbing the peace, or alcohol or drug arrests.  Many straights—and some gays—were particularly offended when an AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT-UP) activist carried an offensive sign during a 1989 Gay Pride parade.  Local AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP)[3] activists were outraged when two of their members were arrested in 1990, and AIDS activists charged that the community was not doing enough to investigate and prosecute hate crimes, many perpetrated by local citizens.  In that same year a Provincetown high school teacher filed a lawsuit with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination charging that the school failed to protect him against students’ anti-gay epithets and other harassing behavior.  Tempers were hot when the town’s board of selectmen in 1991 failed to pass an ordinance condemning hate crimes. 

            The number of reported hate crimes increased in town during the era, and police disclosed that local youth and adults, some repeat offenders, were not infrequently the perpetrators.  Youth, who customarily sat on the Town Hall steps located on the main thoroughfare, Commercial Street, were also implicated in other forms of harassing and anti-social behavior.  The two ACT UP activists arrested in 1990 charged that the incident was started by the typical cadre of local youth sitting in front of Town Hall hurling their usual gay-bashing insults.   

            The propensity of Provincetown’s own youth to engage in hate speech and hate-related criminal activity, was becoming particularly evident at Halloween.  Local youth since the 1970s had engaged in what locals called “slaughtering:” various forms of Halloween mischief, including egg-throwing and shaving cream graffiti.  By the early 1990s what had begun as harmless pranks now included hate graffiti, such as anti-gay slogans and swastikas targeted against gay-owned businesses.  In 1991 the town’s police chief, attempted to stop the behavior and put youth on notice that he viewed such conduct as a hate crime (see Norton, 1991; MacKay 1991a; Kahn 1991). 

            Local youth unequivocally displayed anti-gay sentiments when they spoke up at a “Psychology of Hate” forum a couple of weeks after the 1991 crackdown on Halloween “slaughtering.”  The students’ anti-gay feelings shocked many and revealed the town’s deep social divisions.  Local youth grievances, sometimes echoed by their parents, crystallized around several issues, and revealed a subtext of ambiguity, animosity, confusion, and discord.  First, youth complained about their discomfort with being associated with their own community.  When students traveled to other towns to compete in sports events, they were constantly attacked with verbal insults related to the town’s gay identity.  Opposing teams and fans identified the town as a “gay haven,” and relentlessly hurled gay bashing insults at Provincetown’s traveling athletes.  Students charged, “We get made fun of because of what they [i.e., gays and lesbians] do.”  “We’re harassed….When we meet people and they ask us where we’re from, we don’t say Provincetown, we say Cape Cod.”   Many youth even refused to wear shirts or jackets emblazoned with “Provincetown” to avoid the inevitable insults and taunts (author’s interviews, 1995-2002; MacKay 1991a, 1991b; see also Gleason 1999:320).       

Second was an apparent behavioral double standard, in which inappropriate conduct by gays was condoned, but police came down hard on local youth. Said one resident, “The students do not feel that they have rights in this town.” Another charged, “While police clamp down on slaughtering, they failed to do anything about gay men strolling through town wearing g-strings” (MacKay 1991a:1).  Donna, a parent of a school-aged child, said,

I took my daughter [and her friend] for fireworks.   They must have been about four or five [years old]…. Right in front of us was this guy with the whole back of his pants cut out with his butt hanging out.  “Mommy, Mommy Look!”  You Pig!  You know you want to just slap somebody like that that.  That’s unnecessary.  You know, it’s the 4th of July and there’s children everywhere….I know if I went downtown with my breast hanging out I’d be in jail!

Youth also complained that they were told to “move on” when they congregated on street corners or tried to skateboard around town, while mobs of gays and lesbians could obstruct traffic in front of Spiritus (a local pizza parlor and popular late night hang out for homosexual tourists) without retribution (author’s interviews, 1995-2001; Miller 1991b:3, 38).   

