Today is my favorite American holiday. It might have something to do with Autumn, enjoying the dip in temperatures without the worry of an ice storm, the steam on a mug of hot tea on the patio in the early morning, the vibrant purple of the asters against the golds and reds of the changing Maple leaves, and the simmering pot of soup on the stove. Halloween itself is pure revelry in the human condition. We return to make believe and fantasy. We face human mortality, look the skeleton in its eye socket, and make friends (or at least shake hands) with our own impermanence. We know the world is full of scary monsters, and Halloween is when we get to openly, if not playfully, be honest about our anxieties and fears, whether inside or outside of ourselves. And it’s never more true than when it comes to our own selves. We open the lid on what we are, or what we might be, with fear, excitement, or both.
A bucket of candy sits next to the door, though fewer and fewer children threaten us with a chorus of “trick or treat!” Instead, most of our time and the greatest fun is spent with friends: being silly, putting on ridiculous costumes, playing games, and eating together. We don’t have a fixed tradition at our house. We may watch the “Once More with Feeling” episode from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We may play a special session of Dungeons and Dragons, themed to some macabre setting or folklore. We may write popcorn horror stories, each of us starting a tale and passing it along to the next person to write the next part. We cosplay, decorate the house, and carve pumpkins.
A Respite from Privileged Expectations
But there’s more here. Halloween in the USA cannot be separated from queer history and community. This is, for practical purposes, our holiday: a day when we can be ourselves. We get to take off the costumes we are often forced to don all year, that we wear to minimize the risk of inconveniencing and incurring the displeasure of the cisgender, heteronormative world, and be ourselves.
This isn’t anything new or surprising. People who belong to marginalized communities are very familiar with disguising or masking ourselves in order to navigate the world, usually just to stay safe. Every group has their own unique version of this, but there are also many commonalities and parallels when it comes to dominant cultures pushing exploited groups to adapt to privileged expectations. Very often, these expectations become invisible, baked into the social norms that pass as acceptable, moral, and respectable. For example, upper middle class and wealthy folks have always made it very clear that I can’t act too comfortable in my working class identity, from the way I dress to the vocabulary I use. They can – and do - punish working class folks who fail to live up to their standards by withholding resources, references, job offers, and the like. Similarly, neurotypical people almost inevitably expect me to put in the extra work to make them feel comfortable, even though making eye contact is generally painful for me, I experience sensory overwhelm in loud environments, and I depend on stimming to help me cope and regulate emotions.
Realizing these kinds of things can also help us recognize how dominance influences and creates our own privilege. For me, this has especially meant being more aware of the way White supremacy is constantly at work, and how I have unconsciously internalized White culture and assumptions and prejudices. I realized that it is very helpful when straight people don’t make assumptions about what it is like to be queer, and then take time to listen, interrogate their own internalized dominance, and do practical things to change. So I try to enact the same process to work on my internalized dominance as a White person. By intentionally reflecting like this, I can bring what is usually hidden outside of my consciousness, into my awareness. Then I can more consistently commit to the ongoing work of unlearning Whiteness in myself, my relationships, and organizations.
Different Versions of Our Selves
We can observe the same kinds of dynamics when it comes to gender and sexuality. Growing up in a conservative Christian family and community before the internet, I did not have easy access even to the vocabulary, let alone people who might have helped me understand myself. The only term I had available was bisexual, but nothing in my world came close to helping me understand my experience as a transgender, nonbinary, demisexual person. Androgyny wasn’t quite right, and most of the other terms available to me are now considered the type of slang that you shouldn’t repeat on iTunes or YouTube.
There was a real helpless feeling in that. I could tell I didn’t fit the easy categories of a straight and cisgender. That was difficult in itself, but it was compounded by the fact that my religion was telling me that anyone who didn’t fit in those categories would fit in amongst the other unrepentant sinners in hell. In other words, I was never personally confused about my gender and sexuality, but I was constantly confused by the society and people around me who insisted that I couldn’t exist and, if I did exist, I was repulsive and should be punished for it. So I learned to hide myself and to talk about my gender and sexuality only at very particular times. More than that, I learned to hate myself, because that was the safest way to survive, to anticipate the rejection others promised by rejecting myself. This was my experience of being in the closet.
