October is an important month in our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender calendar. October is GLBT History Month, a month devoted to dis-covering and celebrating our past. On October 11, we observe “Coming Out Day”, a day in which we “take the next step” in our ongoing, coming-out process. But while both GLBT History Month and Coming Out Day are of recent origin, this month’s most popular queer holiday predates recorded history and captures the essence of sex and gender variance to a much greater degree than do the activist holidays. Just open the pages of any queer paper during the first weeks of November and you will see what our communities were doing on October 31st. In the words of the lesbian poet and scholar Judy Grahn, Halloween is “the great gay holiday.”
I love Halloween. All through my life, October 31 has always been a special day, though now I don’t go out as much as I used to. I certainly enjoy writing about it, though, and I try to write a Halloween article every few years. Once thought to be a children’s holiday, Halloween (actually Hallowe’en, but I prefer to use the more common spelling) is now almost as popular with adults. According to Nicholas Rogers, author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, “Halloween at the end of the millennium has become a major party night for adults, arguably the most important after New Year’s Eve. . . . [T]he amount of money spent on Halloween has more than doubled in the last decade, making it the second retail bonanza after Christmas.”
Halloween (or Hallowe’en) is a corruption of All Hallows Eve, which is observed the night before All Saints Day (All Hallows Day). Like other Christian holy days, Halloween was adapted from a pagan holy day, in this case the Celtic feast of Samhain (pronounced sow-end). According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Samhain “was the eve of the new [Celtic] year . . . and was the occasion for one of the ancient fire festivals when huge bonfires were set on hilltops to frighten away evil spirits.” On Samhain, the Celts believed, the spirit world and the mortal realm come into close contact and spirits can slip out of their domain in order to visit us. Today, followers of the Craft or Wicca (witches) still observe Samhain as the greatest of their eight seasonal sabats. Rich Wandel, an openly gay high priest of Wicca, told the authors of The Gay Almanac that “Samhain . . . is a time of connection to those who have gone before us and will return again. It is my favorite ritual, and is one we never let the students lead. We do it ourselves, because it is important, particularly in terms of the many friends that all of us in our communities have lost.”
Though the Protestant reformers tried to suppress All Hallows Day observances as being both pagan and papist, Halloween emerged as a secular holiday during the 19th and 20th centuries. And while Halloween is enjoyed by everyone, “it has been the gay community,” Rogers tells us, “that has most flamboyantly exploited Halloween’s potential as a transgressive festival, as one that operates outside or on the margins of orthodox time, space, and hierarchy. Indeed, it is the gay community that has been arguably most responsible for Halloween’s adult rejuvenation.” What William Stewart, writing about Halloween in Cassell’s Queer Companion, called “the gay festival par excellence,” has been observed by our people long before there were Pride Days or Coming Out Days; Southern Decadence or Wigstock; bear busts, circuit parties, leather runs, nudist gatherings or womyn’s music festivals. Long before there was Disney, Halloween was and is the original Gay Day.
In Another Mother Tongue, her cultural history of our peoples, Judy Grahn wrote about Halloween and its significance to us. Halloween, Grahn wrote, is a special holiday for GLBT people, who in many societies served as priests, witches, shamans, healers and intermediaries between the mortal and spirit worlds. The ancient Celts tried to ward off the Samhain spirits by offering them gifts or scaring them away with jack-o-lanterns. Others dressed up in fantastic costumes to impersonate and confuse the wandering spirits: As Grahn put it, “impersonating a spirit is the only safe way to travel outdoors on Halloween. And who could better imitate spirits than the gay people whose traditional priestly role required just such intercourse with the spirit world? . . . The qualities of impersonation,” Grahn concluded, “and the dangerous business of crossing over from one world to another help explain why Halloween is the most significant gay holiday.”
According to William Stewart, “Hallowe’en 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, Hallowe’en was the one fairy-tale evening when the drag queens could come out with impunity.” In Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965, historian Nan Alamilla Boyd wrote about Halloween parties that were held at the Beige Room and other San Francisco bars back in the fifties, which “included not simply a drag ball and a ‘parade of queens’ but the selection of the best dressed participant.” In New York City, Rogers wrote, by the mid-1970s “gay promenades had become a constituent feature of the Greenwich Village Halloween celebrations. Beginning in 1974 as a countercultural event for the Village arts community, this annual parade, with its puppets, floats, and revelers, has become a fixture in Gotham’s calendar.” Key West’s Fantasy Fest is just one of many events that evolvedfrom the local gay population’s’ Halloween celebrations.
Halloween’s appeal to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities goes beyond that holiday’s historical or spiritual connotations. I believe that it has a lot to do with our role as outsiders in society; our propensity for cross-dressing and gender-bending; our love for the unusual and the fantastic; our ability to find humor in the absurdities and misfortunes of life; our fascination with festive costumes and the world of makebelieve; and our special capacity to have fun. While others might treat Halloween as mainly a kid’s day, LesBiGay and Trans people observe and cherish it as a day in which we can do away with dull, ordinary, dumb reality and be our fun, exotic, erotic selves.
All of us have Halloween stories to share; some good and some bad but all of them fabulous. To me, Halloween is a time to be myself, to let loose, to wear an outrageous costume (or nothing at all), to stay out late, to get drunk (but not to drive drunk), and forget about my individual and communal problems in the company of like-minded souls. So whatever you do on this very special, and very gay night, remember to be careful, to play safe, and to enjoy yourselves. After a few thousand years, we should be able to do it right.
Originally posted in the Gazette. Copyright Jessie Monteagudo