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This article first appeared in Equality magazine. To read the latest issue, visit hrc.org/magazine.
At first glance, Provincetown, Massachusetts — affectionately known as “Ptown”—is just your average sleepy, coastal town. Its status as one of the most inclusive places in the country — the 2010 census revealed that Provincetown has the highest rate of same-sex couples in America — has made it an easy magnet for LGBTQ vacationers, and a natural location for HRC’s shop.
But for many, Ptown is more than just a vacation spot. It is a radical community that promises to transform and empower those who visit. At least, that’s how it felt for Teddy Lowery, a young, gay native of Bossier City, Louisiana who first came to Ptown in May, 2017 to work at the HRC store for the summer.
“I remember stepping off the bus and breathing in,” said Lowery, recalling his first moments in Ptown. “Honestly it was the first time I felt I was able to breathe in years.” Coming from a conservative, small town in the South, Ptown was a revelation for Lowery. It was the first place he felt he could not only be himself but be loved for that identity.
There was a reason Lowery found himself in Ptown — he was one of the first participants in a groundbreaking new youth program called “Summer of Sass,” developed by Ptown resident and comedian Kristen Becker. Her idea was to provide a critical “mental health break” for LGBTQ youth from the South, while providing Ptown with some much-needed young workers during the busy summer months.
“We keep telling kids it gets better,” said Becker on the significance of bringing LGBTQ youth from the South to Ptown. “But this is what better looks like. This is a community to strive to build.”
Though acceptance and inclusion is certainly not unique to Ptown, studies show that LGBTQ people in rural Southern communities often face higher levels of discrimination and prejudice. A 2014 study by HRC and Anzalone Liszt Grove found that 65% of LGBTQ Americans in Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama reported suffering verbal abuse, and a further 1 in 5 reported experiencing physical violence because of their identity.
It is a dangerous reality that Lowery knows all too well. “In Ptown I was very comfortable wearing the clothes I wanted, acting how I wanted,” he said. “In Bossier city, I didn’t feel like it was acceptable or safe doing any of those things.”
Cathy Reno, the Senior General Manager of HRC’s Ptown store, has lived and worked in Ptown for over 20 years. Over the summer while Lowery worked in her store, she witnessed his transformation from a shy youth to the confident young man he is today — a transformation she attributes to the power of Ptown’s LGBTQ community, and particularly of HRC’s store.
“It’s not just a T-Shirt shop,” said Reno of her store. “We are there representing HRC and opening eyes and ears to the challenges that the LGBTQ community face, and the power that our allies have in supporting us.”
The empowerment Lowery found in Ptown alongside Reno and Becker became a gift he too was able to pass onto others who walked into the HRC store that summer — particularly those who came from conservative Southern towns just like his own. They would wear HRC’s shirts with a unique pride that Lowery intimately understood.
“You see the smiles on their faces. They can’t ever wear that shirt again until they come back to Ptown, but just for that moment they get to be who they are.” Lowery explained. “It’s such a beautiful and eye-opening experience because that’s exactly how I felt the whole time I was in Ptown. It was my saving grace.”