I have a confession to make. I've lived 28 years of my life without visiting Provincetown, MA - possibly the gayest place in New England. Upon hearing this news, it was all my dear friend, Ellen, seemed to talk about. "Can you believe they've never been to Ptown?"
Thankfully, an opportunity arose that had both Ellen and I down in New London, CT presenting on The Silo Project, a public arts project we helped execute in our little bubble in Northern Vermont. Since we'd be just a couple of hours away with a full weekend ahead of us, we knew this was the time to strike.
We packed Ellen's car so full - preparing for a two-day conference and three nights in Ptown, and packing for Emoji too - and pointed south. After the conference, we shot up the coastline. Upon reaching the Sagamore Bridge, I fixed myself a vodka tonic in the passenger seat and read up on the herstory of Ptown and why thousands flock there. Sure, it's an LGBTQ destination, but the town is founded firstly on its rich arts culture and history. Of course, queens love culture - so it was only fitting that one would attract the other and flourish.
Ellen treated me to a drive down busy Commercial Street before reaching the home of our guest, Sewall Whittemore. The narrow one-way street was filled with whizzing bicyclists, gazing couples of every demography, and bright, colorful shops and homes. Rainbow flags were scattered about along with strung Portuguese flags across the street, honoring the town's history as a Portuguese fishing settlement.
As we reach the end of the street and make our way past the marshes and dunes along the final stretch of US Route 6, the air is filled with a distinct low-tide odor. We breathe deep. It may not be the next Yankee Candle scent, but you can't smell that in Vermont so we welcomed it. We turn toward the Province Lands - our host owns a condo on the edge of the reserved lands.
Upon reaching Sewall's doorstep, I am greeted with a hug and kiss from this gorgeous, tall woman who I'm meeting for the first time.
"Your eyes!" she exclaims.
I'm still rocking a heavily dolled up face from the morning's conference sessions. However, immediately, I realize I am in the place of someone who appreciates pretty and shiny things. We present Sewall with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot for being our gracious host. Immediately she tells us the story behind her favorite champagne. Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot-Ponsardin was the first person to make champagne clear. She was the widow of Monsieur François Clicquot, therefore, with veuve meaning "widow" en francais, we arrive at the name of the bubbly. Six half-turns (180°) to loosen the wired cage holding the cork, and a slow and gentle release of the cork so as to not bruise the bubbles.
"It should sigh like a beautiful woman," she explains.
After two nights with Sewall, it was obvious that this was the unplanned meeting of two unofficial mayors - both of seasonally sleepy resort towns. Provincetown's yearlong residences are only a couple thousand - same as my hometown. But during peak resort times, the population booms. One thing is constant, Sewall is greeted by someone she knows every few feet in downtown Ptown. At restaurants, she makes friends with fellow patrons, knows the bartenders and owners by name, and seemingly makes a new friend (or three) during each outing.
Sewall's appearance is striking. She's my height, beautiful olive skin, and a penchant for fashion and coordination. It's no wonder she captures attention.
But on the final day, we have business to do. Sewall's agreed to sit down for an interview for The T, to talk about her life's work being surrounded by arts and activism both in Provincetown and Burlington - where she lived until 1994. Upon arriving back to her place after a quick jaunt down to Commercial Street for coffee and lunch, I realize she's laid out possible wardrobe options for me to wear during the interview. The one I am drawn to is a purple set with sequins. I know from an earlier conversation with Sewall that purple is a favorite color of hers.
"It's the color of royalty!" she tells me, also listing lime green as a close second.
I paint in purples and choose my lavender wig. For my nails, I borrow Sewall's bottle in the color Key Lime Pie. I am channeling my inner Sewall. Upon seeing my face for the first time in person as Emoji, she stops and stares closely at me for an extended moment, not blinking.
"You'd give the girls down here a run for their money with a face like that," she declared.
Of course, I don't believe her and shrug off her compliment, searching for a pair of heels.
"Oh! Let me see those!" She points to a pair of pink cork heels.
"They're size 12," I inform her.
She tries them on even though she's told me she's a size 11 and they fit perfectly.
I'm missing just one thing for the interview - accessories. She scurries to her room where her expansive collection of large, bright earrings and bracelets are on display. She's picked out several pairs of earrings already for me to have, but this outfit called for something else. Tediously we try on multiple pairs and consider the pros and cons of each, finally settling on a purple hoop earring adorned with several other purple orbs. They do seem to fit perfectly with the look - she's right.
It's then that the look is complete and we're ready to chat. Sewall only needed fifteen minutes to get herself ready, but is so well put together you would have guessed she bought the entire outfit and matching accessories from a display.