            Third, was the explicitly sexual nature of publicity about the town and public conduct itself, giving the impression that Provincetown is only about gay sex.  Parents complained about scantily-clad gay men and lewd sexual displays on town billboards and in store-windows.  Others complained that favorite beaches were no longer accessible, since they had become gathering spots for late night trysts between gay men.  The town, many complained, had become less-than-child-friendly and therefore a more difficult place to raise children, because of the preponderance of sexually explicit advertising and lewd public behavior (see also Gleason 1999). 

Fourth, were complaints that gay men and lesbians do not really want to support schools, since so few of them are parents themselves.  Questions raised by gay men or lesbians about school funding were cast in a gender idiom by heterosexuals, suspicious that the real issue was disinterest in support for a public institution that would mainly benefit others’ children.  Fifth were allegations that it was outsider agitators, mainly “ACT UP activists,” who fueled local discord.  “I am sick of the word homophobic I’ve become homophobic…..I’m fed up [with ACT UP]…..Where’s the sensitivity training for homosexuals in this town who don’t behave?” asked Delores DeSouza, then-selectperson, in response to ACT UP’s charges of homophobia against straights (MacKay 1991a:1). 

            Contrary to dominant discourses of tolerance and acceptance, this alternate discourse and the issues on which it is based, models the students’ own views of their community.  Their conduct, too, operationalizes their resistance to the more liberal community ideology and what they perceive as a power structure that privileges gay men and lesbians, teachers, school personnel, and police, who serve as agents of the dominant “culture,” its values, attitudes and beliefs.  Provincetown’s youth, especially males, must blend their emerging sense of their own sexuality with multiple, and seemingly inconsistent ideals pertaining to masculinity, gender diversity, and tolerance.  Youth must reconcile their hetero-normative sense of self with the town’s dominant discourse that many ways privileges gender bending,  particularly gay men and lesbians.  As earlier alluded, Provincetown’s youth are often taunted with anti-gay epithets, and are frequently obliged to defend the community’s non-traditional sexualities, without themselves appearing effeminate or “queer.” 

Nancy, a painter who has lived in town since childhood, talks about “fag baiting,”

and explains the subsurface texts of multiply-identified local identity groups—straights and gays, Portuguese and gays, teenagers and gays—and how texts are woven into a painful taunt: “fag fishermen.”  “Fag fishermen” is doubly insulting to young heterosexual men in Provincetown.  Not only does it challenge their masculinity, but it also demeans them culturally and economically, since many are members of the Portuguese seafaring community.  Nancy explains how students react to the insult, “fag fishermen:” 

…They’ve had this label which is pretty hard to live up to here, you know, ‘faggot fishermen.”  So, we’ve had to come with more booze, more macho, more knocking up kids when they’re thirteen;….because you’re part of a school that has an identity….

[A]t least you have a rallying point.  You have your school colors.  You have P-Town High School, rah, rah, rah.  But it’s not P-Town High School, rah, rah, rah.  It’s, “You’re a bunch of faggot fishermen!”

Students, then, assert their masculinity through the risky behaviors of unprotected sex, drinking, and attacks on gay men.  Nancy accounts for these counter-hegemonic resistance strategies and how taunting gay men is part of this conduct:   

…[I]t’s been going on since the year one, is this “fag baiting.”  You know, get them to make a pass [at you], and then we’ve got an excuse to beat the shit out of them, because they [i.e., young males] feel so threatened in their own identity, I guess. 

What do you go around beating up gay guys for?  Does this make you more of a…well, I guess it does.  It reaffirms your masculinity or some damn thing.   

These anti-social strategies place students at odds with the town’s mainstream ideology of gay tolerance and good conduct.  Males, however, perceive their conduct as affirmative, proactive responses to the on-going affronts to their own masculinity and cultural integrity.  

Today, gay men and lesbians are, if  not a numerical majority, certainly a formidable local constituency.  The Portuguese,[4] although still highly influential, are no longer the majority on many town boards or committees.  Accompanying the increased prominence of gay men and lesbians has been economic gentrification.  Property values have skyrocketed; more high-end condos built; and more locals priced out of the housing market.  One result has been “straight flight” to neighboring communities, since many young families can no longer afford to live in town.  Their departure has additionally compounded a persistent school de-population problem. 

