It’s the great gay holiday! And we’re here to tell you all about how the queers made Halloween the second most popular holiday in the States. For nearly a century, gays from all walks of life have found freedom in the masquerade of All Hallows Eve. Beneath the glow of the October night sky LGBTQ partygoers enjoyed an uncommon tolerance. We take you on that journey of evolution from Philadelphia to San Francisco to New York City. So hit that download and learn the history of our most important holiday.
Today we’re back to celebrate the BIGGEST holiday in the queer world. A revered and honored tradition that dates back nearly a century. The “great gay holiday” as poet Judy Grahn once said referring of course to Halloween. We hope of course that you all have laid out your stockings and makeup and hatchets and best blood soaked nightgowns. And perhaps even drawn some inspiration from our episodes this past month. Whatever your weekend plans we hope they are devilishly delicious and stupendously gay. But before you don that crown or mask, take a moment to enjoy the history of how our people made Halloween the second most popular holiday in America. Rivaled only by Christmas – and who’s to say we don’t take the her first place spot next?
Halloween was originally a blend of the ancient Celtic tradition Samhain, and Roman holiday Feralia. Two separate cultural celebrations of the ancestors which reverenced the dead. The Romans also added the celebration of the Goddess Pomona – who represented fruits and trees – and thus we still have the various fruit aspects incorporated throughout fall and Halloween. As with practically every holiday in history, the holiday was used as a tool of unity by the Romans over the newly conquered Celts. As the centuries passed on the traditions and meanings behind the holiday evolved. By the eighth century Pope Gregory III declared November 1st All Saints Day. Which turned the October 31st celebrations of Samhain and Feralia into the newly named All Hallows Eve.
As time wore on, most of the Christian traditions and celebrations of Halloween began to fade turning instead into a day of mischievousness and pranks. And for that reason along with the superstition surrounding the ancient celebration, Halloween was virtually banned in the newly colonized American country. The Puritans would have none of this celtic devil’s holiday and certainly did not want the Catholic version of the celebration. For the first 200 years of white settlers invasion of America, All Hallow’s Eve was relatively dormant. Then in the mid 1800’s America saw an uptick in Irish immigrants due to the Potato famine devastating their homeland. The deep catholic and Celtic roots of the country had made it one of the few places that still practiced All Hallows Eve. Missing their homeland and seeking comfort in their traditions Irish communities began to celebrate Halloween. The parties were a mix of European and Celtic influences. Masks were worn as part of an ancient Celt tradition of warding off ghosts. The Celts believed that spirits returned on All Hallow’s Eve to claim the souls of the living – but the masks confused the deadly spirits. During the parties cakes were passed out as part of an old English tradition. Stemming from the similar British celebration of All Souls Day; when the rich would walk through the streets passing out cakes to the poor in exchange for the prayers of the poor for the wealthy families ancestors.
The fun and extravagance of the Irish celebrations pushed the holiday into the public eye and drew the attention of their non-Irish neighbors. However, the stigma of a Satanic holiday still loomed and for some time Protestant communities remained resistant to the growing fad. But soon a national campaign to change the misguided notions of Halloween emerged and even the most rigid Christians felt obliged to fall in line. Communities sought to use the day as a way to bring others together. Instead of focusing on the death and gore that had accompanied the holiday for so long, neighborhoods were encouraged to make it a family event. And by the late 1920’s trick or treating switched from hard pranks and vandalism to children dressing up in costumes and gathering candy. As has been the case of all American history, once again the country found unity through accepting and incorporating the many traditions of a nation built upon immigrants.
With a surge in costume dress ups, suddenly this odd and relatively obscure holiday jumped into the mainstream public eye. Community celebrations and costume contests began to take place which offered individuals one day a year to break a long standing law – on Halloween people could cross dress. There were several other reasons for the queer awakening that began to take place at the break of the 20th century. But the growing popularity of Halloween in America certainly helped struggling queers find their ways to one another. Of course cross-dressing even on Halloween was a hard won battle. The November 1, 1912 publication of the local Pittsburgh newspaper carried a story of several men and women who had been arrested the previous evening for cross dressing. However, just two years later authorities were so overwhelmed by the amount of opposite sex costumes that they announced they would no longer arrest cross-dressers on Halloween. Similar ordinances were put in place in towns and communities all across the United States making Halloween a uniquely freeing holiday for queer people.