Sitting on crimson patio furniture on her back deck, we converse about her life in Burlington, reflect on women's rights, equal rights, and community.
Emoji Nightmare: I am here in Provincetown, Massachusetts with the unofficial mayor of Provincetown, Sewall Whittemore. Sewall has opened up her house to my friend, Ellen, and I on my virginal voyage to Provincetown. We are so excited to spend some time out here on the patio to speak about everything you've done in your great life when it comes to arts and activism.
Sewall Whittemore: Arts and activism...that's me!
EN: That's you! I have to tell you, walking down Commercial Street in Provincetown, you are definitely a highlight to so many people, both locals and tourists.
SW: Thank you. It's an honor for me - a gift. My gift and their gift to me. It's a wonderful circle.
EN: You dress so elegantly and you have a certain pizazz about you and one might even say you are a drag queen.
SW: Latent, they say.
EN: In fact, you uniformed me today! Dressed by Sewall!
SW: Some of it! The face is all you.
EN: The face is me. Thank you. I feel like a proper drag queen in this outfit.
SW: Isn't she beautiful? Purple Rayne I call her.
EN: Yeah, I might need to change my name to Purple Rayne. So, Sewall, you've been in Provincetown for how long?
SW: Since 1994.
EN: And before that, you lived in Vermont?
SW: Yes, Burlington.
EN: A Burlington queen!
SW: Yes! And also Underhill and Milton. Was born in Stanford, Connecticut, but my family had property in Vermont and we moved up there. At the time I was a married woman and had a home in North Hero and a farm. And things changed.
EN: As they often do. So when you moved to North Hero from Southern Connecticut, it must have been a bit of a shift for you.
SW: It was a bit of shift. My father was a professor so I lived for in Washington State in between but eventually, my whole family moved to Vermont, always with some coming and going. They lived on Lake Champlain in Colchester.
EN: What was your first foray into activism?
SW: My activism actually started at a Cris Williamson concert. And a group of us, women, were arm-in-arm in one row and [sings] 'something about the women in my life,' and I went 'Whoa!' That was like an epiphany. And a lot of strong, intelligent, activist women became a part of my life and that's when things began to change. And I was involved in the equal rights movement for women in Washington D.C. and when I worked for Vermont Woman I was involved in a lot of women's rights in Vermont. And then I went into theater. Activism or not, it was my way of speaking out.
EN: Did any of your acting ever cross the line from arts to activism?
SW: That's a hard one. They feel like they were statements for their time. Some very out-there writers of small community theater - well-known pieces. Particularly with Rusty DeWees. He and I did a lot of his earlier work together. He was acting and I was stage managing. That was activism - the Northeast Kingdom had to take a look at the script with these lives.
EN: That's interesting. We often know Rusty DeWees as the character he created as The Logger. But he does have quite the career.
SW: He touched my heart and I thanked him for his wonderful gift because he's so extremely gifted. And he said, 'Oh no, not without you and the crew and the stage manager.' He was so humble. It was a real awakening how it really is we help them and they have this gift they portray. It was special. I love you, Rusty!
EN: What kind of work were you doing down in D.C.?
SW: We spent a weekend in D.C. at a massive equal rights protest. There were hundreds of thousands of people - of course they never give the right numbers - but it was pretty powerful. At the time I was working for Vermont Woman. And hopefully, you have a chance to interview some of the women behind that newspaper.
EN: I look forward to it! Of course, you're coming up first in our lineup of interviews on The T, so could you share some background as to what Vermont Woman is for those who may not know?
SW: Vermont Woman is a newspaper focused on the perspective and experience, and voices of Vermont women. It's published in the [Champlain] Islands by Sue Gillis. I worked at the front desk and as the social events coordinator at the time so I had the honor of taking care of some of the speakers that they incorporated into their work, Gloria Steinem several times and May Sarton. Had that honor of being the support person for them which was very special.
EN: And beyond just that initial trip down to D.C. you've continued to work for women's rights.
SW: Yes, here in Provincetown for Helping Our Women and being a voice whether it be in the theater or in support groups - it's ongoing.
EN: I think it's the activist in us all where once you get a bit of it, it's hard not to continue no matter where you go because there is always progress to be made.
SW: Yes and right now in particular. Being active and paying attention and changing things for 2018 so we can move forward for all of us LGBTQ people.
EN: Speaking of the LGBTQ community, you are a part of this community. What was your coming out like?