Anti-Bias in Schools: Gendered Space, Gendered Conflicts

Traditionally part of Provincetown’s “straight” space, Provincetown’s public schools are perceived by some locals as a haven for heterosexual “normalcy” in an otherwise flamboyant and sometimes outrageous town.  Schools became contested border zones when the town unknowingly hired a lesbian school superintendent/principal, Susan Fleming, in 1995 (at the time the two positions were combined).  Fleming was hired to turn around a school system which was facing challenges to its very existence: reduced school enrollments, diminishing returns on educational investments, low morale, and high rates of student alcoholism, drug abuse, and other acting out behaviors. 

With her gender identity uncertain to many locals—gays and straights—Superintendent Fleming’s hiring fueled the flames of on-going social discord in1997 over an anti-bias curriculum proposal brought forth by members of the town’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and later endorsed by the school committee.  Events produced disturbing levels of homophobia and heterosexism locally and threatened to tear apart the community’s delicate tolerance level. 

The curriculum controversy began as an effort by the Provincetown PTA--at the time chaired by a lesbian mother of a bi-racial child--to raise racial sensitivity in the schools by introducing anti-bias curriculum frameworks.  Gay and straight PTA parents, disturbed by the lack of racial diversity in school activities, billboard displays, and texts, formed a committee in the spring, 1997, the Anti-Bias School and Community Project.  Responding to state-wide efforts to promote anti-bias curricula, these and other parents (including the wife of the Town Manager) argued before the elected Provincetown school committee, chaired at the time by Stephen Roderick, who was locally educated (PHS ’86), gay, and Portuguese, that it was time for Provincetown to more systematically address diversity issues, noting that more than 160 communities state-wide had adopted such curricula (Miller 1997a).  The Anti-Bias Project ran workshops for parents, teachers, and local citizens, and eventually successfully lobbied the school committee to adopt anti-bias curriculum frameworks in August, 1997.  Goals endorsed provided for anti-bias curriculum development, staff and faculty training, diversity hiring goals, and the eradication of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other forms of bias and prejudice generally.  School Superintendent/Principal Fleming, still a closeted lesbian, endorsed the anti-bias curriculum project, which fit well with earlier projects aimed to eliminate hate language in the schools. 

Fleming, who when she arrived in 1995 found a highly charged climate of intolerance permeating the schools, had been working to address several school-related problems to improve the school climate.  She campaigned to make the campus drug and alcohol free; and addressed issues of hate language both targeted at and perpetrated by local youth.  Students routinely used hate language and were frequently involved in acts of vandalism, often targeting gays and lesbians.  She, herself was a target when, shortly after coming to town, gold-painted graffiti stating “Dr. Fleming is a Dyke” appeared at the high school.  As a change agent, Fleming saw herself as a cautious “bridge-builder” between opposing sides, neither endorsing nor opposing controversial proposals, but permitting all sides to sit at the table of discussion.  Early on, Fleming noted, she had been unequivocal in her stance on hate crimes: 

We did a lot of work the first two years about telling kids that we would protect them [in and] out of [school]; and letting them know very clearly that there would be very serious consequences for them participating in any kind of harassment at all around any issues, and particularly civil right issues….[T]hey had to understand when it came to race and sexual orientation and gender, that the town as well as the school was going to have a no-nonsense policy.  And I think the kids became very aware of that quickly.

Fleming’s willingness to proactively confront local school-related issues, from student acting out behavior to parental complicity with under-age drinking, quickly made her a “lightning rod” for contentious issues that surfaced locally.  To the opposition—both kids and parents—she was a meddlesome outsider, a member of the power elite, a lesbian, and a liberal.  What she faced was a student “culture of resistance” to dominant codes of civility, propriety, and respect, including risky behavior and gay bashing:

…I had really taken on the drug issue in the building.  I personally thought it was the most outrageous school I have ever come to.  It was like there were no boundaries.  Kids I thought were really outrageous in their behavior and their disrespect for whatever….

