It Ain’t Over ’Til The Naked Boy Sings: Observations on Town Meeting

“The problem that the Town has is that under the First Amendment, it’s really not appropriate to distinguish various kinds of nudity. Nudity is a form of speech and to say some nudity is OK and [that] other nudity is not OK is really the challenge that is presented when a town attempts to regulate adult uses. [Provincetown’s] bylaw says nude entertainment cannot be presented within 500 feet of a church, a school, a municipal use, or another adult entertainment establishment…that’s what the Supreme Court has indicated is a permissible zoning regulation.”
— John Georgio, Town Cousel

It’s a tricky task, this zoning of nudity. Too close to both a municipal use and a church, Naked Boys Singing! — the nationally recognized cabaret show playing to sold out crowds at The Crown and Anchor — barely survived the 2001 summer season thanks to a flood of headlines and publicity, as well as a timid Board of Selectmen who chose not to enforce the bylaw on the books.

What’s your personal definition of “adult entertainment”? Go-go boys with g-strings? Buxom pole dancers with pasties? Peep booths? What about Kathleen Turner standing proudly nude on Broadway in The Graduate?

In Provincetown, the standard on adult entertainment remains the same as last year, and among other things, it includes in its definition an “establishment that displays live nudity for its patrons.” By that definition a Provincetown production of The Graduate might find itself in the same quagmire that The Crown’s Naked Boys Singing! did last year.

“It was a question of principle for me…we had a bylaw on the books that we made a selective decision not to enforce last year. For me, it was a question of: well, if we can selectively decide not to enforce this one, under the canard of free speech, then tomorrow we can choose another bylaw not to enforce for some other reason.”
— Mary-Jo Avellar, Provincetown Selectman

The Selectmen will probably not look back fondly on this year’s discussion of Article 40. In fact, they started with a motion to “indefinitely postpone” the article (i.e. withdraw it from discussion). They certainly took their lumps from town residents who were disappointed in the Selectmen’s failure to enforce the bylaw last year, and they took further abuse for not bringing more nuanced options before Town Meeting. As Selectman Mary-Jo Avellar said “shame on us.”

Article 40 was the Selectmen’s either/or proposal that suggested simply removing “[any] establishment that displays live nudity for its patrons” from the definition of “adult entertainment.” While this change might have ensured future productions of Naked Boys Singing! it failed utterly to address the gut response that many residents seem to feel when discussing the age-old business of linking a naked body to a commercial purpose.

“I think that we have to make a decision. What kind of town is Provincetown? And just how far the desire to make money should take us down the pathway of licentiousness. I personally have seen better looking nude men than they put up on the stage.”
— Barbara Rushmore, Provincetown resident

“I really have to say that if all the entertainment that we’re going to have in Provincetown this summer is going to be based on nude entertainment then we are making a statement about the kind of community we [have].”
— Mary-Jo Avellar, Provincetown Selectman

While Article 40 did not pass, the discussion was heartfelt and thoughtful. In voting the article down, residents appeared to be moved by arguments that suggested that changing the definition of “adult entertainment” — per the article — would lead every business between Relish and Michael Shay’s to employ a stripper on the premises, in order to secure their adult entertainment licenses. Perhaps the specter of a “bump with every grinder served” was too much for the faint-hearted.

“[The performers are] not running around naked; there [are] no naked pictures of them. I just think we are [overreacting] trying to appeal to the occasional tourist from Wichita, or Lynchburg, Virginia [who may be] offended by ‘public nudity.’ Next year it will be people who are offended by Cher on a motor scooter.”
— Provincetown resident

You can laugh or not, but one can never say that Provincetown is a town that takes its freedom of speech lightly. In these times when even the White House press secretary is telling Americans to “watch what you say,” it’s refreshing to feel that we’re adult enough to discuss nude entertainment.

How does public nudity affect the quality of life in this town? The discussion is far from over. In the meantime, you better bundle up.

Originally published in lip Magazine on April 25, 2002.