And then there was Halloween, the one night of the year when people like me could go in public wearing a mini-skirt, acrylic nails, and high heels. As long as I had a mask covering my face, this was just another costume. I could even enter the costume contest and parade around, laughing to myself as people tried to guess the person under the mask. It was literally a chance to try on different versions of myself. I could dress up as a devil or vampire, the evil monster that the preachers told me I was and see how that felt, learning with certainty that I was not evil. And in a world that said nonbinary people didn’t exist, I could masquerade as a truly fantastic creature, and still be seen and celebrated. I never won a contest, but the real joy was trying on all those different perspectives and experiences. Because everyone was putting on a mask, Halloween became an opportunity for queer people to take off the straight, monosexual, allosexual, cisgender costumes they were expected to wear, and be themselves.
“The One Fairy-Tale Evening”
This isn’t an exaggeration. Masquerades, costume parties, and other occasions for disguises have always been great opportunities for exploring identity, including and maybe especially for queer folx. As for Halloween, William Stewart, author of Cassell's Queer Companion: A Dictionary of Lesbian and Gay Life and Culture, observed that -
“Halloween has always been a time of year when the gay communities experienced greater freedoms. Even in the 1940s and 1950s, when police harassment of gay bars was at its height, Halloween was the one fairy-tale evening when the drag queens could come out with impunity.” (https://lavendermagazine.com/uncategorized/halloween-the-great-gay-holiday/ )
To understand a little about why Halloween became such an opportunity, remember that many cities passed laws enforcing rigid binary and cisgender stereotypes, especially when it came to how you were dressed in public. Some of the earliest laws were in Ohio. In 1848, the city of Columbus outlawed people wearing clothes in public that were “not belonging to his or her sex.” At least 40 other U.S. cities passed similar laws in the following years. PBS NewsHour reported that:
“In effect, the anti-cross-dressing laws became a flexible tool for police to enforce normative gender on multiple gender identities, including masculine women and people identifying as transgender or gender non-conforming.” (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/arresting-dress-timeline-anti-cross-dressing-laws-u-s )
Pittsburgh made headlines in 1907 for a crackdown on Halloween festivities that included arrests of “Girls who had donned male attire” and the hospitalization of a “Youth Who Donned Girl’s Attire.” The latter tripped down the stairs when “his feet became entangled in the folds” of his dress. But enforcement was no joke, as the report from Pittsburgh’s Halloween in 1913 makes clear:
“The police were kept were kept busy all through the night keeping order … . In a few instances women in men’s clothes were seen entering and leaving saloons, and others were seen making demonstrations which had been forbidden. / In the afternoon Secret Service Operative Homer Crooks arrested three boys who were making early appearances in feminine costumes.” (https://www.pghlesbian.com/2014/10/the-early-history-of-halloween-and-gender-norms-in-pittsburgh/ )
Thankfully, the Pittsburgh police relented for Halloween festivities in 1914, promising that “Women dressed in male attire will not be molested unless they are disorderly or are seen entering saloons.” (ibid) But it was only a decade ago, in 2011, that New York still had such a law on the books, and “a person perceived as male who dressed in clothing customarily designed for women could technically be arrested … for ‘impersonating a female’”. (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/arresting-dress-timeline-anti-cross-dressing-laws-u-s ) Even more recently, a controversial law, officially referred to as Section 240.37 but popularly known as “Walking While Trans,” was not repealed until February 2021. It was used to especially target trans women of color, on the assumption that a trans woman in public was “loitering for the purpose of engaging in prostitution.” (https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/new-york-repeals-walking-while-trans-law-after-years-activism-n1256736 )
“Gay in Public”
With such constant harassment, it should be no surprise that queer folx would find ways to reclaim their humanity, their dignity, and their joy. And that is a big part of the story of how Halloween as we now know it came to be celebrated in the United States. Brandon Ambrosino traced the modern history to the “gayborhood parades” of the 1970s in San Francisco and Greenwich Villages. Then, in 1974, there was a march through Greenwich village showcasing the masks and puppets created by Ralph Lee. That event was so popular that it was repeated the next year, and the year after that. Each year, more people participated. “By 1983 the parade had become such a hit that The New York Times hailed it as ‘the best entertainment the people of this city ever gave the people of this city.’” (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-gay-is-halloween_b_4178221 )