Another huge queer fad sweeping the country at this time were the drag balls of the 20’s and 30’s. Finnie’s Balls, as they were known, originated in the basement of a Michigan Avenue Nightclub by a black queer Chicagoan named Alfred Finnie. Finnie hosted his first Drag Ball in 1935 and by the end of the decade they were all the rage in the world of underground entertainment. Within 10 more years male drag performances in mainstream nightclubs began to surface all over the U.S. However, most performers were straight, white men who hijacked drag and used it as a means to mock women rather than as the gender defying art it is truly meant to be. Despite this, costumes and cross dressing were becoming more popular and accepted in average day society. Provided that the drag/costumes stayed in their place. Meaning – off the public streets and out of the public eye. Unless it was Halloween, then all bets were off. As blogger Donald Eckert once stated
“There was still a lot of police harassment in the 1970s and wearing ‘drag’ in public was sometimes used as grounds for arrest. So, Halloween was the only day of the year that it was ‘safe’ for a man to go out in public wearing a dress, or at least this was the accepted ‘wisdom.”
Throughout the Lavender scare of the 1950’s and into the tumultuous 1960’s queer Halloween parties continued to thrive and evolve in their lavish costumes and wild parties. One of the biggest queer celebrations took part – not surprisingly – in San Francisco. The roots of the Polk street parties can be traced all the way back to 1948 when a local merchant kicked off a costume party. In all honesty, the contest was really meant for children but within just a few years the gays had taken over the scene. By 1950 people knew the Polk street costume celebration was a queer party. And though the celebration could not be advertised as a gay Halloween gathering, according to biographer and historian Randy Shilts (whose most notable work was the book And The Band Played On) one police chief told the queer organizers “This is your night- you run it”. Which was said by the chief more as a surrender to the restrictions placed on police by Halloween ordinances rather than any form of acceptance or tolerance. It was often noted that right at the stroke of midnight officers would come out in full force to arrest anyone still cross dressed or considered any type of threat. This is also where the use of masks came heavily into play, as those who were able to elude police capture could feel safe that the officers had no idea what their perp looked like.
Some have also stated that this is where the extreme looks of Drag evolved. In Halloween; A History of America’s Darkest Holiday author David J. Skal wrote: “a distinctly over-the-top drag aesthetic [evolved]… Since travesty drag didn’t fool anybody, it couldn’t be considered a legitimate attempt at identity fraud.” Meaning that officers couldn’t further charge victims they did arrest as attempting to defraud people. A common added charge to drag queens and transgender women. Of course, another reason for the masks and makeup was general safety from being outed. Whether by a scorned one night party fling or by a reporter who had managed to sneak into the party. Naturally the Halloween celebration was quite large and security could not be held as tightly as it was in most queer spaces of the time. Even with local restrictions temporarily lifted, patrons still put themselves at risk if they were exposed for being queer.
For nearly 30 years, despite the dangers and the multiple laws against gay people fraternizing, gathering, or simply existing, the party on Polk street raged every year. But residents were becoming frustrated and angered by the increasing boldness of the gay party goers. With the Stonewall Riots, the Compton Cafeteria upset, and open Pride marches happening around the country, by the 1970’s the Polk Street Halloween party had turned into an open defiance of the city’s homophobia and abuse. And in 1976 things came to a head with California’s repeal of the sodomy laws. Queer partygoers took this to mean that they were now free to express themselves and Polk streets 1976 Halloween Parade was packed full of every assortment of the LGBTQ alphabet. But this would be it’s final hoorah as Police raided the event, setting off tear gas, disbursing the crowd and arresting several members.