[T]here were a few things that I wasn’t going to tolerate.…[T]his school was going to be drug and alcohol free, and…there was going to be a sense of decency….So, a lot of kids,…the kids who were really the hard core kind of hang out in the street kind of kids, were really in my face.  They were pretty angry at me a lot of the time.

Fleming’s early efforts to turn the school culture around revealed confusing and sometimes ambiguous social class antagonisms within the school community itself.  Although parents of middle class, high achieving students resented the time Fleming spent on under-achievers, they lauded her efforts to clean up the schools.  Parents of students exhibiting the harassing behavior (and the kids themselves), on the other hand, were angry at Fleming for singling them out.  Cleavages were evident between the social elite, including middle class school authorities, the gay subculture, and middle class parents, and the working class straight under-achievers.  For the under-achievers, their response was to fight against the hegemonic discourses of gender tolerance and right conduct.  The factional rhetoric gave rise to a more wide-spread homophobic backlash, aimed squarely at the anti-bias curriculum project. 

The anti-bias curriculum movement took shape as a result of this and other school-based events, including attempts by students themselves to deal with school-based homophobia.  In a positive move, some students organized a gay/straight alliance group as a way to encourage an apparently gay fellow classmate to feel comfortable with his own homosexuality.  Said Fleming, “Kids really rallied.  It brought up some homophobic stuff for some of the kids, but they really rallied.”   Fleming noted, however, that student behavior mirrored contradictory messages conveyed in the many social arenas of their lives. 

There’s a struggle going on with the power structure in town, and who’s in power, and the kids can’t help but feel that at home.  And I think it’s…like being from the straight community and identifying with the “other,” or the people that may be taking your place.

As students confronted the complex intersections of social realities: their own, school-based, and individually constructed, over values and attitudes held by themselves, their parents, and the wider community, their conduct revealed that not only are schools deeply imbedded in a wider social milieu, but also that schools and the youth they house cannot be insulated from wider social debates and conflicts.    

The “Anti” Anti-Bias Backlash

The anti-bias curriculum movement, so appropriate for a richly diverse community that seemed genuinely sensitive to the issues, precipitated a series of events over several months in 1997 that would crystallize local groups around their own boundaries of difference.  These events also allowed homophobic anxieties to surface, often contentiously and acrimoniously, as citizens grappled with the nature of those differences and how differences should be introduced to their own children.  Increasingly identified as a lesbian, Fleming became one focus of acrimony, charged with forwarding her own gay/lesbian agenda and subverting the character of the school.  In the minds of some local straights, she represented the now-dominant gay/lesbian power structure with its imposing ideology of tolerance. 

Some community members, supported by a conservative national backlash to the anti-bias curriculum proposal, resisted the dominant power structure’s efforts to mainstream a liberal tolerance ideology by discrediting Superintendent Fleming.  They stonewalled efforts to institute the curriculum and charged that the group had a “hidden gay agenda” (Harrison 1997a).  In the process, some courageous and persistent community members worked through animosities and acrimony to forge inter-group solidarity, which allowed diverse constituencies to finally reconcile their differences and endorse a program of anti-bias curriculum development.  As their courage to connect was forged, the community again weathered this potentially divisive storm of controversy.  In the process Provincetowners confronted both their own and outsider homophobia.  The struggle, however, was not without costs, as some lesbian parents active in the anti-bias curriculum movement permanently left town due to its apparent hostility to gays and lesbians generally and lesbian mothers and their children specifically (Miller 1997b; Burton 1997:1). 

Sides taken appeared to crystallize around the gay/straight dyad, with some Portuguese long-timers allying with the “anti” anti-bias curriculum forces, and gays and lesbians solidly behind the curriculum reform movement.  National attention was directed to the town’s anti-bias curriculum project, when AP wire services picked up the story.  It was then that a Topeka, Kansas-based church group, the Westboro Baptist Church, headed by extremist Reverend Fred Phelps and composed largely of Phelps and his thirteen children, eleven of whom are lawyers, scheduled a protest demonstration in Provincetown.  (This group surfaced again when it staged a hateful protest at a memorial service following the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming youth).  A conservative Washington, D.C. newspaper, the Washington Times, sensationalized the issue by headlining that, “Provincetown pre-schoolers to learn ABCs of being gay” (Miller 1997c; Fraser 1997). 

