The week of October 26, 2014

How Halloween became the gay Christmas

By Samantha Allen

Some call it the “Gay High Holy Day.” Lesbian poet Judy Grahn dubbed it “the Great Gay Holiday.” Others simply refer to it as “our night.” But however you label it, Halloween is deliciously and indelibly homosexual.

The religious have Christmas, the hungry have Thanksgiving, but us queer folk? We have All Hallow’s Eve. Over the last 40 years, we have shaped Oct. 31 into the quintessential LGBT holiday, and it only gets gayer with age.

Every year, our irrational exuberance for Halloween spills over onto the Internet, too. Instagram is haunted by the #GayHalloween hashtag, which is primarily used by young men in the “sluttiest” costumes and most immaculate drag this side of a Pride parade. And while the boys have a particularly pronounced enthusiasm for Halloween, queer women also do the holiday in style. This year’s trends on Autostraddle are Gillian Anderson, Buffy, and Pussy Riot costumes. For my part, I’ll be spending Halloween as the slutty R2-D2 to my partner’s Queen Amidala.

How did Halloween come to be the de facto holiday for American queers? What is it about Halloween that the LGBT community finds so bewitching? And when, exactly, did Halloween become the next gayest thing to Sunday brunch?

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Halloween wasn’t born this way—we had to convert it. But turning Halloween gay was as easy as taking candy from a baby or, at least, as effortless as crashing a children’s party. Before the Castro was a famous gay district in San Francisco, it played host to an annual children’s costume contest that took place at Cliff’s Variety Store, starting in 1948.

The Castro underwent its own dramatic mid-century costume change. As Meredith May reports for the San Francisco Chronicle, an abundance of “single men” moved into the Castro, displacing the families that had previously populated the district. Surprising no one but straight people, these men started coming out of the closet in the 1970s and, by the end of the decade, drag queens were openly entering the costume contest at Cliff’s.

In 1979, the owner of Cliff’s stopped the contest due to the shifting demographics of the Castro. But the ghost of Castro Halloween, as it came to be called, lived on under the leadership of the drag performance group, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The San Francisco LGBT community partied in the Castro almost every Halloween in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s, when the party was shut down after a tragic shooting.

The religious have Christmas, the hungry have Thanksgiving, but us queer folk? We have All Hallow’s Eve.

Giving Halloween a queer makeover was a bicoastal effort, too. As costumed queens were invading the Castro, a New York puppeteer named Ralph Lee kicked off the first Village Halloween Parade in 1974. That celebration has since become the largest Halloween parade in the world, and it still attracts the most elaborate handmade costumes you can find south of Broadway.

On the West Coast, the East Coast, and everywhere in between, Halloween quickly became a fixture in the LGBT community in the late 20th century. In the ‘70s, Halloween beckoned closeted queer people out of the closet and into the streets. And during the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Halloween became a much-needed night for revelry and, for some, a poignant evening of reflection. As Lou Reed sings in his 1989 ode to the Village Halloween parade: “This celebration somehow got me down / especially when I see you’re not around.”

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In hindsight, the marriage between Halloween and the LGBT community feels obvious: Halloween is a holiday so perfectly suited to queer culture, it feels like it was made just for us.

Halloween is the one night a year when all people, regardless of sexual orientation, participate in the campiness that characterizes so much of queer culture. “Camp” is a complex, plurivalent term that’s typically used to connote a certain “artificial, affected,” and “exaggerated” style of behavior that “fuses elements of high and popular culture.” Drag queens, for example, are classic camp, because they reduce queens and pop stars alike to the same level playing field of hyperfeminine gestures and mannerisms. Camp is our way of digesting straight culture and making it our own.

When straight people mock and impersonate members of the LGBT community, however, camp becomes a double-edged sword. We are criticized for being too loud, too demure, too effeminate, too masculine, too colorful, or just too much. But Halloween changes everything. On Oct. 31, everyone embraces the essence of camp. The straight people shed their inhibitions, dress up in ridiculous outfits, and join us queer folk in the gleeful dissection of popular culture that we find so sustaining. Halloween is the only night of the year when everyone’s feeling campy and we don’t stick out.