The 1970s represented a shift in queer liberation, especially in the desire to be able to be themselves in public. As Ambrosino pointed out,
“The gay community wanted to be gay in public. Mainstream culture wanted them to be quiet in public. A Halloween parade, then, was a perfect solution for everyone, because it permitted the gays to be as loud as they wanted under certain conditions. For one wild night, the rules of American gender would be temporarily suspended, and gay men could wear all the glitter that they wanted. But come the following morning, the tiaras were put away as gay men prepared for 364 days of heteronormative winter.” (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-gay-is-halloween_b_4178221 )
Over time, we’ve been able to reclaim more and more spaces and days. And with each passing year, the safer we make the world, the more people are able to accept and love themselves and others. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ongoing research that reveals the shifting demographics in gender and sexual identities around the world. Julie Moreau, writing for NBC News, reported last June on a global survey by Ipsos that revealed more and more “young adults identify as nonheterosexual and noncisgender”. This wasn’t a small study, either, as it included over 19,000 people from 27 different nations, from 16 to 74 years old. Those who were born after 1997 “were nearly four times as likely than those over 40 (4 percent compared to 1 percent) to identify as transgender, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, gender-fluid or ‘in another way.’” They were also twice as likely to identify as “lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual or asexual,” making up 18% of respondents. (https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/nearly-1-5-young-adults-say-they-re-not-straight-n1270003)
Gallup polls in the United States have also shown a steady increase gender or sexual minorities. In 2012, 3.5% of respondents said they were LBGTQ+; in 2017, the number was up to 4.5%; in 2020, it was 5.6%. (https://news.gallup.com/poll/329708/lgbt-identification-rises-latest-estimate.aspx ) And in 2016, Ditch the Label conducted a survey of more than 1,000 young people (13-26 years old) in the UK and USA. 76% answered that they “no longer believe the conventional labels which are used in relation to sexuality to be relevant or of importance.” Only 43% identified as “traditionally ‘straight’.” (Read that again.) And over 90% of respondents “agreed that the exploration of your sexual identity is a healthy and normal part of growing up”. The report pointed out that:
“This means that young people do not have to ‘commit’ to any aspect of their identity prematurely when revealing themselves to their offline friends and family if they are not ready to do so. They have an opportunity to explore and come to terms with their sexual preferences at a pace that suits them, free from external pressures.” (https://www.ditchthelabel.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/The-Valentine-Study.pdf )
This is really hopeful news, reflecting a general trend towards more acceptance of the wonderful diversity of human experience. Society is changing; we are changing society; we are loving and permitting ourselves to be our selves. We are not there yet, to be sure. And as we grow into this more generous and affirming way of being, there will continue to be awful news related to gender and sexuality based oppression and violence. But those discussions are for another day. Today, we celebrate that hope that we are actually moving toward a humanity that is more open to and affirming of the huge amount of diversity in human gender and sexuality.
That is good news for everyone, and Halloween is perfect time to celebrate. It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on how queer communities, while excluded and demonized, have found ways to resist, thrive, and celebrate. And it is also a time to ask how we can keep becoming a society that encourages acceptance and love for all its members, where we dismantle all oppressive systems and cultures, and create a place where everyone can thrive.
So on this, the gayest of holidays, have some fun (while being safe): compliment outrageous (but not racist or culturally appropriative) costumes; be honest about your fears and desires; do at least one silly thing that brings you joy; eat and drink something that makes you happy; and have a very, very, very Happy Halloween!