Resilient as ever, leaders in the community such as Jose Julio Sarria and Harvey Milk began to organize events on the budding queer scene of Castro street just a few blocks away. In 1979, almost one year after Milk’s assassination, Castro street was bursting with queer people wishing to celebrate what Harvey had worked so hard to accomplish. And in 1980 records show over 30,000 people at the Castro Street Parade and night time events. On the opposite side of the country another gay Halloween party had erupted into a massive event. Starting in 1974, the Greenwich Village Halloween Pride Parade had grown from a few hundred people to over 200,000 in just 5 years. In fact, while the Pride Marches of June were somber, political demonstrations – the typical pride celebrations we enjoy today are rooted in the Halloween parades of the 1980’s. The Villages celebration soon inspired similar Halloween parades in other parts of the country as well. And again, it was the a nature of Halloween that allowed straight and cisgender people to put down their defenses for the night and enjoy queer art and expression.
Over the next 20 years the gays dominated Halloween. As acceptance of the queer community grew, more heterosexual people became involved in the Halloween celebrations. So much so that by 1995 the Castro Halloween Parade had grown to half a million people. Prompting the San Jose Mercury News to report: “It simply got too big for its britches—although not all partygoers have bothered to wear them. Part of the event’s appeal has been its disdain for good taste and conventional modesty: The only dress code has been that imposed by the chilly night air.” Unfortunately, along with the growth in attendance came an increase in violence and vandalism. Some brought on by the partygoers and some brought on by homophobes looking for a “fag” to chase. By 2007 the Castro Street Halloween Parade had closed down as the city paid thousands of dollars to advertise the dangers of the parade and more than 500 police officers patrolled the streets.
However, the impact of queer culture on Halloween could not be erased. Today Halloween is known as the gay Christmas much to the ire of anti-queer activists. It is not surprising that some extremist right wing groups despise Halloween, claiming it is due to its Satanic roots. When in reality their hatred of the queer community no doubt spurts these views. Individuals such as the former Jerry Falwell who instituted the anti-Halloween tradition of Hell Houses. Meant as an evangelical alternative to Haunted Houses and queer Pride Parades, the Hell Houses take christians on a journey of terror. As actors play out exactly how sinners will pay for their sins in Hell. For example, the abortion room shows a botched abortion where super market meat is used to depict fetal tissue and blood squirts out of the mother’s vagina. Another is the pre-marital sex room which shows a prom queen becoming a prostitute after she “gave it all away” to her high school boyfriend (“Gave it all away” is an evangelical term for losing ones virginity). And we don’t have to really guess how they depict queer people. In one house a lesbian commits suicide because she cannot stand her sin and she is *literally* dragged to hell. In the most common Hell House experience visitors gleefully watch an actor playing a gay man die from AIDS. Needless to say this entire practice had drawn harsh criticism and even an official report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
But for all their attempts to rain on our parade Halloween continues to be one of the most popular celebrations in the country and it only continues to gain recognition as the “Great gay holiday”. So don’t let the bastards get you down, celebrate and be as queer as you can this year. And your recommended resource is an activity this year. If you live near New York check out the 46th annual Halloween Parade at 7pm on Thursday night. And if you don’t live near the Big Apple, try another local parade or even your favorite gay bar. But for those of you who want to stay in for the evening, may we recommend the book Death Makes a Holiday by David J. Skal or perhaps the documentary Hell House available on Amazon (make sure you get the 2002 evangelical doc). Or any of the other sources we’ve dropped this past month. Whatever you do, make sure it honors our queer roots.
- History of Halloween – https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween
- Queer and Gender Variant – http://americaintransition.org/2018/10/31/a-queer-and-gender-variant-history-of-halloween/
- Kernel – https://kernelmag.dailydot.com/issue-sections/staff-editorials/10658/halloween-gay-history/
- LGBTQ Nation – https://www.lgbtqnation.com/2018/10/popularity-halloween-america-due-gay-culture/
- Vice (Hell House) – https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/av4d78/the-best-little-hell-house-in-texas
- Early Gay Halloween – https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/san-francisco-queer-halloween-gallery-lgbt
- Halloween Pride Parade – http://www.newnownext.com/the-queer-history-and-present-of-nycs-village-halloween-parade/10/2018/