SW: We had the original Pearl's where we would hang out. I was fortunate enough to have a business on Church Street at the time [Kado Gifts] and I was fortunate to have many gay and straight people working with me and I happened to be on several boards in town and so people knew who I was because I lived who I was. But I wasn't blatant about it. I didn't go smooching my girlfriend on the street but people knew who I was and I was accepted for who I was. I felt very comfortable being who I am, and I presented my love for a woman within two weeks of my family - my brothers first - and they were very supportive. Their comment was, 'As long as you're happy.' I've been very fortunate. But not all of my friends have.
EN: When was this?
SW: Oh, I have to think about that! I was married to a man in 1970. I became involved with women in the 1970's. And I'll be 73 in a week. I'm happy to tell you my age!
EN: Well that's because you look and act amazingly for your age.
SW: Thank you. I feel 44. The body doesn't always agree though.
EN: You moved here in 1994, you missed out on the large part of the fight for Civil Unions and marriage equality in Vermont, correct?
SW: Yes, but I am very proud of Vermont. All the activists there were vanguards and started this whole movement. Very, very proud of Susan Murray and a lot of people who have been a part of that process.
EN: Set the scene for those who may not have been able to be physically in that era at the time. For those who have it so easy in places like Burlington and Provincetown - was it always that easy being out in Vermont?
SW: It wasn't exactly easy, but I won't say it was scary or fearful. We had Pearl's and bless their hearts for creating that space for us to be. When it wasn't so beautiful and there were problems - someone was hurt and was in a bad situation at Pearl's - the community completely came together at the UU and had an amazing celebration of that person, honoring and supporting them. I remember not realizing, but I turned with my friends and there were my mom and dad. Of course, tears streaming down my face. I came over to my father and said, 'Thank you for being here.' They said, 'We would never be anywhere else.' So I had that support and there were a lot of us who were very strong women, very out there and vigilant. My mother and I were part of the original abortion rights issues starting in Vermont at the state house. I was honored to have her by my side. She was the first woman to be on the phones with Planned Parenthood in New York.
EN: What did the women's reproductive rights activism look like in that time?
SW: Being at the initial meetings at one of the first abortion clinics. My mother and I went to various meetings and paid attention to the arguments and involved in the local government issues - and being present as possible. We stood on the steps of Burlington Town Hall - in the thick of it - reading all of the women's name of those who died having abortions and a friend of mine and I stood with coat hangers over our heads shouting, 'Shame on you!' to the judicial system. It was early on. Vermont was very much at the beginning.
EN: When you and your mother went to these meetings were there mostly men in the room controlling the agendas?
SW: Wow, I do not remember men in the room. I remember a lot of strong women and women physicians. Of course, the visual for me is being with my mom and knowing we were a part of that together. And then I worked for University of Vermont in one of the first daycare centers under the Psychology Department with a lot of wonderful lesbians who were very involved in activism and that was a huge part of that time of my life. They were powerful, vigilant, intelligent, outspoken.
EN: Do you visit Vermont often?
SW: I do, in fact in a few weeks. I have friends and family there, and we still have a home there. And I'll continue to go back because Vermont is a precious part of my life. I was back there teaching at Heartworks for a bit over a year and a half living in Burlington on North Avenue. And I almost went back again but this is home, this is my community.
EN: Well I understand why you choose this as your home, it's a great town.
SW: I'm so glad you had the chance to visit so I can share it! What is your impression of Provincetown? Is what you thought it would be? Anything surprise you? Were you moved, awakened, were you touched?
EN: You know, I was honestly surprised there were so many straight people here [laughs], go figure!
SW: Well we are so together.
EN: We are so blended. It harkens back to what my community in Burlington is dealing with right now with a commercial space having the intentions of being inclusive but maybe not being inclusive. There was a concern of, 'Is this space needed?' Since most of the community feels welcome most anywhere - there is a great co-mingling of demography. Which is great and is the goal we have been working towards at the end of this journey for anyone who is a marginalized community member. I think it's great. I was surprised by the bachelorette parties and the fluidity of it all.
SW: Well I hope you come back. You need to be here and perform and meet others in this community because they would love you.
EN: Closing question. Knowing what you know now, you've lived such a beautiful, storied life, is there a message for the younger generation?
SW: Be true to yourself. And I know that is not easy, it's a lifelong journey. But surrounding yourself with people of like mind - and people who challenge you as well - to keep you moving forward. It's all about the journey and it's constant. It's not like you have all the answers so finding yourself through the love of community and friends, building trust, being open and honest, and speaking the truth.
EN: Sewall, thank you for sitting down with me and talking about Vermont through the years and your role, and why Vermont is such a great place for almost anyone to live.
SW: It's a very special place and I'm grateful I have a lot of my time there - I am very blessed. And I am very blessed that you came into my life and I can't wait to play in Burlington with you. I'm very honored.