The Phelps group’s planned visit to Provincetown mobilized the community, which sponsored a Yellow Ribbon Campaign and candlelight vigil organized by the Provincetown Interfaith Coalition of Congregations.  Yellow ribbons, according to campaign organizers, signaled a message of a community that is “loving, peaceful, hate-free, hospitable and non-biased” (Anonymous 1997).  The town was decked with yellow ribbons tied to lampposts, doorposts, windows, and automobiles.  Solidarity was hearteningly felt, as Human Rights Campaign yellow and blue peace signs joined yellow ribbons on store windows and auto bumpers. 

            The town had yet to resolve the anti-bias curriculum issue, however, and even the seemingly neutral yellow ribbon campaign had its detractors, who complained that the ribbons themselves sent confusing signals to children!  Symptomatic of the community’s inter-group antagonisms, Advocate newspaper cartoonist Jackson Lambert memorialized the occasion with a series of satirical cartoons playing on the themes of the “yellow ribbon campaign,” anti bias, and equality (see Figures 1-4, below).  Cartoons published in October, 1997, featured the yellow ribbon and equality symbols, which, as noted previously, were meant as signs of bridge-building and community solidarity to some, but were seen as objectionable to others.  Another cartoon published two months later again spoofed the anti-bias curriculum project; and in July, 1998, cartoons targeted Superintendent Fleming for on-going morale problems that surfaced around the same time as the highly contentious “anti bias curriculum” furor.  In light of the seriousness of the issues, however, to some these cartoons were highly objectionable.





Opposition to the anti-bias curriculum project had surfaced even before the arrival of the Phelps group.  A citizen’s faction calling itself the Concerned Parents Group surfaced in the fall, 1997, and found spokespeople in newly-elected school committee member William (Billy) Rogers and board of selectmen chair, Custodio Silva, Jr. (Harrison 1997b:21; Harrison 1998).  Unhappy with the anti-bias curriculum movement, the Concerned Parents group began holding meetings separately from the Anti-Bias parents group, and in early November approximately sixty people turned out for a meeting.  Concerned Parents Group members escalated the rhetoric, calling opposition leaders “anti-bias activists” and “intellectual snobs” who were promoting a “hidden agenda” to promote gay and lesbian interests.  One Concerned Parents spokesperson argued that the group was not opposed to the anti-bias movement per se, but, “…concerned that the members...are intent on exposing young children to sexual matters that are beyond their years to understand” (Miller 1997d:1).  Another member said, “Our big concern is the use of the words gay and lesbian in preschool and kindergarten,” which some parents argued should not be introduced until the fifth grade (Myers 1997:A-1).  Said another, “It was right to adopt the idea of an anti-bias curriculum, but to use Black History month as the reason and then to let your social, sexual lifestyle dominate the issue is wrong” (Costa-Ayala 1997; author’s interviews, 1997-1999).

More than two dozen members of this faction, “…took over the PTA in a bloodless coup” in early November, 1997, forcing the resignation of the lesbian PTA president.  She resigned when one Concerned Parents faction member and select board chairman, Custodio Silva, introduced a motion requiring her to draft a letter to the school committee endorsing the group’s proposals that children should not be taught about human sexuality until the fifth grade.  She said, “I was basically in shock” over the acrimonious factional take-over (Miller 1997d:1).  Shortly thereafter, the group elected a predominantly Portuguese PTA leadership, and debate persisted over how and when children should be introduced to the terms “gay” and “lesbian,” and how educators should introduce alternate gender lifestyles generally (Miller 1997d). 