Halloween wasn’t born this way—we had to convert it.

But Halloween’s cultural significance in the queer community exceeds its campiness. It’s also a night when freedom of expression reigns supreme. You can be anyone on Halloween—you can express yourself, your gender, and your sexuality in any way you see fit. For butch lesbians, it can be a night to put on an Elvis costume and explore the depths of female masculinity with a complete cultural sanction. For those gay boys who struggle to express their effeminacy—who occupy what literary critic Eve Sedgwick suggestively calls “the position of the haunting abject”—Halloween is a night when they can free their feminine spirit. And for folks who are discontent with their current gender, Halloween is a night to try some new ones on for size.

On Oct. 31, the curse of being queer in a straight world is temporarily lifted. All bets are called off, along with all the shame and fear we have been made to feel. For 364 days every year, many of us try to blend in but, on Halloween, we can proudly stick out.

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A lot has changed since the birth of queer Halloween. Gay urban centers like the Castro and the Village are changing into tourist spots as gay men and lesbians flee to the suburbs. And the LGBT community as a whole has become more aware of its own internal diversity.

How has queer Halloween been affected by these 21st century changes? And what does it mean to us now? For a more contemporary and pluralistic take on the holiday, I asked my own online LGBT community why the holiday was so important to them. Their answers were as varied as their identities.

A gay man named Eric said that he “always identified with the monster in horror films” because of his sexuality, and that the opportunity to dress up in a costume allowed him to externalize his “internal differences” without being exposed to “shame or judgment” from his friends. “Halloween,” he observed, “was the holiday celebrating the Other.”

Derek, who also identifies as gay, struggled as a child to reconcile his feminine mannerisms and the “more dramatic aspects of [his] personality” with societal gender norms. Oct. 31 was a night when he could dress as a girl, a costume which allowed him to “express [himself] more fully.” On Halloween, Derek said, “[he] finally felt like [his] mannerisms were acceptable.”

Halloween is the only night of the year when everyone’s feeling campy and we don’t stick out.

Folks outside of the gay male community chimed in as well. A bisexual man named John said that Halloween allows him to explore multiple facets of his gender expression. Because he still feels ashamed for “appearing effeminate” in his day-to-day life, he welcomes Oct. 31 as a night when he can “do whatever feels natural,” free of judgment. Conversely, John can also use the holiday to “pretend to be strong male characters,” to show his admiration for a form of masculinity that he does not typically exhibit.

The most passionate response to my poll by far came from transgender women who embraced the “anything goes” attitude of Halloween to safely explore their gender while still in the closet. For these women, Halloween was a time—often the first time—that they were able to appear in public as female without facing scrutiny from their friends. Ana, for example, first went out as a girl on Halloween at age 8, when she finally persuaded her parents to let her be Tootsie. “Halloween,” she said, “was my one chance a year to be myself.”

But expressing your true self can be dangerous on a night when identities can easily be mistaken for masks. Although Emily recalls Halloween as “a brief moment of feeling truly [herself],” for instance, she also retreated back into the closet because her “classmates noticed” the earnestness of her gender presentation. Another woman named Elisabeth, once a proud Miss Fire Island on Halloween, now “hate[s] Halloween” because she is “asked repeatedly if [she is] wearing a costume.” And Amelia, who is still in the early stages of exploring her gender identity, feels torn “between wanting to express [herself] and not wanting to draw comments.”

Halloween offers freedom to transgender people, but the night is not without its perils.

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While Halloween resonates differently across the full spectrum of LGBT identities, the holiday remains a common touchstone in queer culture. It’s still the only night when acting gay is not only OK—it’s downright de rigeur. And on that mischievous moonlit night, you can also express yourself so freely that, at times, the holiday can feel almost radical. You can be as loud or as queer or as slutty as you want without anybody else putting you down.

True, you can be anyone on Halloween. But perhaps the most important person anyone can be on Halloween is themselves.


Photo via Robert S. Donovan/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Rob Price