Superintendent Fleming then became this faction’s target, when school committee member William (Billy) Rogers and others blamed her for the anti-bias curriculum furor and school morale problems that also surfaced around the same time.  An editorial cartoon again served as a medium for airing local tensions, as shown in Figure 3, above.  Fleming describes the factional subtext of dissent rooted in opposition to her as a member of salient categories of difference and privilege: the leadership elite and lesbian subculture.

…[O]n the other side there’s a lot of anger.  [They are asking], What are we doing with a lesbian superintendent/principal?  These are the outsiders.  And there are maybe three real leadership positions in the school and one of them is held by a lesbian—you know, a gay and a woman. 

            Mary Jo Avellar, Advocate newspaper editor and a long-time spokesperson for the local “straight” faction, editorialized about the complex issues, exonerating the conservative opposition and the press—mainly her own—in the year-long conflict.  She, too, invokes the perennial local idiom of community acceptance, constructing an account that incorporates that idiom into the oppositional model of oppression and victimization, blaming lesbian superintendent Fleming for the entire mess:

What started out as an exercise in tolerance has become a force for hate and distrust that has infiltrated the entire community.  These problems...threaten not only the Provincetown community, which prides itself on its live-and-let-live attitude, but the future of its school system. 

....Provincetown’s anti-bias school policy is now like a runaway freight train that has left in its wake a community, once harmonious and proud of the diversity of its residents, in disarray.  With lines being is time for the school committee to take some responsibility.

It is also essential that they haul [School Superintendent] Fleming in and stop this process before any more damage is done.... [Avellar 1997:14] 

Subsurface Texts as Border Crossings and Cultural Resistance:  Who Wins?

            The anti-bias curriculum controversy revealed wide-ranging tensions at the borders of gay/straight intersections in Provincetown’s schools, a contested arena which straights, mostly Portuguese, have historically viewed as theirs.  Gay and lesbian parents, now more visibly numerous, are participating actively in school affairs and thereby challenging this focal community institution and heterosexual power base.  One local gay year-rounder somewhat irreverently explains the school scene from his point of view.  In doing so, he reveals how local straights invoke an idiom of gender superiority to privilege their class:

…[A]s the fishing industry started to [decline], as the tourism and resort thing started, what the Portuguese people would do, they would spend April, May, June, July, August ripping off gay peoples’ money, you know…dune buggy rides, restaurants, ….[I]n September they would go back in the schools, and they would go, “Ah, see.  We are normal! 

They [the gays] would be running around kissing each other, sucking off in the dunes, holding hands, wearing chaps, blah, blah, blah, all these [cross-] dressers and all this stuff.  But you see, we are normal!  We’re heterosexual!  So that [i.e., the schools] was their stronghold.  That gave them the sense that, “We’re ok.” 

So then they messed up and hired a lesbian superintendent who they didn’t know was lesbian.  And since then that last stronghold has been [infiltrated], and they’re all pulling out.  They’d rather put their kid on a bus for two or three hours every day, two hours there and two hours back, than to send them to this school. (emphasis in original) .

Community members, then, construct divergent categories of “us” and “them” around categories of difference rooted in class and gender.  Although still a heterosexual majority, straights must constantly confront gender as a category of difference.  Straights invoke heterosexual privilege, signifying their normalcy in what they perceive as a skewed cultural tapestry where “queer” is mainstream and the privileged sector is gay.

            The local dispute with their lesbian superintendent, ostensibly over issues that had little to do with her gender preference, was finally resolved when the school committee in 2001 voted to buy out Superintendent Fleming’s remaining one-year contract, a move that cost the town an estimated $75,000.  Led by school committee member William (Billy) Rogers, long a vocal opponent of Fleming, the school committee action prompted a petition drive to recall Rogers and harsh words from some town officials.  Local media characterized Rogers’ animosities as a long-standing “vendetta” against Fleming, which had begun as soon as he announced his school committee candidacy in 1997 (Rose 2001a; Kahn 2001:3).  Fleming was philosophical about the buy-out, noting that the experience brought her own personal growth: 

One of my gifts of being here is becoming someone who could identify herself as a lesbian public school administrator….When I came into the town I was much more closeted professionally….And I think that was an important piece of my own journey, and my own marginalization.  I think begin a woman and being a lesbian in administration even in this town is a challenge….But it is a gift.  It’s a gift to own the totality of who you are. [Rose 2001b] 

Her ambiguous closeted status had fostered distrust from both sides, a legacy that dogged her throughout her tenure. 

As in earlier disputes, students were astute commentators on adult decision-making processes that swirled around them.  Said one former student,

Unfortunately our local ‘educational’ system has turned into a three-ring circus with [former high school principal] Marino acting as ringmaster among the children and parents, Fleming cautiously walking the tightrope overhead, trying desperately to maintain a balance, and the School Committee as the clowns, throwing punches at each other inside that tiny little car of theirs.  It’s just embarrassing.  [Allen 2001] 

Fleming’s contract buy-out, although effectively eliminating one protagonist, did not resolve inter-group tensions and animosities over community identity, the politics of decision-making, and control over Provincetown’s coveted public schools. 

Community life today remains mired in sub-surface ambiguity as community members seek to reconcile an ideology of social acceptance against a reality intermittently pervaded by suspicion, fear, and uncertainty.  Youth, embedded in the community culture, are resilient, however.  They still enthusiastically play on Provincetown’s athletic teams, and many proudly wear the maroon and white team colors.  Heightened vigilance against hate crimes and added police enforcement on the Lower Cape appear to have brought an added measure of safety to Provincetown’s youth.  This, combined with the mainstreaming of an anti-bias curriculum, have brought a level of harmony to Provincetown’s school culture.


            School culture both replicates and resists majority culture’s norms, social codes, and codes of conduct.  Oppositional behavior revealed in Provincetown’s student “culture of resistance,” like adults around them, is a by-product of political disenfranchisement, economic marginalization, perceived and actual disempowerment, and personal disconnect from dominant discourses and ideologies.  Schools cannot be insulated from social and culture forces that press upon them, like the anti-bias curriculum controversy or the community’s homophobic backlash. 

By deconstructing how individuals come together across the social divide, student cultures of resistance (and their adult counterparts) can be meaningfully understood as positioned discourse across cleavages fostered by gender, racial, social class, and other categories of difference.  As we attend to the oppositional voices and bring them more fully into community life, students, parents, and the community at large may transform both themselves and others, to build connections across these disquieting social arenas of difference. 


Sandra Faiman-Silva is Professor of Anthropology at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Massachusetts 02325.



            Acknowledgements.  This article is based on a paper presented at the National Women’s Studies Association Annual Meeting, Boston, MA, June 17, 2000.  My thanks go to Anthropology and Education Quarterly reviewers for their very helpful comments; and to many Provincetowners for their frank and open discussions.  This project was funded in part by grants from Bridgewater State College’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Research (CART) whose assistance is greatly appreciated.  The data presented and the views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author. 


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* Copyright 2002 American Anthropological Association.  Reprinted from Anthropology & Education Quarterly volume 33, number 2, with the permission of the American Anthropological Association.

[1] The term “gay” as used herein denotes all categories of gendered “others” including gay men, lesbians, transgendereds, transsexuals, bisexuals, cross-dressers and ‘drag queens,’ among others.  Other descriptive terms “queer,” a term I use elsewhere (see Faiman-Silva 2000), or alternatively “gender bender,” both of which can include straights (see Faiman-Silva 2001).

[2] See Gleason (1999:25ff) for a comprehensive discussion of Provincetown’s distinctive neighborhoods.  Contrary to Gleason’s claim that some neighborhoods are gender and ethnically segregated, many research subjects stated that Provincetown has no real “middle class” neighborhoods as such, nor are any gender exclusive (author’s interviews, 1995-2002). 

[3] This grass roots organization formed in the mid-1980s in New York City to raise consciousness through local direct action about the devastating AIDS epidemic.

[4] Portuguese have lived in Provincetown since the 19th Century and remain a durable ethnic constituency of long-time, mostly straight year rounders.